I was tricked into becoming a project manager about 14 years ago. I had just graduated from the mechanical engineering program at UBC when I got a job at a company that made products for containing industrial oil spills at sea. Originally, I was hired to design a “rapid-response, helicopter-deployable oil spill containment system”. The Transformers-loving eight year-old in me didn’t help much during the salary negotiation.
For a time, introvert that I am, I revelled in the quiet contemplation the design work offered. I could focus on a single engineering puzzle for days, consumed with how the inner workings of a particular mechanism should work. Over time though, my attention shifted slowly from the insular safety of AutoCAD to my email inbox. People had questions about what was happening on the project and when. I had a to-do list that included making sure other people got their to-dos done. Someone asked me for a production schedule. I was getting phone calls.
I didn’t know it then, but I had become a project manager. I didn’t know what to make of it — I wasn’t really in charge of anything, but I was responsible for making things happen, and at the right times.
Eventually, being at the centre of the action became exhilarating. Suppliers called to trade favours. Inside the company I had developed a reputation for getting things done. More and more responsibility was being given to me. Upper management started inviting me to meetings because I could see the future. I felt powerful. I could do anything. Except that I couldn’t, and in fact, hadn’t.
The devil is in the details
We were down to the last few tasks on the project. The prototype had been designed, built, flown around slung under a helicopter, and tested in the ocean. Raw materials were being stockpiled in the warehouse and production was ramping up. The client was impressed by the demo. Management was beaming.
Some people say they see their life flash before their eyes in a near-death experience. In that moment, it was the project’s life flashing before me: conversations with the machinist about finding the right wall thickness for certain components; collaborating with the print suppliers to work around niggling file formatting issues so we could produce legible design schematics; the snowstorm that threatened to delay that shipment of aluminum, which would have added months to the project; the smell of grease and ozone that met me every time I’d visit the production warehouse and see the thing in my mind being made real.
None of that mattered now. The entire project had been boiled down to just one detail: the container’s frame was several inches too wide. Since it was going to be packed up and shipped to the customer by sea, the container had to conform to specific maximum dimensions, apparently. I hadn’t thought the project all the way through. None of us had. And now a cross-section of marine-grade aluminum a few inches too thick was the difference between a viable product and an expensive, labour-intensive story.
Everyone stood staring at the slightly-too-big container in quiet panic. I could feel my throat closing. Then, a firefight of hard-headed opinions and ass-covering I-told-you-sos broke out as people crawled over the container and poured over its schematics in search of a toe-hold to hang their arguments on. This would have been a great time for the project manager to slow the situation down and methodically set things right.
But my inexperience had already catapulted me into the fray.
The dust settled when the foreman, who was old and gruff and had taken a moment to size up the situation before saying anything, told us how we were going to solve the problem. Over the next few days, his manufacturing team executed the plan flawlessly. Subsequent containers, still in early production, were redesigned to match the shipping constraints.
The Reluctant Project Manager
That was my introduction to project management. There were no warnings about what I was getting myself into or guidance about where I could go for help. I didn’t even realize that being a “project manager” was a profession until years later.
Someone was needed in the moment to coordinate all the moving pieces, and I was what was available at the time. Some are born project managers, some have project management thrust upon them.
By recalling past projects and distilling them down to actionable advice for sharing on this site, I’m creating a reference that helps me remember what I’ve learned, why that knowledge was important, and how to keep applying it so I can improve in my day-to-day. I hope this site will be useful for newcomers to project management, as well as for PM veterans because hard-won lessons are sometimes too easily forgot.
I’ve managed projects in heavy industry, software development, and space exploration, and I think a lot of what I’ve seen along the way is applicable to pretty much any discipline. I’ve worked both remotely and face-to-face with the teams I’ve supported, and often in situations where I would be considered a “non-technical” or “non-expert” project manager. I’ve never blogged before, but I’d love to share my experiences with you and hear about yours. Here’s some of what I’d like to share:
What, in my view, project management is all about: thoughts on communication, expectations, client interactions, how the project manager’s role shifts depending on context.
Concise, actionable advice about what’s worked for me and other PMs when trying to handle specific situations.
Non-technical project management
How to deal with the fact that you’re far from being the smartest person in the room, knowing everyone else knows it, and why that’s ok.
Project management at home
I have a family, a day job, and I’m the primary caregiver for an ailing parent. Two out of those three generally don’t care about my spreadsheets.
I’m learning things the hard way so you hopefully don’t have to.
How did you get your start in project management? Was it part of your master plan, or did it happen by accident like it did for me? Did you experience any humiliating first-project mishaps? If you’re brave enough, share your story in the comments below. Your fellow PMs will appreciate it.