Project management is a growing field needed in all industries. In this episode, APU Dean Dr. Marie Gould Harper talks to Tia Jackson about her long career in project management and how she sees the profession evolving. Learn about the challenges she faced during the pandemic and having to adapt to remotely managing projects with a fully virtual team. Also learn about pursuing a career in project management, including the difference between project administrators, project managers, and program managers. Also learn the significant differences between project management in the private sector compared to project management in the federal government.
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Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Welcome to our podcast today. I’m your host, Marie Gould Harper. Today, we are going to talk about what is trending in project management. My guest is Tia Jackson. I want to take a moment to provide some background information on her.
Ms. Jackson brings over 20 years of project management and event production experience. Her expertise in managing multiple levels of software development implementations, providing project program management and event management support. She has managed information technology projects for over 20 years and has organized events with over 10,000 participants globally.
Start a Business degree at American Public University.
As a technical project manager, business analyst and leader, Tia’s passion is relationship building and ensuring missions and visions are realized. Her years of experience includes working with the Department of Defense, military health systems and Veterans Affairs. Her efforts were recognized with a military honors award for management work on a data project that securely removed our military equipment from Iraq in 2010 to 2012.
Under her leadership, the planning solutions team plans and executed corporate events ranging from large-scale conferences, inspirational workshops to intimate fundraising events. Her expertise includes financial and contract management, production management and program logistics. As an event planner, her focus is ensuring that her client can enjoy their moment while she manages the event seamlessly and effortlessly. Tia enjoys sharing her passion for project management and organizational management at conferences, on podcasts and during training workshops. Tia, welcome to our podcast and thank you for joining me.
Tia Jackson: Thank you, Marie, for having me here. I’m super excited.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Well, based on your background, we could talk about a number of things because you have a variety of experiences in various industries and you’ve used your skillset in a number of ways. Speaking to that, we still are going through the pandemic and it has forced each of us to look at what our skillset is? Do we need to retool? Do we need to upskill ourselves to be marketable? How has the pandemic affected the way that you do business?
Tia Jackson: Good question. As you mentioned earlier, I am a relationship person, I am a people person, I like that face time and I like building something with my clients. So one of the ways I’ve been impacted is, I no longer have in-person collaborative meetings with my client, with my team, even though we do it virtually, it’s just not the same as being face-to-face in-person.
So I would say with my client, the impact to that, of not having that face time to have these collaborative sessions is I feel like it’s impacting my ability to effectively build trust, to show that I’m committed to be present and to be engaged. And without this interaction with the, should I say, the project that I’m on now, one of the expectations was, I would be able to be at the client site, have interaction with those individuals who will be the recipients of the project outcome that I’m actually working on. So we’re developing a program for the associates.
And during the scope of work planning, the expectation was, I would have an opportunity to walk the halls, to talk to these associates and do some requirements-gathering from them. And based on that, make any adjustments that I need to do with my program planning. So that interaction is not there that we were hoping to get. It did not impede upon the development of the program and the expected project outcome, but it was just something we were looking forward to.
As it relates to my team, it’s a team of six of us, we would be in a room together and we would have, I guess I would call it, these impromptu interactions, where we have quick conversations and we’re overhearing something that’s important that’s mentioned off the cuff and helping us all with the work that we’re doing. So we don’t get that opportunity to do that anymore.
And with my team, it impacted how I can track productivity. There’s a trust that needs to be built there when you’re working in a virtual environment. Now you trust that your team is getting the work done and supporting the project and the project task and meeting those deliverables, but not having that true face time, sometimes it can be challenging to track that productivity.
And then also, not even being able to track how my team is doing physically. We all know this pandemic has impacted us all in multiple ways. So if I had that time to be with them and having that face time, I can see if they’re fatigued, if they’re stressed in what they’re trying to accomplish on a project. And then lastly, I’ll say, me personally, that’s really impacted me is I feel like I no longer have work-life balance.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I think we all can say that.
Tia Jackson: Exactly. I no longer have a set start time, I no longer have a set end time. And occasionally, I have found myself making project commitments that require me to work on the weekends. And that’s not balancing pretty well. That’s not balancing at all. So that’s how I think I’ve been impacted on the way I do business in this new environment that we’re in now.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: I’m glad that you said that. I am experiencing or I have experienced the same thing. And since the pandemic, I have tried to faithfully limit any type of work on the weekends and during the evenings, because being on lockdown, I was like, “I should be able to get my work done during the regular day.”
