S3E4: You Can't Spell Project Manager without NAG - with Rebecca Luth
Angel Leon: Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of ASCII Anything presented by Moser Consulting. I'm your host Angel Leon, Moser's Director of Personnel. We're glad you're with us for episode four of ASCII Anything and with us today is Moser's Director of Project Management Office, Portfolio Services within our business services division, Becky Luth, who joins us for the first time to talk about why project managers are people you should adore. Becky has been working in project management for 10 years in a variety of in industries and has actually just joined the Moser Consulting team in the past year. She now oversees a team of 12 project management consultants. She has her PMP certification as well as her Masters in Public Health. Becky enjoys working in a fast base environment and prides herself on her ability to connect with and communicate effectively with people at all levels. We're going to be talking about what project management within the IT world is and among other things what's so important about the word nag within project managers. Becky, it's great to have you on ASCII Anything today to speak about project management. I have to say this is one of those topics that can lead to many things as project managers could pretty much work anywhere. Am I right?
Rebecca Luth: You are right, Angel, and thank you so much for having me today. I'm excited to talk about project management. I definitely consider myself a bit of a project management nerd. I think that a lot of projects could probably go smoother with the addition of a project manager, but that's probably not 100% of the population's opinion and you're right, yes. A project manager could work in a lot of different settings. I personally did not start in the world of technology. I started in healthcare and there was just a ping pong of going different places, where I was needed and where I ended up fitting in well. So the first six years of my career was in healthcare and I was running projects, large and small scale at a hospital where they were trying to implement projects to make improvements in how patients were seen. And from there, I just ended up finding additional opportunities and meeting lots of other project managers along the way in a variety of different industries. You'll see project managers in places like construction, where there's people who are experts in how to build the house, but there really needs to be somebody there at the base level saying," Here's the order in which we're going to do it. Here's the timeline that we want to try and hit to do it." Because those people who are doing the work may not be experts in how to keep those other aspects of the project organized. And having those handoffs is really incredibly important when you are trying to hit a schedule or when you're trying to be on budget. So yeah, we can really be in a large facet of industries and businesses.
Angel Leon: You brought me back to almost four years ago when we were building the house that we currently own. And just when you said construction and project management, I wished our builder had some project management, but I'm not going to get into that. So you have an interesting career having started in healthcare and basically now finding yourself in the IT realm, but let me start with what I always like to start the basics, what skills or traits should an aspiring project manager have? Because I understand there're certifications that can go after, there're many degrees that you can go after, but what are some of those skills that somebody should have?
Rebecca Luth: Sure, sure. And when I was getting my undergraduate degree in kinesiology or exercise science, I certainly didn't see myself many years later as an IT project manager. That's not where I necessary saw myself landing, but here we are. There's a myriad of traits that make for a good project manager or an effective one. So I think for me, or for my perspective, I think one of the top traits that is important is being able to ask questions, leading or prodding questions that start a conversation, more so than yes or no answers. There can be a lot of gray areas in a project and you don't want to only look at the black and white areas. On the flip side of that, you really want a project manager to be a good listener, an active or an attentive listener. Someone who can interpret the notes from a quick paced back and forth conversation, pull out action items, and really help lead that forward. So in addition to that, you want somebody who's going to be a quick thinker and being able to take those conversations and like I said, interpret them because there can be people just chitter- chattering about what their opinion on a timeline is or what they think the next steps are and really being able to parse out that information quickly to say," Okay, here's what I heard, and I think here's how we decided we're going to move forward." So yeah. Question asker, attentive listener, and a quick thinker are what I feel are some pretty critical skills to have just inbred in yourself. Those are hard ones to just learn or figure out, kind of have to have those at your core.
Angel Leon: That sounds a lot like a psychologist for projects.
Rebecca Luth: You're not wrong.
Angel Leon: That's my background. That's my background. Except with the feelings, right? You don't mix the feelings with the project management.
Rebecca Luth: You would be surprised, Angel. There can be some big feelings in projects.
Angel Leon: Oh.
Producer Brian: I was going to say, I've had plenty of project managers hurt my feelings.
