If you are in the software or IT field and want to become a project manager, this article is for you. I’ve been talking to Estelle, a Global IT Project Manager originally from Malaysia and now living in Switzerland.
There’s a lot you can learn from Estelle. She has been really good at building her network and honing her leader skills early on in life. This made her the kind of candidate that companies fight over.
Curious? Here is Estelle’s story.
The curious networker
Estelle has always been curious about learning new skills, trying other activities and connecting herself with interesting people. In that sense she doesn’t match the stereotype we typically have for people with an IT background – Estelle studied software engineering.
At university, she decided that studying only with books or on the computer wasn’t enough for her. She would only gain a theoretical understanding of the field she would later work in. But it was the practical skills that mattered. So, Estelle took every opportunity to gain real-world industry experience.
One of the opportunities she took was a student program offered by Accenture, the global IT consulting firm. The two-year Accenture Future Technology Leaders Program was a way for Accenture to groom talent in Asia. For the students, it offered a unique chance to experience the life of a consultant. Part of the experience included case studies where students could test their problem-solving skills and practice teamwork.
Estelle didn’t settle with just the Accenture program. She also helped organize TEDx conferences, took part in a national program on Design Thinking and was very active in the Young Corporate Malaysians networking community. I think Estelle didn’t leave out any opportunity to test her practical organization and leadership skills and to get in touch with other ambitious professionals.
From what you’ve read so far, you would think Estelle is the perfect example of an extrovert. But interestingly, she says it’s quite the opposite. Estelle sees herself more as an introvert who likes to listen at the beginning. But this didn’t stop her from getting involved in group activities and finding out what it feels like to take on responsibility.
The internship that opened doors
During her Bachelor studies in Software Engineering, Estelle signed up for an internship at Hilti in Malaysia. She was part of the IT team and her work was more technical at this stage. But with the software background she had the right profile to be a valuable contributor. Besides the technical work, Estelle also got to experience project management from her first assignment as the team rolled out mobile sales force devices in the Asian market.
Estelle’s team, being comprised of mostly men of higher seniority, realized that she had a talent for project management. She was good at coordinating work, communicating with people, getting the needed information from stakeholders and solving problems to keep the project moving forward. This is when her supervisor understood he could delegate more of the coordination work to Estelle, and it triggered the path that lead her to becoming a project manager.
All in all, the internship was a great opportunity for Estelle to get to know Hilti as a company and she learned the basics of project management.
Starting out as a systems engineer
After completing her bachelor’s degree, Estelle joined Hilti as a systems engineer. This was the same environment she had worked in during her internship.
Why not start as a project manager right away? Her company had a clear career path, where employees first had to gain the actual technical domain knowledge in order to progress into a project leader role later on. This made sense, because as a project manager in IT you have to have a thorough understanding of the processes and systems. You are working with engineers and developers, and you need to speak the same language in order to get estimations or stay informed about the progress of work. Estelle followed this path and worked in the engineering role for about a year and a half.
Becoming a project manager
In her role as a systems engineer, Estelle was already exposed to projects, but smaller ones. She focused on proving herself doing coordination work and delivering results for the team. This didn’t get unnoticed – her manager felt more comfortable giving Estelle more complex and bigger projects to manage. It was a gradual process, but Estelle could feel her responsibility and influence grow with every project.
After about 1.5 years working as a systems engineer and handling small projects on the side, Estelle eventually became a full-time IT project manager for Hilti. The projects she now got to manage were of a different scale: they were complex infrastructure projects that often had a global scope, meaning she and her team were in charge of rolling out technology at other Hilti offices worldwide. This was a huge amount of responsibility, because like any other company, Hilti was dependent on a well-functioning IT infrastructure.
Learning to influence people
One reason that drove Estelle to becoming a project manager was that she wanted to learn how to influence people. By making this her goal, she was focusing on exactly the right area. Because it is the ability to build trust with people that separates great project leaders from average leaders who are focusing only on the technical side of things.
So, how do you influence other people? Any attempt usually begins with a conversation. And in this context, Estelle had a funny story to share. What’s the #1 topic for starting small talk? It’s the weather, right? But coming from a country that had sunshine most of the time, discussing weather didn’t seem like a good option for Estelle. That changed when she moved to Switzerland. The weather in Switzerland is very volatile and you can experience anything, from hot to cold, from sunshine to rain or even snow in winter. Now Estelle had found a great conversation starter at her new place.
Being part of a new team and a different culture, Estelle made a great effort to build bonds with her colleagues and get them to support her projects. One strategy turned out to be very effective for building trust: Let people talk about their hobbies. Estelle discovered that her teammates had very interesting hobbies, such as building aeroplane models or LED lamps. And by listening to what her colleagues were passionate about, she quickly won their trust and support.
Estelle’s advice for aspiring project managers
I asked Estelle for her perspective on how people from a technical background can make the move into project management. Her advice:
Estelle also emphasized that people should do research about what project management is really like and then make a plan for themselves. This also involves critically thinking their motivation and goal:
Big thanks to Estelle for sharing her story and advice on Tactical Project Manager! Students and young professionals interested in becoming a project leader can learn a lot from Estelle’s story.