For a self-confessed ‘accidental’ project manager, Maria Skillern has more than what it takes to handle big projects. In the beginning she worked in a large organisation on an IT and change project, and since then has shown her skills in the Tasmanian Government in a variety of roles.
It was in the early 1980s that Skillern began to work on projects, though admits she didn’t realise it at the time.
“I was working for the Shell Oil Company in its data centre in Victoria. I was just a team member at that stage, but had no idea that what I was undertaking was a project,” she recalls.
“I started off as a keypunch [data entry] operator. All of the programs used by the operators had to be written in the new software, which was my task. I didn’t realise that converting the old programs to the new was a project, although I was acutely aware of the expected timeframe for delivery. And that’s why I say I stumbled into project management by accident.”
Skillern soon moved into a role entitled ‘change controller’, which involved controlling all of the changes that might impact on the running of the data centre and the daily processing of data, then later took a position as a ‘problem manager’. These roles contributed to her skill set, she now recognises. “Both of these are fundamental aspects of project management; I was working with projects without an appreciation of project management.”
Finding the project
Moving from Victoria to Tasmania in the late 1980s, Skillern later found herself working for Tasmania’s Department of Premier and Cabinet (DPAC) where she was formally introduced to project management. “Since then I’ve gone on to work on project management guidelines and associated tools,” she says. “I have managed small projects and a large whole-of-government project for the Tasmanian Government.”
Skillern had a hand in the Tasmanian Government project management guidelines which, although based on PMBoK, included input from experienced project managers and practitioners within the Tasmanian state service. The process enabled her to identify what made a good project, and to manage some of the lessons learnt as derived from other projects in the state.
And having just come from a large five-year project redeveloping the motor registry system in Tasmania, she can now compare theory with practice.
“One of the things we developed early in the Motor Registry project was a human resource management strategy. There was no way at the start of the project that we could’ve worked out the strategy for the whole of the project because the scope changed so much,” she explains.
“In my previous role as adviser I would have gone to the project manager and said ‘you need to develop this strategy for the whole of the project’. In hindsight, it would have been unrealistic to expect it to happen. That’s not to say I wouldn’t suggest that a human resource management strategy needed to be developed, but if it was explained why it could not be done, I’d be more sympathetic to the realities. There’s the theory of project management and the reality of it and at least now I can combine the two.”