Whirlwind career of John Parkinson – from UK to Mid East to US – from project manager to consulting to CTO

You have a varied background; you held CTO positions, worked across continents, have written books, do you want to start off by telling us how you got started in your career and what the touch points did you have with project management? 

My career starts a long time ago. My first career was in healthcare program strategy in England. I worked for the health service there for a number of years after college. And as a result of that I was hired away from health service to program manage what at that time was one of the largest healthcare information infrastructure investments in the Middle East, in Saudi Arabia.   My first real encounter with project management was as a project manager. From the late seventies to mid eighties I essentially ran about a billion dollars of technology infrastructure projects and programs, mostly in Saudi, but some in the Gulf States and Kuwait. This is where I learned most of what I know about successful project management. At the end of that cycle  (for a variety of reasons) had gotten interested in consulting as an adjunct to the program management work I was doing. I discovered that I was kind of a consulting junkie.

Starting in the mid eighties my second career was with Ernst & Young (originally with Arthur Young) where I spent 16 years as a consultant in technology and business strategy. During that time I headed up the internal group at Ernst & Young that built our engagement management process. So I was for a while essentially a methodologist focusing on how you manage projects and programs profitably. Where Ernst & Young was formed from a merger, it was right in the middle of a recession in the advisory industry. We had a lot of unprofitable work that needed to be fixed. I was given the job as part of a small team to lead the effort to figure out how to turn around the profitability of the consulting practice specifically in the United States, but also generally around the world. A big part of that turnaround effort was focusing on what project managers do. How to find them, and train them, and mentor them, so that they became capable of managing more capacity and became more effective revenue generators. The third and fourth books I wrote were in large parts on how do project managers and program managers figure out how to be successful at what they do. Which turned out in my experience to be a blend of formal and informal capabilities. It is important and necessary to understand the formal structures of how project management works – how to plan things, how to estimate things, how to allocate resources, how to track work and so on.

But the people who do best at project management often combine that with less formal holistic approaches that let them sense whether the numbers are telling you the truth or not. I always used to tell the class – I used to teach the master class on project management at Ernst & Young – I used to tell people that the best project managers that I had ever worked with never really knew exactly where things were, but always hit their date and budget. And some of the people who were best at telling you where they were missed their dates and budgets.  We spent a lot of thought and effort on how to find people who had that knack for always delivering what you wanted even of they weren’t obviously in control throughout that entire process. So I did that through 2001, I was at Ernst & Young for 16 years.

I retired as a partner in 2001, joined Cap Gemini as part of the executive team – as CTO of North America. Worked on another less successful turnaround on the North American practice again focusing a lot on how we managed engagements, how did we build the right blend of global sourcing and in particular take advantage of the labor arbitrage opportunities across other parts of the world? And then in 2005 I retired from Cap Gemini, I am a serial retiree, and for a couple of years I ran my own private equity advisory & strategic consulting business.

I was picked up by one of my customers to join TransUnion at Chicago as the CTO in 2008. I worked for a couple of years there – largely on hardening their operational infrastructure, building high availability platform, making sure that the very demanding computing and storage environments were continuously available. I built the program management office there –  program management reported to me at TransUnion. After a couple of years, I retired again for about 6 months, I was actually planning to write another book but never got around to it. Then I joined Axis Capital, which is where I am now, in the middle of last year. I headed up the program management office in the IT organization. Since then from 1st of July that office has been designated as a group wide resource, so we took it out of IT. It now runs essentially all of project and program work across the group.

With your span of experience from the early seventies through today, you have seen a lot of change over this time, if I were to ask you what is your vision for project management, what would you say?

The way that I talk about it here at Axis is that we serve as the execution arm for the strategy that the business wishes to carry out. Our customers in the business, their role is to say what they want to have happen and to describe it in sufficient detail that we can work with them to find a way to make it happen. So we are essentially the how part of the equation there. Not that these two are separate, they have to be tightly integrated together, but once we know what it is that the business wishes to achieve then project management is about how do I do that at a manageable level of risk in a timely and cost effective fashion. The details of the tools you use, the body of knowledge that you bring to bear on that is customizable to the situation.

But project management is about taking on accountability for delivering success in the context that the business defined. And I would contrast that with some things I have seen in the past – where project management was a lot about getting to the finish line whether you need it or not. One of the things project managers do very badly is stopping things because they are no longer required. We beat into people the need to plan the work and work the plan and I think project management needs to evolve more of an understanding of what is business value before, during and after a project.

