Project Management and the Technical Communicator

I posted a request for topics on Facebook, and my friends have not disappointed. My friend Cynthia responded with, “The importance of Project Management in tech…. I deal with technical vendors everyday ….most do not know how to manage projects.” While I haven’t had formal project management skills, I’ve actually learned quite a bit about project management from managing events in my free time (see here and here). Are there other things I can say? Of course!What do I mean by project management?

You can go to the Project Management Institute (PMI) and read their definition. From my perspective, though, a project is a work activity larger than and outside of a regular work task; usually contains multiple sub-elements (or sub-projects) or multiple deliverables; and accomplishes a particular goal by a specific date.

Project management, then, is the practice of acquiring and leading the resources (money, materials, staff, facilities) necessary to accomplish the project goal successfully, on time, and on (or below) budget.

What sort of skills or training do I need for project management?

Understanding Customer Requirements

It’s important when you’re first given a project to lead that everyone in the group–starting with you–understands what the final outcome will be. Sometimes that outcome is handed to you, sometimes you and your team’s charter includes figuring that out. Regardless, before you dive into serious work, it should be pretty clear that you and your team have to deliver a product, presentation, meeting, conference, or other one-off, large activity by X date. Defining that deliverable or set of deliverables is a matter of working with your customer(s), asking questions, and confirming a mutual understanding of what is to be done, under what conditions, and with what timeline and budget.

Calendar Management

Project management, perhaps more than other jobs you’re likely to have, is very much dependent upon calendar management. Larger products or events are often scheduled months or even years in advance. As they used to say during the Project Apollo days, “Waste everything but time!” If you’ve been put into a position of leadership over others, that usually means you’ve proven your ability to complete your work on your own or with others on time or early. You have a solid idea of how long specific tasks should be, and you are good at following up with others to ensure that your work or others’ will be completed on time.

Resource Management

This includes a variety of resources, including money, people, materials, and facilities. A lot of resource management involves the use of spreadsheets and Gantt charts.

Spreadsheet programs like Microsoft Excel are used for tracking money, but can also be used to track the other items. They have tools that enable users to create line, pie, or bar charts, as well as other types of graphics.

Gantt charts are a combination table-graphical representation of when resources are needed or tasks are performed. Chronological tasks are usually listed vertically down the left side of the chart and then represented graphically horizontally across the page. Gantt charts can also include “dependencies,” which are represented as vertical lines connecting the end of one task with the beginning with another, subsequent task. A dependency on a Gantt chart means that one task’s beginning depends on a previous task being completed first.

Sample Gantt Chart

Sample image source: Atlassian.com

People Management

It shouldn’t come as a major surprise, but if you’re handling a large project, your work will depend on the efforts of others. That means being able to motivate, direct, and give feedback to individuals working for you on the project. This can be challenging because project work can involve people with different levels of authority or seniority within their respective organization. They might feel that because they hold X role within the organization they don’t have to answer to someone with less formal authority/rank just because they’re a project manager. This is a constant challenge within matrixed organizations where cross-organization projects are common. Your greatest allies when it comes to authority issues as a project manager are the project sponsor/customer; the project charter or equivalent document that sets priorities, establishes authority, and assigns responsibility if things go awry; and your own senses of tact, confidence, and diplomacy.

Advantages of Project Management Work

Taking on project management tasks, from leading a proposal to developing a communications campaign to developing a new product, provide opportunities for personal development, promotion, and independent work. If you prove you can lead a complex project with diverse individuals across multiple organizations, that can go a long way toward advancing your career. You can, of course, acquire formal training via PMI or a related organization. If you love and want to improve your PM skills, it might be worth your time to acquire PMI Certification to prove that you can handle larger and more complex projects. And if you want to broaden your career options beyond technical writing, project management is a worthwhile and lucrative path for your career.

About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to Project Management and the Technical Communicator

  1. This is an excellent overview. If you need more in-depth knowledge of proposal management, visit http://captureplanning.com/ and subscribe to the free newsletter. And read the hundreds of free articles. And prepare to be blown away. Carl is my Yoda.

  2. Jim Taylor says:

    Hey pretty good rundown! Some of your time up here must of rubbed off! I would add that projects also have e definite life-cycle, meaning they shouldn’t live forever. In a mini-course I put together for some NASA PAO and leg affairs types I jokingly called a “Project Management for Poets”, I called these the four I’s (get it 🤓). They are; Ideation, Initiation, Implementation and Integration. These are important because they will to varying degrees engage different skill sets and priorities.

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