Why project management skills matter

IT departments in higher education have always been at the forefront of emerging technologies. Cool systems and new applications first appeared and were bandied about the backrooms of the technical staff. As the technologies incubated, gained a foothold and then became core applications for our institutions, what were once novel computer applications became mission-critical. In the past thirty years, we’ve seen the explosion of personal computers, the Internet, email, enterprise applications, learning management systems, online services and much more. Our small technology departments, germinated in academic areas, are now major cost centers for colleges and universities. They’re made up of several units…systems, network, academic support, information systems, user support, learning commons, telecom, stores and computer repairs. Technology budgets often amount to 10% (give or take) of total campus budgets.

We have CIO’s to run these ever-growing departments. The role of the CIO requires, in addition to a broad understanding of various technologies, business savvy. With all the funding and multi-year contracts involved, combined with the rapidly-changing software, network and security industries, our technology departments are maturing to be run more like the business they are. That may not always sell well in our higher ed culture, but there’s no question about it.

Project management methodologies have provided many technology departments with the framework they need to select, implement, sustain and develop technologies on our campuses. It is a disciplined approach to containing costs of what can be multi-year, expensive (short- and long-term) software applications that change the very nature of how we work. Good project charters align executives around the core business and academic drivers for new technologies. They lay out assumptions about cost, the people needed, the business practices that will be impacted and how decisions will be made. Project schedules lay out the work and timelines to mitigate cost overruns that plague unorganized projects.

Project management is also a framework for managing organizational change. Initiated under the guise of a new technology or organizational initiative, new systems require changes in business processes and personal work habits. They must be learned and adapted, often at the expense of old behaviors.

On a small scale, think about an upgrade to a new computer and operating system. Years ago, you learned what was then your new computer. You set it up, configured it and learned how it works to get your work done. It may not have been easy, but over time it worked predictably and efficiently. When you replace that computer with a new one, things are not where they used to be. You may not have all the add-ons. Tools and menu bars look different. You have to RE-LEARN it! You curse, you experience a period of frustration over having to waste time on this, but you endure, for better or worse.

Take this example on a grander scale. Your organization wants to upgrade its student information or course management system. For whatever reasons, the decision is made at the top and there is a clear mandate. Your project team will need to review options available and then select a new technology product that will change the very nature of how the most fundamental processes of our campus work. Many of the people who used the old systems for years were adept. Familiarity and routines worked. When the new systems are cutover, all those routines will change. Sure, there will be training and communications, but the fact is, all those people will need to change their habits!

Project management may also be applied to non-technical projects, too. Many schools are exploring integration of library, technology and academic services in what are called ‘learning commons.’ What might appear to be sensible to the lay person is a cultural integration of epic proportions. This type of project is organizational integration of very different cultures. The overlap between what they do is significant, but combining the caffeinated, fast-paced, and youthful culture of technology with the venerable, staid culture of libraries offers some interesting dynamics.

Yet here is where project management can be helpful. Learning commons concepts clearly focus on the changing needs of students, faculty and patrons. They know not of our organizational and cultural differences. Rather, they want access to computers and research materials. They want multimedia equipment to help integrate their ideas through text, audio and visual means. They want experts to assist them with the computers and the information sources. Why not put it all in one place? The schools that have done this have seen their libraries and technology services transformed. But only with good project scope, executive leadership and advocacy, a structured timeline and key people involved will this happen. Otherwise, it will be difficult to get past the un-likeminded staffs of two traditionally separate units.

Definition of Project Management

  • A project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. It implies:
  • a defined objective and/or deliverable
  • a specific timeframe
  • a budget
  • unique specifications
  • working across organizational boundaries

Project management is a disciplined way of thinking and managing. There are several key components of projects:

  • Project charters: the what, why, who, where and when of major organizational initiatives
  • Work breakdown structures: definition and delineation of all the major categories of work
  • Project schedule: Once the work is defined, the key tasks are injected into a schedule around which a realistic timeframe is derived
  • Decision-making structure: Decision levels and scope defined at executive, project and team levels
  • Project budget: an outline of initial costs, long-term costs for people, software, hardware, training, events and documentation
  • Communication plan: keeping stakeholders and project participants informed (bi-directional)
  • Team structure: engaging the people whose skills, experience and aptitude are best suited to the job

Besides those organizational tools, project management requires time and attention to the softer skills. Because the very nature of project management is introduce new technologies that require some kind of change on those in your organization, project managers need to be facilitators of change. Good processes are required to make and manage decisions, build strong and diverse teams, communicate effectively through a number of means and continually remind people of the larger goals and objectives that drive the project.