Angel Leon: Okay. So let's bring this around to the world of IT, because a lot of the world in IT is going to something that we talked about here in the past agile, but I understand there are competing mindsets within the project management world, but other tools such as waterfall and those tools are obviously still being utilized. What can you tell us about the differences between these two tools, agile and waterfall?
Rebecca Luth: Sure. That's such a really big issue in our field right now. I personally consider myself very much a waterfall thinker. Again, if you frame it back to something like a construction project, which is a very tactile thing for people to be able to consider or compare against. You really have to pour that foundation first, before you can build the walls, before you can put the roof on. That's the way my brain works and that's considered waterfall. So it's very sequential, usually pretty time boxed and this specific task is going to take this amount of time, before the next one can start. That is not at all how agile functions. Within the world of agile, there are a small subsets of work that are happening consecutively. And then you piece together those different aspects, and you try to deliver micro items, micro deliverables that are then usable. Instead of having to wait for the entire house to be built, to go live in, which could take six months, a year. It's delivering those pieces that are the smallest usable functionable items. I recently have had to train my mindset and get some additional training from outside sources to better understand how to fit into an agile world. When you're working in an IT field, there are small deliverables that are functional. Say somebody wants to see some new tables in a giant spreadsheet or a giant database, people can build one field at a time and that's a deliverable. So all of a sudden those end users are getting a piece of what they need and it still may be six months or a year down the line before they get the full package. But they're at least getting those various smaller pieces that they decide in which priority order and they are able to start using those smaller deliverables, which is super helpful. And it allows people to move quicker, and if they say," Oh, actually, you know what? I am not using these tables the way I want." Those workers can then stop. They don't need to have spent the full six months or a year to build that house, just to figure out that it's not what the end user needed or what they wanted. So it's a really important functionality of our business, especially in the IT world. And I recently sat for an agile coaching test just knowing that that's something that's really big in the business. And as a project manager, I can see those different pieces coming together in a project management way. So it's been really interesting and it's a different way of thinking if you are not trained or conditioned in that way, or if that's just not how your brain works.
Angel Leon: As you were speaking about the differences between waterfall and agile, all I can think of about is when we work on a puzzle, right? So there's the people that like to work on the puzzle from the outside, moving in. So I compare that to waterfall versus the people that like to just put stuff together as they go. So kind of resembles agile because then, Hey, I put this middle piece together. It works. It looks like what we're looking for, but then there's all these other pieces missing. So while you're building from the outside in, you're setting that foundation, right. And then you're working yourself from the outside in, and then building, building, building, until you get to that middle part and then you're done.
Rebecca Luth: I really love that comparison, Angel. That's another way of thinking about it that, it's all of a sudden, you have those three or four people that you built together in the puzzle and you can plug that in, and you know that that's going to be a working section, and then just piecing it together with the other items that are also being built at the same time. Yeah, I love that comparison.
Angel Leon: Yeah. As you were explaining both of the tools, I was just imagining someone who works on a puzzle and just what they do, because I know when I was a kid or even now as an adult, when I get a puzzle, I like to start from the edges, from the edge of the puzzle and just build my way in from the edges. Whereas I've seen my kids, I've seen my siblings, that like to piece by piece put separate pieces together first and then they start building those other pieces into the singular items that they've built. I don't know, as you were saying that, that just brought that to mind. Keeping on with the IT industry, so as we said at the beginning, product management can basically be put to work in just about any field that you can think of. What about the IT industry? What makes a project manager within the IT industry?
Rebecca Luth: That's a great question as well, because really there's not a lot of traits or skill sets differences, but it's definitely the way people get into the field is the way I see it. So as I mentioned earlier, my start was not in the world of IT, it was much more in the world of project management, where I was organizing and I was coordinating and people said," Hey, that'd be really helpful in this project I was working on that is IT related." When I look at the rest of my team, that's not the same start that a lot of my folks started with. Many of them actually started as IT professionals, working in infrastructure or hardware or software, and they migrated the opposite direction by coming in and having those technical expertise levels and then migrating those into, well, Hey, I can help, be the one to coordinate this project from start to finish. And then people saying," Oh, hey, you've got this great combination of skills. Maybe this is the better route for you to take that technical expertise and then migrate it into being the organizer, being the coordinator." There's a couple different routes people can take to get there. And I think you're going again, see those same soft skills that are really critical as far as organization, keeping things on track, being able to switch gears quickly. Like I said earlier, with being a good listener, being maybe a good note taker, you'll see some of those across the board, but maybe with someone who started as an IT person, they may have just a lot broader knowledge of the technical aspects and that's what really helps them be successful. And then you have somebody like me who just really focuses on the skills that they have and then being able to migrate them by learning more of the IT field. You'll have definitely pieces of both in the IT world, similar to other industries and you apply what you know, and where your skillsets are and where your strengths are.
