Category Archives: Apprenticeship

What makes a Project Manager, Professional?

The Professional Certification vs Experience Bias

Like many Project Managers, who had “earned their stripes” in the delivery of projects prior to the popularity of certifying organizations, I have often looked at the PMI certification “tags” after a signature with a certain level of skepticism. Was this really a Project Management “Professional” or just someone claiming expertise after paying a fee and taking a test? While it is true that there are many highly skilled and greatly experienced PMP‘s out there, there are also many PMP’s who present themselves as more than they really are.

The value and meaning of a PMP certification, or really any certification, has been well discussed in blog postings across the Internet and over many years. (See below for links to several of those discussions). The posting that hit the mark for me is one from 2006 by Timothy L Johnson, “Those Star Bellied Sneetches“. He sums up the issues,

[The Dr Seuss book] is about class warfare backfiring, but I see many of the same parallels showing up in the project management certification debate … especially in hiring and staffing decisions.

The presence of a PMP “star”, especially in today’s recruiting practices, is often misinterpreted as a guarantee of success and its absence, a sign of risk.

While such assignment may be misapplied, the concept of an organization that certifies the professional skills and experiences of a project manager does have merit. Companies and public agencies today have significant project needs and complex initiatives that would benefit from a skilled project manager … a project management professional.

So What Makes a Project Manger, a “Professional”?

Skills

“Skills” are the organizational structures that a PM brings to a project along with the ability to apply them expertly. Whether these structures are expressed in terms of PMI/PMBOK Processes or an ITIL Framework or some other form, these are the tools that a PM uses to build a project’s definition, plan, execution and control. Expertise in using these tools effectively is a basic requirement for a PM, who falls into the “Professional” category.

Perspective [aka experience]

Classroom studies and readings can provide an understanding of particular PMI or ITIL deliverables, but they don’t explain people or problems. Project management is not about managing “things”. Project Management is about leading and managing people / teams. When performed at a “Professional” level, Project Management utilizes experience (and the perspective can come with it) to help the project teams to be successful in their delivery.

Ethics

While all adults may be expected to conduct themselves ethically, recent years have shown that it not always the case. To avoid any confusion over what is “ethical conduct”, PMI created a formal Code of Ethics and Professional Development  that is enforced under penalty of certification loss:

  • Responsibility — Taking ownership of decisions including their consequences. This includes knowing and meeting all legal requirements, reporting unethical or illegal conduct to appropriate management, fulfilling commitments and protecting proprietary and confidential information.
  • Respect — Being respectful of yourself, listen to others and protect resources entrusted to us.
  • Fairness — Being fair and transparent in decisions including disclosing conflicts of interest to appropriate stakeholders.
  • Honesty — Being honest in communications and conduct.

ITIL similarly places importance on ethical conduct, but handles the topic of “ethics” through its Best Management Practice Partnership with APM Group‘s Ethics and Standards Board.

Ownership / Quality Delivery

Finally, with a “Professional” Project Manager, there is an inherent sense of ownership of a project. Just as a gardener carefully plants a seed and nurtures it as it grows to maturity, the “Professional” Project Manager guides a project through its life cycle.

The end product (the “fruit”) may belong to the business, but the project itself is “ours”. We take pride how well our “seedling” is supported by the project tools and framework that we utilize. We may add more structure along the way (or remove some) to ensure our projects grow fast and straight. The quality delivery of the project is our responsibility as Professional Project Managers.

The Role of Certifications & Organizations

As much as I dislike the inherent inference of expertise that certification monikers indicate today, the certifying organizations do provide effective tools, structures and frameworks upon which project management practitioners can effectively build.

Certifying organizations also have the potential to further their stature by addressing the experience gap. Instead of accepting form-based experience validations, these organizations should consider the creation of modern (project management) “trade” guilds, where apprentices can learn under the supervision of experienced PM “craftsmen” and masters. Instead of discarding certifications, stronger mentoring links with seasoned professionals or structured apprenticeships should be established as part of certification requirements.

[Yes … I am a PMI-certified PMP.]

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The De-valued Professional Project Manager” by Bruce McGraw, 2012, http://fearnoproject.com/2012/03/17/the-de-valued-professional-project-manager/

If you have devoted your career to being a professional PM, like I have, you are frustrated watching companies put individuals into project manager positions who do not have the experience nor the skills to do the job.

Those Star Bellied Sneetches” by Timothy L Johnson,  2006,  http://carpefactum.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/05/those_starbelly.html

[Dr Seuss book] is about class warfare backfiring, but I see many of the same parallels showing up in the project management certification debate .. especially in hiring and staffing decisions.

