1 April 2002
Project manager: Elusive term?
By Ellen Fussell
Doing more work with fewer people seems to be a growing trend, especially in an industry where workers have to manage multiple projects. In fact, the term itself—project manager—is springing up in many businesses. But what does it mean? Is it a specific job that requires training or something that nearly everyone does as part of their job?
If you manage one or more projects or people in your job, you could probably call yourself a project manager. At least that’s the view of some engineers who manage projects every day. "We have people who help customers get orders or who manage development of a project or organize people and resources, and you could call any of those people project managers," said Ted Schnaare, engineering manager at Rosemount Inc. in Chanhassen, Minn.
The term is somewhat nebulous, according to executive search consultant Bill Radin, president of Radin Associates in Cincinnati. The term varies depending on the type and size of company, product, or service you’re talking about, he said. "A project manager at, say, National Instruments may have a totally different set of responsibilities than a product manager at Procter & Gamble," he said.
While the term might be hard to pinpoint for some, project management consultant Stan Portny said he believes the profession isn’t just a career choice but a necessary skill that requires training. In his book Project Management for Dummies, Portny said a
project-heavy business environment, a sagging economy, and the need to alleviate stress are compelling reasons to invest in project management training. He emphasized that if you’re looking for project management trainers (and there are many out there), look first for credibility: firsthand experience and knowledge of your industry. Then make sure they have good people skills and a commitment to follow through. Any project management consultant should be willing to not only train people but also return months later to give feedback and assess effectiveness.
In theory, learning project management skills would probably benefit everyone, Radin said, "but I’ve never had a search assignment for a project manager in 17 years."
Training might help the project manager from an aerospace company, as well as one from a small software company, but only in a generic sense, he said. "In a large company, a project manager may have profit/loss responsibilities, and in a small software company that same title could describe someone who’s coordinating the activities of coders—their responsibility would be to deal with programming bugs. Therefore, financial management doesn’t enter into the picture," he said.
"Almost every engineer has to organize at least his own work in a logical and efficient way," said Schnaare. "And that’s where project management classes might be applicable up and down the scale. Anything from putting that platform in the Gulf of Mexico to knowing how to get something certified. If you have to get work done in a certain time frame, you have to be organized."
Tom Dubaniewicz, an electrical engineer at NIOSH in Pittsburgh’s research lab, is a project leader on a research project for laser safety in potentially flammable environments. He took a short class as part of a project management certificate program from the Project Management Institute (www.pmi.org). One of the important skills he learned was balancing competing demands. "Cost, time, and quality are three competing parameters," he said. "There’s give and take between all three of those. If you want the quality to be high, you might have to throw in more time, or the cost may increase."
In the class, Dubaniewicz learned about managing time, costs, quality, human resources, and communications. "So just taking that one class was helpful in some form," he said.
While Dubaniewicz doesn’t formally call himself a project manager, he realizes the most important part of his duties as project leader is communicating with people to make sure they understand expectations. "It’s important in case problems come up that might delay the project," he said. "If one task doesn’t get completed in time, it might affect another task on the project."
He also uses his training on a daily basis to plan budgets, figure out what kind of equipment the project needs, and get personnel to help on the project to determine how much time he needs from different people. "We’ll run tests, interface with customers like the 12.21 committee, and wrap up the project by writing articles for journals," he said.IT