From the Life of a Project Manager

By Tom Whalen

One rumor had it that Leslie was working from home for NorSpek, commuting occasionally from Mannheim to Erlangen, another that she was in a clinic in Cologne. But on IDS I couldn’t afford to over-empathize, though I well understood the risk in not empathizing. I knew my business. I told the PM at BodKom (a new kid assigned to IDS only a month ago) he had no reason to worry. The metadata had been restored. Everything was go. The project would meet its deadlines, including the supersedes. Team’s, more or less, intact.

Leslie’s failure (ostensible failure) to produce an accurate SOW (statement of work) was neither my nor BodKom’s fault, nobody was responsible for that unfortunate fiasco, the time-on-task as lost as Leslie herself now to the project. Let’s forget about it, I said. But BodKom’s outrage at the SOW mishap (twice escalated to Maidenhead where issues resolve themselves by means beyond my ken) still haunted me. Always, I knew, they could keep throwing the SOW issue back in my face, no matter how many times I insisted the past was past, SOW a memory not worth remembering. . . . We’re not sure who to hold accountable, I told them. No one, really. But we did, after all, let an employee go and at the moment we’re a little shorthanded. What else could I say?

I knew it wasn’t Leslie who had fumbled. She had no way of knowing (perhaps I could have checked before signing off on her SOW) the fissures in her statement. No, it wasn’t Leslie who fumbled, but the one-fingered developers in Sheffield, they’re the ones who corrupted IDS at its core. Once, through the layers of two other glassed-in offices, I had seen them at work, or not at work. They sat there like pies behind fly-specked glass at a bus station café. I wasn’t going to tell BodKom what I thought about Sheffield, not BodKom whose demands exceeded anything I had encountered before.

I knew my job was on the line (Maidenhead had more than once insinuated as much), as well as the company’s existence, or so I had heard whispered up and down the corridors of PLM—in the elevator, at the water cooler, the coffee machine, and into the leaves of the six six-foot ficus plants that rustled on alternating sides down the deep-focus hall of 6a where I managed, so to speak, Professional Services. I mean, aren’t we all managers? My manager a manager, the project managers under me managers, my manager’s managers managers. . . .

I didn’t tell BodKom that. My mandate, I told them, is to manage IDS and only IDS. That’s my directive and I’ll do my best to see that nothing comes between me and a successful rollout of the product. Perhaps BK detected doubt in my voice, the fear that infected my emails. “Listen to him rave. Listen to what this madman is saying. Have our lawyers draw up breach-of-contract papers, for if any company has ever breached a contract it’s PLM.”

PLM: my company (my only in the sense that I am employed by it) had shifted its name’s source code so often over the first six years of its existence, the only one I could recall was Preliminary Limitations Management. IDS: Initiative Defense Systems.

Today I was, I am, writing to BK again. These are my notes for 6/7/09. This is not a memo. I initialized the new charter, refined the scope statement, had it approved, set up the play, created a new baseline, reported on progress, everything was functioning smoothly. Progress, progress, I wrote to BK, progress everywhere I look. Whether in the niches of the project or its dark alleys, I see a glimmer, like the green light in the hotel room in Vertigo, both film and novel. I didn’t write that to them. I’m not that stupid. A project manager doesn’t revel in the culture of the past in front of the customer. The present was where we existed, with one hand, one foot, one ear in the future. We were, in a word, proleptic, though this word I also did not use. I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but PLM, yes, I had no alternative but to tell them about Leslie’s SOW.

It’s still in my files but I don’t have time to look it up now. Now I have to focus on IDS whose scope, I confess, seems always in flux, sometimes shrinking, sometimes expanding, always in motion, now you see it, now you don’t, changing, unfixable and not my fault. The utterly impossible scope for this impossible project, impossible in every sense of the word, this project I wanted off my plate. My plate was full enough. After Leslie’s departure, the team in Brussels was a shambles (I’d left them in her hands in all but name). No one answered my calls. I’d handed off the project for the tractor folks in Serbia long ago. Sorry I can’t deliver, but there are, after all, companies who pay us real euros, not those tiddlywinks you want to dish out to us, so goodbye tractors and your product manuals with graphic interfacing. We manage content, that’s all we ever claimed we could do. My colleague in Munich will be your contact from now on.