Angel Leon: So along those same lines, because you've obviously had experience in both now IT and in healthcare and many other areas. So what would you say would be the biggest difference if between a project manager say in healthcare or in construction to a project manager in IT?
Rebecca Luth: I think it's the people that you're working with. There's certainly a mentality around IT workers and some people may consider there's being stereotypes of people who really just want to hunker down and do their development. You may in your brain envision one of the people with big headphones on and just in a dark room with their giant computer monitors-
Angel Leon: Yeah, yeah. The loner type.
Rebecca Luth: Those people, a lot of them, that's not necessarily the 100% stereotype, but they certainly do exist. And those are the key people that make IT project managers so important, is because they don't have those soft skills where they want to go talk with others. They don't naturally want to collaborate and interact with people on a regular basis. So it's being able to take somebody intermediary, like a project manager to say," Hey, I see what you're working on. We need to figure out how that fits in with the bigger picture. What is it that you're working on? When is that going to be done? How are we going to fit that into this giant thing that we're trying to build or this larger picture that we're trying to create?" Whereas with, again, my experience in healthcare, a different type of person works in healthcare, not a 100% percent of the time, obviously I'm generalizing a bit, but there's people who work in healthcare have the tendency to be people persons, and maybe some more of the IT folks are not always. So it's important to be able to work with a wide variety of personalities when you're in IT field. I think more so than maybe in other industries.
Producer Brian: Speaking to that generalization, at another software company that I used to work at, the joke we made in regard to that generalization was, you can tell the extroverts because they stare at your shoes instead of their own.
Rebecca Luth: At my last office, I had a gentleman who sat next to me and he wanted nothing to do with me all the time. And again, me being as ex extroverted as I am, it was quite the dichotomy of personalities. I wanted to get to know him because we were cube mates and we joked around that there was something that I created called project friendship, which was trying to hit different milestones of learning about him.
Producer Brian: Project friendship. I love that.
Angel Leon: Yeah. Yeah. It's very good.
Rebecca Luth: It was, today I'm going to learn about his pets and next week I'm going to try and learn about his favorite foods. And he was very quintessential, the type that wore the big headphones and didn't want to be bothered and wanted to just be heads down and work. And, oh my goodness, those types of individual are so critical in the world of IT because they can just grind and they can get so much work accomplished and they're dedicated to their work. But again, from somebody's outside perspective like my own, it's good to be able to take a look up and take a breath and see what's going on around you. Again, I think it's being able to work with a wide variety of personality types and being able to work with them and accomplish an end goal similarly, as you would with another extrovert or somebody else who is a little bit more collaborative or cooperative.
Angel Leon: Project friendship, we're going to start that business in Moser now.
Rebecca Luth: It's going to make a big splash.
Angel Leon: Yeah.
Producer Brian: We have a new line of business. Yeah.
Angel Leon: So it's my understanding that within the world of project management, such a world lives by a triangle. On time, on budget, and within scope, I'd like to know how you manage to keep that with project friendship, but anyway, given your experiences with project management, have you ever completed a project within the triangle?
