Is Project Management for You?

Jay Hicks

Have you any idea of how well suited you are for the career field of commercial project management? Your leadership and planning skills ingrained during military service, coupled with your adaptability and willingness to accept change, enable you to transition successfully into this field. You may have performed as an action officer, training officer, operations planner, commander, or platoon sergeant or equivalent. Each of these roles equates to project manager in the civilian world.

Project management is a high-value, target-rich environment. A career in this field offers you an opportunity to lead a group or team to solve complex, unique challenges, while utilizing a methodology common to all industry.

You can provide value to an organization as a project manager in construction, information technology (IT), healthcare, security, or a number of other industries. How much industry-specific knowledge do you need? An IT project manager, for example, must have a thorough understanding of the IT sector in which he or she works, but does not have to be the technical expert on the project.


PROJECT MANAGEMENT SOP

What is the methodology common to all industries? Look to the Project Management Institute. The PMI, a non-profit organization, develops standards and provides education, certification, and networking opportunities through local chapters. The preeminent standard for project management recognized throughout industry is the PMI’s A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, also known as the PMBOK® Guide. The PMBOK presents fundamental methods and practices that project management professionals utilize to achieve excellence.

As a servicemember, you are accustomed to regulations and standard operating procedures. As you read PMBOK, you will find that the standardized methodologies are not only valuable, but also fairly reminiscent of your military experience. According to Mark Langley, CEO of the PMI, the military is a “highly projectized environment, which makes many veterans a natural fit in the project management world.”

Langley is very much on the side of the veteran. Due to his leadership, PMI is helping servicemembers transition into the field via a program called “Preparing the U.S. Military for Project Management Careers,” which was launched in July 2016.


YOU KNOW THE BASICS

Fortunately, you already know and understand the basics of project management. The military has exposed you to planning and time management, taught you how to multitask, and shown you how to get the job accomplished. You know how to take charge, you are not afraid to lead, and you know how to talk to senior leadership.

All of these are critical attributes – they will enable you to grasp very quickly the concepts of commercial project management. You will be highly successful once you understand how your military experience has prepared you. You just need to be able to translate, repackage, and certify your skills so that hiring managers can spot them.


PART OF YOUR MILITARY DNA

Are you aware that by virtue of having served in the military, project management is part of your makeup – your history – your DNA? The military has continually developed project management tools that have been adopted by the commercial profession. As a veteran, you should have confidence in knowing that your military heritage helped develop and shape modern project management. Let me give you four examples:

  1. The construction of the Panama Canal was one of the first major military project management efforts in modern times. In 1907, after several years of frustration, President Theodore Roosevelt selected the Army Corps of Engineers to finish the canal work. He appointed Major George Washington Goethals chief engineer. Goethals used techniques that eventually became part of modern project management. He established the first work breakdown structure (WBS) system in history. This tool enabled project managers to decompose the canal project into smaller components. Today, elements of WBS include products, services, and data; and a framework for determining cost estimates and for controlling and scheduling development.

  2. In 1917, General William Crozier, chief of ordnance of the Army, hired Henry Gantt, an American mechanical engineer, to prepare the country for mobilization and deployment into World War I. Shortly before that, Gantt had developed the now famous Gantt chart – which was considered revolutionary when introduced. The Gantt chart is a type of bar chart that illustrates a project schedule. Originally, the chart elements included start-to-finish dates for activities within the project. Today, Gantt charts also show preceding activities and relationships among activities. A project manager can use a Gantt chart to show a current schedule with a line designating “today” and a bar representing an activity marked to indicate percent completion.

  3. The D-Day Invasion in 1944 was a massive project with a multitude of plans, sequels, and branches within a plan. American General – and later, President – Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme allied commander in Europe during World War II, stated that D-Day was “a project so unique as to be classed by many scoffers as completely fantastic. It was a plan to construct artificial harbors on the coast of Normandy.”

  4. In 1958, the U.S. Navy developed the program evaluation and review technique (PERT) for its Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile project. This first PERT analyzed the tasks and identified the minimum time to complete the project, which was running behind schedule.The managers divided the effort into several thousand tasks, each represented by an arrow. They connected the arrows in proper sequence and estimated the duration of each task, thereby enabling them to calculate the total duration of the project. Today, PERT is more elaborate, but it continues to enable project managers to analyze total project time by evaluating each task.