You mentioned that at Axis your PMO has moved from within IT to a company wide PMO. So you think that is the right place & direction for a PMO? Is the company better served by having a PMO at an enterprise level?

There was a fairly long debate about it before the decision was made. Most of the projects that we do are still IT or very IT dominated in terms of the work that is being managed. But the danger about being too close to the IT organization is that you don’t have this perspective of what’s the right answer for the business, rather than how do I get this IT project finished. And I will give you an example, there are many things that you can automate which IT loves to do and often should do, and when you look at what the business is trying to achieve you would say, “No, it’s not worth it.” Yes, we can do it, but for the amount of activity that will be involved, it is actually just as effective to have humans do it. You aren’t necessarily getting that questioning perspective from inside the IT organization, nor are you just necessarily going to get it from the business organization. So sitting between the two – and we sit between the business and several functional support groups – you get to ask these questions in a way that you might not effectively ask if you were in the IT organization.

There has been recent talk about organizing your PMO by product rather than by projects, what are your thoughts?

We organize primarily around a business competency. When we look at a project or program manager we are looking for a number of characteristics – we want somebody who knows the domain, has domain specific expertise, in this case commercial insurance. Somebody who has a successful track record of delivering the kind of projects we do, somebody who has the right operating style – consultative but understanding they are the drivers of activity on a project, somebody who can persuade. We like people coming out of the consulting side, as they can get things done without having the authority even though you are accountable. We like people who have good technical knowledge around the kind of things we do here which is very heavily technology dominated. That kind of combination of characteristics is tough to find, but tracks how we organize the work.

We are, necessarily, somewhat siloed, so yes you could say that we do organize the PMO around product grouping – new business, re insurance products and infrastructure. We expect people to have some common capabilities across the groups. But I am not necessarily going to pick up a project manager from within the re insurance group and drop them into infrastructure and have them be as effective.

Agile has recently gained momentum, PMI has come out with their Agile certification, have you dealt with agile project management and what are your thoughts around agile?

I was kind of around when the agile movement was getting started and it was as much as anything, I think a reaction to what had become in many cases, a very bureaucratic process. It was more important to be seen to be in control than to be doing the right thing. Agile when it is executed well is a very effective way of binding the business actively to the process of solving their problems or servicing their opportunities.

The challenge off course is that in many organizations the business wants to hand off the responsibility for getting it right to the project team and don’t want to be that deeply involved – day to day – in getting the work done. In those circumstances Agile can go very badly wrong, like any other process can. So we tend to use a blend of techniques here where we still have fairly major milestones and a stage gate oriented governance process. Our project management approach is fairly flexible, if you want to take an agile like approach – rapid iterative delivery of small pieces of value- you can use agile. But there will be points where you will be asked to pause to demonstrate that you are on the right track and your resource usage and cost models are still valid. I suspect that we will do more like that over time.

Where you see the best agile examples is where they tend to be small entrepreneurial environments without much legacy to be concerned about. That’s an over generalization, I know several places that are not like that yet do agile well, but most successful stories come from places like that. When you have to take into account some constraints imposed by decisions and architectural practice or product choice then you don’t get a vote on agile. You end up with something that is less purely agile.

You have worked across the globe – UK, Mid East, US – across these continents when you have worked with project managers – are they different in any way?

Everybody brings some aspects of the culture in which they live to how they do the job, so yes there are differences. They are not so pronounced today as they were 25 years ago. The world has become significantly more homogenized in that regard. We have gotten used to working with people with different cultural backgrounds and operating styles. But we do still see some differences.

Axis is a global organization, so I have project managers from Switzerland to Australia. It makes sense for a manager of these resources to understand how they operate from an unconscious perspective. The things that are normal in Switzerland, which direct to a certain extent how the project manager operates are not so normal in London or New York or Atlanta or Singapore or Bangalore or Sidney.  I consciously take account of the fact that if you grew up in that kind of educational and cultural surroundings, you will have cultural habits that are different from others. The Europeans are much more deliberative in how they put together and report on projects. My colleagues in the US are much more comfortable with a high degree of ambiguity in the planning process. If I look at South East Asia the cultures there are much less questioning of whether the work they are being told to do makes sense or not. People in Zurich will have very detailed and very well thought out plans but they may not have spent much time on plan B. They assume success as a characteristic because generally that is the characteristic of that culture.

