Mastering the Juggling Act

The first in a special Design News feature series on project management explores the growth of this high-stakes engineering field – and essential tools to meet job challenges.

By Larry Maloney, Contributing Editor July 10, 2008

It’s a great feeling to successfully shape the design of a cutting-edge component or system, but even more satisfaction can come from leading an entire team on a high-profile project.

Welcome to the world of project management! Whether they are racing to “get there first” with a new product introduction or scrambling to meet project milestones set by valued customers, engineers who can guide project teams are among the most coveted– and harried — individuals in the business.

A new study of nearly 20,000 technical professionals by, an online careers service, found that project mangers pulled down an average of more than $100,000 in 2007, up 5% from the previous year’s level.

More companies also are searching for engineers with proven project management credentials, such as the PMP (Product Management Professional) certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI). “Employers want people who can hit the ground running,” notes industrial engineer Gregory Balestrero, PMI’s CEO.

About two thirds of PMI’s nearly 260,000 members worldwide are technical professionals. “They’re the backbone of our membership,” says Balestrero. The demand for individuals who can manage multiple projects led PMI last year to launch a new certification program, the Program Management Professional (PgMP).

Meanwhile, the software tools that these managers rely on to plan and track their projects have become a booming business. Global sales of project management software now total about $750 million a year, according to the Gartner Group, and projected growth of 11% annually is attracting a flurry of startups, fueled by venture capital.

Mastering the Complexity

No matter the industry, experts say that more companies now are moving their project management strategies toward web-based models that accomplish these goals:

  • Track multiple projects simultaneously to better manage resources and estimate future workloads.

  • Link individual team members to each other, as well as to key suppliers and customers involved in a project.

  • Integrate project management in real time with important central functions, such as finance, IT and purchasing.

  • Provide essential data, particularly in government-funded projects, to demonstrate that work is budgeted and scheduled in time-phased increments, a process known as earned valued management (EVM).

All this is a big switch from the old PM approach, which tended to be dominated either by spreadsheet-based programs on an individual’s desktop or very sophisticated proprietary systems that made global cooperation difficult, observes Michael Caddy, the Discrete Manufacturing industry market manager for Primavera Systems. The 24-year-old Pennsylvania-based software firm counts 75,000 customers worldwide and $5 trillion in projects managed with its software.

Even so, Caddy believes there is plenty of room for growth in engineering applications that harness the kind of sophisticated, networked PM solutions found in such products as Primavera P6™ software. “I would estimate that only 15 to 30% of companies in the manufacturing sector have adopted this type of comprehensive software,” says Caddy. However, he sees that percentage increasing as a result of time-to-market pressures and the need to juggle multiple projects andglobal teams. “Very few engineering projects today operate in isolation,” adds Caddy.

The Need to Keep Pace

Engineer Jeffrey Hoffman of French heavy machinery giant Alstom Power knows very well how critical it is to stay on top of a flurry of worldwide projects. As chief planner of the company’s Turbo Machinery group, Hoffman and his staff of planners are currently managing 42 active projects, most of them involving design, manufacture and installation of power plant turbines. With demand for energy surging, orders have been running at record levels.

A spurt of new projects four years ago led the Turbo Machinery group to make the switch from “standalone databases residing in personal computers” to Primavera’s enterprise-style P6 software. The tool helps Alstom engineers manage the 70 to 80 different “work packages” or projects associated with a typical turbine contract. Those work packages in turn may contain up to 200 “work activities” that need to be tracked. Within this web-based system, managers and certain team members enter a variety of data, including schedules, booked engineering hours,

Hoffman says he’s now in the process of adding a dozen major vendors to the P6 system, a move that will require these suppliers to provide verifiable data on project milestones. “This will cut down on the time we spend on vendor inspection and will give us an early warning on delays and other problems,” notes Hoffman. He adds that the software further boosts productivity and speeds communications by requiring consistent reporting in the group’s far-flung operations.

In addition, data from both past and ongoing projects is invaluable to Hoffman as he bids on new contracts. “I’m able to determine with much more certainty whether there is a risk of overbooking our factories– or those of our vendors.”

Planning for the Future

Primavera’s Caddy notes that being able to quickly analyze “what if?” scenarios is one of the major benefits of enterprise-style PM software. “It can be a great decision-making tool, as companies weigh future opportunities in the light of past experiences and projected resources.”

David Rose of Freescale Semiconductor agrees that the software helps gather the kind of rich data on resources, costs, task hours, schedules and deliverables that contributes to more productive planning of future projects, such as new system-on-chip (SOC) products. As senior program manager in the Technology Solution Organization (TSO), Rose has been driving the implementation of Primavera software throughout his organization. With about 75% of TSO operation now using the tool to some degree, the software is tracking some 500 key deliverables involving new Freescale’s IC products, processes, advanced packaging, and customer application solutions.

“The more information you can load into the project management system, the better off you’ll be the next time you do a similar project,” explains Rose. He adds that this enterprise management tool also enables you to quickly generate a wide variety of reports. “So instead of wasting time gathering data from different spreadsheets, you can focus on decision making and mitigating risks.”

It is also much easier to support enterprise PM software across the organization. “With Primavera, we’ve been able to retire a lot of legacy systems,” explains Rose. “A brilliant person may have devised a very clever project management system, but who maintains it when that person leaves the company or moves on to another assignment?”

While modern project management software packages can make a big difference in successful project execution, experts caution not to expect overnight success. Managers and teams need to be trained, and the software integrated properly within a company’s overall IT framework.

Skills with PM software also are no substitute for fundamental engineering knowledge. “The sophistication of project management software tools has advanced tremendously,” observes PMI’s Balestrero, “but to get the most out of them you first need to have a thorough understanding of your industry or technology.”