Graduate Spotlight: Liza Gutierrez, MS in Project Management

USC PM Ambassador Liza Gutierrez
Photo: Liza Gutierrez

When Liza Gutierrez graduated with her undergraduate degree in graphic design, she envisioned a different career path for herself. She began her career as a UI & UX graphic designer at a software company producing mobile applications, responsive websites, digital kiosks, and displays for major travel and tourism destinations across the United States and beyond. It was at this software company, that she was given the opportunity to take on additional responsibilities to manage a project.

Liza sees this as a turning point in her career. “It was the reason for going back to school, to USC’s online Master of Science in Project Management, that eventually lead me to the Walt Disney company. This program advanced my career as I learned about different tools, strategic thinking skills, and various techniques that I could apply at work.”

Liza is currently an Associate Projects Control Planner at Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative engine that designs and builds all Disney theme parks, resorts, attractions, and cruise ships worldwide.

In her own words, below, Liza shares what it’s like to be in the center of a skilled team of creatives, engineers and project managers at Walt Disney Imagineering.

How did you transition into the project management field and how have you applied your design background to be a more successful project manager?

When I started working at a start-up, my main role was to design UX/UI for our product line. Given the size of the company I also began taking on management responsibilities. The turning point came when the company landed a high-profile project. I was assigned to be the designer. The PM at the time was not available so I began to assist one of our leaders who had jumped in. It was an interesting experience to go through, as I was being asked to do tasks that fell out of my “job description.” It was a tough project and I went through several challenges. But that was the project, the opportunity that put me on the map. Soon after, I was offered a project manager position.

I appreciate having started as a designer because I was able to be trained and work closely with the software developers. I learned a lot from them on how my designs would influence their code, and vice versa. I also learned how to manage our tools to help set up and build our products. I was equipped with the understanding and knowledge of our product process and had a close bond with my team. Having that start helped me tremendously. Knowledge is power and I respect learning how things are done in order to lead and make appropriate decisions. Although I was now a PM, I could not resist helping design when time was tight, so I would jump in to create assets, provide imagery and design layouts.

You currently work at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI). What is a day in the life of an Associate Project Controls Planner at WDI?

Each day is different! Our unit/team is responsible for creating an integrated schedule of the project’s lifecycle which is broken down by studio and division of work activities.

As an Associate Project Controls Planner, I am responsible for Show and Ride Production, which includes the tail end of design, all of production and fabrication, and delivery to site. I must track scope through this process and assure we deliver on time for installation. The high-level process  consists of overseeing studio and vendor progress, providing recommendations for changes in strategy, evaluating risks and improvements in the schedule, and delivering scope on time. I get to work with extraordinary individuals such as Show Managers, Show Set Designers, and Ride Engineers that have many years of experience, many of which are leaders and experts in their field. I sit in on various strategic discussions, learning more and more each day.

What aspects of Project Management do you enjoy the most?

I enjoy the leadership aspect of being a PM. But leadership, I believe, comes with being a team player. I have had the great pleasure to work with intelligent and vibrant teams, working together to solve issues and meet our goals. The highlight has been the opportunity to guide teams, whether it be tracking action items, resolving blockers, or providing assistance and answers. None of this would be possible without having a team bond where all the cards are on the table, so I can make the appropriate decisions at the end of the day.

What do you find most interesting about the project/product life-cycle?

The biggest factor for me is how a drawing, a piece of concept art becomes a final product. The in-between. Being able to see the math, the code, the ingenuity behind it all is what gets to me. People use their hands and knowledge to make things. I love seeing that process.

After graduating, you became an Ambassador for the MS in Project Management program. What advice did you give to prospective students who are concerned about work, life and grad school balance?

You can do it! This program is built for a working professional. I was able to work full time, still have my personal life, and even travel. I recommend you create a schedule that works best for you to allow for research, reading and execution of assignments. At first it can be difficult because it is a complete shift, but once you get into a rhythm it becomes a lot easier. I also recommend that you develop friendships with your classmates and professors, which was a major element for my success. You learn from one another and become bonded as you support each other throughout the program.

What is an example of how you were able to immediately apply what you learned from the courses into improving your day to day work?

In one course we had just started the topic of Change Management. It just so happened that I was recently assigned to assist the Project Manager with tracking changes to scope. I had to meet with the studio leads every other week to determine if there were changes in strategy that affected a change in scope and document them. I realized that many of the pointers discussed in class and the readings were those I needed to apply at work.

Can you tell us about how faculty applied their real-world experiences to the curriculum and online classes?

In the program we have different topics each week. You do your reading, watch the videos, and learn when it’s most convenient for you. When it came to the live classes, the faculty really pushed on real-world experiences. They asked us to discuss our own experiences with the topic, and the faculty then told us about theirs. The information goes from being theory-based to practical knowledge.

The faculty gave us examples of real world situations their team faced and how they applied a specific approach to reach their goal. I appreciated the faculty also sharing some failures with us because it shows how projects have their pitfalls, and how you learn and you grow from mistakes.

The faculty members come from a variety of industries like software development, defense contracting, banking, financial services, and held positions like project management, portfolio and program management, technology and communications management, and business relationship managers. Therefore, we were able to learn best practices from each industry.

In addition to obtaining a Master’s degree, what advice do you have for a PM professional to advance their career?

My advice is to self-reflect on what you have accomplished and learned along the way, and determine areas in which you believe need more attention. There will always be more to learn. Read books, articles, network with PMs, join your local PM institute. Keep learning!

Learn more about the MS in Project Management Program.

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