Want to become a project manager and work on international projects in a software house? There are many ways to prepare for it and learn some skills that are definitely required for the job. I have definitely chosen an unconventional one. In this article, I would like to share with you the characteristics and skills that are needed to work as a project manager. I also included some tips on how to acquire them based on my own story of learning various tips and tricks while organising a hackathon.
Look at things critically and question the status quo
The job of a project manager is not a piece of cake. Not only are they required to manage the project’s workflow, but they should also optimise it. That’s why it’s crucial for a project manager to be able to critically evaluate the project’s progress and workflow and question it. You have to constantly look for improvements. There is always something that can be done better, whether it’s an entire process, or the last sprint you did with your team.
A PM with such an attitude is a true asset to the company, especially in the long-term, since you not only realise the operational objectives of the project, but also make the company a better place. It’s not easy to constructively criticise the status quo, especially since it requires a great deal of courage and knowledge to do so.
I began learning this skill when I organised a data science hackathon. What really got me into organising it was an issue that I had noticed long before. We are living in the 21st century, the era of the internet, technology and data, but our governments do not use any of that. “That needs to change”, I thought. So I proposed to organise a data science hackathon during which students working on public data sets would optimize the public space in the broad sense. I had no idea whether my initiative would be taken seriously. But I stood up for it, and I encouraged other people to join me in my attempt to change the public space for the better.
Try - fail - improve
Doing something for the first time ever means a lot of improvisation and a great deal of fear. As a project manager, you should feel comfortable in an uncertain environment and perceive it more as a challenge than a threat. Every project and every project team member is different, which means that one should not approach each case the same way. Rather, you should be able to rapidly swift between context and eventually adjust. Try to develop some self-confidence in your ability to handle unpredictable project situations.
What are the consequences of such an approach? Well, you gain a true competitive advantage. Market value comes from providing high-quality products or services. In software development, quality is more than just clean code and bug-free applications, but also unconventional solutions in terms of business ideas or design.
For me, organising a hackathon was a lifetime opportunity to gain self-confidence and test different approaches to project management without major risk. I have never organised a hackathon before. None of my peers did. What is more, I have a little experience in organising something from the scratch, and trust me - there is a lot of difference between building something from zero and following processes that have already been set up.
For example. I completely failed in building a team. My task-oriented mindset - an obsession with processes, completing major milestones, little tasks, doing sales - led to a complete disaster on a personal level within the team. People who co-organised the event with me did not see a friend in me - they saw a dictator, a stereotypical manager who issues orders, not inspires. That led to being unwilling to work, bringing new ideas or committing to the event in general.
My approach to team management would be not acceptable within a working environment. I could even lose my job because of it. But my failure made me realise how much I still had to learn. I admitted my defeat and started learning. This approach, on the other hand, made an impression on the recruitment team of the software house I applied to. We all have our weak points. The thing that makes a difference is how we deal with those issues, whether we are conscious of them and willing to adjust and change them, or if we simply neglect our dark side. The choice is yours though, as a PM, you better get used to the latter!
Make your team feel responsible
As a project manager, you will be responsible for both the hard and the soft parts of the project. How your team feels is equally if not more important than the quality of the documentation or the tasks you assign. One of the major elements you should work on is the feeling of responsibility among your team members. It not only affects their productivity, but also impacts their self-actualisation, as they feel that they have something to say in regards to the project they are working on.
I screwed up this part in my hackathon. The side effect of me behaving like a despot was my team not feeling responsible for the project we “co-organised”. I played the role of the stereotypical PM slash tyrant, who blames everyone for what they did, but seems not to contribute any actual work herself.
And here comes SCRUM! Encouraging the whole team to feel responsible for the delivery of a “product” was the missing puzzle in our project. From the minute we introduced SCRUM - daily stand ups, sprints and, in general, a more agile approach, the team’s behaviour totally changed.
Even though it was not a technical project, SCRUM worked very well! And again, I could either leave the project as it was, do nothing and hope that somehow we would deliver, or question the status quo, change, change and eventually find a suitable approach. Try to learn this technique, as it makes all the difference in project management.
As servants-leaders, PMs frequently have to not only improve the efficiency of our work, but also inspire others and help them get things done. It’s perfect if you are able to successfully manage your time, but it’s even better if you’re able to share your productivity tips with others in a pleasant, non aggravating way.
Your role is to make sure your team does not feel lost with a daily pile of tasks in the To-Do column.
I was really grateful for the fact that during my side project I had an opportunity to work with many people. Managing a team of 12 requires a lot of effort and a well-prepared plan. You have to have a good sense of priorities, be proficient at task delegation, and provide valuable support to those who, for example, struggle with self-organisation.
Being a PM is way more than just task delegation and e-mails. It is a never-ending story of trying to understand everyone that is involved in a project - including yourself - and making sure that most of the expectations of those people are met. It’s all about navigating through an ocean of uncertainties and staying confident and calm despite that.
Working on my side project, which in my case was a data science hackathon, made me realise how difficult it is to be a manager - someone who is followed, but also given trust.
Organising a hackathon is just an example. There are other ways to gain the skills needed to be a project manager. You can participate in a student research group, organise a workshop, or help run a community event. It often happens that such experiences constitute a key part of later resumes that eventually lead to getting a job as a project manager. Or you can participate in a project management workshop, which we happen to organise! Should you feel interested, do not hesitate to sign up and take advantage of the opportunity to work as a PM at Netguru!