PM Interviews: Raven Young

Seattle based Raven Young is a freelance IT project manager and writer of the excellent PM blog Raven’s Brain. This week I had the pleasure of catching up with her to find out a little more about her views on the past, present and future of IT project management.

Q: Most people will know you from your excellent project management blog Raven’s Brain. Can you give us a brief summary of your career to date?

I got into “management” in my early 20s. I was working in retail back in the early 90s and was about the only person that knew how to use a computer beyond the store’s Unix based inventory application. I quickly moved into a management position and worked my way up to the impressive sounding title of West Coast Regional Operations Manager at the age of 23. My desire to plan and reduce costs and rework carried me through this phase of my career where I worked in retail store set-up, new construction and operations management for Crown Books, and eventually my role stretched to encompass technical projects. This is where I found the joy of project management in the high tech industry and I’ve now been working on web and software development projects for the last 14+ years.

Q: What are you currently working on?

Over the past three years I have been fortunate enough to be self-employed, which has afforded me the benefit of working on a number of different opportunities, each offering their own unique experiences. I’ve continued to take on short-term assignments, acting as a business, management and leadership coach and working on different project solutions. I just wrapped up a brief stint contracting as a Programme Manager III for Microsoft which was an interesting experience in itself. I also continue to build up my Project Management blog Raven’s Brain focusing on the “soft-skills” that are so essential for Project/Programme Management but are totally absent from the PMBOK and other Project Management texts (and essentially missing in many PMs).

Q: What do you see as the greatest current challenge for project managers and what do you personally do to overcome it?

Communicating effectively. We send emails, conduct & facilitate meetings, distribute reports, metrics and schedules, send memos and notes, have chats in the hallway and ad-hoc meetings, but I believe PMs still aren’t doing enough to communicate the right information at the right time to the proper audience and ensuring the message conveyed is both heard and understood. Sometimes we overload folks with information or bury key points or action items in long winded emails or speeches. Other times we are so sure of our message we don’t think that others might not “get” it or understand what is expected of/from them.

I try to publish action items the same day as they are discussed and make sure everyone understands their role and what is expected of them. I also strive to be brief in emails and write clear and concise messages, highlighting any actions required. Most importantly, I try to remember that communication is about more than speaking and writing. It also involves listening, understanding, confirming and sometimes restating, interpreting and adjusting your message to your audience and so much more!

Q: What do you think has been the most important change in project management over the last 10 years?

The interest in project management as a profession and the desire for PM memberships and certifications is at an all time high. When I joined PMI (Project Management Institute) in 2001 they were boasting global membership numbers of 30,000. Now PMI has over 260,000 members in 171 countries and similar project management organizations are also showing heavy growth. I believe that joining an organization focused on furthering your career is a positive and you can’t deny the fact that most project management jobs are requiring some type of certification. However I do fear that too much stress is placed on possessing a certificate rather than one’s actual abilities to get the job done. I am a member of PMI but do not possess a PMP cert and, though I don’t doubt much is learned in achieving the PMP cert, I would encourage potential employers to look beyond certification to ensure you are getting a “whole PM”, with all the necessary skills and experience to do the job.

What is your number one PM tip, trick or technique?

Q: When creating a schedule/plan don’t forget to account for non-project hours. There are basic things to account for like vacation, sick and holiday but don’t forget training, off-sites, company events and the more unpredictable time-eaters like jury duty, death in the family, maternity/paternity and medical leave, accidents, etc. You can even factor in team member productivity (new employee ramp up time, senior dev coaching time, all day meetings and other commitments) and adjust hours worked each day from 8 to 6 (to account for answering emails, hallway conversations, meetings, etc.) if you want a more accurate picture of hours available. I’ll be the first to say that a lot of execs don’t want to see this picture (in some cases your available project hours will get cut in half when factoring all this in) but it is the best way to identify the amount of hours your team has available for working on a project.

Q: What characteristics do you look for when bringing people on to your team?

If you already have a team in place that you are adding to then the most important quality to look for is someone who will be a good fit with respect to team dynamics. You want an individual who will enhance the current team’s skills and make everyone better, not a disruptor. Qualities like drive, initiative, good communication and collaboration, flexibility and adaptability are all important but inconsequential in the end if the team doesn’t gel.

