Blazing an IT career path
BY DAVID E. ESSEX
An old maxim in the information technology (IT) industry holds that nearly 50 percent of all projects fail. With odds like these, why would anyone want to take on a job where failure is as likely as success? Answer: Phenomenal pay, a steadily rising long-term outlook and fresh opportunities available daily.
Technology hiring managers highly value project management skills. Dice.com, a prominent IT job site, lists project manager as the most lucrative of the top 10 best-paying contractor jobs among 60,000 responses collected and the third-best full-time job, with an average salary of $72,278, not far behind chief technology officer and other senior-management positions.
Opportunities exist nearly everywhere you look in IT. Numerous jobs exist, for example, in the centralized project management offices (PMOs) that larger corporations such as retailer Sears, Roebuck and Co., Hoffman Estates, Ill., USA, established in recent years. In fact, many IT departments integrate PMOs.
Ten percent of IT companies have a PMO, though 57 percent of 65 chief information officers (CIOs) surveyed say their PMOs have only an advisory role, according to a 2001 study by The Standish Group International Inc., a research firm in West Yarmouth, Mass., USA.
Outside consulting firms such as Accenture, Chicago, Ill., USA, Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, New York, N. Y., USA, and EDS, Austin, Texas, USA, which handle IT project management for corporations, may offer an even better career path. Nearly everything these companies do is a project, so it's not surprising that they are deep with project management personnel.
According to Cindy McPherson, an organizational leader and hiring manager in EDS's Detroit, Mich., USA office, the number of project managers employed by the international company is high—in fact, a voluntary online community of project managers in the 141,000-employee company has attracted nearly 4,000 members.
On the other hand, consulting was one of the first big-ticket items slashed by many companies during the 2000–2001 tech recession. “They're using outside consultants quite a bit less,” says Bill Ritchie, an associate partner at Indianapolis, Ind., USA-based Management Recruiters Indianapolis–North. Ritchie spends a quarter of his time placing project managers for Midwest companies.
Some people may dislike the longer hours and competitive environments that are typical of consulting firms, says Cornelius Vonk, a senior project manager for Compaq Computer Corp.'s service division in Sophia Antipolis, France, and a board member of PMI's France–Sud chapter. Vonk knows Accenture employees who say they must compete against each other first to identify lucrative projects, then again to be assigned to manage them. Workloads and schedules can be far less predictable than for in-house departments. “[Executives] dump more projects on a project manager's shoulders if they think they can make more money,” Vonk says.
Still, Ritchie says career advancement is often quicker in such firms than in the corporations they serve, and project managers can gain more experience in a wider variety of projects and industries.
Laying the Groundwork
Observers agree that real project management experience and formal training are prerequisites for most opportunities in IT.
Certification generally is required. “A lot of the people doing the hiring have spent a lot of time getting certified themselves,” says Ritchie. “We get requests where they say, ‘If he's not a Project Management Professional (PMP®), we don't want to see him.’” McPherson notes, however, that some countries forbid requiring certification.
Many companies run certification programs in-house and set their own standards. IBM, for example, requires applicants to have at least three years of real project management experience—not simply generic line management—in projects involving a certain number of people, says Steven DelGrosso, an executive project manager in IBM's Global Services division in Raleigh, N.C., USA.
Non-IT project managers can transfer their skills to IT—depending on the company. IBM tends to solve the IT knowledge problem by recruiting project managers only from that field, DelGrosso says. But EDS purposely brings in project managers from construction and other areas to manage that side of its IT projects, according to McPherson. “We would [like them to] have strong project management skills rather than the technical background,” she says, adding that EDS supports such workers with technical training and surrounds them with lead technologists whose sole focus is technical. Ritchie says he has seen people with project management skills in manufacturing and financial services successfully make the leap to IT.
A lot of the people doing the hiring have spent a lot of time getting certified themselves. We get requests where they say, “If he's not a Project Management Professional (PMP®), we don't want to see him.”
