Project management for beginners

In this issue of Industry Insider, guest columnist Nancy Huang discusses the basics of IT project management and the importance of mentoring.It seems like we just can't get enough of home renovation shows!
Written by Nancy Huang, Contributor
In this issue of Industry Insider, guest columnist Nancy Huang discusses the basics of IT project management and the importance of mentoring.
It seems like we just can't get enough of home renovation shows! With all this hammer and circular saw buzz, wouldn't it be wonderful if we could engender the same sort of enthusiasm into our work, too?

No, I'm not talking about tearing down partitions or painting the office in blushing reds and sun-kiss yellows. Rather, I'm talking about helping the latest entrants into the IT industry: the hungry-for-knowledge-and-experience graduates, however much they are a rarity in today's fragile IT industry.

I'm a firm believer in the importance of mentoring. It's one of the best ways to inspire employees with both their current roles and career direction. Graduates, in particular, can feel pretty lost at sea when they first embark on their careers. I know -- I was one of them.

Timing is everything. With the latest new graduate recruits starting work about now, it's the perfect time to kick-start the mentoring.

The other day I was having coffee with a recent graduate. Out of nowhere, she said she wanted to be an IT Project Manager. I probed further to gauge her understanding of the role. Her eyes glazed over and she fumbled with the words. I could tell she was not really sure what Project Management entailed -- only that that term is vaguely familiar and sounds kind of sexy.

Put on the spot, I thought about how to summarise the role of a project manager succinctly. I could talk about methodologies, the critical path or the triangle of time, cost and quality. I thought better. I asked her if she watched The Block. Her eyes lit up. -Yeah, it's a great show!" She was both surprised and intrigued by my question.

So why did I ask the question? I'm a big fan of using analogies to demystify the IT industry. I particularly like to use house-building analogies for the simple fact most people can relate to it.

I told her project management was a bit like what the renovation couples on The Block had to do. They had a specific job (to deliver a renovated apartment), a set budget ($40,000) and a set timeframe (three months). They didn't do the all work themselves but they had to ensure the work was done and completed to their requirements. Before they even started, they had to plan what to do. Then they had to monitor their progress so they didn't over-spend and didn't run behind schedule. Along the way, lots of things went wrong. It was, once again, up to them to resolve the issues. All up, pretty much the stock in trade for any project manager.

I shared my own home renovation experience with her: the constant negotiations, work scheduling and endless replanning as trades people failed to show up, painted the wrong colour, lost the keys. Indeed, my scheduling was so -perfectly" tight that on the very last day before the first open inspection, I still had the painter, the tiler and carpet layer at the house simultaneously. The painter was on site at the crack of dawn (it meant I had to be there too!). The tiler came at noon to finish the grouting, working directly underneath the painter who had to finish painting the ceiling (we had suspended drop sheets). As the painters moved to paint the exterior (yet another last-minute decision I regretted making -- scope creep! Budget overrun!), the carpet layers started in the afternoon followed by the curtain people and the hire furniture two hours later. Out of time, I gardened in virtual darkness (not recommended). I learned all about the critical path -- the hard way -- that night.

Laughing about my mishaps, we built a great rapport instantly. I wasn't preachy and I didn't sound like a manager giving her a performance feedback. It was far more effective because it sounded more like a peer heart-to-heart. Her eyes lit up like a great mystery had been revealed to her. She was really enthused. To me, that was what mentoring was all about: talking on the same wavelength to inspire people and giving them a psychological career boost.

The most valuable outcome was she hadn't thought of project management in this light. Now that she could see the parallels, she was really starting to appreciate what Project Management was about. And she definitely wanted to work towards becoming an IT Project Manager.

Of course there is a lot more to IT Project Management than trying to beat down a tradesperson's price. However, discussing shows like The Block makes the project management concepts -- and more importantly -- the integration of these concepts easier to appreciate. It provides beginning project managers with a more confident footing to apply the techniques in workplace project management settings.

Of course, there's nothing quite like hands-on experience for these concepts to really sink in. And that's definitely something we have to give our graddies, too.

Melbourne-based Nancy Huang works as a business analyst and project manager for an IT multinational.

If you would like to become a ZDNet Australia guest columnist, write in to Fran Foo, Editor of Insight, at fran.foo@zdnet.com.au.

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