A PM career interview

Frank Turley (FT), Director of Professional Development at PMI Belgium Chapter interviewed
Ian Mitchell (IM), an Experienced Project Manager/Programme Manager

FT: Ian, how did you get into project management and how you have been improving your skills over the years. So, where did it all begin and what did you do in college?

IM: I actually left school at the age of 16 with 4 O levels and joined Barclays Bank. Within Barclays Bank, I was working in their registration department, checking the spelling on shares that had some filing. I’ve got mild dyslexia, that was quite a challenge.
Whilst at Barclays, I went over to Hartford College and I studied for an ONC and an HNC in business studies.

FT: Why did you choose a business studies course?

IM: I didn’t really know what I wanted for a career and business studies was general and it left my options open. Later I undertook the financial studies diploma and became a qualified banker at the age of 23.

FT: How many years was this business studies course?

IM: It was basically 4 years part-time. I then undertook the final examinations to become a qualified banker at the ACIB and I achieved that at the age of 23. At the same time I was working at Barclays. I started as a cashier (bottom), the loans officer and electronic banking department which was just being set up and that’s where I began to understand IT.

FT: So when did you realize you were first involved in a project then?

IM: It was about 10 years over from there. I actually went to a project management training course and then I realized what I’d been doing for the last 10 years, which is managing small teams, automating what went on within the banking industry, centralizing processes, and basically taking I would say senior management labor out of the previous processes when we’re doing it.

FT: What exactly were the projects which you were doing at the very beginning?

IM: At Barclays when I first started, I used to do the equivalent of building a car at every branch. So we began to put that into regions and centralize it within the actual region.
I could save up to one-third of the workforce that were working on it. What I used to do is build the centralization teams, bring them together, get them established and you can then afford to actually put information technology in their system as well, so I set up 5 centralization pilots which were successful. They proved what we expected them to prove and then obviously from putting it into a region, you get that actually centralized within the UK.

FT: What was biggest project you managed?

IM: The largest project I had was working within HMRC (Gov. Tax Dept) . HMRC were migrating their banking business from the Bank of England into 2 commercial banks, RBS and Citibank, and that had over 200 releases as we had to migrate the various payments being made to HMRC and their payments out, the benefits payments, to the general public.
As I said, they had over 200 releases and had about 80 odd full-time staff working within the, I wouldn’t say it was a program. It was multiple projects to achieve the migration.

FT: What was your worst project and why?

IM: This took a long time to think about, but I actually worked for Barclays for 30 years. I reckon the worst project which I didn’t enjoy was the worst project that I did outside.
IM: My daughter was working in the same organization. I had a lot to learn about the political side of project management and the company I moved to, I’d rather not mention or name, moved even slower than the changes within Barclays Bank and I found it extremely frustrating.
My objective on a project is to deliver. I like actually delivering the end objectives. I don’t have to clear contracts. I didn’t achieve the end objective I set out to do.

FT: What do you think are top 5 skills that you think a project manager should have?

IM: A PM needs to be a team player, a visionary, set objectives and know what they want to achieve in the project and ideally they should align with what the company sees as the objectives of the project. And last a PM needs good negotiation skills.

FT: Did you ever refuse to start a project because you couldn’t get the proper people?

IM: I used to, within Barclays, basically say if you can’t change the following team members, I won’t take on the challenge you’re asking me to do. You do need to make sure the team you’re building is of the right people.

FT: What about facilitation: How important do you think that is?

IM: Facilitation I put with negotiation. You’re going to find yourself in meetings with junior people, your team members, and also with the very senior members within the company. So you’ve got to have good facilitation skills, especially when you’re working with your stakeholders to actually get from them what the main objectives are that they’re looking for you to achieve. Very often, they will be conflicting and your facilitation skills will come into play, negotiating who gets what and which particular objectives are going to be the priority.

FT: How did you review your project(s)?