Project Management – A Modern Profession” by Michelle Symons, 2012, http://www.pmhut.com/project-management-a-modern-profession

But recognition of professionalism is not just about training and qualifications – it is also about continuous professional development and the ability to demonstrate the skills necessary to competently manage complex projects.

License to manage? (On PMP and certification)” by Scott Berkun, 2006, http://www.scottberkun.com/blog/2006/license-to-manage-on-pmp-and-certification/

I just don’t believe that on their own these things signify much about the ability to perform, especially as a manager. To be fair, I doubt any exam or degree can do that, which explains my general opinion about certification programs.

Why I’m Not a PMP“, by Glenn Alleman, 2006,  http://herdingcats.typepad.com/my_weblog/2006/05/raven_young_pos.html

I guess in the end the PMP moniker doesn’t appeal to me that much. It seems to be a “gate keeping” type badge.

Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need

In October, Dr. Peter Cappelli, director of the Center for Human Resources at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, wrote an interesting article for the Wall Street Journal, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need”. In it, Dr. Cappelli noted,

With an abundance of workers to choose from, employers are demanding more of job candidates than ever before. They want prospective workers to be able to fill a role right away, without any training or ramp-up time. In other words, to get a job, you have to have that job already. It’s a Catch-22 situation for workers–and it’s hurting companies and the economy.

In a previous posting, I highlighted that same conundrum … you have to have job experience to get a job … there’s no starting point. The article generated such a strong reader response, particularly because he identified the business community as being at fault, not the educational system. He followed up with another article, further explaining how corporations use “automated screening” of job applicants and how they need to accept responsibility for the lack of planning (for lead times) in obtaining skilled workers. With regard to lead times, he commented,

Silicon Valley pretty much invented the “free agent” model of hiring for new skills rather than training and letting workers go once those skills aren’t needed.

Dr Cappelli feels that it is the responsibility of the companies and corporations to build the skills of their employees. Several business bloggers took exception to Dr. Cappelli’s statements. One of whom, Cheryl Oldham, Vice President, U.S. Forum for Policy Innovation, US Chamber of Commerce (USCOC) and Board Member of the USCOC’s Institute for a Competitive Workforce, felt that the problem did not belong to the companies, but to the American educational system:

If the problem were as simple as tweaking some hiring practices and increasing workplace training, it would be done by now. … Too many of our children are leaving high school without the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in college or the workforce.

For those of us who benefited from the consulting/technology apprenticeship programs of the 1980’s and 90’s, a response to her statement might be, “It was simple and it was effective.”

This discussion progressed into a radio broadcast discussion between Ms. Oldham and Dr. Cappelli, hosted by Minnesota Public Radio and reported on by Susan Seitel, in the Huffington Post. If you haven’t hear the discussion, “Why companies aren’t getting the employees they need?”, I suggest that you follow the links below and spend 45 minutes reflecting on this issue. While both participants and callers made their points, Dr. Cappelli’s conclusion was perhaps the most on target,

What employers say the want, uniformly, in the surveys for at least 25 years, is they want work-based skills. They don’t want theoretical stuff. They want work-based skills.  The best way to do that, to learn that material, is on-the-job, in an apprentice-like arrangement. … The problem that most of the workers now are having, especially [new graduates], is the application wants work experience already. In an apprenticeship-like program, the economics of this basically says what you pay people less while they get the training. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. You see this also with tuition reimbursement programs. The employer pays the tuition. The student-employee goes to school on their own time, nights and weekends, and they’re co-investing.

Without focusing on the fault, he highlighted the need for a “co-investing” that needs to occur between the employee and the employer. They need to work together to develop the skills the company looks for, even if it requires unpaid or reduced pay time during that training period.

The co-investment of workers and employers is clearly defined in a mentor-apprentice program. The company provides the mentor and the apprentices provide work-products while they learn. Both groups invest time/effort. Both gain benefit.

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Dr Peter Cappelli, “Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need”, WSJ, 24 October 2011

Dr Peter Cappelli, “’Why Companies Aren’t Getting the Employees They Need’: The Author Follows Up”, WSJ 26 October 2011

Mrs. Cheryl Oldham “Why Companies REALLY Can’t Find the Employees They Need” 3 Part blog entry, 3, 4 & 7 November 2011 [Part 2] [Part 3]

Ms. Susan Seitel, “A Skills Shortage Or Unrealistic Expectations?”, The Huffington Post, 2 December 2011

The discussion on Minnesota Public Radio, “Why companies aren’t getting the employees they need” Broadcast: Midmorning, 11/30/2011, 9:06 a.m.