Managers often use the terms PERT and Critical Path Method (CPM) interchangeably because both use a network scheduling method. Like PERT, CPM is just an elegant way of demonstrating how long each task will take, while providing a duration for finishing the project.


VETERANS AND CERTIFICATION

PMI reports that approximately 16 million new project management roles will be added globally by 2020. So project management offers unfettered professional potential for years to come. You can choose a career field that offers you great growth – and one for which you are well suited.

In 2016, according to CIO magazine, the median base salary for an individual working in project management in the United States is $105,000. Employers pay even higher salaries – median $113,000 – to project managers with PMI’s Project Management Professional (PMP) certification.

How would you, as a veteran, obtain this certification? One of your first steps would be to complete an online application. Do you have the qualifications to take this step? You may be more qualified than you think. Keep in mind that many military activities you led at different levels translate directly to the project management world. You just need to be able to articulate this information to the person who will read the application.

One way to figure out what to say would be to read and understand the descriptions of project process groups in PMBOK before filling out the application. Doing this would force you to think about how your military work relates to project management – while giving you the proper terminology necessary for the application.

  • While deployed, your operational, training, and exercises involvement gave you valuable project experience. While in garrison, you gained experience in leadership and management. Now you would need to translate this knowledge and experience to PMI vernacular.

  • Many project management terms are nearly synonymous with military terminology. We already understand how an operation or a mission is a project. Further, an operations order is comparable to a project plan, which describes how a project will be executed, monitored, and controlled.

  • Most of you have led After Action Reviews (AAR). Within project management, the similar activity of capturing lessons learned takes place during the Project Closing process group. Just like an AAR, this effort is conducted for the purpose of improving future performance.

On the application, you must show many hours of project-management experience you have with responsibility for project delivery, leading, and directing cross-functional teams. Keep in mind that, when you are deployed, your work hours increase dramatically. Twelve-hour days are a regular occurrence, and the average servicemember works for several days at a time, sometimes seven days a week.

So what is in your future? Consider project management. After all, it is in your blood. Best of luck in your job search, and thank you for serving in the armed forces of the United States.

Meet the Author

Jay Hicks served in the United States Army from 1985 to 2005, retiring as a lieutenant colonel. Since retiring, he has worked as a project manager, instructor, and consultant for government as a planner and leader. In 2014, he co-founded Gr8Transitions4U, an organization that advocates the value of hiring veterans. Hicks is the co-author of The Transitioning Military Project Manager, The Transitioning Military IT Professional, and The Transitioning Military Logistician. He currently has three more books in the works, including The Transitioning Military Cyber Security Professional. He has two sons serving in the military.

What did you do in the military?

I started off as a tanker. I transferred to ordnance, and after that I started managing logistics operations. Then, during the last eight years of my service, I worked in information technology (IT). I changed career fields four times during my 20 years in the Army and, of course, never missed a paycheck. I think that’s one of the extraordinary things about the military.

In that 20 years, I held quite a few different positions as well. I served in almost every battalion staff position. I was a platoon leader, a company commander, a brigade operations officer, and an executive officer.

Where did you serve?

I was assigned to Germany twice. My first tour was around when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. My second tour was during the last days of the Cold War. Then, during the Gulf War, I was assigned to the Balkans, and I also went to Qatar.

Stateside, I have lived in Fort Hood, Fort Leonard Wood, and Fort Sill. For two years, from 1994 to 1996, I was assigned to the 116th Cavalry Brigade out of Gowen Field Air National Guard Base in Boise, Idaho, which was a really unique assignment. During that assignment, I learned about some of the challenges that Guard and reserve members face. They do some great things for our country, but often deal with a great many obstacles. Some employers refuse to give them time off for drill or annual training, so they’re forced to use personal time or vacation time to honor their military commitment. But then that time is taken away from their families.

What was the most memorable experience of your military career?

My deployments to the former East Bloc and the Middle East made me feel like we were making a difference. All of the training and planning that I received up to that point finally culminated, and it was just an amazing experience. I am proud to be a part of that.

