From Software Engineer to CIO – Maurice Hagar’s Story

I sat down with Maurice Hagar to discuss his successful career and his thoughts about the future of project management. Here are some excerpts from our discussion.

Do you want to start off by telling us how you got started in your project management career and how you got to where you are now?

 Sure. I was actually an education undergrad but never taught because, unfortunately, teachers don’t make much of a living. I also developed an early interest in computers and bought my first PC, an Osborne, in 1982. I started learning to program on my own before taking some courses at the university and finishing with a minor in computer science. My first job out of school was software engineering at Boeing. Then I did some consulting, primarily at Coca-Cola, on behalf of Cap-Gemini. And then I was recruited to London-based pharmaceutical GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), where I was soon managing software developers, and from there I moved into global program management and, finally, into running a PMO.

 I left GSK in 2005 and returned to consulting, primarily in the area of project management. And I also got an opportunity to do some teaching for Learning Tree, which sort of took me full circle—now I can do what I love most and actually get paid to do it! I teach pretty much the entire project management curriculum at Learning Tree and I also do some course development. I just finished a new Project Leadership course for them and now I’m working on an advanced course in managing complex projects.

I did take a couple of years off from consulting and teaching. In 2008 I was recruited to the role of CTO for a startup company. I was brought in specifically to rescue a troubled offshore project that was an R&D effort and really not a good candidate for offshoring. I brought it back in house and we quickly turned it around. The company didn’t survive but I was in the right place at the right time because they were a spin-off from a larger company, Health Decisions, and they asked me to stay on as CIO, which I did until 2010. That was a great experience but now I’m consulting and teaching again, which truly is my first love.

I love the variety of experiences I get consulting and teaching. I’ve been privileged to work with a number of government agencies, with top universities, several branches of the military, and Fortune 500 companies across the country. And I learn something new every day, which I then get to teach to others, which leads to more learning, and so on.  

That brings us to a good question. What is your vision for the future of project management?

 Any realistic vision of the future has to begin with understanding of where we’re at, and where we are at is not a good place. As I said, my first job out of school was for Boeing. I went to work with a team of 10 or 12 developers and hadn’t been there long when some new work came down, a new project, and the team leader, who’d been there for many years, estimated the work at—I don’t remember exactly—something like six months. There was another new fellow on the team, Bob, who was just out of school too. The two of us looked at each other and said, “Six months?” Somehow I drew the short straw and went to speak to the team lead. I remember when I got to his office, and I’m not exaggerating here, he had his feet on his desk and was working on a crossword puzzle.

I said, “Um, Bob and I were talking about this new project, and we sort of think maybe we could do it faster.” “Is that right?” he said. “Just how fast do you and Bob think you could do it?” “Well,” I said, “I don’t know. We’re just out of school—what do we know—maybe six weeks?” I’ll never forget what he said to me. He pointed his finger across his desk and over his feet and said: “Young man, one day I was just like you, and some day you’ll be just like me!”

“Dear God I hope not!” I thought. And he has served as role model of sorts ever since. For the rest of my career I’ve always wondered what would he do and then I just do the opposite! So I’ve been on this lifelong quest to figure out how to do it better, faster, cheaper. I joined PMI in 1997 and have seen a lot of maturity, as a discipline, but frankly we haven’t made much progress since those early days at Boeing.

No matter what data you look at, we continue to get bad report cards. Weather forecasters have a better track record than project managers! But if you think about the reason why: project management is all about predicting the future, and that’s not easy to do. There’s an old proverb that says, “Making predictions is always difficult, especially about the future!” When you get that PMP certification, unfortunately, they don’t give you a crystal ball with that. We’re not prophets, we’re not psychics, and yet we are routinely asked to predict the future—what are you going to do, how long will it take you, how many people do you need, how much money will you spend. How do we know? We’re asked to make commitments even. And our careers depend on them! The bottom line is that project management is all about managing and meeting expectations of the future and that’s not an easy job. I recently read an article for CEO’s introducing them to project management. It was a good overview but the conclusion was that it doesn’t work!