Rebecca Luth: Honestly, when I think back on my experiences with large scale projects, I can tell you certainly that I have never finished a project within the triangle, either on budget and on time. And then somebody at a higher level says," Oh, look at all they're accomplishing, maybe we'd be able to push this other small item in there and then the scope expands." Or it's," Oh, look at how well they're doing with the time, maybe we could come in under budget." Somebody at a different level starts to see the impact of that project, and they inherently want to either go faster or go shorter timeframe, so it's done quicker and being able to open up those resources again. So as a project manager, you really have to be flexible. Sometimes things just happen and things come up. I think about like when I moved data centers for a previous company and it's like, there's so many moving pieces to that, that there may be a singular limiting factor, that it absolutely has to be done on time. And so that's the one that you really, really focus on. Everything else can be a little bit more fluid like, okay, well, if we really, really need it done on this exact date, it would be super helpful if we could expedite shipping and be able to spend that little extra money that we didn't fully account for. Maybe it was in our extra budget or that wiggle room budget, but the folks at the top didn't necessarily want to spend it. But it's, again, you're working towards that singular limiting factor, that's usually the true driving force of a project. And a lot of times it is either the budget or the timeframe, the schedule
Producer Brian: I worked before this, my background's in marketing and advertising. And I had a creative director that had his own triangle and when a project for a commercial, or print campaigns, whatever it was, he would always say," Good, faster, cheap. And you get to pick two." Because if it's good and fast, it's not going to be cheap. If it's fast and cheap, it's not going to be good. If it's cheap and good, it's not going to be fast.
Angel Leon: Yeah.
Rebecca Luth: Yes. So everyone's got that understanding, and it's the way your mentality works, but yeah, you work towards your limiting factor. And not always are you going to hit all three.
Angel Leon: That brings up a thought to my head. So basically you have on time, on budget, and within scope, right? So most, every project should adhere to that triangle, but how, if you're new to project management, right. So if I just got into the field, how can I basically decide which one is more important than the other? Is it depending on a project? Is it depending on a client? What would you say?
Rebecca Luth: I would say somebody more important than you has probably already made that decision.
Angel Leon: Right.
Rebecca Luth: And as a project manager, figuring that out, asking those prodding questions and figuring out how to wiggle your way in to understanding what those limiting factors are, understanding what the true limitations are. That's what helps make a good project manager.
Angel Leon: So basically if I'm new into project management, is there one of the three angles of that triangle that I want to specifically go after? So should I always try to be on time? Should I always try to be on budget? Or should I always try to be within scope? Because like Brian was saying, you can always hit two of the three. So if I'm new to this and I want to put my name out there and I want to look like I know what I'm doing, which will way should I go? Which two sides should I pick?
Producer Brian: I always found that budget got me yelled at faster and louder than anything else.
Rebecca Luth: That certainly was going to be along my lines is like, always target towards the budget because it is really hard and some sticky conversations to have to go in as a project manager and ask for more money. Nobody likes having those conversations.
Angel Leon: No.
Rebecca Luth: I would say that that's a default schedule and scope being at times very similar levels of importance as your second and third. Again, oftentimes you're going to understand pretty quickly when a vice president or a director comes in and says," Okay, we need to have this done by January." And that's the first couple sentences within an email or within a kickoff call that you're... Okay. Light bulb goes off. That's a really important thing for me to work towards. Let's take that date and start working backwards. Or if they say," Okay, we have$ 2 million to get this done." Somebody at the top is going to say the only important-
Angel Leon: But now you have the time that you need and the budget. Yeah.
Rebecca Luth: And it's like," Okay. Here's what we need to get done." If that's the third thing that they say, you're like," Okay, well, I have my flexibility on how we're going to get it done then. All right. But we definitely need to get it done by January in this$ 2 million." Normally you're going to be informed that at some early point, and then there's going to be the other managers who are just really, really pushy on all three. And you have to work around the other team members to say," Okay, well, if it needs to be done by January, then it would be really, really helpful to get this extra hardware for X dollar amount that we didn't necessarily budget for." And being able to back peddle in and say," Is there any flexibility in the budget for us to be able to accomplish this other item, to get us on this schedule?" And if they say, no, then you say, okay. That apparently the budget's the more important facet and we need to be able to have a little bit more flexibility with either our scope or our budget.
Angel Leon: And that's where I think goodwill and obviously relationship building comes into effect because not everything is about the boundaries, but if you have goodwill and if you're always building outdoor relationships, you might get that yes. Maybe we'll give you 5% more of what your original budget was or maybe no, but we can extend time a little bit more. And so those are conversations that I... And this is not my area, so please correct me if I'm wrong. But this is a conversation that if you're a good project manager you should be having anyway with those decision makers.