Oh, my desk was a riot of Post-Its upon Post-Its, lavender for current, yellow for forget it. All I wanted to do now was hand IDS off, but to whom? It had been handed over to me when it was already two years old, a tough time to enter a project, an impossible period to enter and yet I had entered it. Promises had been made, the project deemed deliverable, but I knew how mad that was in reality. I had worked in Support, QA, Development, and now Project Management for PLM. I knew PLM as well as I knew PLM knew me. Could management seriously believe that, after all these years, I was no better than my colleagues? Yes, I had written chaotic code, rigidified workflows, trashed version files, let notification dates lapse, fallen down on gap analysis, but I’m a manager now, I manage project managers, but we’re a little shorthanded, as I said. Still, could Maidenhead really believe J or C or X or A were my equal? I knew I was better than them and that had I been in charge from the beginning of IDS, the scope would have been based on empirical data, not on Sales’ fantasies which always lead to disasters, one disaster after another, one total disaster after another, or if not total then almost total—IDS, for example, which left me at my desk typing This is the life cycle of this project as the heading to my IDS report to my superiors in Maidenhead. And to myself I typed over and over This is the life cycle, over and over, this is the life cycle of the project, this is the life cycle of the project.

I filled my screen with this strange message, strange because the more I typed it, the more I had no idea what it meant, what life cycle meant, what project meant, what this meant, what the meant, what is meant. No clue. But typing the sentence gave me pleasure, my fingers were doing something. Something amazing? I couldn’t say. Perhaps something astonishing, even if only pixels, digital dust, anything to void the green desktop image PLM required we keep on our screens, the P a darker green than the L and the L a darker green than the M and the M a pale, grasshopper green set against a green sky where in green clouds our links floated, awaiting someone to click on them, to see what kind of content management system we could deliver.

Oh yes, we promised we could manage their content, build personalized platforms guaranteed to save them millions. But after three years IDS wasn’t a platform, it wasn’t a program, it wasn’t a successful migration, it was a patch of a patch of a patch. It was the mess I had inherited from a colleague in Singapore who had inherited it from Dublin who had etc. I couldn’t deliver the product for IDS because the product that could fit IDS hadn’t been, would never be invented. PLM made its bid on the basis of a delusion. And if I knew this all along, why hadn’t I informed Leslie?

I send an email to Maidenhead. A phone meeting is agreed upon, then they don’t pick up. I send another email asking if there is a BC available who can help me with IDS, someone from Development they can assign me. They don’t answer. And if I do hear from the merry-go-round in Maidenhead, I’m told: Resolve it, resolve it, we’re backed up here, no resources, no resources.

The phase exits, the phase gates, the kill points of IDS—all these I’d passed through or over like a kid biking down a shell road, the shell cracking beneath the wheels, splitting up and off, landing in the ditch or weeds. Risk assessment? What risk assessment, risk monitoring, Monte Carlo Process, tolerance for risk? Tolerance?

I will not think about Leslie, I wrote. I need not be worried about Leslie. After denying responsibility for her actions, not admitting to any responsibility other than for the code for a patch so minor it was left undocumented, had she slipped through the gate, gone over to the other side like S intimated at lunch, been head-hunted by SAP? After her departure, I had often wondered about the project’s irrational curve because 1) I couldn’t believe it, my math wasn’t that bad, and 2) I knew I would have to show it to the division. I’d avoided sending them anything the past three weeks. What could I tell them that they couldn’t already intuit from the case wobbles and improper rotations encountered in the work styles of my predecessors? I wasn’t discovering previously unknown or unresolved issues. The impact matrix stayed the same. I continued to hold meetings, or if not to hold meetings to note in my diary meetings held with Product Management, with Development, with Support, though I hadn’t contacted them in days.

Every morning more warnings, more demands, more failed testings, glitches, mazes for me to run previously assigned to Leslie, all the while filing my reports about the new production processes, about standardization features scheduled for the next release, about whatever.

“Aren’t we beyond the fantasy stage of this project,” she had asked me at the last team meeting I held on IDS. Gazing into her gray eyes, did I detect a glint of irony? We all respected her. Though the youngest member of the team, she had, prior to entering Professional Services, an impeccable record. 26. Single. 950 euros a month for her three-room apartment on the Killesberg. Degree from Mannheim in IT. PMP certificate in hand, and in the offing one semester of studies to complete an MBA.

