Faculty Spotlight: Erika Bobbitt, On Ensuring a Common Language for Project Management Leaders

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Erika Bobbitt
Photo: Erika Bobbitt

Erika Bobbitt’s career naturally progressed into project management. In her early career as an industrial engineer, she was drawn to processes and credits an incredible colleague with introducing her to great project management practices. As she was taught by her colleague, Professor Bobbitt hopes that her work with USC Bovard College will continue to empower a new generation of project management leaders.

As the CEO and founder of Videre Technologies, Professor Bobbitt has US Department of Energy projects that support the national defense posture to keep the men and women of the US Armed Forces safe. She also consults with emergency preparedness agencies. Her experience includes consulting with federal, state, and local agencies with a focus on risk, operations management, and software solutions.

In addition to her incredible career in project management, Professor Bobbitt continues to give back to her community through various volunteer organizations, including sitting on the board of trustees for her local chapter of PMI (Project Management Institute).

Below, Erika Bobbitt touches on her experience as a project manager, working on President Obama’s second inauguration, and the common project language that project managers need to succeed.

How did you get into project management?

My background is in industrial engineering, and in my early career, I worked on new product development teams with some exposure to the basics of project management. As an industrial engineer, I had always found myself drawn to processes and systems, so this idea of a methodology to manage a project was fascinating to me, and I wanted to learn more. As luck would have it, my company was forming a project management office (PMO), and I was able to move from engineering to project management. I had the good fortune to work with someone who brought great project management practices to the PMO, and he taught me a tremendous amount. Later, I joined the local chapter of PMI and got involved with the chapter board of directors. From there, I continued to grow and learn, led increasingly more complicated projects, earned my PMP certification, and went on to lead projects in several countries around the world and in a wide variety of industries.

Can you tell us about a recent project you’re proud of?

One of my most interesting projects in recent years was developing cross-jurisdictional medical situational awareness capability during the four days of President Obama’s second inauguration. The project was to integrate software systems to share and disseminate information in order to make informed decisions about resources and capabilities. For centuries, the US Presidential Inauguration has been a symbol of the peaceful transition of power, and all the eyes of the world are watching. This was not a project that could be late or fail. Our stakeholders included the states of Maryland and Virginia, the District of Columbia, the United States Secret Service, the National Parks Service, Department of Homeland Security, and dozens of support agencies. We initiated, planned, executed, monitored, and closed the project with a timeline of six months from initial customer contact to the last event. We identified and managed the risks associated with a project of this nature and engaged our stakeholders regularly to ensure we were identifying and delivering expectations. Our work covered a series of events including the Children’s Inauguration, a special event for the President’s top donors. the Inaugural parade and the activities on the National Mall attended by over 800,000 people, two Inaugural balls, and the National Prayer service. The result was a project that was delivered on schedule and on budget that met all the customer’s expectations.

In what ways have you seen project management change over your tenure in the industry? And how do you predict the industry will change in the future?

When I started in project management, the Agile Manifesto had not been written.  Projects were done using the waterfall methodology, and project management seemed to be reserved for big projects – major construction projects, new airplanes, space travel, etc. Companies were planning and executing projects, but most did not use formal methodologies or processes. However, in a relatively short period of time, Agile has become a mainstream concept, and companies large and small have introduced project management into their organizations. There has been a realization that the methodologies associated with good project management do work, and what once was something only the big companies did, has now become a ticket to play for many smaller companies.

You are involved in a few volunteer organizations, such as serving on your local PMI chapter. What does giving back to the project management community mean to you?

I got my start because I had a colleague willing to take me under his wing and teach me about project management, and I want to return the favor. If I can inspire someone to attend their first networking session to meet other project management professionals, or if I can ease someone’s concerns over taking their PMP exam, I want to try. Those things can be daunting if you feel like you are doing them on your own or you feel like you don’t fit the mold. I want to let people know it is not only doable, but they can be the ones to do it!

Are you seeing any new trends in project management?

I am seeing and hearing more and about micro-credentials in project management. Credentials demonstrate an understanding of the ideals and ensure a common language for projects, which becomes more and more important as project teams become geographically diverse and technically more complicated.  I expect to see them grow in number and importance, but I do not see them taking the place of a master’s program. I see them as a good way for project managers to hone their skills post-graduation.

What qualities make for a great project manager?

Project managers are leaders in their organizations, and the same traits that define great leaders define great project managers, namely, strong communication and organizational skills, integrity, and empathy. They need to be comfortable communicating with all levels of the organization as well as external stakeholders, and quite often they have responsibility without authority, so they need to work effectively within the organization to achieve the project goals.

How is pursuing a master’s degree in project management beneficial for a prospective student’s career?

Just like any other advanced degree, a master’s degree in project management shows a commitment to a goal and demonstrates the ability to balance competing priorities to achieve it. 

There are several career benefits that immediately come to mind when we talk about pursuing a master’s degree in project management. 

  1. Being exposed to various areas in project management through the USC Bovard program provides an awareness of the most common areas of project management, so students will know what to expect as they enter a PMO and which tools to employ.  They will be able to talk the talk and walk the walk! 
  2. When all else is equal, a degree in something that differentiates one candidate from another – particularly when the degree is conferred by a program like USC Bovard with its reputation for excellence in the field. 
  3. The networking opportunities within the master’s degree program are extensive. Students and professors come from a wide variety of industries and establishing those personal connections builds that career network and opens doors that can be extremely useful in the future.

What inspires you about teaching USC Bovard College students?

I am inspired by the students’ dedication to learning. I have had students that faced personal challenges that would have made many quit or slack in the program, and none of them choose to do that. They maintained their focus and overcame the obstacles to get the job done. The camaraderie amongst the students is also wonderful to experience. There is a genuine level of support for their peers and a desire to make sure they succeed. That ability to be unselfish in their support of another will serve them well in the workplace when they are members of or are leading project teams.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Learn more about the MS in Project Management program.

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