Few key decisions can tip your career – Chris Vandersluis

Here is the transcript of the interview with Chris Vandersluis, a successful project manager and President of HMS Software in Canada.

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?

In 1983 I was a programmer, and worked with a guy who would become my partner in business in the company I run now – HMS Software. I got a programming job creating the project management system for a brand new project management office at Phillips. Phillips had a hi-tech division that was making computers, PCs were quite new in 1983 and Phillips was working at getting new products to the market. They had a very aggressive PMO. We got the job of creating their project management system, reporting and time sheet systems.

The reason that we got that job was that both my partner and I had worked with somebody who had worked with construction projects for many years. We had done some work for him creating a piece of software for creating punch lists. He was quite knowledgeable about project management. So in 1982-83 I had been completely immersed in the project management culture from a programmer side.

Where did you go from there?

Those contracts introduced us to a brand new company out of Texas called Welcom Software. They made a project called Open Plan. Welcom was purchased a few years ago by Deltek. When we met them they had been in business for about six months, they were a company of four people and we decide that this would be a good product for the Phillips PMO.  We negotiated with Welcom to become their Canadian distributor, they were really too new to have many distributors, so after a brief negotiation we became their exclusive Canadian distributor. Welcom’s Open Plan product was really one of the high end project management products. We competed with Artemis and Primavera pretty much exclusively for that high end market. And over the next 15 years we ended up in most of the large scale enterprise project management type projects in Canada. We worked on defense projects, aerospace projects, oil, offshore projects, and we were the people who were deploying the tool, but you know when you are deploying a high end tool you also have to be very experienced in the methodology. We became quite well known in the market place for being a supplier of high end project scheduling and project reporting software products for mid to large size organizations.

Is that what you do now with HMS Software?

No, the market has changed pretty dramatically several times since 1983. Our company has evolved over time. In 1994, my partner left the business and I became the President and the sole owner.  We had some venture capital funding, which lasted for a while, then we bought the venture capitalists back out after the tech crash. We became a publisher of timesheet software which is very popular in the project management environment. The timesheet is called Time Control. Time Control was released originally in 1994, so it’s been out there now for 17 years. Time Control is the primary aspect of our business today. We do some project management consulting from time to time and portfolio management consulting since we still carry all that knowledge of over 27 years of the methodology that makes project management work.

With all your experience over 27 years, where do you think project management is headed? What would be your vision for project management?

Project management is becoming more of a mainstream conversation than it used to be. All the trends that we have seen in the last quarter century point in that direction. Project management is not new; there was project management when they built the pyramids and has been around for as long as they have been projects. But, project management was always considered a kind of a dark art. People said we give this to the project manager and then “I don’t know, something happens and projects come out!” What the project manager did in between the conception and delivery of the project really only a small cadre of people knew. In the last 15 to 20 years the knowledge of project management continues to expand at a rapid pace. So we now see project management education as a natural part of business education. We view project management courses as a natural part of engineering education. We see project management courses as natural path for people studying bio research and many other paths.

So, project management has gone from being a program that had no formal education available at all a few years ago to one where you can now get a graduate degree in project management. If you ask for trends in the future I would expect that to continue. Some people who have been around for a long time are upset about that because they say the “specialness” of project management is going away. And I say maybe that is true, but the breadth of project management is expanding. I see project management to be less of a specialty where you once might have said “Gosh you have to find one of those few project managers to help us.” And more of the kind of thing where everyone has that skill or many people have that skill.

What are your views on agile project management which seems to be gaining momentum now? Even PMI now has an Agile Community of Practice.

I think PMI follows whatever the popular trend is and it is an organization that wants to increase its membership. So if agile is the popular movement then agile will be a special interest group. Agile appeals to people in the IT industry, it hasn’t really expanded to far beyond that. For the IT industry it has a particular appeal, not for everyone in the IT industry, but for many the idea of breaking your work down into manageable sprints, being able to pull everyone together and say let’s all go together at this one goal is quite attractive.

For those who have tried the opposite which is let’s make long complex projects that are going to last for weeks or months only to come to the end of that phase to find that the work doesn’t resemble anything productive or fit to go into production. Agile says when we get to the end of this two week sprint we are going to have production code. In IT you can say that, by itself it won’t do much, but in 10 days it will do something. This doesn’t hold if I go to, say, the construction business and say “In 10 days I can put up a wall”, but can you live in it. No!

But for IT agile is often a good fit. The larger the project, my guess is the more attractive agile becomes. The project doesn’t have to go to the very end to be productive. It may be productive & commercial and useable far before the original end point. If you get to a point where someone says “we have got the end of the budget and the end of the schedule have we got something that is working?” if you are working in an agile environment, the answer is often yes, then they might just stop right there.

You talk a lot about the enterprise project management concept. Could you give us a quick synopsis of the concept?