What did you learn while transitioning out of the service?

My friends and I thought we would have no problem finding prestigious, well-paying jobs when we got out. But the truth is that without preparation, you are going to flounder. And unfortunately, quite a few do flounder.

I got out and began my career as a project manager for Lockheed Martin. However, I take pride in my work; and I soon learned that, in order to do my job at my best capacity, I needed more training. If I had done better research on that career track before retiring, I would have been much better prepared.

What is the most important thing for veterans to know when transitioning out of the military?

You can have a very deliberate transition or you could stumble into something. But in this day and age, stumbling into something that will be the perfect fit for you is almost impossible. It is far better to have a deliberate approach to your transition than simply waiting and hoping that everything will be fine.

Begin early and figure out what career field you want to enter. That way, you can prepare yourself and get the required certifications and education you will need to make a strong start.

What was your first civilian job after retirement from the Army? What did you learn from that experience?

I was a DoD contractor for U.S. Central Command, working as an IT project manager for Lockheed Martin. Honestly, it was a challenging experience to go from being a leader in the Army to a “worker bee” position. Before, I could say “this is what needs to happen” and people would make it happen. It took me some time to understand and adjust to my new role.

In some ways, transitioning out of the military is like graduating high school or college all over again. You are starting new. I had to rethink and relearn how things work in the civilian arena. It can be daunting.

What do you consider milestones in your civilian career?

Getting certified as a project manager was a big step in the right direction. Instead of winging it, I actually learned what I was supposed to do as a project manager.

In the military, there is a bit of confusion regarding what is an action officer and what is project manager. There is a tremendous difference. An action officer directs and oversees the receipt, tasking, tracking, and closure of internal and external tasks. A project manager initiates, plans, executes, monitors, controls, and closes projects. Good, bad, or ugly, a project is owned by the project manager. Many times, government officials want action officers and not project managers. So becoming certified and understanding what being a project manager was all about was a big step for me during my civilian transition.

Another big step was the opportunity to build project management organizations (PMOs) at U.S. Central Command and U.S. Special Operations Command, where I was the director of multiple PMOs and deputy program manager. Here I learned volumes of information about defense contracting, providing value, project closure, and program control.

The capstone to my 30 years as a military and defense contractor is authoring my three books to help people in their transition. In the books, I use a lot of my own experiences for reference. That way, people do not have to make the same mistakes I made. I want to enable people to make better, smarter decisions about their transition.

Describe what you do now. What choices led you to where you are now in your career?

I was ready to get out of defense contracting, and the writing was a natural thing for me. It was something I had always wanted to do, and I felt that I had a lot to share. I wanted to capture those obstacles that I had faced and build roadmaps for others to be able to make their journeys smoother.

How do the skills, attitudes, and habits that you acquired in the military help you now?

I would say there are two major things that have helped me the most: attention to detail and discipline. I think I acquired those two skills when I was an adjutant in Germany as a lieutenant during the Cold War. In that position, I had to learn how to write and edit awards and evaluations and other documents, which are very specific, detailed, and time-sensitive. Today, I am constantly creating, writing, and editing. Much of this capability was based on my experience on battalion staff.

What do you do to stay involved?

In addition to my goal of publishing a transition book every year, I also speak around the country on military transition classes. I do lunch-and-learns at the local Air Force base to teach people about project management. I have spoken at the transition assistance course here in Tampa.

I am also the military liaison for the Project Management Institute (PMI). During my time in this position, we have picked up about 40 more military liaisons and two new chapters across the country. We targeted metropolitan areas with co-located military bases. My business partner and co-author, Sandy Cobb, has been assisting with this. Due to our efforts, PMI now has a formal program for helping military people in their transition.

Why are you passionate about helping veterans?

I have two sons in the service, and I want them to have an easier time of it. There are tens of thousands of servicemembers who transition out of the military every year. They have worked so hard and put themselves in harm’s way to serve our country. I want to show my appreciation, and I am assisting the best way I know how.

By Jay Hicks on Thursday October 27, 2016

This article appeared in the November-December 2016 issue of Search & Employ Magazine