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Project management skills a plus for network pros

This tip reviews reasons why certifications alone just don't cut it -- you also need project management skills. Learn best-practices and resources for more information.

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While obtaining advanced certification in Oracle, Microsoft or Cisco technology may have been considered the Holy Grail for IT professionals just a few years ago, more companies are institutionalizing project management training as a requirement for salary increases and job advancement.

In fact, some companies, including Microsoft and IBM, have created separate career paths devoted to project management, which is defined by the Project Management Institute as the application of knowledge, skills, tools and techniques to a broad range of activities to meet the requirements of a particular project.

The increasing popularity of adding project management training and certification to an IT professional's repertoire has been bolstered by the fact that, with the economy faltering, companies are feeling the pinch of costly IT projects. The Stamford, Conn., IT research firm Gartner Inc. estimates that about $75 billion is spent yearly on failed IT projects, with poor project management being the main culprit of the botched endeavors.

"[Five] years ago, there was so much money going around [that] if a project took longer than expected or more money than expected, there was usually enough money to cover that," said Jim Stewart, managing director at Piscataway, N.J.-based NCS Technologies Inc. and a certified project management professional. "Now, if projects aren't delivered on time and [within] budget, it is a critical problem."

"Because of the higher stakes for all IT projects, many enterprises are including project management training and certification in job requirements," said Jimmie West, dean of the Project Management College, which is operated by Havertown, Pa.-based Project Management Solutions Inc. "As a result, IT professionals adept at project management can more easily advance in their current jobs and migrate to various other job categories, such as hardware, software and application development," West added.

IT project management includes a technical side, tasks such as organizing the work into components, tracking work and delivering results. It also includes a team leadership side, West said.

"The actual difficulty lies in the technical skills of project management -- the inability [of project managers] to put together a good, clear requirements document that has an agreement between the client and the project team," he said. "Project management gives you those tools to show the client clearly: 'here is what you are going to get, here's how long it will take and here's how much it will cost.'"

To gain hands-on experience in project management, West advises IT professionals to identify an area in a project they are currently tackling where they could lead a group of three to five people to deliver a component of the project. After that, workers can strive to lead two to three teams within a project before finally diving into work as the lead for a small project.

An important project management skill for an IT professional to develop, especially given the current economic environment, is the ability to build a cost-risk matrix to measure the risk and business value of each project, said Monty Hamilton, managing partner at Clarkston Consulting in Durham, N.C.

"This process can help identify low-hanging fruit -- those projects that can be completed quickly and easily with maximum business value," Hamilton said. "This also helps identify the subset of projects in the high-risk, high-value category [that] need to be tracked more carefully."

A company's project management office -- the governing organization that prioritizes and manages IT resources -- also can be a valuable resource for strengthening project management skills, he added.

"Ideally, the [project management office] has a broad view of all ongoing projects and understands how they can impact the business and thus better manage resources and staff to accomplish identified goals," Hamilton said. "As a sort of traffic cop, this [office] can watch and make sure no project is adversely impacted by other efforts."

IT professionals who have identified internal projects they can leverage for gaining hands-on project management skills can apply the following project management tips, which are suggested by Hamilton and Tom Lowry, director of project management at Atlanta-based Macquarium Intelligent Communications:

  • Be accountable. The project manager "owns" the project and must take responsibility for all issues.
  • Communicate. Project managers must properly set the expectations of the client, the team and the company.
  • Manage proactively. Project managers must look ahead several weeks, even months, to anticipate the next project issue and question from the client. While eliminating risk is impossible, it can be headed off at the pass.
  • Know when to walk away. Project managers must know how to identify and jettison projects that will not justify the investment. Walking away from those IT projects helps the bottom line.

Gaining in-house experience is crucial for IT workers because many certification programs require a combination of real-world experience plus classroom instruction. For external training, there are several organizations devoted to project management certification. In addition, many colleges and universities offer project management training and certification. Refer to the following Web sites for more information.

This was last published in January 2005

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