Rebecca Luth: No, you're absolutely right. And I can't tell you how many times having good relationships and being transparent and over communicative. And again, being able to utilize those soft skills that some people just really don't want to take the time to do. There's something in project management called stakeholder management, and it's again, just being really engaging at the appropriate level with everyone who's impacted by that project. So all of the stakeholders, and that may be somebody who's writing the checks. It may be somebody who is impacted downstream by the project. And it's just understanding and really figuring out to what extent those folks want to be communicated with. So that when something does happen, that is an extenuating circumstance. You can go to them and say," Hey, we've communicated up to this point that we were on scope and on budget and on schedule. Here's this thing that has happened. We want to keep you informed and figure out how you'd like to move forward." And again, just having those relationships, I can't tell you how many times that has helped me be able to keep a project on track or get something back on track when it's derailed slightly, because people know that we're doing our best. The default is never people thinking that you're working on a project trying to not get it done or trying to screw it up. So it's making sure that you're communicating what's being accomplished and when it's being accomplished and how it's impacting those other folks. Again, it's like having that empathy for other team members and all of the stakeholders who are impacted. That goes a long way, I can't even tell you.
Angel Leon: Yeah. Relationships are always key for everything. Becky, before we let you go, this has been a terrific conversation on project management. We always like to ask three questions of our special guests. And so I'm going to start with the first one. What's a commonly held belief about your expertise that you passionately disagree with?
Rebecca Luth: Angel, I'm going to tie this back to what we've titled for this podcast. It's that PMs are just nags that you can't spell project manager without nag. People think that we're there just to bother them and ask them day after day," Hey, did you get this done? Hey, did you get this done? Did you get this done?" We're not just nags. We're not babysitters. We're not just administrative assistance. We don't just schedule meeting and then disappear. We're conducting complex coordinated efforts. Some advanced levels of project management requires mathematical calculations and forecasting and estimations. Team members with their PMP, which is Project Management Professional certification, they have to have lots of hours of experience and they have to sit for a really grueling exam. So there's definitely a level of professionalism that we have to ascertain. And that's not the same as somebody who's a babysitter or somebody who's just doing administrative assisting. I think it's that we are professional individuals inaudible.
Angel Leon: Yeah.
Rebecca Luth: We're not just somebody that's stuck into schedule meetings. And I think it's commonly held belief amongst individuals who are not pro project management. So, if I can change the opinion of just one person, I'll be happy.
Angel Leon: I have to agree. I've looked into that PMP certification and that is a brutal cookie to take on. It's definitely if you're looking into it and Becky can speak to it, it is a tough one to go after. You have to have a certain amount of hours and it's long hours. It's not just a year's, it is a long time to take. And then the testing itself, it's very ruling. That's another conversation that we can have another day, just about certifications when it comes to PMP, to project managers and what that looks like. What is something that everyone in your industry space should start or stop doing?
Rebecca Luth: Oh my gosh, I just want every project manager to start sending out agendas or at least having a set agenda for their meetings. Everyone listening to this call they're suffering from such Zoom fatigue these days, especially in the past couple of years. Make the meeting session worth people's whiles, don't schedule a meeting that could have been an email. We've all seen those memes, don't be that person. So make sure that you're going in with a plan of what you're trying to accomplish, not just saying," Oh, we should talk about that." Come in with what you think the targeted end goal is. And sometimes that might mean asking some of the folks ahead of time," Hey, what is it that we truly want to accomplish from this?" So having an agenda so that people aren't coming in with almost a mentality of being checked out or being like," Oh, the PM scheduled this extra call outside of our status meeting." Some people will go in thinking that they can multitask during those. And it's important to have a set goal, and then sometimes having that goal will really truncate the amount of time on that call or otherwise. And then I think for the stop side, what do people stop me to do? They just need to stop taking notes and sending them out, be more than that. Project manager in my mind should be an organizer of the thoughts from the meeting session as a whole. And that doesn't come easily, it's not a skill that you figure out overnight. But you can work on it until the information you're sending out is concise and easy to understand, especially when it comes to next steps and action items. Like I said, with the Zoom fatigue, people are so rapidly shifting from one meeting to the next, even if you reiterate what they need to do in the last minute of a meeting, they could easily have forgotten it two minutes later when they've started their next one.