IM: Every week and at the beginning of the week. So I do keep a long list of lists, which basically has the main tasks I expected to achieve this week. At the end of the week, what I did achieve is normally more on the list, unless you’re at the end of the project, than there is at the start of the list at the start of the week.

FT: What about a course in Agile or Scrum?

IM: I worked in Barclays where they’ve utilized Agile and in fact in Barclays, I took over online banking which was originally developed on an Agile basis. You can do some early developments within the Agile environment and then I’m going to recommend you go back to work to full methodologies where you clearly understand the requirements, you test the requirements for actually delivering what’s required.
I will say I will adopt Agile methods when you’re hitting a major problem on the project and everybody believes that can’t be overcome. Just get the team in the room, undertake a brainstorm with all of your team of what the problem is, understand what the problem is and then ask them for ideas and how it can be overcome.

FT: As a program manager then, how did you monitor the work that was being done?

IM: Each of the individual projects used a weekly progress report. On it, as I said, they actually have details of what they wanted to achieve during that week. They would actually report when they’d achieved it and any exceptions where they’re actually running behind. So basically from the 200 individual releases, I used to receive a weekly report, that used to go into the PMO and he used to have a monthly meeting against those reports. We just focused on the areas that we’d missed and how we were going to recover.

FT: That’s sounds good. And did you…what about reporting on budgets and reporting on long-term deliverables? Was this in an Excel file or what did you use for this?

IM: Initially, the whole program was planned on brown paper Post-Its. We used to have a wall within the treasury building with the whole program and all releases over a 3-year period. Basically, a release was a Post-It on the wall. The project managers could move their releases around and actually change the date they were targeting by moving the Post-It actually on the wall and making sure the new release date had no other release going on. So initially it was very Heath Robinson, but visual.
IM: We would put that, for reporting purposes, into an Excel spreadsheet and we then monitored each of the major releases within the Excel environment.

FT: What advice do you have for a young project manager today?

IM: Learn as much as you can and find an experienced mentor. Project management is all about learning and make sure you focus on your work, gaining experience by doing and get certified.

FT: That’s very good advice, Ian. So, I would like to thank you for your time

Ian can be contacted at:
LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ian-mitchell-70765417/


Frank Turley (FT), Director of Professional Development at PMI Belgium Chapter interviewed
Gil Dehogne

Frank: What is your current job title and what do you do?

Gil: My current job title is quality assurance manager @ Yara and within the Yara project office (YPO), which is the engineering office of the Yara company.

Frank: How long have you been in this role and what did you do beforehand?

Gil: It has been five years, so I’ve been here since 2013. Previously, I was in charge of business development in a small company extracting essential oils, and before that I was in charge of regulatory affairs within a chemical company called Methanex which is the biggest producer of methanol.

Frank: Why did you choose this new role as it seems to be very different from before?

Gil: It was just a change. I was looking for new challenges and Yara offered me the opportunity to work in an international environment with multiple projects. We have approximately 40 factories that are taken care of by the Yara project office, and I did find the challenge and the environment to be very interesting and that’s the main reason why I got into this interesting position.

Frank: How many project managers do you deal with at the moment in your quality assurance role and what type of projects?

Gil: We have 26 project managers within the Yara project office. Some are dedicated to major projects, others are dedicated to medium and small-sized projects. I work with them regarding risk management on all of their projects, which is a mandatory requirement. Sometimes we have challenges but globally it is very well accepted. I mean the benefits are seen and understood. Obviously, we always get some pushback from people that are unconvinced, but I would say that luckily for me, those are generally the projects that had the most problems, so it backfires on them.

Frank: Does quality management and risk management go together at Yara?

Gil: That’s correct. We have two parts of it in quality as always. We have the quality assurance and risk management is clearly part of the quality assurance. Once we get into execution and the projects are being built or constructed, then we get into quality control, but regardless, the risk register or the risk analysis carries on. For some, we know that we will be facing risks that we will have to live with. For other risks, as the project matures, we have new risks coming on the radar. Therefore, it’s an exercise, the risk review is an exercise that we do ... we try to do every month to every six weeks with the team.
I facilitate the first meeting when we launch it and then I basically follow up. We usually leave it with the project manager and then every two to three months, we investigate the status of the risk register. If they need our support, we can facilitate some more, but generally they see the benefit and they use it regularly during their team or their project team meetings.