Q: How much domain and/or technical knowledge do you think someone managing a project has to have?

The best answer I can give is really a non-answer: enough to get the job done. If you are working on a highly technical effort and the expectation is such that the project manager should be able to architect or dissect the system and trouble shoot issues then you would want someone with a technical and/or development background who is comfortable in that role. If you have directors of development, tech leads, a system architect or other technical resources on your project then you probably don’t need a PM that is able to sit down and code a particular piece or help find errors in code reviews.

My thought has always been that a PM is there to focus on driving the project and, though technical skills are always a positive, someone who understands the basics, has managed other technology projects, knows how to ask good questions and is willing to learn how the system works (front end, back end, data model, jobs, reporting, APIs, etc.) can be just as successful. In fact, they can be more successful than a PM with a strong technical background if you agree with the argument that they are better able to focus on the overall project without getting mired in technical details.

Q: What is your biggest bug bear/gripe/pet peeve?

Organisations that hire project managers but don’t buy-in to the process. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spent hours creating a realistic schedule that the project team believes in, only to have upper management say “that just won’t work – we need it by X”. This causes everyone to make-up their project estimates to match the desired end date and it creates a culture where nobody believes in the schedule (I wonder why??). When you start to hear team members say things like “just tell me when it’s due and I’ll give you my estimates” you know there’s a problem. This can be a difficult situation for project managers and it’s easy to give in to the VPs and “make it happen”. That short term thinking will only burnout your team and drive you, as the project manager, insane.

My advice is to stand your ground, explain and show how you created the schedule, offer trade-offs in scope or ask for more time and continue to state your concerns and document them. If the project fails to meet the desired (required? forced?) deadline you can discuss the schedule issues at the postmortem and suggest that the next project follow tighter project management processes.

Q: How do you see project management evolving into the future?

Project Portfolio Management (PPM) will continue to grow in use over the next few years and will become a larger focus of upper management and executive teams as they look to increase profits, start a new venture or simply survive in the current tenuous economy.

There is already a growing interest in PPM and more organizations are going to have to learn how to align strategic goals and project management through PPM processes going forward. Eric D. Brown, talking about Information Technology Leadership & Alignment, said this about IT project alignment recently: “These projects must fit into your strategic goals and must deliver value to your organization.” That’s exactly what PPM is all about: working on high value projects, as defined by the organizations goals, to get the best return and ensure the PM and team are working on only approved, value-aligned projects. Besides, if you don’t prioritize the projects in your portfolio, how can you know what to work on next? Which brings the most revenue or provides the bigger impact to the customer?

PPM is here to stay and, if you work on multiple projects or in a multi-project environment, you should read up on the subject. Johanna Rothman’s blog is a great place to start. She also has a forthcoming PPM book I’m looking forward to. It’s still in the early writing stages but I’m already waiting for her great thoughts on all things PPM.

Other PM Interviews:


7 comments so far

  1. Eric D. Brown on

    Great interview David…I’ve followed your blog for a while now and have followed Raven’s blog for quite some time as well. Imagine my surprise to see little ol’ me mentioned by Raven! 🙂

    Keep up the good work!

  2. Raven Young on

    Hi David – Thanks for taking the time to interview me and posting it at your fine blog. This is my first online interview and it was a great opportunity to talk a bit about myself and my thoughts on various PM topics – plus I had fun!

    It was great working with you David!

    And to Eric – you have a great blog yourself and deserve many mentions 😉

  3. daviddaly on

    Raven – the pleasure was all mine! Thank you so much for taking part, it was really interesting to hear your thoughts.

    Eric – As Raven says your blog is excellent – I regularly read your posts with interest.

  4. ramblingbob on

    Can you belive that your Dad actually read your interview and was impressed? Good sounding stuff, sounds like you know what you are talking about!

  5. Eric D. Brown on

    David & Raven – Thanks!

  6. […] PM Interviews: Raven Young – Seattle based Raven Young is a freelance IT project manager and writer of the excellent PM blog Raven’s Brain. This week I had the pleasure of catching up with her to find out a little more about her views on the past, … […]

  7. John Reiling on

    Excellent interview covering some nice points in a very clear and natural way.

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