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10 Things to Remember When Starting Your Career as an IT Project Manager

Time flies, and I don’t even know when 10 months in Netguru have passed. From the professional point of view, it was the most challenging and exciting time in my career. When I gave up my previous job as a Business Strategy Analyst, I would never bet that one year after, I would be working as an IT project manager, coordinating multiple teams of more than 30 developers, and co-operating with one of the biggest and most innovative real estate franchises in the world. 

I have learned a lot and still feel that the learning curve is very steep for me. Ten months sound like a good point to stop and reflect on the mistakes that I have made and conclusions I have drawn. So here they are, the 10 lessons I’ve learned during my 10 months as an IT Project Manager in Netguru.

1. Technical knowledge pays off, and your team can be the best source of it.

I started my adventure in Netguru as a junior with only basic technical knowledge. After gaining my experience, I can admit that advanced technical knowledge does not have to be a “must-have” at the beginning of an IT Project Manager’s career, but it surely makes your work easier in the long term. Our Confluence space (the collaboration software program where you can create, organise, and discuss work with your team)  is full of blog posts and glossaries that explain the most important terms and issues, and it’s a great starting point. But the projects are so varied that sooner or later during a call with a Client or a team discussion, you will hear a term that you might be unfamiliar with. If you need clarification to get a better understanding, ask your team-mates! Developers and quality assurance specialists are very eager to share their knowledge and to explain technical aspects to a non-technical audience (at least not that technical as they are) is a challenge that they enthusiastically take up.

2. If you want to understand your team-mates everyday struggles and day-to-day work better, put yourself in their shoes.

It was one of the most eye-opening experiences when our Quality Assurance Specialist “hired” me as her intern, and we were going through the testing process together. It helped me to identify obstacles that she had to face. Tickets that weren’t described well enough, or the lack of the acceptance criteria can be just the tip of the iceberg.  As a result of my internship, I could physically experience her day-to-day work and translate it into actions that aimed to make her work easier and more efficient. We could also work more effectively together as a team.

3. Don't be afraid to ask questions.

It does not sound like rocket science, right? But when I started my adventure as a project manager and had a different background, it wasn’t as obvious as it sounds. And here I refer to multiple different situations –  starting from asking other PMs for advice, to team discussions and negotiating with the Client. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean that you need to be asking about everything. I would say that Google and our internal Confluence space can provide the answer in many cases. Also, some people can get easily annoyed when they get the same question for the umpteenth time, especially when the answer can be found easily. But asking the right questions is the key. A bunch of questions is something that always lands in my meeting notes. It helps me to structure the meeting and lead the discussion. Writing down questions before the meeting gives me a clearer understanding of what I want to achieve during the meeting. And I learned how to kill the voice in my head that always repeats “Better not to ask” or “You will look like a fool if you ask about it”. Asking good questions always pays off!

4. I cannot turn off my mind after work, but I can work towards making it less overwhelming.

After the first few months in Netguru, I was very happy,  satisfied and still excited about my work, new responsibilities, more complex and demanding projects that I’d ever had a chance to work on, but… with more responsibility and challenges, my stress levels that had been stable up to that point began to increase and my mind was still at work after working hours. I knew that I needed to do something about it, but I didn’t know how to start. And then my leader, Kamil, raised this topic during my quarterly face-to-face meeting. He said openly: “Magda, I see how much you enjoy your work, but at the same time, you seem stressed out to me. I don't want it to overshadow your joy. Let’s do something about it.” He shared a few tips with me and we set a goal: “think less about work after working hours”. You know what? I did it and now, a few months have passed, and I can take up new challenges and enjoy them without sacrificing my mental health :) If you wonder how I got there, meditation helped me a lot, and I can recommend the Headspace app. I used to do it before and after work, just for 10 minutes. I also noticed that, especially at the beginning, working from the office helped me to cut myself off from work, just the moment when I left the building.

5. It’s better to take action than wait for the bomb to explode.

A scope that was underestimated at the beginning of the project turns out to need 30% more development time than expected? An underperforming team member? A client not responding to the team’s questions, which hinders the progress of work? The list of potential risks that you will face as a project manager is long and what I quickly learned is that you need to act upon them straight away. A simple example is in order. It’s better to let the Client know about a delay as soon as it occurs than wait and hope that you will catch up later. At the end of the day, you need to remember that the estimation is a well-informed guess – well–informed, but still a guess, and new variables influencing this estimation might crop up later. There is always a temptation that some problems will simply disappear without any action. I can’t say that it never happens, but, from my experience, it will most likely fire back at you later.