In the US we tend to focus less on the ancillary aspects of some of our projects, because the project managers and customers are very driven to hit the articulated objective. The non functional requirements that wrap around often get left out. In India, we often see project managers focused on doing what they are told and not trying to question whether it is the right thing to do. In each case you have to built in some additional practices on how to manage things on a portfolio level to make sure those things don’t cause problems down the line. It’s part of the project manager’s role to watch for, surface and report on problems. If you have done this for a long time you know that there are going to be problems somewhere along the road and if you don’t hear about anything going wrong then something is amiss. You have to adjust those kinds of diagnostics, when we review the portfolio to say – do I feel that a project of this size that has been going on for this long should be looking this good or not. In Switzerland I would say, “Yeah, that is probably ok”, in India I would be worried.

A majority of project managers have stumbled into the profession. What do you think is the career path for a project manager? How have you crafted career paths for project managers when you headed up the project organizations?

My career is not a good example: everything that happened was essentially by accident. I did not plan any of what happened. But I do get the question quite a lot, so I think there are three things that a mid career project manager could evolve into.

The simplest one is managing bigger and more complicated projects. You stay in the discipline but you operate at an increased scale, complexity and potentially at higher levels of risk. I see a lot of people who choose to go in that direction, because they like project managing. I’ll put aside those people whose career is already over even though it looks like they are in mid career.

The second option is to take this management skill set into a line in business. Effectively become a line manager for some aspect of a business operation. That’s an interesting transition because unlike projects which should have ends, line managers do the same job everyday in a varying, but generally fairly consistent context. So you are dealing with many instances of the same well defined set of problems. Some people like that, it’s not the same kind of schedule or budget pressures.

The third transition, which is actually what I made, is into general management. You are essentially becoming responsible for multiple aspects of the operation. A relatively small number of project managers make that transition, because you have to learn to juggle a lot of different things at the same time. If you find it stressful to handle many different things, you are not going to be good at general management. My own experience is that if you are not inherently good at it, learning it does not make you good enough to be able to do that for a living.

Those are the evolutionary tracks for project manages. I do see a lot of project managers who essentially reach the limit of their ability to grow sometime mid career. And they are the ones who have the biggest anxiety about it. Because for them stepping up to manage a bigger project is not an option – they don’t want to take in the additional risk. Moving sidewise isn’t attractive because they like the “end ness” of a project and the fact that you can go do something else, something different from project to project. And they are never going to ever make the transition to general management if they are in this situation. I have seen a number of these and there my advice is why don’t you just go and do this someplace else. Go see if the changing the surrounding gives you the opportunity to discover something else you might want to do.

Looking back at your own career, when you made the transition from project management to general management, can you think of some decisions to tipping points that helped you make the transition?

I was receptive to opportunities. I never said no to anything, including things that I had no idea how to do. And if I committed to doing something I stuck with it. I had very few periods in my career where I was doing something that I didn’t enjoy. But that was more luck than anything else. I did not act regretfully if I ended up in a place where it wasn’t as good as it was advertised. I say this somewhat tongue and cheek that my problem was that I didn’t’ screw up enough. So people would keep giving me more and more to do and I would do more. I would be reasonably successful at it, so I’d get more to do.

Without paying much attention and you look back a decade later and you have risen significantly in an organization. None of that was planned, but small organizations look for people like me and they just keep loading them up until they can’t do anymore. I was lucky that I never got to the point were I couldn’t do anymore. If you are fortunate enough to get to do the things you are good at you will do them well. If these are things you like you will do them really well. That will tend to drive the direction of your career. I have a minor in Psychology so I do think about these things when I craft other peoples’ career paths.

That I think is the secret, being receptive to opportunities as they arise, and being willing to take things on whether you really know how to do them or not.

 What are some of your hobbies or other interests?

I read a lot, which you have to do if you write. I am a workaholic; I was actually a subject of a television project about workaholics. I get bored if I don’t have interesting things to do and I get interested in the things I am doing.

I collect wine. As a side line I ran a wine import business many years ago. I bought wine in California and shipped it to Europe. I became interested in that, I know a lot about wines, I have a hobby around buying and occasionally selling wine and often drinking wine. I am a parent, I have a teenage daughter which is fairly a time consuming activity. She is a musician, so I have some interest in music and how it is taught and the mechanics of it. I am technologist – so I build my own computers, I designed the AV system in my house, and I stay current on a lot of that. I used to write software on the sidelines, but I no longer do that. I was fortunate to make a reasonably significant amount of money early in my career so I do spend some time managing that.

I have been involved with start ups in the Chicago area. Helping organizations like that do better or achieve their objectives is something I enjoy doing.

About Samir Penkar

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