I remember I was in Chicago doing a project management seminar at Northwestern University. The hotel shuttle driver asked me what I do and when I told him he said, “Oh, do I have a story to tell you!” He said his first job out of college he went to work for an IT project manager who told lie after lie after lie. Finally, he said, he couldn’t take it anymore and one day he walked out the door and now he was driving the hotel shuttle until he found his next job. Wow! Then came the punch line. He said, “Are you here to teach project managers how to lie?” I couldn’t believe it!  

The problem is that, while we’re getting better in terms of maturity, process, etc., I think the realities and complexities of the world we all live in are outpacing our discipline. We are dealing with larger, more complex entities, with globalization, with the speed of change that all this technology has enabled. So, to my point, the next wave for project management, and we are seeing this already, we need to be looking at complexity thinking, chaos theory, and these kinds of concepts for direction. We are dealing with non-linear, open, and adaptive systems that are going to do their own things—what we call emergence and self-organization—regardless of what kind of structure we try to impose on them.

Philosophically, our methods are rooted in a rationalistic, predictive approach to management when we should be taking more of an empirical approach. The only way we can know the future is to experience the future. Take a step and plan, take another step and re-plan. This is a military doctrine too – engage the enemy early and often and that will give us better intelligence than all of our reconnaissance and intelligence combined. There are also a large number of project managers out there who are project managers by title or certification only but frankly they don’t know how to manage even the basics, or they’re lacking a fundamental knowledge of their own business domain.

Finally, we have focused more on the science of project management and not enough on the art of project management – what I call project leadership. These are the soft skills, the social, organizational, and psychological sciences. This is absolutely crucial – emotional intelligence, motivation, communication, dealing with conflict, negotiation, politics, etc. – this is where project management needs to go. By the way, the best two word job description I know of for project managers, besides “project manager,” is “office politician!” This is the future of project management. And it’s what good project managers have always known. 

 You are also a certified Scrum Professional, what role do you think Agile has in the future of project management?

I’m a big believer in Agile and have been for a long time. When you are dealing with complex projects, you can’t plan for months or years in advance, so you are better off planning a couple of weeks or a couple of months in advance – what the PMBOK calls rolling wave planning or progressive elaboration. There is no question that Agile will play a big role in the future of project management. As you know, even at PMI there is a lot of interest in Agile. PMI’s Agile Community of Practice is growing very rapidly, and this is a good thing. We have a lot to learn from the Agile community—and they have a lot to learn from us. Yet I’m still surprised by how many project managers have never heard of Agile.  

By the way, something I mentioned earlier, we also have a lot to learn from the military. Who manages more complexity than the military? And they do a lot of research in this area. Let me recommend a fabulous resource: The Command and Control Research Program is a joint effort between DoD and NATO. They’ve published dozens of articles and full-length books even that are all public domain. And one of the most prominent words you’ll find in their research is “agility.” “Agility” is the catch-word for modern military command and control. And you read a lot about things such as decentralization, emergent leadership, what they call “power to the edge,” and so on. We have a lot to learn.

Many project managers have stumbled into the profession. What do you think is the career path for project managers? I have met many project managers who are trying to figure out the “what’s next” in their careers.

That’s a good question; it’s a question I get asked as well. I also get questions like: “I’m feeling kind of stuck. I don’t see where my career is going from here. What do you recommend?” My answer to such questions is a little bit unorthodox. My response is, “Tell me what you do.” And they typically tell me they are a project manager of some sort. Then I say, “No, no. I mean why do you do it? What do you really do? What does your company do?” So they come up with something. Then my follow up is, “And do you really care about that?” The answer is usually, “Well, I have bills to pay!” And there’s the problem. You’ve heard it said before but find something you really care about, something you can pour your heart and soul into, your calling, your reason for existence on this planet, and everything else will take care of itself. If you really care about something your career will take care of itself and the questions go away.

Gallup does employee engagement polling and it is amazing how many of our people have bills to pay but don’t really care about their work. But frankly it’s not their fault, and that’s Gallup’s conclusion as well. Here’s a surprise for you, corporations are full of incompetent leaders! It’s the Peter Principle at work, which says everybody gets promoted to their level of incompetence, so you have entire organizations full of incompetent people. Good leadership is rare, and bad leadership is the real culprit. Most people don’t begin their careers disengaged. They actually care, for a while at least, and then they get managed, or mismanaged.