Selection of a project manager is a key step. Not everyone is cut out for it. You need to want to organize, to lead and to carry the torch. You need to be comfortable with ambiguity and long hours. You need to have a thick skin and positive attitude. And most of all, you need to be willing. However, there is no better way to advance your career by filling this vital need within an organization. You may not an expert in all the areas of project management, but by stepping up, you agree to see that everything gets done. You surround yourself with people of complementary skills. You also get exposure to the executive team members in ways you may not have had in the past.

Those are the things that will show you are ready for advancement in your career.

Where will your technology career be in 5 years?

So, you want to be a technology manager.

So, you want to be a technology manager

If you are looking to advance your technology career in management, there are plenty of opportunities for the right people. The first wave of IT leaders is nearing retirement. These were the men and women pioneers, many of them who happened to be in the right place at the right time during the last 20 years during the revolution of the personal computer.

Managing isn’t for everyone. Nor is it something to be waded into. Unfortunately, that is how most of us get there. We were good at something, so others thought we could/should/would manage a project or unit. But the skills that got us here are not necessarily the skills that help us succeed in management.

Effective [technology] managers and leaders develop other skills and character traits.

  • A positive attitude and ‘can-do’ spirit
  • Organization and follow-through
  • Project management skills
  • Strong writing and presentation skills
  • Active listening skills
  • Ability to discuss complex technical issues in lay terms
  • A keen sense of the organization’s strategic mission
  • Ability to coach and bring out the best in those around them
  • Positive role modeling
  • Passion for remaining current in the field
  • A willingness to do whatever it takes, which sometimes requires long hours
  • Ability to delegate appropriately
  • Desire to work for, with and sometimes around people
  • Propensity for personal reflection
  • Humility and the knowledge that there are no right answers, only solutions yet to be discovered
  • Ego strength to absorb criticism without taking it personally
  • Strong sense of self that is not necessarily defined by work
  • Knowledge of when to lead, when to help, when to follow
  • Humility

Few people meet all these areas. However, many are skills and traits that can be developed.

If you have been successful in your career to date and want to advance into a technical management role, here are some things to consider.

  • Management training and professional development
  • An advanced or terminal degree
  • A mentor, someone in the organization you trust, respect and demonstrates leadership
  • Discussion this with your supervisor (or mentor) and see what the needs of the organization are and how you might fit into and advancing role
  • Develop a career plan
  • Assess your strengths and weaknesses (see bullets above)
  • Ask others about your skills
  • Become an expert project manager, first on small scale and work your way up
  • Study effective leaders and what they’ve done
  • Read, read, read
  • Write, write, write
  • Identify your organizations key challenges in the next 1-5 years
  • Do the Myers-Briggs, DISC or other (meant to be done in teams and with facilitator, but you can find your way to online surveys that will score you right away. The key is to look for results analysis and how people with your profile work with others.)
  • Be patient, be persistent

It is also important to assert a leadership role over your own career development. Others may help, and organizations may provide training, but don’t fall prey to the entitlement trap. Organizations will help you as long as it’s in their interest. Training budgets are finite and politics can sway allocations. The best approach is to be your own advocate and consultant. If you need to learn a new skill or technology, take initiative. If someone asked you about a new technology or product, learn about it. Become an expert on your own!

Organizations seek managers and leaders who can make things happen. They can deal with ambiguity and find their way through it. These are not the people who see something wrong (or absurd) and broadcast the problems (or absurdity). Rather, those who simply take the initiative to do something about it and offer viable alternatives and solutions.

Suggested readings: Job Shift and On Becoming a Technology Leader.

More on managing your technology career...

Where is your technology career going to be in 5 years?

This is a good question for any of us working in technology. Managing a career in any field is a challenge and requires deliberate attention. In technology, with rapid development and an ever-changing user needs, it’s all the more important.

Many of us got into the technology field either through college course study or simply because we love working with the stuff. We use it, fix it, manage it, develop it, support it and sell it. The pay is relatively good and we are often in high demand. People may get mad at the technology and indirectly at us, but they love us when it works.

Yet a career in IT requires ongoing planning. You can never rely on your current skills or the present technology. The technologies evolve around us. Increasing costs of technology always gives rise to outsource discussions. And those relatively good salaries mean we are ever-more accountable as we progress in our careers.

As you contemplate your own career, here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Where have you been and where is your career going?
  • What are your career and personal aspirations?
  • What are you doing to add value to your organization?
  • What skills do you consider strengths?
  • What are your skill deficiencies?
  • What is happening in your particular technology field?
  • Are you an effective team member?
  • Do you want to be a manager?
  • Do you want to be a CIO?
  • Do you want to shift fields?
  • Do you want to work in a business unit of your organization?
  • What are you doing to ensure that your organization isn’t going to be waiting for you to retire and/or forcing you out?
  • How does your career fit into your values?