Doing Well While Doing Good

“Can companies do well by doing good?” That was the question posed by Harvard Professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter, in her September 2010 MIT Sloan Management Review article. She highlighted that just donating money may be good, but should not be expected to provide a company strategic advantage. She went on to say,

But if a company can integrate the benefits that it offers society more closely into its existing business, that integration can be very sensible and beneficial for the business.

This societal benefit can be related to a “green” design or the quality of the goods produced. It can also be related to the support of the local community through jobs and wages.

We’ve all seen job-creating efforts come-and-go, as they’ve been built around artificial needs. They provided temporary benefit, but returned the workers to their initial no-job state at their conclusion. Such work is provides temporary money to the community, but doesn’t address underlying unemployment / under-employment issues.

An alternative is to identify structured, well-defined jobs within companies that would normally require special training and experience levels of one or two years. These would not be new, temporary jobs, but jobs that are part of the regular business operations. Such jobs could be assigned to teams of apprentices, each guided by a mentor. Unlike make-work job efforts, these initiatives would provide hands-on training to those motivated, inexperienced workers and would lift them into a productive work “experienced” status. More than 84% of the job openings for 2- and 4-year college grads in the Portland Tri-County area require experience.

Apprenticeship-mentorship programs would provide that badly needed experience for these resource groups.

The host/sponsor companies could also realize reduced labor costs by utilizing apprentice-mentor teams instead of the traditional temp-workers while providing an opportunity for experience and on-the-job training to the local, entry-level IT labor force. These companies would be “doing well” for their stakeholders “while doing good” for their communities.

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How to Do Well and Do Good” by Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration. MIT Sloan Management Review 51, no. 2 (September 2010).

I got a degree, so where’s my job?

Like many parents, I told my kids, “Study hard, go to college, pick a technical course of study and you’ll get a good job.” While that direction may have been enough in the 1980’s or 90’s, today you need to add, “Get some work experience.” In the Portland, Oregon, area, over 80% of the job openings, requiring a 2- or 4-year degree, also require previous experience.

OK, so how do you get a job to get experience if most of the jobs require experience? Think chicken-before-egg or if you’re my age, Catch-22.

This circular logic problem is a wonderful life-example for your 20-something kids, but by that time in their lives they are a little tired of hearing about life lessons. They want answers. After some struggle, they may even look to you for help. So where do you turn?

  • Internships are often a good place to gain basic levels of experience. Companies often open up summer work internships to help with heavy-lifting projects (filing, relocations, equipment swaps, etc.) that don’t require much training or expertise. Unfortunately, the intern rarely learns much beyond show-up-on-time or how-to-follow-instructions and the typical duration, 3 to 4 months, is really not enough to help land a good job.
  • Know someone who can vouch for their abilities as quick learners. A best friend’s father or mother may be helpful, especially if either is an IT manager. They might have problems with hiring their own kids, but bringing in a sharp, energetic college grad is often a plus. Unfortunately, the odds are so small of that happening that they aren’t something to depend on.

Is there a better answer?

An apprenticeship program for IT grads. Twenty years ago, these programs were common in medium-to-large consulting companies. College grads would join a consulting firm and receive several weeks of subject-specific training. If they survived that shake-out period, they would be assigned to work on a project under the direct guidance of a senior staff member. Through a combination of observation and weekly reviews, the new hire would learn a professional style and delivery, while actively contributing on a project at a client site.

This system worked well. The clients were charged a reduced rate for the “junior consultants” and the senior staff resource provided both mentorship to the “apprentices” and assurance of quality delivery to the clients.

Where are these programs today?

With the exception of a few firms, they are largely gone. They disappeared in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with the boom of the dot-com era (demand for any talent regardless of experience) and the bust that followed. In the 2000’s, budgets were tight and job openings were few. Little energy was expended on training new workers for jobs that could be filled by qualified (often over-qualified) resources.

Today, many of these entry-level jobs are going unfilled, going to foreign workers holding H-1B visas or they are being outsourced to companies overseas.

There are, however, a few new IT apprenticeship programs starting up in the Portland area. One such initiative, Protégé Builder, is presented by a Portland consulting company, ieSolutions. It is built on a software testing framework as its core technology. I’m told that another company is operating a similar program, built on Java programmer staffing.

While these IT apprenticeship programs are small today, they hold hope for the future. Portland is rebuilding and reclaiming jobs for its community.