This week, I have been reflecting on my career in IT project management which, coincidently, started out in the same year that Software Solved, my employer, first traded as Management Systems Modelling Ltd in 1998.
I’ve dabbled with computers since childhood (ZX81, ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64) and was an early adopter of the Mosaic web browser and the first webcam project, the Trojan Room Coffee Pot, while at Cambridge. Before starting my first ‘proper job’, I worked in the ancient reading rooms of the Bodleian Library in Oxford, had a brief stint as a professional soprano, completed a Masters in Information Studies and then worked at the Oxford University Libraries Automation Service, devising and delivering training courses for university librarians trying to get to grips with this new-fangled thing called the World Wide Web.
A serendipitous encounter on a bus and subsequent Friday afternoon drinking sessions somehow landed me a job with global technology company, Unisys, where I was employed in June 1998 as an IT consultant. Over the next 20 years, I worked my way through various roles against a backdrop of extraordinary change, both culturally and technologically. Here are a few thoughts on how things have changed over the years.
I started out as a software engineer working on Unisys A-Series mainframes in the telco industry. It could take several hours to compile programs so writing software was a laborious process, involving many hours of detailed design and review before committing to code. We all dreaded those syntax errors which could quick turn a simple coding exercise into an all-day job! With memory and processing power still relatively expensive in the 1990s, your code also had to be extremely efficient in order to create a performant solution.
Advances in technology enable code to be written and tested incredibly fast in today’s IT workplace, allowing for a much more experimental, iterative approach to software development. While this has its advantages, I’m still of the view that there is a place for careful thought and planning before starting to write code. The proliferation of programming languages over the years is astounding too. If you like bar chart races, have a watch of this!
Release and Deployment
Today’s DevOps approaches enable automated build and deployment of software over vast distances at the touch of a button. When I started out in computing, software installations were a far more complicated affair and involved carrying magnetic tapes in duplicate around the globe. I once spent two weeks travelling around mainland China upgrading telco messaging systems ahead of the Year 2000. What a damp squib that turned out to be!
Waterfall style project management was very much the flavour of the day back in the 1990s, made necessary in many ways by the constraints of the time: limited opportunities for close collaboration, laborious processes for writing and testing code, high cost of delivery and implementation. The problem with this approach was the huge time-lag between a validated business need and the actual deployment of a solution into production. This could take as long as three years, by which time the original business need had often changed beyond all recognition, resulting in incredible wastage and overspend.
One of the biggest advances in project management over the course of my career has been the adoption of Agile principles which sees a shift towards continuous delivery, inspection and adaptation in response to changing business needs. While not necessarily cheaper, the focus on delivering business value early and often helps to manage complexity and uncertainty in a way that simply wasn’t possible using waterfall techniques.
Leadership and Team Culture
The move to Agile has also seen a step-change in the role of the project manager from director to servant leader and coach. This has necessitated a significant change in project management competency requirements, with much more emphasis on soft skills such as stakeholder management, coaching and leadership.
I have really welcomed this change in my career: being a traditional Project Manager where the team dances to your tune can be a lonely place but the Scrum team, when it works well, is a real joy. The focus on productive outcomes over process, empowering others over micromanagement, facilitating decision-making rather than calling the shots, brings a great sense of togetherness and cohesion, and no doubt makes for a happier, healthier working environment.
Virtual Teams and Remote Working
Working for a global technology company, I have managed distributed teams for most of my career. Some of the larger integration projects I led while working at Unisys had resources based in every continent on the planet, bringing logistical, cultural and temporal challenges not to mention language barriers. In the early days, collaboration tools were very limited, mainly reliant on email and teleconference bridges. It was extremely difficult to build a sense of ‘team’ and morale sometimes suffered as a result.
When I started at Software Solved in 2018, it was an absolute pleasure to work in an office environment and to see my colleagues face-to-face every day. The global pandemic has clearly caused massive disruption to working arrangements and many have struggled with the isolation and lack of human contact. However, the rich variety of communication tools available in 2020/21 has enabled us to maintain social connections through video meetings and online collaboration platforms and has also opened up the marketplace for jobs providing opportunities where none existed previously.
The next 23 years in IT Project Management
So what does the next 23 years hold in store? Well, I don’t have a crystal ball but in his recent blog my colleague, Martin Lovell, predicts a significant investment in IT and digital transformation over the next 5 years. As commercial and political environments become increasingly global, digital, uncertain and complex, businesses will need to adapt quickly to bring new products and services to market. PMO (Project/Portfolio Management Office) professionals are uniquely skilled to enable such transformations to take place.
Elizabeth Harrin, in her article What is the future of project management?, identifies some key themes in IT project management such as AI and robotic processing to automate routine tasks, greater human/machine collaboration, improved connectivity and collaboration, and a need for better digital skills such as data analytics, security, knowledge management and data-driven decision-making. Finally, she predicts that project professionals will become essential C-suite executives, helping businesses to align IT project portfolio selection with strategic business objectives. Chief Project Officer, here we come!