“Fantasy, Leslie?” I queried with a smile, observing the casualness with which she brushed her hands over her black slacks, her pale turquoise blouse. “Perhaps. But still, as we have every reason to know, no IT project is perfect.” “That’s right,” she said. “But every project has to produce something and I see nothing but processes in IDS, and everyone knows where that road leads.” “Well, Leslie,” I said, making eye contact with the other members of the team to let them know I wasn’t at all bothered by her outburst, “I guess you’ve some boning up to do.”

I didn’t tell any of this to BodKom, of course, but I remembered it when PLM asked me for an explanation of a few points about Leslie’s comments on my status report. Evidence of PP (presumptive personality), I reported back. In my notes, however, I wrote, over and over, No IT project is perfect, but with a steady decrease in its ability to mollify my fears.

No one answers in Maidenhead, no one calls from divisional HQ. Each worker bundles twice as many items today as she did yesterday. We are planning to hire new project managers to relieve me of my other projects in order for me to devote myself full time to the migratory patterns for the third quarter. I emailed that this morning, but we weren’t close to migrating. My team was scattered around the globe, it wasn’t even really a team any longer. Leslie, I knew now more than ever, had been the linchpin. Didn’t Maidenhead know that when they asked me to relieve her of her responsibilities on IDS?

Last meeting, in her cubicle (I thought she would appreciate the personal touch): “I have no influence with top management. I can’t quit, of course. None of us can. Although, yes, perhaps it would be best if you submitted your resignation, giving yourself by so doing a month’s paid leave. We can do without the lawyers, can’t we, Leslie? I more than anyone do not want to see you go. I really don’t. I wish there was something I could do. Without your input IDS is in every sense of the word incomprehensible.” Her hands as still as marble on her laptop, she did not look up at me. “Thank you for the information,” she said.

The next day she didn’t show up for work, or the next. Then the rumors started, but I was too busy with the project, trying to hold it together (since to move it forward was an impossibility), my main support for it now let go. The schefflera beside her cubicle wilted, died. Who had time to water it? Not me.

I am doing the best I can. Surely you can see that after all these years. What else could I do but my best, which, granted, is probably no longer my best. I am reconsidering risk management plans regarding team membership. I type and send that to BK and cc the managers in Maidenhead. Categories for QRA (Quality Risk Analysis) are mutating as I write. Situational graphics with accompanying influence diagrams and process flow charts have been prioritized to identify root causes of and potential responses to risk. I have the impact matrix in hand. I have Figure 11-8. I have brought, will have brought, will have had brought the project into compliance by the end of the quarter. I know we are not generating revenue at the moment, but this will change. Everything will change. My remaining reserve, I assure you, is adequate to what lies ahead. We are always thinking ahead. We are already there. Perhaps IDS isn’t designed strategically, but rest assured I will not give up on it. I know that livelihoods are at stake. Contingency plans are in order. Risk Monitoring and Control have been approved by Execution. We are closing risks and ranks. Yes, we’ve had a few problems, a few bumps along the road, but projects are like forests in that from the outside they may look intimidating but once you are within them you see paths made by others. Imagine you are not alone (though of course you really are). Each project is a lesson in history. To grasp the difference between history and not-history we must go back to the beginning when the metadata was restored, everything was go.

Soon, yes, we’ll be ready for the rollout. Quality policies have been instrumental in instigating the never-ending three-part cycle needed for certification and approval. I have here my assessment of the Enterprise Environmental Factors (EEF). I can always pull it out as an example of lessons learned, no matter what the learning curve seems to insinuate.

One morning in early autumn Leslie came up behind me and whispered in my ear, You know, don’t you? My fingers froze, then hit SLEEP. Then I turned around in my chair only to catch the swirl of her yellow dress, the morning-coffee scent of her as she made her way back to her cubicle before I could say, “Know what?” I do not put this in my report. When she leaned over my shoulder (the first shock of her, her presence, the warmth of her breath on my ear) had she seen what was on my monitor? This passage is now deleted. I remember the birches outside the window had already lost most of their leaves. The day was gray, but no one had turned on the office lights. Hunched over in front of my laptop, I must have looked like some strange IT beetle busy back-dating a risk register.


Tom Whalen’s books include Elongated Figures, The President in Her Towers, Winter Coat, Dolls, The Straw That Broke, and the translation of two works by Robert Walser: Girlfiriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories and Little Snow Landscape (NYRB Classics). His fiction, poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in Agni, Bookforum, The Brooklyn Rail, Film Quarterly, Georgia Review, Harper’s, The Literary Review, The Missouri Review, The Paris Review, Witness, and other journals.

Originally appeared in NOR 5

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