Frank: That answers my questions about frequency of follow-up. How do the project managers see your role? Is it somebody looking over their shoulder or do they see you as a help in their role?

Gil: You’ve got it all ... I would say that mostly they see that as a help, especially if we are facilitating. The quality team is facilitating the exercise. Sometimes people want to take control, especially if there is a big time difference. We let the contractor manage that. That’s another option. Generally, it’s well received because they understand that it’s a good way to mitigate problems. It’s also ... and sometimes, I wouldn’t say that we get hijacked, but we get side-tracked because it’s one of the few meetings where all the key members of the teams are present together and it allows them to discuss other topics that are related to the project and to the risks, or to other problems or solutions, which are defined right away.

Frank: How is the reporting done? I mean, do people ... project managers report to you and who do you report to?

Gil: Clearly, we are here as support for project management. I’m on an independent structure, which is the quality and project guidance group, and I’m reporting to the head of the quality and project guidance group, but the project managers are reporting to their head of project management. So we are independent, we are the same company, and that’s how it works. We do not have a reporting line between each other. On the other hand, we are now more and more reporting all the information that we get to what we call the management team, and therefore that’s the way the progress is escalated or the issues are voiced.

Frank: Do you have the power to stop a project if you see it ... that it’s a real danger?

Gil: In the early phase, we have within quality assurance the opportunity to stop projects during our project review or at least ask them to mitigate or to resolve some issues. Once they are in execution, the project manager is the only one able to stop the project. However, we can escalate issues in order to make sure that they are addressed or at least that the mitigation action are taken care of.

Frank: Can you give me an example where you saw a project in deep trouble and perhaps it failed because risk management didn’t go correctly or because a big risk actually happened that you thought might come up?

Gil: Well, I wouldn’t want to be specific. We’ve had multiple cases where issues had not been mitigated and then we pushed in order for those issues to be addressed and that allowed the project to basically carry on normally in a safe environment.
We’ve had multiple sites that have been delayed because of problems that we had foreseen but we had not mitigated, so it kind of backfired. Unfortunately, what I find a little bit frustrating is that even though I try to be constructive and looking forward, it is sometimes in a situation where, “I told you so,” especially since the risk was identified earlier. I find that sad because it doesn’t add anything to the resolution of the problem, but if we had been heard, it could have been resolved.

Frank: Do project managers learn from each other to deal with quality assurance and risk management?

Gil Well, it depends. We have lessons learned and we are implementing that. We have a database which is becoming pretty significant. We also have during the project assurance review, the peer review, where other senior project managers are coming into the meetings and challenging all the critical decisions - process decisions, construction decisions, site layout, in order to be sure that all stones have been turned. Nothing is being kept aside or forgotten. This is the kind of exercise which is seen as very valuable by the project manager because we are all running left and right and a little bit like in a beehive, so it’s important sometimes to just sit down, think thoroughly, and assess the situation.

Frank: You’re also a member of BELRIM. Can you explain what BELRIM is and what you get from it? How does it help you?

Gil: Well, I don’t know if I’m a member. I know that I took part in some of their activities and I did some presentations. BELRIM is the Belgium Risk Management Association and its an association of Belgian risk managers. The good thing is that it’s very wide. You have all the different areas of the economy or the Belgian economy that are covered there from transport to chemical world to construction to banking to insurance. So it’s just a place where likeminded people can exchange, can unite, and try to talk about their problems and the solutions. So it’s something which is ... I discovered lately, but it’s extremely useful and it turns out that it also prevents you from reinventing the wheel in your field and see that you are not alone facing some similar problems.

LinkedIn: Gil Dehogne https://www.linkedin.com/in/gil-dehogne-b9537a/