We live in highly exciting times. Both software and hardware projects are pushed to their limits. Creative minds design solutions for all types of problems and engineers and programmers take on the challenge to turn the vision into a real product. Such a project involves a lot of people and stakeholders to identify and communicate to. However, these people are often from different worlds and it’s not easy to translate business requirements into technical deliverables. To support these activities, organizations usually would use an IT project manager to coordinate the effort.
Managing IT projects is not too far away from managing other types of projects. In this article, I am focusing on IT projects and the activities of an IT project manager but it’s possible that project managers for construction, events, research, design, or other projects would have a similar set of activities in their work day. What they all definitely share, though, is the fact that all project managers work with a lot of data, information, and documents. Not all these documents are written by yourself but if you genuinely have an issue with writing things up in files, share them, live them, breathe them – then you might want to do an internship first to check this profession out in detail.
Before I’m explaining what a project manager in IT does, it’s important to define what a project actually is. A project is a temporary endeavor to achieve one or more goals in a defined timeframe by tapping into agreed resource pools. While IT operations would be continual in a temporal meaning, an IT project has a start date and an end date. Between these dates, the project manager tries to control and steer the activities towards a successful turnaround, however, it’s not directly the project manager’s “fault” if a project is not successful.
There are many aspects that could impact an IT project, especially when it’s a lengthy project. Key people could get sick or move to another company, technology changes, regulatory changes for compliance, and many other things could disrupt a project and invoke it to be replanned. There are also positive effects that could occur to boost the project. For instance, someone could have a great idea during a brainstorming session and brings the design on the fast lane. Or perhaps, there is a new joiner in the project team, who has previously completed a similar project and shares some experiences.
A project can be considered as successfully closed when all defined goals were achieved without taking longer than planned or without completely depleting the project budget. When there are changes to the project variables, the project should be replanned and assessed. There’s a good chance that the changes introduce risk or cause delay in one or more of the deliverables. But fear not. Managing IT projects can also be great fun. It’s a fast-paced, lively, and vivid activity. You will learn the ropes of project management but you will not find yourself in a routine. Every day is going to be different and the journey never ends. You communicate will all types of people and you are responsible for delivering products and services from which the users will benefit from
The primary activities in the life of an IT project manager can be mapped in processes but they are not linear. Sometimes you can attack several things at the same time and then again sometimes you will need to go back to a previous step. That’s normal and desirable. Without going back there is no option to engage in corrective activities and replan the whole project when necessary. You would know it will not work out and crash the thing into a wall.
Identify changes, issues, and opportunities early and incorporate the information into the plan. Also please be informed that it’s common practice to have one IT project manager work one more than one project at the same time. How many projects can be managed by one person at the same time? This might vary from environment to environment and each project’s complexity is also a factor here but in any way, I would not recommend assigning more than ten projects to one project manager at the same time.
Certainly one of the most exciting phases of your project. You will do research, evaluate information, assess the current state of things, brainstorm with key individuals, have a kick-off workshop meeting and more activities are part of initiating a project. You collect and process all this data and see if your business sponsors signs off your endeavor.
This project phase is involving fewer people to contribute to. Often you will take some time for yourself and consolidate the products of the previous project phase and prepare a project plan. Whether that project plan turns into a complex project charter or remains as a one-pager Gantt chart is up to the organization requesting you to manage the project and the overall scope of what will be done and how many people it will involve in later phases.
In this phase you assign the planned activities to people who have been defined to be part of the project team. The results of their work are the project deliverables.
The controlling and the implementing phases work together. They are not necessarily sequential phases. In order to control the project team’s effort you need to measure what the directed activities where and how much time was planned in order for them to be finished against how long they actually took. If you notice a recurring mismatch it might be that you planned it wrong and need to correct the rest of the plan accordingly.
The closure of a project includes the final documentation of what was done, how it was done, and why there changes from the original plan (if any). Also, this is the phase to sit together and analyze what went suboptimal and what went really well and collect this information in a lessons-learned file. All the deliverables are handed over to operations or a client and they sign off the formal closure of the project. You’re done and ready for your next project!
