The New Project Manager

Being a project manager today is a lot different from playing that role a few years ago. Just ask Brenda Dunn, a project manager/business analyst at Long & Foster Real Estate in Fairfax, Va. She recently headed up a project to build a critical relocation system for the privately owned realty firm.

For several hours each day over a period of more than six months, Dunn worked intensively with users from five different departments to hash out exactly how the system would work. "I'd sit with them and get approval on the workflow, the drop-down menus, the names of fields -- everything," she says. Part of Dunn's job was to corral all of the users' opinions and needs into a single, unified system and help them visualize what it would look like.

Once the requirements and screen prototypes were solidified, Dunn sent them to 12 offshore programmers in India whom she had previously met to tutor in the ways of the U.S. real estate business. Then she coordinated communication between the users and programmers, remaining mindful of the cultural and time-zone differences.

Cross-cultural teaming and heavy business immersion are just some of the new challenges that project managers like Dunn now face. Increasingly, project teams and key decision-makers are dispersed throughout the world, time frames for completion are compressed because of heightened competition, and the projects themselves are not well defined yet are tied ever more tightly to business success.

This means big changes for project managers. "The perspective, the knowledge base, the skill set and the methods traditionally employed by the project manager must change to accommodate the demands of project management in 2006," says Bryan Beverly, a software architect and team leader at BAE Systems Information Technology, a government IT contractor in McLean, Va.

Broaden Your View

A key change, Beverly says, is that the perspective of project managers has become as decentralized as the technology they manage. "You need to look beyond your immediate circle and appreciate the dynamics of a broader community of interest and practice," he says. That includes understanding the business goals and pressures that motivate both your project sponsor and your users.

"When you're dealing with a Stanford MBA who's bright and aggressive, if you're not on top of your game discussing project scope and budget changes, you're toast," says Virginia Robbins, chief operating officer at North Bay Bancorp, a community bank holding company in Napa, Calif. "Project managers today have to be absolutely confident that they understand both the technology and the business and can translate between the two," adds Robbins, a Computerworld columnist who spent years as an IT project manager.

To achieve that confidence, ask questions relentlessly until you understand precisely the terminology, the issues and the context within which the business users operate, she says.

Communicate in 3-D

Because the people you're working with and want to learn from are no longer always right down the hall -- or even on the same continent - project managers have to become great communicators. "The virtualization of IT makes it tougher to communicate," says Peter Baker, vice president of information systems and technology at Emcor Facilities Services, a subsidiary of Emcor Group in Arlington, Va. As a result, he says, project managers "need to communicate up, down, to the left and right."

That means using tools and adopting practices that support collaboration. Those practices might include storing all documentation in one virtual place where everyone on the team, no matter what his geographic location, can access them. But it also means understanding the importance of old-fashioned, face- to-face meetings. "You can't rely on tools to make up for a geographic situation," warns Bill Hagerup, senior instructor at Ouellette & Associates, an IT professional development firm in Bedford, N.H. Overcoming cultural gaps means meeting in person with your team members and key stakeholders at least once and as early in the project as possible, he says.

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