But I do understand I do not always stay to that new policy for myself. And it’s always getting back to some type of sense of balance between the work and the social life, but I applaud you for continuing to even help your clients and employees.
Now, my second question, it was going to go into something that you’ve already addressed and that’s assisting clients and employees during this pandemic. And especially when the original orders have to be adjusted because of the situation.
Now you bounce back very quickly in terms of, okay, I just have to shift. One of the areas, I heard you mention stress, but have you found that you have had to assist your employees and your clients with distractions due to the extra responsibilities that they have taken on? How have you incorporated that into your projects?
Tia Jackson: Absolutely. How I address that with my client and also with my team, as a project manager, one of the things that’s huge for me is managing from a project schedule. So a lot of times what I find I have to do now is revisit that project schedule, revisit the project requirements and then identify any constraints.
So with the client, we have these sessions that I share with them the project schedule and they share with me if there’s any changes with the company goals or the project expectations. And if those things have changed, then let’s revisit the schedule and see how we can make any adjustments to the project, to the expected outcome, and how we can get those realigned to those goals that perhaps have changed.
Also, during this time and having these conversations with the client, I then take a look if I have to do any resource leveling, if I have to start balancing the demand for resources. So I’ve seen that happen a lot as well.
And then for my team, I do the same thing. We meet weekly and I’m reviewing a project schedule with them, revisiting our requirements, revisiting the deliverables and hearing from them if there’s any challenges. And if we have to make those adjustments, we talk about those adjustments to be made. And I take that back to the client and rebaseline and just rebaseline the schedule.
And I want them to feel comfortable to let me know, I cannot meet this requirement, I can’t meet this deadline. Give me a reason why, and I’ll support them. And just have that open conversation with the client.
And that goes back to that relationship building. I built a good relationship with the client, where they trust me. And if I’m asking for the schedule to be rebaselined, I give them the reason why it needs to be baselined and if it’s not impacting anything on a critical path or anything that supports or could impact their goals. Normally, I get a good response from the client with that by doing things like that. So, again, back to just the way I address it, revisit the project schedule, revisit the requirements, see if there is any realignments that need to be had. And we go forward and do that.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. And providing your example, one of the things that I noticed you were using, I call it the systematic approach to project management, you’re very in sync and detailed about how you go through a process.
Now with that, I wanted to go a little deeper into project management. And you’ve been in that field for a while, where do you see the field of project management going in the future? And what are some of the challenges? And how do you plan to address them?
Tia Jackson: Good question. One of the things I did is, I’m a member of the PMI and I am constantly on in my dashboard and I’m reading up from the PMI what’s happening in the project management world. And surprisingly, they said that by 2027, that employers are still going to need project managers. They’re still going to be about, I think they said 88 million people in project-related roles. And the demand is global for project managers, it’s increasing.
So that was good to hear because, of course, project management can be the methodologies used in all industries. So when I think about where is project management going in the future and what happened to us in this pandemic? I call it the new normal. So I look at it like project management, our new normal is how do we manage virtual teams?
Right. Things about how do you manage your team? Because a project manager needs their team. They need the support of their team. In my case, I did a lot of technical projects. So I needed the support of those technical resources. And sometimes those resources were abroad, here locally, but now we are moving towards is a good possibility that your virtual team is remote work, they’re remote teams, and there are these virtual workforces that will be in place to help the project delivery.
One of the things you have to realize the customer is affected by this new normal as well. They are going through some changes. So then you go, well, how do I address that? How do I address as a project manager the challenges of my client in the new normal and the direction of where are we going? The challenge of my team?
And I think first, you just have to embrace the fact that when this is all over and you have these remote projects, you have these remote workforces, and you have these virtual teams, that this new normal is a good thing. And how do you describe or how do you show it is a good thing? Is you still meet the requirements of the project. You still meet delivery of your deliverables and you ease their minds that the project will still be successful. You perhaps create a project team of talented individuals that have experience with being very productive and effective in the work-home environment and executing project requirements and deliveries.