Angel Leon: Yep. Yeah. When they pivot to that next call, it's always hard to remember, what was I supposed to do from the last one? Hmm, very interesting. And I do have to say from the start and I think this should be in general, not just for project managers, but just be prepared. If you've scheduled a meeting and you've got an agenda, be prepared. Think about what you're going to say. Think about the subjects that you're going to talk about. Don't show up and look at the agenda and then just basically wing it because, Hey, it's my agenda. No, just talk about, or if you have other stakeholders that maybe represent your group or that are part of group, have a quickly 10 minute standup and just go over the agenda. Okay. Linda, you're going to talk about this. Becky, you're going to talk about this. Angel, you're going to talk about this. And just be prepared so that when the real meeting occurs, you're not sitting there through an hour of people just going over the agenda and you're like," No, good notes there, Becky." And then last question finally, and then we'll let you go. When you first started in project management, what was harder than you expected?
Rebecca Luth: Oh, well, a few things. So as I have reiterated a couple times, I did not start in the world of IT. So I think one of the hardest aspects for me was running a meeting with a large audience of very smart people, while possibly not knowing much about the subject. In IT the subjects are wide and deep, so I personally was suffering from a great amount of imposter syndrome, feeling like the dumbest person in the room, because I didn't know all the facets of hardware and software development. It took me a long time to figure out that I didn't need to know the technical aspects inside and out. That's what those other really smart people were in the room there for. So they could talk to each of their different fields as it pertained to that particular project. But it required a lot of confidence building to command respect of a room or a call, when surrounded by those subject matter experts. I think another piece that was really tricky is keeping conversations on track or figuring out how to get them back on track, which I think I referenced a few minutes ago. Folks can get really passionate about their subject and they will often advocate for a project to go the way they envision it. So possibly in the route of how it's going to be easiest or most conducive for them or their team members. There can be some big personalities with competing priorities, again, talking about the budget or the schedule or the scope. Somebody may just want to be able to get in and it out in the shortest amount of time, whereas sometimes another person really wants to get it done on budget. So again, figuring out those personalities and those conversations can get really heated. I once had a project where a network engineer told his boss on a kickoff call with probably 20 other people on there that the boss's timeline didn't matter worth a darn. He didn't use that polite of language. Because it was unrealistic and he should have consulted privately one on one with the network guy before making those schedule promises. It worked out in the long run, but people were chattering about the drama from that kickoff call for weeks. It really came down to me to figure out how I was going to mend those relationships and get the project back on track. So in the tech world, there are a few folks that shall we say are maybe a little less savvy in the soft skills. And I find that a lot of project manager shine in that area. So it's just figuring out how to do that, because it's not just an innate thing.
Producer Brian: I don't want to show my age too much, but I once interviewed and got a job for a position that was open because the writer who had been at the company before me was let go for throwing a typewriter at the creative director.
Rebecca Luth: Big personalities.
Producer Brian: Yeah. Passionate feelings, spirited debate. Thankfully, not a super great arm.
Rebecca Luth: Well I'm sure that typewriter was in an antique store, right?
Producer Brian: Yeah. Yeah. Like an electric Smith Corona. The thing had to weigh like 40 pounds. It's pretty easy to dodge, thankfully.
Angel Leon: So I guess it's probably safe to say that that writer was probably not on time, on budget, or within scope.
Producer Brian: Yeah.
Angel Leon: And with that, Becky, thank you very much for joining us today on ASCII Anything. We really appreciate your time.
Rebecca Luth: Thank you so much, Angel.
Angel Leon: We'd like to thank Becky Luth for joining us this week to talk about project managers and how valuable they can be for you, even if they nag you. ASCII Anything will be back next week with another episode, continuing to dive deeper with our resident experts and what they're currently working on. If you have an idea or a topic you'd like us to explore, please reach out to us through our social media channels. In the meantime, please remember to give us a rating and subscribe to our feed wherever you get your podcast. Until then, you thought your little siblings nagging you all the time was so bad, think like a project manager. So long everybody.
Becky Luth joins us this week to explain that while you can't spell Project Manager without the word NAG, a PM's job is much more focused on accountability and the free flow of information to all involved parties. We also learn to decipher some of those initials we see behind our colleagues' names as we discuss the various certification options that are available for professional training and growth.