Behind every corporate success story is a series of carefully planned, well-executed projects.
Jennifer Baker has seen it happen time and time again over the last 30 years, whether she was managing projects at Fortune 500 companies such as Wells Fargo and Bank of America, or in the hospitality or transportation industries.
“The whole concept of managing the activity and making sure it happened and getting all the facts identified, I found that I just had a knack for it,” said Baker, now based outside Charlotte, North Carolina as a program manager for United Rentals. “I managed my first project while I was in college. We created a leadership conference and I liked doing it, but never really got it in my head that this could be a career for me.”
At the time, Baker was one of the few women in what was then a very male-dominated field.
“In my first job as a project manager I was the only woman in a 30-person department,” she said. “At one point I was told I would never get promoted because I’m a girl.”
Baker didn’t let that comment deter her. She went on to graduate from the Project Management Institute’s Leadership Institute Master Class and graduated from an MS in Project Management program. She’s also served as the president of PMI’s Metrolina region and currently serves as the region mentor for Region 5 in the mid-Atlantic states.
Says Baker on her faculty position at USC Bovard College, “I want to provide some sort of mentorship for students and allow them to be able to have opportunities that I just didn’t have.”
Baker shared her thoughts on what makes a successful project manager, how the industry is changing and how a job stocking a hotel launched her career.
How did you get into project management?
Like a good many of the seasoned project managers, it was an accidental progression. At the time, I was working for Marriott, which was [at the time] the tenth largest employer in the world. I was a production manager, so I was in charge of food and chemicals, making sure that everything was stocked. We were doing all ordering, inventory, scheduling, everything, on paper — no computers.
I was like, “This is crazy, we’re in a world of computers.” I wrote a program to automate it. I had no clue how to code. I taught myself, and then I managed the implementation and set it up. So I, in effect, became the project manager and the subject manager expert.
After I did it for my site, I was asked to do it for a neighboring site. Then my district manager thought that was just awesome, so they shipped me off to D.C., which is where Marriott’s headquarters are and told me to teach them what I did so they could replicate it out in their footprint. And that’s exactly what I did.
I ended up having to move back closer to home, so I got a job at a bank basically writing that same program, but instead the shelf life for food, it was the depreciation cycle for computers.
Why is project management a good fit for you?
I’m a very organized person and I like structure. I’m also very goal oriented. I like setting up all the steps in the plan and making sure the plan comes to fruition. It’s a big sense of achievement for me. I also like that it’s not monotonous.
Even though there is a process that you follow, and the process steps are generally the same, every project is different. So you’re going through initiating, planning, executing every single project, but how you go about it is very different whether you are building a building or a computer program, or you’re organizing a move or you’re organizing a conference.
When I was at [what is now] Wells Fargo, I just got more and more training, I got certified and figured out this was a great profession for me. I really enjoy it. I like the work.
What new trends are you seeing in project management?
Companies are shortening their planning cycle and they’re being more reactive. They’re wanting to do things in more of an Agile-based format, which, in some respects, you can do in every profession. Instead of the variable being you don’t have enough time or you don’t have enough money, you do only what scope you have money and time to do. It’s a little different.
It drives some of the regulators nuts, but for planning purposes it allows you to better plan your funding and your schedule for resources, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get done everything you want to get done. You have to be a little bit more flexible with the scope that needs to get accomplished.
Is that a good thing or a bad thing?
It depends. If you are building a house, that means you only build the house you can afford to build. If you are fulfilling regulatory requirements, that means you may or may not fulfill them all. In some way it’s very good. It means people will only build what they can afford to build with the resources that they have. But when you work in a regulatory environment, and you’re expected to do these five things and make these adjustments, that’s not a variable, you must get those things done. There’s lots of variables that have to be managed, including expectations which is all part of a project manager’s job.
How does project management propel a company forward, both financially and in the public eye?
It helps them achieve their strategy. That is, by far, the biggest thing. A company that does it right, they have a strategy. When you look at companies that do really well, they fulfill their strategy. If you look at their projects, their projects are delivered to achieve their strategy.
What are the perks having a master’s degree in project management in this job market?
It means that you have a well-rounded education in regards to the profession. Why that’s really important is anybody can study for a test and pass it. That doesn’t mean you understand it. That means you memorized the words and you recognized those words on the test and matched them up.
When you have a master’s degree in project management, you’ve taken multiple classes and you have to be able to intelligently discuss the topic not only with your instructor, but with your peers. You have to provide some background or understanding that you get what you’re being taught. You’re doing a project to show that you can walk the talk if you will. You can say this is what I’m supposed to do and I’ve gone and done it.
What motivates you?
I have two canine children. They are rescue Yorkies, both of them. I’m married and I have a house with a big garden. The things I like to do, coincidentally enough, are really project-based at home. I love doing genealogy, which is like one big project over and over again because you keep finding more information. I like gardens, which are technically a project that you do every year.
What excites you about teaching the next generation at USC Bovard College?
I really like teaching, and I like a school that’s enthusiastic about their students and their alumni, and USC is absolutely that way.
I’m at a point in my career where I don’t know how much more forward motion I have, but I’ve done very well for myself and it feels like it’s my responsibility to give back and make sure the ones coming up have the right mentor options as well as educational options that, in some cases, I didn’t have.