Another question I commonly hear is, “What should I do if I’m stuck with bad management?” The answer is find something you care about, learn everything you can about it, continue to work hard in spite of a bad boss, and soon enough you’ll be the boss! Then do it right for those behind you.     

You love photography, I see, it seems like it’s a passion of yours.

I do love photography. And I love Photoshop, which is the most amazing piece of software ever developed. But I really love photography because my daughter loves photography! That’s how I get a little daughter-dad time. We do a wedding once in a while and I do some horse photography too. My wife was born and raised with horses so I married into that. And she has a dog grooming business, which works well because, though I spend a lot of time on the road, when I’m home she can take some time off too. And I also try to play a little bass. And I read a lot.

 Can you recommend some reading for other project managers?

All project managers should have a basic reference like Harold Kerzner’s textbook. And they should be reading PMI publications. Some other books I would recommend, looking at my bookshelf here, are:

eXtreme Project Management by Doug DeCarlo

Tools for Complex Projects by Kaye Remington and Julien Pollack

Agile Project Management by Ken Schwaber

Lean Software Development by Mary and Tom Poppendick

Succeeding with Agile by Mike Cohn

SDLC 3.0 by Mark Kennaley

Right-Brain Project Management by Michael Aucoin

The Art of Project Management by Scott Berkun

Emotional Intelligence for Project Managers by Anthony Mersino

Product Development Flow by Donald Reinertsen

But it’s also important to read as widely as you can. Some additional recommendations might be:

Harvard Business Review

Profiting From Uncertainty by Paul Schoemaker

The Ambiguity Advantage by David Wilkinson

Drive by Daniel Pink

The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge

First Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

Good to Great by Jim Collins

The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

Leading Change by John Kotter

Selling Change by Brett Clay

That should keep you busy for a while!

Looking back at your career, do you think there were certain decisions or tipping points that took you to the next level?

That’s a great question. I never had aspirations to reach the top. Early on in my career I accidentally stumbled upon the schedule of one of the executives at my company. He was booked solid from 7am till 9pm, and I said, “You can have it! That is not for me.” And, like most engineers, I am an introvert by nature (an INTJ on the Myers Briggs) so in the early days my attitude was just hide me in the back office somewhere, slide food under the door, I’ll slide code back out across the network, and we’ll all be happy. But I think the thing that made the biggest difference in my career was recognition of the importance of soft skills – just talking to people face to face – and building relationships. Good relationships, and good teams for that matter, don’t just happen. It’s hard work, and it’s important work. Getting to know each other and building trust and giving and earning respect make a very big difference in terms of productivity and success and opportunity.

Another crucial lesson I learned early on from a mentor was the importance of never saying yes and never saying no. When they come down and tell you they need x done with y resources by z date, “yes” will get you fired later and “no” will get you fired now. The right answer is always “yes we can do that because we can do anything and that’s a great idea and I can’t wait to get started and let’s begin by discussing the implications in terms of business value, time, cost, scope, quality, etc.” This is just Project Management 101.

And, finally, my brother-in-law comes to mind. He’s a senior architect at IBM. He has done very well so I asked him one day, “What’s the secret to your success?” His answer was pretty simple. He said, “I’m the only person I know who actually reads the specs!” Now, of course, there’s more to it than that because he, too, recognizes the importance of soft skills alongside his technical skills. He’s a master of both. And I think that’s the secret to success.

About Samir Penkar

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4 Responses to From Software Engineer to CIO – Maurice Hagar’s Story

  1. Just posted a link at my new blog Stop by and say hello!

  2. Judy White says:

    Maurice and Samir,

    Thank you for the enlightened post.

    In our work partnering with organizational leaders, we too, believe that the future is not a place we go to but one in which we must create. It’s critically important for leaders and project managers to clarify what drives them currently and in the future in order to lead the new workplaces of the future.

    Thank you, Maurice for your authentic perspective.

    Judy White, SPHR, GPHR, HCS
    The Infusion Group™

    • Samir Penkar says:

      Hello Judy – The mission of The Infusion Group resonated with me – the focus on what matters most is so fundamental to success. Energized people are just super efficient.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention From Software Engineer to CIO – Maurice Hagar’s Story | Future Of Project Management --

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