For keeping railway projects on track—and giving the world more eco-friendly mobility options
Olalla García Pérez likes to keep her eye on the big picture. Yet early in her career as an industrial engineer, she often found herself responsible for just one small component of a product’s design: the software. That didn’t feel right. “I needed to see more of a project, not just a piece of a project,” García Pérez says.
So when she was offered a more senior role as project manager at the railway supplier now known as SepsaMedha, she jumped at the chance. And her career has been on the fast track ever since. García Pérez, originally from Spain, has headed up projects in Europe and the United States, leading multidisciplinary teams, fostering international expansion, spearheading digitalization and leaning into agile.
Along with racking up on-the-job experience, García Pérez has supercharged her project management prowess by earning the Project Management Professional (PMP)® and the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP)® certifications. Doubling up proved to be a boon, she says, because “they provide two points of view.”
After nearly seven years at SepsaMedha, she left for high-speed train manufacturer Talgo, where she took an agile approach to managing projects focused on electronics and propulsion systems management, in addition to train software development management. Transitioning from a small team on the supplier side to a large multinational team on the production side came with its challenges.
“The prism through which you look at problems is totally different,” García Pérez says. Ultimately, she relied on her stakeholder management skills to unearth requirement details and forge a shared vision.
“If you understand what people do on a daily basis, then you understand why they’re requesting something or asking us for something or putting a lot of importance on something that maybe you think doesn’t have any importance,” she says. “You have to see through their eyes.”
In March, García Pérez made another move, signing on as deputy project manager at Kawasaki Rail Car, Inc., part of a team working on the company’s US$3.2 billion project to outfit the New York City subway system with 1,175 next-gen cars tricked out with security cameras, digital displays, LED lighting and wider doors.
What does she think of the new role? “I love it. At the end of the day, it’s really cool being in the mobility sector and helping all of society get from one point to another. Plus, rail is a means of transport that is very sustainable. All the work that I do has meaning.”
That search for meaning extends beyond her work: She applies her project management skills as a volunteer for charitable organizations and NGOs, too. Through the United Nations volunteering program, she helped the PAAJAF Foundation—which provides free education to children in Ghana—implement a small project management office. She’s also an active member of the PMI Galicia, Spain Chapter and has published research on the internet of things, inclusion and sustainability.
Just consider it part of García Pérez’s quest to see the big picture.
Q&A: Olalla García Pérez on connecting the dots, leading by example and increasing agility with AI
What project has most influenced you personally?
All international rail projects that I’ve worked on have shaped the project management professional that I am in different ways. Some have given me skills to be more confident in communication, others have improved my negotiation abilities, others have helped me manage teams from different cultures or be more resilient. Steve Jobs once said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backward.” And I think that exemplifies what I’ve experienced. On reflection, everything is connected.
What’s your project management superpower?
Leading by example. This approach has helped me share with my team the values, attitudes and actions that I’d like to see in them. This also helps me build trust with my team, as they can see that I live up to the standards I set.
How are young people changing the world of projects now?
Young people give a breath of fresh air to projects and teams, as we are eager and not afraid to try new things, to innovate and to try to create an impact on the world.
Fast forward: What’s one way managing projects will have changed by the next decade?
Project management will soon be disrupted by artificial intelligence (AI), as we’ll have more tools that give us more insights and allow us to make better decisions. As we look to solve problems across the project life cycle, we’ll be able to be even more agile.