And you can get the best workers now, we talked about that balance thing. You can still get the best of your workers now without having to bring them on site to work, cost can go down while productivity goes up, and it could still be a win-win situation. And more importantly, with this new normal and the direction of project management, I believe project managers are going to become excellent communicators because that’s going to be critical.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Very critical. I liked when you brought up the virtual teams. I’ve been in a virtual environment, I want to say a good 20 years, but we’ve never had a situation like this. And when the pandemic started, I noticed that I had to, I’m looking for the word, I don’t want to say reschedule, I had to adjust my relationships with other individuals.
And it seemed that it was individuals who were not used to working virtually. And at first, I was trying to figure out why is this relationship different? And I was looking inward, like what could I do or what have I done to affect the situation? And then I realized there was more on the other person, because in many cases, they were not accustomed to communicating and problem solving and troubleshooting.
And when you’re virtual, sometimes you can’t pick it up, even if you’re on a Zoom session. So it wasn’t until I had a number of times and then it dawned on me, these people are still adjusting to the new way of work. And that can be difficult at times. And it sounds like you picked up on that really quickly and was able to readjust what you were doing to meet their needs, your clients and your employee’s needs.
Tia Jackson: Exactly.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: That’s to be commended.
Tia Jackson: I’ve done a lot of the software development projects, IT projects, where I’ve had team members where we had to go through the, what did they call it, outsourcing, we outsource to other countries and things like that. So you would make adjustments for those team members on when you have your meetings and things like that. So you’re already used to some component of your team members being virtual.
But now, just folks right down the street from you, right in your own backyard and everyone’s virtual and how do you now support them? Because this is new for folks, not to mention those individuals that are trying to manage a project and work on a project, and now they have to homeschool. My hats off to those individuals. They’ve been awesome.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Right. It’s almost like adding the personal into the professional side of your life and having to use the same skill set. I always have to remember that I may be talking to someone that is in that situation. So it’s not business as usual. And I can’t expect people to do things the way that I do them, but it’s being empathetic and compassionate about what is occurring in our society and just trying to help each other along the way.
Now, you and I have worked on some projects and I think we have similar styles. And I would consider you as someone who may have entered project management from the administrative side. Our project management programs at our institution were originally on the IT side, but with the School of Business, there were a number of students who were like, “We don’t want the technical side. We want to know project management from the administrative side.” And most of the people that I know, they started on the administrative side and then eventually went over to the tech side. What is the difference between administrative and IT project management?
Tia Jackson: The textbook says, administrative project management focuses on basically, the administrative tasks of the project like managing all the aspects of the project budget, handling the reporting and analyzing project progress.
So in my experience and where I started and the support I receive as a project manager as well, the project administrator supports the project manager. They’re a real key member of the project team because they have to have good analytical skills, a good understanding of the project management methodologies, great computer and computer application skills. They are almost the brain of the project.
So that administrative project management that supports the project manager pretty much holds things together. It takes a lot of things off the plate of the project manager to handle some of those administrative things, like I said, managing budget, support the development of status reports and presentations that project manager has to do. And I’ve had some great project administrators supporting me on projects that it was almost like I couldn’t have done it without these individuals. So they are key members of the success of the project.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. And that’s good to know and that’s information that we could share with our career services, because a lot of times that question will come up and I know there’s a quick logical way to explain it. And I think you’ve provided that for me. And I will share that with our career services team.
Tia Jackson: Yeah, because that is usually the next step. When I look at it, when I look at the career path of just being in project management and I’ve helped and mentored folks along the way is they start as that project administrator, handling the administrative part, and then they moved to a project manager and then the next phase would be to a program manager. So that’s how I’ve mentored a lot of my project administrators that have now moved on to be project managers and program managers. And that’s a career path that I took as well because that project administrator is really, really, they’re almost like junior project managers. And so that next career would be from a project administrator to a project manager.
And, of course, the technical piece and how I got into a technical project manager is that project manager has that technical knowledge, that expertise, the competencies, in addition to just general project manager responsibilities. Having an understanding of the agile software or scrum management with some of the others, financial modeling and performance tracking. So they have that relevant understanding of relevant technologies and architecture to support the project. And that helps when you have projects where you’re doing hardware and software installations, upgrades, and site maintenance and software development life cycles.
So, as a technical project manager, it’s beneficial when it comes to planning and scheduling during the execution phase, and even when communicating to your project stakeholders that are non-technical that you have that technical knowledge that you can have the ability to just report back to your project stakeholders. And you yourself have an understanding of what’s going on technically and be able to relay that information over to your project’s stakeholders who are non-technical.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. I also hear from individuals who are currently doing administrative assistant work, that this is a logical career path for them to take. And as I mentioned, I know so many people who were administrative assistants who are now project managers. And I think they took similar steps to what you just recommended a person who wants to make that career transition.