ASSOCIATE PARTNER, MANAGEMENT RECRUITERS INDIANPOLIS–NORTH, INDIANAPOLIS, IND., USA
IT brings a few unique challenges to project management. Besides using the old standbys—Microsoft Project, Access databases, the Office suite and the like—IT project managers increasingly are expected to use software that lets them manage far-flung teams remotely over the Internet. “Probably close to half [of the project managers] are working with people who are at least in different time zones, if not different countries,” says Diane Tunick-Morello, vice president and research director in the work force and workplace practice at Gartner in Stamford, Conn., USA. “You need to be galvanizing people in a way that doesn't involve stepping into their office.”
Some of these tools, such as StarTeam from Starbase Corp., Santa Ana, Calif., USA, store the actual software code for an application in a central database, which acts as a traffic cop for team members' daily contributions. E*TRADE, among others, maintains a “project portal,” an intranet site where team members collaborate electronically.
DelGrosso says newcomers to IT project management also should be prepared to learn the specialized application-development methodologies that are used widely in the software industry. Most IT projects, in fact, still tend to be in application development, a discipline historically strong in project management positions. However, many are in software customization and e-commerce integration, such as tying in new customer-relationship management or SAP R/3 enterprise resource planning applications to older systems. Installing new network infrastructure, such as wireless devices and access points, also is a common project nowadays, according to McPherson.
Figure 1. IT job site Dice.com's 2001–2002 Rate & Salary Survey shows project management leading the list of the 10 most lucrative contract jobs.
There is an increasing demand for project management skills and more and more companies are now looking for project managers with qualifications.
INDEPENDENT PROJECT MANAGEMENT CONSULTANT, HELMSLEY, NORTH YORKSHIRE, U.K.
Though it sounds clichéd, proven people skills are another quality that hiring managers seek when promoting from within the industry—no easy task, because IT is notorious for nurturing lone-wolf programmers and other strong-willed technical types, who like to work with things and not people.
Technicians wishing to move into project management should be fully aware of the leadership pressures, says Kent Hamblen, a Bell South project manager based in Birmingham, Ala., USA, and director of professional development for the Project Management Institute's Information Systems Specific Interest Group (PMI-ISSIG). “I try to get a feel as far as how good are their communication skills, but probably more important, how good a leader they are,” Hamblen says. Though new IT project managers must learn to deal with classic issues of project scope, scheduling and funding, “the real test is how you deal with those issues,” he says. “If you are not a flexible person, it's going to tear you apart.”
To position themselves for promotions within their current IT departments, project leaders should make clear to management their desire to rise further in the project management ranks and ask for more responsibility on larger projects, Ritchie advises.
When considering a move to another company, these experts advise looking for signs that a corporation values project management and has established a formal career path for project managers. A PMO and training program are strong indicators, as is evidence of recent promotions of project managers. Less supportive corporate environments can turn a project management move into a career dead-end.
Those venturing into IT project management will find a North American market that has been rising sharply in the past few years, but which undeniably took a hit in the 2000–2001 technology recession. “Project management was a skill set that was very necessary for startup companies,” Ritchie says. However, that demand dried up along with the dot-coms. “In the last year to 18 months, we've seen salary deflation,” he says, adding he knows project managers “who were making $175,000 a year who are happy today to make $100,000.”
Growth and opportunity are comparable in Europe and Asia, but the latter region also has been hit hard by the industry's recession. Europe has shown more stability, according to Dave Lunn, an independent project management consultant in Helmsley, North Yorkshire, U.K. “The slowdown had some effect over here and has had a major impact in some areas, but less so than in the U.S.,” Lunn says. “Careerwise, the opportunities over here are very good. There is an increasing demand for project management skills and more and more companies are now looking for project managers with qualifications.”
If anything, the recent downturn produced a new emphasis on return on investment that has created a new and stronger demand for project managers' budgeting and scheduling skills, say these observers. In fact, the prospects for future growth in project management overall are “fantastic,” says Denis F. Cioffi, director of the Project Management Program at The George Washington University, Washington, D.C., USA, adding that last year's pullback was a blip, if the number of students entering his program are indicative.
Adds Ritchie: “IT can't go away—it rules the world.” PM
David E. Essex is a journalist who has covered information technology for 16 years, most recently as a freelancer for Computer-world, ITWorld.com, PC World, and other publications and Web sites. He was formerly director of reviews at BYTE.
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PM NETWORK | JULY 2002 | www.pmi.org
JULY 2002 | PM NETWORK