Someone I know at Oregon State University asked me to explain how I got here myself, into a career in business leadership, and how I went from being an English major into a career in business, and how I know so much (or at least something) about project management. She also asked why studying English and the humanities prepares you for the peculiarities of project management. So here’s my attempt to answer those questions.
I started my business career in documentation, writing “how-to” material for people who were using technology. If you’ve done some writing, you know one very important thing about successful writing: you must know what you’re talking about. You can’t write something you don’t understand. However, when I started out, I was clueless. I mostly edited the work of others at first, and then I latched on to every opportunity to learn—whether by reading, attending meetings, or going to classes, not academic classes, but professional development workshops. Before long, the fog began to lift and I began to understand what I was being asked to write about.
I was then asked to supervise the little tiny documentation department I was part of (including me, there were three of us) because—I was later told—I’d demonstrated initiative and good teamwork, in addition to literacy. A couple of years of writing documentation, supervising this little department and taking every opportunity I could, and pretty soon I had my feet under me.
Earlier this year, I listened to a speech by Dmitri Siegel, the Marketing Director for Urban Outfitters and, yes, a liberal arts major—double-major, in fact, in Graphic Art and Religious Studies. He described his secret to success this way:
When someone offers you something to do at work, an assignment, an idea to pursue, if you don’t quite think you can do it, say “yes.” You’ll figure it out.
That’s how I did it, too.
Now, then, how do I know something about project management? Because business, when it undertakes creating and bringing to market a new product or service, always organizes the work into projects. You almost can’t work somewhere that doesn’t have projects—and that doesn’t struggle to do them well, I might add. Pretty soon, I found myself on a project. My role was interviewing people whose brains we needed to unload. In other words, they knew what they did day-to-day in their jobs and how they thought technology could help, but they couldn’t, and didn’t really have the time, to de-compose their everyday work into something readable and useful for the project. That became my job. I’m sure this goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway: If I hadn’t been able to write, I wouldn’t have been asked to be the interviewer on this project.
That was my first exposure to working on a project, the first of many. As I moved more and more into management (not project management, but “line management,” they call it, or “functional management,” where you have people reporting to you and a department to run), I got more and more exposure to, and opportunities to participate in, projects. I also began reading about project management, and believe me it made so much sense (!!) once I was in the middle of a project. I went to a few project management classes, and before long, I had the chance to run one myself.
The important ingredients any PM needs are these:
- Organization skills (and that means you have to be personally and professionally well-organized)
- Ability to write
- Clarity of thought
- Ability to make presentations and lead meetings
- Interpersonal abilities (and, no, I don’t think they’re “skills”) – the ability to talk with others and to listen
- Willingness to deliver bad news (projects get plenty) and to talk effectively with people at many levels of a company, from senior managers to disgruntled employees
- An understanding of the work being performed
- A “BS detector”
If you’re thinking “an understanding of the work being performed” lets you out, remember that you don’t go from being an undergraduate to being a Project Manager; you have work to do before you get there, and that work will prepare you to understand what work needs to be performed.