Many people call me because I am person who is well known for enterprise project management. I have written about it in a number of publications and for many years. The first thing that I always say when I sit down with a client and they say “Help us with our enterprise project management” I have to say what is it to you?

Enterprise project management at its core has something to do with more than one person working together. If we are just talking about a single project manager working then enterprise project management isn’t relevant. But as soon as we have multiple people working on projects perhaps it is important. Enterprise project management could mean any combination of the following:

It could mean working together on an integrated schedule

It could mean everyone just using the same tool for scheduling

It could mean having a common project management methodology

It could mean having integrated resource capacity planning

It could mean integrated budget and cost tracking

It could mean integrated time tracking

It could mean any kind of integration with an ERP system

It could mean project dashboards or project reporting

It could mean getting to a higher level of project maturity

It could mean document tracking

If you ask the client what you would like to improve the answer is often “all of it”. Often the biggest pain is where people want to work first and most often in my experience, that is resource capacity planning.

Many project managers have stumbled into project management. 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.

In the last few years we have found more and more project managers ending up in the executive suite. This was something we never saw twenty years ago. Project managers were considered technicians. We are finding more and more people who end up as chief operating officers, chief project officers, chief engineering officers, chief information officers who come from a project management background. Those of us who have been in the consulting or project management tools business for many years see that as a good thing. We end up talking to someone at the executive level who has a deep understanding of our industry and that is usually wonderful for us.

But I think is good advice also for people who say I want to make a strong career in my business and I have project management skills and where can I go? My advice would be what would need to get into the executive suite. That could be education in management like an MBA or additional skills in other aspects of the business like managing operations. If you don’t understand the business purpose behind the project I cannot imagine how you can be an effective project manager in the first place.  A project is not just a bunch of squares that I put lines between. It must fulfill some business purpose.

We get this all the time; we say to clients we are here to work on your project management environment and they ask what are you going to do? We ask them tell us what difference you think it is going to make to your business? Often people look at us like that is a very strange question. Project managers are in the business of making people more effective. If you didn’t care how long it would take or how much it would cost or what the quality of the project would be, you don’t need a project manager. Just let people work on it until it is done. It is because we want people to be effective that we use project managers. So project managers who move into the executive suite are typically committed to the organization being effective. They ask: How are you going to measure effectiveness? What was the improvement in business due to this project?

You have written extensively, what are your other hobbies or interests? Your blog http://www.epmguidance.com looks great.  

<laughing> Writing about project management isn’t my hobby. I like to ski, I like to rock climb, I like to boat and I like to travel. I started writing many years ago. I wrote my first white paper in order to stop answering the same question over and over again. I gave the talk maybe a hundred times, and I said enough already, I am just gonna write it. I will give people the white paper and answer questions if they don’t’ understand that. I wrote a number of papers and once the Internet became popular we started our website in the mid 80s.  I had a lot of papers I had produced and a magazine in Canada called Computing Canada asked me to write a column for them. So I wrote a monthly column for them for about 10 years.

Then people looked to me and asked if I’d write for them.  That had me do a column on PM Network for a couple of years, write an article for Fortune magazine and others.   These days I keep up my blog, do a column for Microsoft’s TechNet and recently did a chapter of the AMA handbook on Project Management.

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. Big changes in life always come from as you say a tipping point decision. You don’t get thousands of tipping point decisions. They push your life and your career and your business in a particular direction. They are like a big wave.

The first decision to become a programmer was a tipping point, to take on that product line from Houston, Texas was a tipping point, to publish TimeControl was a tipping point. The characteristic of those decisions has always been willingness to be open to whatever the next wave was. It maybe takes courage or just silliness, but you have to be willing to say – we have moved into a new era and the thinking of the old era is no longer appropriate.

Can you recommend some reading for project managers?

 A book that I very much appreciate and that I think about often is deBono’s book Six Thinking  Hats.  De Bono is this brilliant guy who wrote about thinking. How do we think? And if we want to change the way we think what do we have to do? That turns out to quiet an interesting conversation. If we want to break the mold of my thinking so that I can be more creative, more innovative, think outside the box – how do you do that? Do Bono came up with the Six Thinking Hats as a way you could break up the pattern of your thinking to make you think laterally. That has served me very well over the years.

About Samir Penkar

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3 Responses to Few key decisions can tip your career – Chris Vandersluis

  1. Pingback: Chris Vandersluis interviewed at ‘Future of Project Management’ | EPMGuidance

  2. gordon willis says:

    Framework for project management, especially when it is concern of technology is not linier. Nevertheless, wonderful post! Would be interested to hear more thoughts from you on project management 2.0. We keep using outdated models that don’t match the speed of technology developments. With so many different solutions coming on the market with the speed of light the framework must be redesigned. Anyways, thanks a lot for great coverage.

  3. Pingback: EPM Guidance » Blog Archive » Chris Vandersluis interviewed at ‘Future of Project Management’

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