Faculty Spotlight: Craig Marek says Project Managers are like the Conductor of a Symphony

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Craig Marek

Photo: Craig Marek

Craig Marek got his start in project management by happenstance, turning a chance promotion into a thriving career.

Now he’s a sought-after expert in the project management field, working with financial industry giants and some of the top project managers in the world.

Marek had been working in computer programming before the tech boom, when he was offered the chance to oversee the financials, contracts and people working with his company’s client. It was the first time he had heard the term “project manager.”

Marek quickly grew his new role into a new career. He now likens project managers to being “the conductor in the symphony” for all the moving parts they need to oversee, including contingency planning, tracking money spent, keeping to the timeline and foreseeing potential pitfalls.

He’s worked on major projects with Bank of America and Experian, and he’s currently a program manager at TIAA, a financial services organization. Marek, who earned his Master of Project Management from Western Carolina University, formerly served as the president for his local Project Management Institute chapter.

Over the last two decades, he has seen project management grow exponentially into a thriving, in-demand industry.

When he is not in the office, Marek can be found on the golf course or taking his wife to the movies. He’s also a proud father and grandfather, and caretaker to his beloved schnauzer, Sadie.

Marek will work with the next generation of project managers in USC Bovard College’s MSPM program, teaching Requirements Elicitation and Business Analysis, Cost Estimation and Forecasting.

Check out more from Craig Marek on the importance of project management:

What excites you about project management, even 20 years in?

I like the structure. I like the discipline. You’re still solving problems, but you also get to work with a lot more people. As a project manager, you are working with programmers and testers and executive sponsors and end users and compliance and risk — you work with people all over the organization and get exposure to all different functions.

Project management is a lot of grey. We have all these processes and tools that we can use, but you really operate in the grey, the what-ifs.

What I really like about project management is it’s ubiquitous. It’s everywhere. So much of what’s in your life is a project. You move, that’s a project; you get married, that’s a project; you’re looking for a school to go to for college, that’s a project. They are all temporary endeavors with a timeline, some kind of budget, some kind of scope.

How has the rise of project management benefitted the financial industry?

Project management, the reason it was created really was to mitigate corporate risk — is this the right money to spend on the right project to solve the right problem. That discipline didn’t really exist.

[In the financial industry,] we get audited by the Fed and a lot of times those audits turn into projects. We need to remediate, fix or enhance something. And they look for project management methodologies to be in place, so that you are, in fact, providing controls that help reduce the risk to your company. It is a fundamental success factor, according to the regulators within the financial services industry.

What trends are you seeing in project management today?

I get less and less push back in the industry, talking to companies about the value of project management. There’s high demand and, part of it is, it’s getting a lot of recognition of how important it is.

Globalization, in a lot of industries, hurts the individuals because jobs are being done somewhere else. But with project management, globalization is actually a good thing. I’ve worked with people around the world on projects. We don’t speak the same language necessarily, but that doesn’t stop us because we know project management. We know what needs to be done and we’re able to work together, so it opens up more opportunities.

Why do companies big and small need MSPM project managers now more than ever?

There’s a huge shortage of project managers in the world today, and it’s just getting bigger and bigger as the number of projects are way ahead of the number of project managers. The risk there of course is that people are “accidental” project managers — “Oh, you were an operations analyst on this last project, you did a really good job we’re going to make you the project manager now.” And then all sorts of bad things happen.

I think the people who have a master’s in project management are serious about project management as a career, not just as a job or a stepping-stone.

It has a lot of practical applicability. It’s not just Project Management 101. There’s an art and there’s a science to project management. The science you can get from education. But the art is what you get by applying the science. Remember, we’re working in that grey space. You don’t always know what’s going to happen.

What are some of the perks of hiring someone with a master’s degree in project management?

I think they’re more experienced people who’ve got a broader base of education — different strategies, different tools, different methodologies, who are better armed to help businesses compete projects and not waste their money by starting and stopping and throwing money at bad projects. These are the more senior project managers who will take on the more complex and more risky projects.

From a salary perspective, a project manager with degree gets paid a lot more than a lot of other technical-degreed individuals with the same level of experience.

What excites you about teaching the next generation?

These people have a keen interest in project management. Project management isn’t new to them like it was to my generation. Because there’s older folks like myself who have done it for a while, they’ve got mentors, they’ve got role models, they’ve got people with experience that they can leverage.

I think they are going to be able to take what I’ve done in 20 years and do it in 10 years. The technology, the way they think — it’s different from when I started doing this years and years ago. It seems to me that focus will really help them to excel and take project management to that next level.

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