Most of us began our careers doing something else. We worked in accounting, IT, operations, etc. But at some point, we all worked on projects. Maybe the company was implementing a new system, an updated timekeeping or email application. Either we took part as a subject matter expert or a team member with assigned project tasks.
No matter how we first experienced working on a project, eventually we ended up managing one. I'm not sure if other project managers remember their introduction to the concept, but mine is a shining milestone in my career trajectory.
The company was a drill bit manufacturer recently acquired from a larger organization. Our new parent company gave our management team free rein on getting all of our systems and processes back in place. (If you've ever been through an acquisition, you understand how rare this kind of autonomy is.)
The primary focus was figuring out how to automate collecting the financial information from various sites around the world. All locations used the same ERP software, but each manufacturing center had its own separate and distinct instance. We had five unique databases that held data in different currencies. The new process needed to convert data into US Dollars then load it all into a consolidated database for reporting purposes.
The method in place at the time was very manual. Each location sent spreadsheets with their financial statements to the VP of Finance, who then copied and pasted their information into his own master spreadsheet. And, of course, each spreadsheet came to him in a different format, so he spent a lot of time reviewing and deciding which information went where. We needed a better system.
This was the first major project assigned to me to manage. With the confidence of someone who doesn't realize what they don't know, I set off to organize the tasks required.
One of my colleagues in the IT department was a PMP. I didn't know what that meant. He explained it to me. PMP stands for Project Management Professional. Someone with this designation has studied the area of project management and passed a grueling four-hour exam given by the Project Management Institute (PMI) that tests their knowledge on the material.
Because of his background, he saw the challenge before me and reached out to offer guidance. He spoke to me about formalizing my approach to managing a project and shared overall concepts. I had no idea there was an entire profession dedicated to the subject.
He gave me a template for creating a project plan. This document had sections for every conceivable thing you could imagine related to a project. Things I never thought I needed to document, such as why we were doing the project or what the expected outcome was (everybody understood this, right?), roles and responsibilities (shouldn't everyone already know their part?), and any outside dependencies that required completion before we began (duh!).
But it also contained excruciatingly detailed sections for assumptions and constraints, resource estimates, cost estimates, risk analysis, communication plans, and so much more. I will tell you this much detail made my eyes roll to the back of my head.
Despite my reservations, my PMP buddy gently insisted that I document everything and leave no section untouched. He possessed the patience of a saint because I whined, moaned, and occasionally growled at the level of detail and forethought this template required of me. I persevered and completed the project plan in full. By the time we were ready to begin on the project, nothing ambiguous remained. Everything was planned, assigned, and waiting for execution.
And boy, did we execute. By this point in my career, I had been a part of at least a dozen projects, either as a subject matter expert, a team lead, or manager of the project. But I never saw a project run as smoothly as this one. We experienced no surprises, no last-minute changes, and no confusion on who was doing what. We finished on time and within our budget, producing exactly what we said we would.
By the end of the project, I was a firm believer in a formal project management approach and I yearned to know more about it. While the level of detail challenged me, the structure and the repeatability of the process appealed to me.
I will add that this project gave me unfair expectations for future projects, setting the bar quite high. Because I had complete oversight, I didn't experience the complications of stakeholder management or interference from outside forces. I've since learned that the greater the organization, the more cooks in the kitchen, and the larger your team, the more elusive the success criteria of "on time, on budget, and within scope" is to achieve.
Career Goals Realigned
This project and its resounding success lit a fire in me for wanting to learn more. Following this project, my company sent a group of us to a project management course, which further stoked my desire to master this discipline. I continued to flex my newfound skills with more projects, some successful and others decidedly not. Those failures pushed me to learn more and continue to improve. Three years after that first structured project, I sat for the PMP test and passed.
Since that time, I have led small and large projects; some with multi-million dollar budgets, some with global teams stationed around the world. (Everything ratchets up a notch when your schedule must allow for time differences.)
When you ask project managers why they love it, you receive a variety of answers, but one I hear often is that they get to learn so much about different jobs, situations, and events.
My personal opinion is that project managers are the ultimate "jack of all trades"... they know a little about everything and continue to learn new things with each new project that comes along. And, true to form, every year I faithfully book my seat at the local PMI annual conference so I can discover the latest trends and find out what my fellow PMs are doing.
Do you remember what sparked your interest in project management?