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Project Management for Beginners and Experts

Episode 209: The Accidental Project Manager (or How to Save a Failed Project as Your First Assignment) (Free)

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Episode 209: The Accidental Project Manager (or How to Save a Failed Project as Your First Assignment) (Free)Today we welcome back Jeff Furman, PMP - the author of The Project Management Answer Book. In this second interview with him we learn how Jeff became a project manager and how he dealt with the fact that the first project ever assigned to him had previously failed and it now fell to him to save the day.

Jeff’s story is simply a great and inspirational tale of (for once) something going right in our profession. It shows how we as PMs can motivate people to do things right, if we can speak to the needs of our customers and then deliver on our promise.

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. 

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to Episode #209. This is The Project Management Podcast™ at www.pm-podcast.com and I am Cornelius Fichtner. Nice to have you with us.

Today, we welcome back Jeff Furman, the author of “The Project Management Answer Book”. In this interview, we learned how Jeff became a project manager and how he dealt with the fact that the very first project that was ever assigned to him had previously failed and it now fell to him to save the day.

Jeff’s story is simply a great and inspirational tale of for once, something going right in our profession. It shows how we as project managers can motivate people to do things right if we can speak to the needs of our customers and then deliver on our promise.

And now, surprise! You’re a project manager now. Enjoy the interview.

Podcast Interview

Female voice: The Project Management Podcast’s feature Interview: Today with Jeff Furman, author of “The Project Management Answer Book” and PMP Instructor.

Cornelius Fichtner: We are back at the PMI North American Congress with Jeff Furman, author of “The Project Management Answer Book”. Hello Jeff!

Jeff Furman: Hello, Cornelius! Nice to see you in Dallas.

Cornelius Fichtner: This interview right now is not going to be about your book. It is going to be about your experience of being a, well, accidental brand new project manager. So we want to talk about the first project that you have ever been handed and the good news is, it was a failed project that had been handed to you. Sort of: “Hey, Jeff! Why don’t you manage this project and by the way, it had failed previously” as your first project. Interesting experience! So let’s begin at the very beginning. What project are we talking about?

Jeff Furman: Yeah! We worked in a very large brokerage in Manhattan and there was an urge to modernize the IT system to put every program update through a software change management system. So there are change management systems on a project level. This was trying to put a change management system on top an entire IT department with a thousand developers.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay, so pretty much what you see today in a normal IT department. You can’t just put your code into production. You have to put it through the change management system. It gets all compiled together and it’s approved and goes in. So they didn’t have that, right?

Jeff Furman: Believe it or not, that was a leading edge idea at that time and it was looked at as: “Are you kidding? This is a brokerage with thousands of programs. We’ll never get this in. This change will never happen.” And that was the case before I was given it which literally was “Starting tomorrow, we want you to do this project and we’re shooting for a full 100% compliance.”

Cornelius Fichtner: Wonderful! How long did it take from the moment that you took over until you’d say: “We’re done. It’s now implemented.”

Jeff Furman: Yeah! We really went from zero to pretty much a hundred percent in about a year.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay.

Jeff Furman: And it was a very large effort.

Cornelius Fichtner: Did you have any senior management support?

Jeff Furman: We had very strong senior management support but ironically, they had senior management support earlier but when he tried to do it as sort of a directive, it wasn’t going to fly. So he got me to do it and I didn’t do it just by using his support, which was helpful. But the key to the success was largely that we made it a training initiative attached to just putting in the new versions. So we got everyone on this new system by teaching them the benefits, what’s in it for them And that was really the key. So I put together a class. Once the software was fully installed, I rolled out this class probably 50 times in New York, in New Jersey, in London.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay. You said earlier on, it was a leading edge idea.

Jeff Furman: Yeah!

Cornelius Fichtner: But for us in software development these days, that’s normal. That’s the way you have to do it. So when was this?

Jeff Furman: Well, this was around ’91, ’92 and part of why it was considered leading edge is there were so many kinds of objects that we’re talking about. When you say ‘move a change into production’, it sounds small but it might be: Take a 5,000-line program. Take the source code. Recompile it. Take the load module and make sure you get the right copy books. Make sure you get the right control cards and so every change is unique and very complex.

Some of these changes were really big like 75 components would be considered one change. So the idea of putting all of those components into one change package, it’s a great idea but it also sounds daunting and to the nei sayers, it sounds like it’s not doable.

Cornelius Fichtner: What opposition did you have?

Jeff Furman: Well, we really did have pretty strong opposition from the developers themselves because even though it would help the company as a whole on the level of their looking at their own output, they saw it as an encumbrance. In other words, it was asking them to go from the situation where they were managing their own changes largely to sort of being under the thumb of management controlling the changes which is a good thing to people in management. In other words, putting in safeguards, putting compliance, make sure everything is going through the proper channels.

By the way though, even though you say that today it’s common; I meet a lot of people in my project management classes who say that they don’t really have a fully-compliant change control in their companies. And not only that, many people are trying to reinvent the wheel even as we speak right now writing their own quick and dirty change control system because people, not everyone knows what seems like an obvious fact to you with your IT background. People think: “Oh, you want control of changes, I’ll write something quick myself” and it’s usually not so quick and it’s not robust like a proper product that’s out on the market place for many years.

Cornelius Fichtner: This was your first project?

Jeff Furman: Yeah! Believe it or not, it was my first and biggest I guess. It was a very massive scale but I’m very happy that it went so well and we really, the benefits to the company were enormous. In other words, today it’s common place to have a change control system. Prior to this, there really was only paper form at best and often no forms with changes going into production.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah! And since this was your first project, did you have any formal project management training? Did you have any know-how of project management approaches, methodologies?

Jeff Furman: I did not. It sounds funny to say.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yes.

Jeff Furman: But I wasn’t a newcomer to the company so I already had a pretty good network. I was very friendly with many of the developers because I had been a technical trainer. All of these developers were people that I had taught programming languages and software development tools, testing tools, code analyzers. So I had taught a lot of these people a lot of courses so I had a kind of a friendly rapport with quite a lot; hundreds of these developers. And so I was brought into this project because they wanted someone who could really persuade the programmers why it’s good for them and really get them to use the tool.

Cornelius Fichtner: Okay. So you got the call, right? The next day, you started working on this project. What was the first thing you did?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only. Please subscribe to our Premium Podcast to receive a PDF transcript.

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