Managing your career does not necessarily mean climbing the ladder. That works for some, at some points in their careers, but not for others. Not everyone is cut out for managing. Beside the fact that there are fewer positions available the higher you go in an organization, you need to want to work with people, spend time communicating and working through issues, developing teams, problem-solving, conducting performance evaluations, coaching and recruiting. There are the politics, trying to find your way among competing priorities, various leadership and personalities, agendas, legislators, trustees, sister institutions, professional organizations…all amidst a hyper industry. Those of us in management roles can go from extreme highs and adrenaline to feeling like rag dolls whipsawed and bulldozed by circumstances beyond our control.

I’m not trying to dissuade anyone from managing. Rather, make sure you’re cut out for it. Many people who would much prefer a keyboard to a conference table. They would rather hone their technical skills than deal with management hoo-hah. Some have tried management and decided it was not for them.

Your career plan, rather than vertical, might be horizontal or any angle in between. It can be swayed by where you are in life. A twenty-something’s aspirations may be very different from a seasoned staff member. Younger staff are often trying to earn more money and status. Some of us like the adrenaline and rush of the work, others not so much. Sometimes our personal lives play a large influence. Tending to young or aged family members may, at times, take priority over career.

Some may start to climb the ladder and then take a few steps down. That works, too. Life values and circumstances change.

Think of Maslows Hierarchy of Needs. That model helps define different motivational factors for us at different times of our lives. More than anything, however, your career motivation should ultimately be driven by your life values.

There are times, too, when advancement of your career may require a leap of faith…and organization. Opportunities for advancement may be limited in your organization. You may have baggage from years past. Right or wrong, when you remain in an organization for a long time, people tend to perceive you in the present as you were in the past. A fresh start can sometimes help. Applying for and taking on positions in other organizations often allows you to redefine yourself in a new environment. The grass may not be greener, but it’s a fresh field.

That works for some, but not all. If you’re committed to the community and location, don’t leap simply to make more money or title. Strive to reinvent yourself in your current organization. Get to know the business units and understand the strategic direction of the organization. Target your skills and efforts in those directions. Not only will you be valued more, you will find tremendous satisfaction of being part of a larger whole.

Finally, think about your education. This is particularly important for those of us in higher education. Degrees matter for advancement in our industry. As you think about your future directions, you should consider how advanced degrees might help. Many technologists who want to be leaders seek an MBA. There is plenty of need for those who not only know the technology, but the business of technology. Others may want to pursue an MLS, PhD, EdD or other advanced or terminal degrees. Exposure to and learning from others outside the geekdom provides broader perspective.

The ultimate question is what do YOU want out of your career and WHERE is it going? More on technical leadership roles at So You Want to Be a Technical Leader and Why project management skills matter.

Technology Update, January 2008

Technology Update
January 2008

Happy Winterim all, this is the semesterly update from ITS. Some of these items are repeats from the fall update, but they’re worth a second look.

Computers, information and accountability:

Where can I get computer help? Walk, run, call or e- yourself to the Learning Commons in Lamson Library. If they can’t help you right away, they know who in ITS to call.

535-2929 ? helpdesk@plymouth.edu

What are my rights to privacy using PSU email? The email system, PSU-issued computers and the network all belong to the University. Within that framework you have a high degree of academic and personal freedom. No one tracks your surfing or email. You do, however, leave tracks everywhere you go. And since 9/11, there have been numerous changes in laws that have reduced the degree of privacy. Still, privacy and personal responsibility remain core PSU values. Please read the PSU Acceptable Use Policy. We are all accountable to it.

Where do I go for help using technology in the classroom? Multimedia support is available through the Learning Commons and/or by seeking Equipment Reservations in myPlymouth (left column, see Services). The Learning Commons is available 7 days a week for your support in any number of ways. Stop in, call 2929 or email them at helpdesk@plymouth.edu. John Martin leads the support team for the classroom, so feel free to drop him a line directly, too.

What do I need to know about computer security? Be skeptical, be cautious, be smart. There are new schemes, alluring pitches and deals too-good-to-be-true every week. Amy Berg, our new Director of IT Operations and Chief Security Officer, has some tips.

Are there times during the week when systems may be unavailable? We plan most of our major upgrades during semester breaks. However, many of the systems need minor updates and tweaks throughout of the year. We strive to minimize those times. Most planned work occurs early on Sunday mornings between 6-10am when traffic and system usage is at a low ebb. If it’s just a few minutes, we hope you’ll understand. If systems are going to be down for extended time (more than a half an hour) we’ll send word out via FYI@plymouth.edu and myPlymouth. We don’t use every Sunday morning, but when we do, that’s our maintenance window. Thanks for understanding.

What is the best way to look up students, faculty and staff? PSU publishes a student and faculty/staff directory each year in October. You should all have one by now. You can also dial 3333 on any campus extension (or 535-3333 from a cell or other phone) and speak an employee’s name. And, if you want the best directory for PSU students, get yourself a FaceBook account and look them up there. In addition to finding out how to locate them, you can find all sorts of interesting factoids and pictures about them. 😉

Where do I get information? For a complete listing of news, campus announcements, Plymouth Week, events, Plymouth Magazine and more, see the myNews tab in myPlymouth.