6. The world (most often) will not fall apart if you don’t answer a message within 30 minutes, but your productivity will get a boost.

We use Slack as our main communication tool and, as a project manager, I cannot imagine my day without it. It’s a very powerful tool that allows us to stay in touch and keep our communication clear and transparent, even though we often don’t meet each other and work from completely different locations. However, sometimes it may have its dark sides too. Without having the right settings that suit you best, it can turn out to be a distractor that won’t allow you to focus on any task for longer than a few minutes, because then a new message will come, and you won’t be able to stop yourself from checking it. During my first few weeks, I couldn’t stop myself either. I noticed that writing a simple meeting summary took much longer, and I basically couldn’t finish it, because I kept changing context all the time. The same situation happened during meetings – I needed to check a direct message, but I automatically lost my focus on the meeting, and after a few seconds, I was asking myself: “ what is he talking about?”. So I set certain rules to help myself boost my productivity, but I also finally understood that nobody expects my answer straight away, and a 30-minute delay is ok. A few rules that I stick to:

  1. I don't read Slack messages during meetings
  2. I don't stop doing what I am currently focused on when a new message comes in
  3. I set “Don't disturb” when in a meeting
  4. I turn off Slack completely when working on something that needs my full attention

7. The people you work with change a lot the way you feel at work.

I am not sure if I can call it a lesson, but before joining Netguru, I didn’t realise how huge influence the people surrounding you have on the way you feel at work. Starting from a warm welcome, a mentor that supports you and is ready to answer all your questions during the first month, to a leader who is your biggest cheerleader. When you add a supporting team that always watch your back, even the toughest day at work is not that tough anymore, because you know that you are not alone – as simple as that. What else have I learned? That all these unique, ambitious, and committed individuals are a great motivator for aiming high and developing yourself.

8. You cannot do all at once.

After a few weeks in Netguru, when I was already quite familiar with the way we work, how our processes work, and I got the necessary knowledge to lead my first project, I realised that there was so much to learn that I didn’t know what to choose. I wanted to expand my technical knowledge, learn more about other agile methodologies, practice giving constructive feedback – and it was just the beginning of the list. Soon, I realised that by doing everything at once, I was getting poorer results and any improvement would be delayed due to my multitasking. Together with my leader, we set priorities that became the quarterly goals that I focused on, and after that period, we evaluated the progress that I had made. The career paths that we have, describe each level of seniority in detail, but they are also a very helpful tool in identifying the competencies that I could focus on next as a project manager.

On the basis of my own experience, I also learned that this approach pays off not only when it comes to self-development. Introducing changes and improvements into a project is also easier and more effective when done step by step, without turning the whole project upside down. It gives us time to evaluate them and adjust if necessary, as the other thing that I learned is that every project is different, so the solution that passed a test once, will not necessarily pass it again.

9. Don’t be afraid to give constructive feedback (even if it’s negative).

In Netguru, we value feedback and collect it regularly. I was asked to provide my first feedback just after three or four weeks. While I had never had a problem with giving positive feedback and praising somebody for their work and effort, it was difficult for me to indicate the items that said “need to improve”. What if I am wrong? Am I experienced enough to share my thoughts? What if my colleague takes my feedback wrong? How should I articulate it? These kinds of questions popped up in my head from the very beginning. I explained to myself that I would have liked to know what I could change to do my job better, and if I were to ask teams about it, they would probably like to know the same. What I learned is that indicating things that people need to improve helps everyone and, actually, in each and every case I’ve had so far, people were willing to listen to my feedback and discuss it. Giving the feedback right is an art that I’m still trying to master, and each new situation is a lesson, but at least now, I don’t have any doubts that it’s something that I should do. We all want to grow ourselves and the people around us, and giving a constructive (even if not always positive) feedback and suggesting things to improve is one of the best ways of helping people develop.

10. You learn from experience.

I would call it my final thought. You just need to experience some situations. You cannot predict them and prepare ahead. You can learn a lot, read books, listen to your colleagues’ stories, but there are skills that come with experience and exposure to various projects and the unique issues that develop in them. I see it clearly now that the place I am here now as a Project Manager is mostly influenced by everything that I have gone through during my 10 months in Netguru.

Hope you have enjoyed this read. If I were to summarise it with one sentence I would say: don't be afraid of making mistakes – when the learning curve is steep you will always make them, but remember to draw conclusions out of them, experiment, and ask for help when needed.

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