The activity process phases are one thing but across these streams you will encounter a series of subjects that will stay with you throughout your project. Don’t forget to manage these. If you neglect these subjects they will come back and bite you at some point.
Integration is like the core subject that links to all other subject groups. You plan everything and try to find the right balance between competing constraints and business requirements in order to deliver the project in agreed quality.
You need to identify and manage your project stakeholders diligently. However, diligently does vary depending on who you’re talking about. Freeman (1983) has designed an interesting grid matrix in order to categorize your stakeholders and identify how you should manage them. It’s called Stakeholder Power/Interest Matrix.
This subject defines “what” will be done. A large part of this is doing a work breakdown structure (WBS) and manage the resulting tasks across their lifecycle. If the project has already started and a sponsor seeks to amend the scope they will need to raise a change request, followed by a replanning of the project.
You can consider this as the leadership or HR part of your project. You need to translate the vision to the development team and manage them as they do their work. Keep them motivated and communicate frequently and transparent.
Time is often directly tied to resources and cost subjects, because, as you all know, time is money. Your project has a start date and an end date. Time management is the core discipline of project management. If this wasn’t the case it would be a part of the operations of the business.
Financials, budget management and being cost-efficient is often a critical aspect of delivering IT projects. It can, however, occur that you have nothing at all to do with financials if you are working in your own company without external staff or clients. In that case, you plan your budget with man-days or man-hours and manage it as part of the “Resource” subject scope.
This is one of my favorite subjects. It’s equally important as it is virtual. It’s a risk that a meteorite could strike down and destroy the data center in which you host your servers. It’s highly unlikely but it’s a risk. Risk is often categorized per likelihood (low, medium, high) and severity (low, medium, high). The output of that calculation is your risk factor. What would you do with these identified risks now? Looking at the example below you could, for instance, mitigate the risk by using two separate data centers or recommend to build one beneath the surface, where it would be safe from the blast. If there is no viable mitigation option your sponsors and stakeholders can also choose to accept the risk as is formally.
You need to plan the quality of your future product or service diligently and during development measure against all targets. Perform quality assurance and quality control throughout the lifetime of the project. If there is an issue this needs to be addressed before it becomes a problem.
If you need resources from outside the project team, you need to research about companies and people who provide the required skills to support the project. Comparing the offerings and pricing of these is part of the procurement and links to cost and resource subjects.
In my very own humble opinion communication is the lifeline and key discipline in project management. It’s at least equally important in comparison to time management. You need to make sure all stakeholders are always informed about everything they care about and should potentially care about. The communication to the project team is very important. If they are confused or understand a deliverable differently and you don’t spot it in time they will waste development time.
That costs not only project time but it will also impact their relationship with you and your’s with the project sponsor. Plan the communication and check with everybody if they’d agree on your plan. Map out who needs to be informed, about what, why, how detailed, and how often and in what format. Maybe have weekly meetings with the developers but send the sponsor only a report of the project status. If something doesn’t work out, increase the communication quality and frequency.
There are many methodologies out there and you need to find the one that suits you and your organization. Are you agile and do Scrum project management? Not sure whether to go for PRINCE2 which is popular in the UK or to go for PMP which is often used in the US? I like to follow the international standard for project management ISO 21500 for instance but there are many out there. Most importantly you can work well with the framework and make it work for your organization as well. If you want to find out more about the different methodologies out there, check out my overview article as well
Project management is a lot. It’s demanding, challenging, highly interesting, but also very educative and very rewarding. With every completed project you learned more and can apply all types of improvements directly on the next project. If you read this and got worried because you’re not good at decision making, rest assured. It’s usually not the responsibility of the project manager to call the shots. The project manager acts more like an advisor and points out options and requests approval on decisions from the project sponsors and stakeholders.
If you’re in doubt, just try to get an internship as a project management assistant perhaps. That’s an excellent way to find out whether or not this profession is for you or not. If you’re currently looking for work opportunities, please also check out our job board. We try to post open positions we find as they pop up, so maybe there is something for you. If you’re an employer, feel free to contact us about posting your job offers there. Thoughts? Ideas? Feedback? I would love to hear from you below in the comment section. Many thanks for reading and good luck with your first project!
Photo credit: Sebastiaan ter Burg