What if I want campus updates delivered to my email? Public Relations launched a new listserv called FYI@plymouth.edu. This is an OPT IN service, meaning it will only be delivered to your email if you request it. To receive PSU FYI emails, sign up at http://toto.plymouth.edu/mailman/listinfo/fyi.

How does PSU communicate in case of emergencies? PSU has partnered with e2Campus, an online service that students and employees opt into. Those who register will receive urgent or emergency communications as text messages to their cell phones and/or their preferred email address. There is also an option to receive text message alerts in case of school closings and river flooding. PSU encourages everyone who uses a cell phone to register now. Visit the e2Campus site and follow instructions. This service will be used judiciously and for an occasional test, but in the event of an emergency, this is the quickest way to receive broadcast alerts. Emergency information will continue to be posted to email and the PSU web pages.

Which Windows operating system is supported? PSU rolled out Windows Vista on computer labs and many new computers. Students are bringing new computers with Vista to campus. We will continue to support Windows XP, too, for quite a while yet. Support for the Commodore 64, however, has been retired.

May I bring my own laptop to the PSU network? Yes. Like students, PSU employees may log on to the PSU wireless network with an appropriate username and password. They may also plug in to network ports in the library. Your computer needs to be current with Windows security updates and have MacAfee Anti-virus software installed. Personal computers cannot, however, plug in to office ports unless their computers have loaded several more PSU network and security components. This is designed for security and network protection.

How do I get my new iTouch (or Smartphone, or iPhone, or whateverPhone) connected to the PSU network? Take the unit to the Learning Commons in Lamson and smile nicely. They’ll take care of you.

How do I get software loaded onto the computer clusters? Faculty and instructors receive notice every April and December alerting them to submit requests for software to be installed on our network and in computer labs. Because there are so many software applications already loaded, new requests have to be tested for compatibility. If it passes muster, the new software is loaded and made available the following semester.

What technologies should we be paying attention to? Think about trends more than specific technologies. More and more software is made available as web applications. Email is a good example. Microsoft Outlook, an application that resides on your computer, used to reign. Now our email, calendar and documents can all be on the web. This practice is far more prevalent with students arriving at our doors. There is, however, a trade-off in your control and local storage. You're good as long as you’re connected. (Good if you live around Internet connections, not so good if you live in the sticks.) Google Mail is a good example. With Google Mail (a.k.a. Gmail) you do not need your own computer to access your email, only an Internet connection and web browser. Of course, this means change in how we work and organize our files. More of our vendors are going in this direction (see myPlymouth.edu, Banner self service). You can check it out with our new myMail system. If you're already configured to get your email in Outlook, it will work the same. You can also work on the web with the web version of our mail called myMail. This allows your work to follow you wherever you have an Internet browser.

What’s the latest on PSU students and music file sharing? ITS and Res Life have been pressing the issue all semester…do not share copyrighted materials on the PSU network. We’ve warned students of the dangers and let them know if they’re fingered, it’s between to them and the RIAA. PSU received more than 300 notices of copyright infringement associated with specific computers on our network. Those notices are forwarded to the students associated with the computer. First violations result in their need to complete an online tutorial within two days. Failure to do so will result in loss of network privileges for their computer. Subsequent offenses result in longer periods. If students come complaining to you that they can’t get their work done because ITS shut their computer off from the network, help them understand that it is a direct result of their own risky behavior. And it is no excuse, only an inconvenience to them. They can use any other computers to get their work done. It might also be a good opportunity to discuss copyright and ethics, too.

How are decisions about technology made at PSU? The Technology Advisory Committee (TAG, see myPlymouth Groups for documents and agendas the past several years) meets monthly during the academic year. Made up of faculty and staff (and occasionally students), TAG tackles a variety of technology issues that impact students and faculty. It also creates ad hoc groups and reviews policy recommendations. TAG is led by the senior technology officers: The CIO, Dwight Fischer, and the Director of the Library, David Beronä. TAG recommendations on major PSU decisions flow up to the President's Cabinet. In addition to TAG, there is an Executive Steering Committee for Information Systems (ESC). The ESC includes vice presidents, TAG leaders, Graduate Studies and others as needed. ESC has purview over all aspects of information systems, project priorities, data and network security, major system upgrades or replacements, and regulatory compliance.

Where can I ask other questions about computing and technology? Here, drop me a note. If I can answer, I will. If not, I'll find you someone who can.

Best of luck in the new semester. We're here to help.

Dwight Fischer, CIO
Information Technology Services

ext. 2443 dcfischer@plymouth.edu


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