Wanted: Engineers Who Can Lead

Employers are looking for engineers who can hit the ground running when it comes to managing high-priority projects, says Gregory Balestrero, CEO of the Project Management Institute.
By Larry Maloney, Contributing Editor July 10, 2008

What challenges do engineers face as they move from design responsibility to managing a project?

As a project manager, you aren’t managing a functional area, such as design; you’re managing a specific outcome. And that outcome is affected by multiple disciplines. Take, for example, a project that involves the redesign of an instrument panel on a car. At first look, you might think that the instrumentation itself is merely a design feature. In fact, it involves all sorts of dimensions: design, engineering, manufacturing, ergonomics, customer interface, marketing materials, finance, and relationships with the program manager of the entire vehicle. All of a sudden, you have a team of multiple disciplines, and that is probably the single biggest change that confronts a project manager. He or she is no longer dealing just with a room full of design engineers. You now must deal with a whole variety of disciplines and personality interfaces.

What types of skills are required as an engineer faces that change?

This is where communications skills, people skills and conflict-resolution skills come into play. Secondly, the project manager needs to develop a strong understanding of how budgeting relates to the overall delivery process. In our example, how do the deliverables associated with your instrument panel affect the overall design changes associated with the vehicle? In the same vein, you need to understand how scheduling for your project impacts the overall project. So, if you focus on skills that must be developed as an engineer moves into project management, the most critical ones are people skills, scheduling and budgeting.

What other considerations are key to project management success?

Risk management is becoming more important, though it is rarely even mentioned in engineering school. Whether you’re talking about the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, Airbus A380, or the Chevrolet Volt, there are considerable risks associated with moving into new technologies, which could dramatically affect the final delivery and the final budget. So being able to assess those risks is critical. A delay of just one month on major projects can significantly affect quarterly earnings, which can also affect a company’s ability to move forward on other projects. In the case of the Dreamliner, which has suffered delays, you are dealing with three tiers of manufacturers and assemblers from all over the world.

So the global dimension is becoming a much bigger factor—

Absolutely. The BMW Z4, for instance, had design and manufacturing participation from companies in some 35 countries. Similarly, the Airbus A380 required some 17,000 projects from hundreds of suppliers all over the world. This adds to the complexity of project management as multiple cultures get involved. Companies must grapple with standard terms that everyone understands and agrees on, such as what it means to be “on budget.” That is why standards development is so important. PMI publishes 17 major standards, involving everything from scheduling to risk management. We’ve distributed 2.5 million copies in 11 languages of PMI’s legacy standards, “The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge.”nd take charge if the project manager is absent, simply doesn’t exist in Chinese.

What other major trends do you see in project management?

Increasingly, projects feature virtual teams, in which members see each other face-to-face only a couple times– if at all – during the entire lifecycle of a project. IBM has about 17,000 employees with the title of project manager. They live all over the world and generally work out of their homes. Web-based video, audio and software tools are their means of staying in touch with team members. This presents many challenges to project leaders. It’s not like being in a room where you can observe body language or resolve conflicts that come up.

How important are software tools to successful project management?

Software is a very critical, and there has been quite an evolution in the sophistication of project management software. In the last 10 years, we’ve moved from largely desktop software to project management systems that are linked to central data bases of an enterprise. In other instances, such as mature industries like automotive and construction, you had in the‘90s a preponderance of proprietary, high-end project management tools.  Companies in those industries also began to put project management software into the hands of more users, but at first there was a lack of integration with other functions. Now, however, more and more project management software found on desktops, laptops or the web also are integrated into enterprise software, such as Oracle or SAP.

What about the role of education in sharpening project management skills?

While the sophistication of software tools has never been higher, there’s a growing realization that it is even more important to educate the project management specialist. Anybody can create a series of milestones using project management software, but you first need to have a good knowledge of your industry to really know what those milestones mean, who is responsible for them, and what resources are needed to meet that timeline. That sophisticated knowledge doesn’t come from a user manual. There is no software that I know of that can turn someone with no familiarity with project management into a good project manager.

How does PMI encourage professionalism in project management?

We have a three-tiered credential process that recognizes a professional’s growth in project management skills and experience: the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM), the Project Management Professional (PMP) and the new Program Management Professional (PgMP). The PMP alone has over 265,000 certified professionals in over 160 countries. That certification requires a specific level of experience in directing teams, as well as passing an all-day examination. Increasingly, employers specify the PMP credential when they run ads because they want people to have a recognized level of competence to lead projects. Especially in the engineering profession, there is a shortage of proven project management specialists who can hit the ground running.

What’s the nature of your new Program Management Professional credential?

This program is very comprehensive and requires not only a full-day exam but also input from 12 co-workers who give thorough assessments of your performance as a project leader or a program leader. For this program, we have in mind individuals who may be in charge of programs consisting of multiple projects, such as a chassis or other major subsystem on an auto. This is a skill that we noted was needed from many focus groups we did with companies around the world. A critical aspect of these program managers is their ability to manage resources across multiple projects. We just launched this PgMP program last October, and we already have more than 7,000 applicants. It’s the most rigorous project-based certification in the world. At the same time, PMI has developed a new standard on program management, which provides a global platform of knowledge and processes for directing multiple projects.

How about other key trends in the project management field?

One trend that is gathering steam is a move toward companies doing their own internal assessments on their level of maturity in project management. The goal is to identify successful practices that can be repeated in future projects.