Orange County Branch Newsletter

January 2005

Secretary's Column


Darren Adrian, PE
Today the title “Project Manager” has a wide range of definitions by agencies and consulting firms in our industry. Some firms define a Project Manager as the person that manages the day-to-day design and coordinates activities on a project. Others define the Project Manager as the person that has minimal involvement on a project and focuses primarily on marketing. Agencies tend to have varying expectations of experience level and hands-on involvement that a Project Manager should have. However, almost all express that the Project Manager should be the primary source of contact and the person responsible for a project.
Of all the milestones in an Engineer’s career, reaching the Project Manager status seems to be the most significant for the majority. This being the case, how do you reach this milestone?
This is an area covered by many books, seminars, brown-bag lunches and the like. I personally enjoy hearing the different methods and perspectives presented by others. I have enjoyed and realized the most benefit from simply hearing a successful Project Manager’s perspective during a one-on-one casual conversation.
To answer this question you must first understand the definition that your workplace and your intended clients have for this role. For purposes of this discussion, I’ll define a Project Manager as the person who is identified with the client as the Project Manager. They would develop the relationship with the client as well as oversee the day-to-day tasks and coordination of the project. This person would be anywhere from 50 percent to 90 percent billable on projects. The amount of effort this person would spend on any one project would be between 10 percent and 20 percent of the overall project budget.
Getting to this position from the college graduate level takes many years of hard work. In my opinion, an Engineer must initially focus on developing strong technical skills to serve as a basis long before considering project management. This first step is often overlooked and under-rated. Those that manage to become a Project Manager without this crucial experience find themselves unable to manage the staff working on the project because they do not have a thorough understanding themselves of how the staff should be accomplishing their tasks. They also find themselves unable to solve issues and answer questions from the client, which immediately sets them on a path of failure.
A Project Manager should be technically strong enough to walk through all of the steps of a project, make technical decisions and solve problems. They should be able to lay out a design concept and have the ability to perform the detailed design, including the use of computer software. This includes knowledge of CAD, as presently the complexity of our plan presentation is a significant portion of the work that can make or break a project. This knowledge enables a Project Manager to understand the workflow process, the effort required and signs of potential problems arising.
Specialty areas or disciplines are generally not something that a Project Manager is expected to be technically well-versed in, but a good Project Manager learns enough about these areas to be able to discuss them and identify when they are getting into a potential problem situation. 
As the basis of technical knowledge becomes established, the basic project management leadership skills will become important. This includes items such as communications (both oral and written), staff management, organization and the development of client networking. Each of these areas requires significant attention and is best learned through mentorship. Identifying a good mentor and working closely with that person is typically the best method for stepping into project management.
The up and coming Project Manager often finds himself or herself essentially managing projects for several years under a listed Project Manager. This can be frustrating for the up and coming Manager but is usually necessary for two reasons. One, this is the best way to obtain hands-on training while under close supervision of the actual Project Manager. And two, this is the ideal way to sell the up and coming Manager to the client as a Project Manager on a future project. The best indication that the process is nearing completion is when the client begins to focus more on the up and coming Manager and requests that person as the Project Manager on future projects.
Once project management status is reached, each Manager develops their own style and approach that work best for them. In addition, a Project Manager is continually focused on the attributes that make them successful. A number of years back I was asked the question during an interview: “what makes a successful Project Manager?” I replied, “one that adequately keeps track of scope of work, schedule and budget.” I later added, “the one that does such a good job that they receive repeat work.” This question has always stayed with me, and over the years I have developed the top three focuses that I believe make a successful Project Manager. They are: communication, organization and technical ability.
Knowing that there are many successful Project Managers out there that have developed their own focuses, I would be interested in hearing them and potentially utilizing them in a future article. Please feel free to email these to me at [email protected].