Tia Jackson: Exactly. Because I started out when I was working at the DuPont Company, I was the administrator. I was the secretary in the Program Management Office. And one day, I went into one of the program manager’s office and I said, “I’m interested in what you do.” And basically, he became my mentor. And as I did my secretarial work, he mentored me on how to manage your project. And it all started from there.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. Great. That’s a little tip as well. Sometimes if you want to do something different, you have to do things differently. And you took the chance of approaching someone and said, “In addition to my regular duties, would you be willing to work with me so that I could become better skilled at something else?” So I think that’s a good tip too in addition to just going through the progress of getting to that project management.
Now I’ve known you for probably about 15 years. And when I read your bio, I was like, “When did she do this?” And it dawned on me. I think it’s been since you’ve moved down into the DMV area. Now everything makes sense after you explained it to me. And that leads to my next question.
We have some programs now in the School of Business. And when we introduced them for approval, a question came up that I even had myself. And that was: Why are we introducing project management and DOD, Department of Defense project management as different degrees? How come they wouldn’t be in the same program?
And the feedback that we were getting from prospective students in terms of what their interests was, as well as practitioners who participate on our industry advisory boards, they basically were saying, there is a difference, and this is why. And I think because I am not in that field, I just took their word for it. But you and I are friends. So I think you can break down for me, is there a difference in the preparation? And why is there a difference?
Tia Jackson: Yes. Yes. Project management in Department of Defense. It is the way you manage a program, it’s very structured. The DOD have set processes and the ways you do things that’s much different than in the private sector. You must follow the set processes. There’s a certain way you develop your project schedule, there’s a certain way you provide statuses.
Of course, I’ve been in a lot of the software development projects. So in the software development projects, there’s these gateways you have to go through before you can move on to the next phase of your project. There a certain way you engage with your stakeholders.
I would say, again, to sum it up, in the DOD, there’s well-defined policies and processes, the way you must do project management. They also offer a, they have a Defense Acquisition University. It’s a place where you can go and take online classes, that you can learn about all these processes to be successful as a project manager in the government. And this university is available to all government employees and all consultants that are supporting a government entity.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay. Well, that is very good information to know. I’m glad we will have this session recorded because I will share it with a number of people. And I like the fact that you told me the difference between the Department of Defense from the private sector, because that’s where most of the questions were coming from. Also, you talked about the Department of Defense, but would it be safe to say, and I heard you allude to the government, that it’s like, if you do project management in government in any of the departments, is that safe to say?
Tia Jackson: Yes.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay.
Tia Jackson: Yeah. Yeah. I would say yeah. Yep, it would be, because right now the project I’m working on is with the VA. So I would say it’s the federal government, I’m actually developing a program, I developed this one training that’s actually titled “Program Management in the Federal Government.” So I’m outlining, as managing a program in the federal government, there are certain processes and procedures you have to follow. So yeah, you’re right, it’s just not the DOD, its federal government as a whole.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Okay, great. Tia, I want to thank you so much for joining me today and sharing your expertise. It’s been a pleasure. I think you’ve clarified some points on the field and I think many of our listeners will enjoy the advice as well as the tips that you have shared with us.
Tia Jackson: Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad that I was able to be a part of this. I was glad I was able to share some of my experiences and things to help everyone as we all move into this new normal in 2021. So thank you again for having me. This has been great. I hope that I was able to shed some light on some things for everyone that is listening. And I’m super excited about the next phase of project management because I believe it’s going to continue to evolve as we move forward.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes. I’m looking forward to see changes that occur as well. And I hope you have a lot of success with what I call your governing organization, PMI, Project Management Institute. I think they’re going to be as big as some of the other mainstay professions, such as human resources with the Society for Human Resource Management. I put project management on that level. It’s a growing field. So many people have interests and the skillset can be used in various industries and I think that’s going to be one of its mainstays.
Tia Jackson: Absolutely.
Dr. Marie Gould Harper: Yes, we have been speaking with Tia Jackson. This is Marie Gould Harper, thanking you for listening to our podcast today. Have an amazing day.