Saturday, January 12, 2013

Interview with Gary Nelson

Over the last couple of days I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gary Nelson, author of Gazza's Guide to Practical Project Management. The Project Management Book Club is featuring Gary's book in an upcoming online study. Here's the interview.


Hi Gary,

For starters, please tell me a little bit about yourself.

Well, I am Canadian, though I currently live in New Zealand. I was born in Alberta but lived most of my life in Vancouver, BC. I guess I am a technical project manager with a strong "T" - I have always had some technical aspect to my role, even when primarily managing projects.

I have also been quite fortunate to have been able to travel for projects as part of my work - I have done projects in Hong Kong, Taiwan, New Zealand, Canada and many states in the US. I even got to man a booth for a trade show in New Delhi in 1993. One of my favourite projects was an implementation in Nashville, Tennessee, which spanned three years. A great place, and a great group of people to work with.

My first overseas work trip was to New Zealand in 1990, where I met my wife. We moved back to Canada together, but after 17 years and three children, we decided that we could move "back" to New Zealand and I could still do the same job - for the same clients! I have been a virtual project manager since 2008, managing a team in North America and clients around the globe. When I first worked in New Zealand there was no internet, just a slow modem between the home office and the client site. I never could have imagined working the way I do today. I have local clients in New Zealand now, but am still involved with the overseas team.

How did you get into project management? 

I have been working on projects my entire career, since I started in the Telecom space back in 1989. Similar to many project managers, I did not originally set out to become a Project Manager. My first manager actually tricked me into it! He started me doing Microsoft Project schedules for the software releases and it gradually progressed from there, supporting the project manager and then taking on my own projects. Once I had been managing projects of different sizes for a while, my manager encouraged me to go for some training and to get my PMP, which I did in 2000. Since then I have done a variety of other projects, ranging from the multi-year/multi-million dollar type to hundreds of smaller concurrent projects. I have learned something new with each type of project.

What are your favorite project management books and why?

I have read a number of Project Management books over the years - many of the "pure PM" ones are more textbook-like, so they are useful for facts and principles but not necessarily engaging. On the other hand, Project Management is actually a broad discipline so I find there are many books that I consider helpful in managing my projects.

One of my favourite "PM" books is The Lazy Project Manager by Peter Taylor - he does an excellent job of communicating a number of essential principles in an engaging and humorous way.

In the category of Leadership - I enjoy many of John C Maxwell's books, particularly Developing the Leader Within You. I find that I re-read (or listen, as I also have them on audiobook) to help refresh my thinking about leadership, particularly when I prepare for a new project.

I would also single out The Heart of Change by John P Kotter - it is another excellent resource when you are preparing for a project that includes significant organizational change.

What was your inspiration behind writing Gazza's Guide to Practical Project Management?

I have always wanted to write a book, ever since I was a teen. I was told I was fairly good at writing, and had done creative writing in High School and University. The problem about thinking about writing a book was always "what to write about?" and "what would people find interesting?" and more importantly "what do I know that is worth telling?". The last one had me stumped for a long time - of course, I had been thinking about novels and fiction. I still don't know what I would write for a fiction novel. Still working on that one!

I had done a lot of writing in my career - training materials and product manuals as well as all of the normal project stuff, but what I particularly enjoyed was training. The courses were primarily on technical topics, and I wrote most of the materials. As you can imagine, it is quite easy to have a very dry course when you are talking about database tables and business logic. However, as I delivered the training I found I was telling stories to help drive some points home, or if people started to wander - they were anecdotes, really, from other client systems and situations, to help put the topic in context. Not only was it very successful in getting their attention, they learned a lot from the courses and I was surprised to have several feedback forms say the course was the best training they had ever had...!

Ever since, I have looked for opportunities to use anecdotes or applicable stories to help deliver the message when training, or when mentoring other project managers.

The inspiration for the book was a bit unexpected. In 2011 I started blogging for the first time, first with a technical series on developing custom project systems using Sharepoint, following up on an all-too-short presentation I did at the PMI New Zealand annual conference that July. As we rolled into 2012, however, I decided to start sharing my project experiences through my blog - following the same principle I found so successful in classroom training. That is, to include anecdotes and metaphors in the topic or lesson - in short, as stories.

Still, I had not thought of it as the start of a book, until a colleague of mine, Sean Whitaker published his first PM book, The Practically Perfect Project Manager in April 2012. At that point I looked at what I had written so far and thought "why not use this as the start of a book?" I found that I had been writing articles in a number of PM knowledge areas already, so I decided that the approach of the book would be a series of lessons structured around the typical project phases and covering core knowledge areas, with many of them delivered in story or anecdotal format.

I decided I would tackle the basics from a practical (not theoretical) perspective, going from the start of a project through to the end, as a Project Management Journey. That, in part is why I called the book "Gazza's Guide to Practical Project Management". There were already several books with the plain title "Practical Project Management" - but I wanted to convey the sense that Project Management is a Journey for all of us, because that is what it really is. We are all practicing Project Managers, constantly working to improve - just like doctors in a "Practice". The other aspect of "Gazza's Guide" is that it is intended to show that there is always help available along the journey - from your mentors, colleagues, and of course from my book.

Throughout the book, I share my experiences in helping to make some typically complex topics more accessible and understandable, so I guess it is partly auto-biographical as well. Of course, the chapters are not all in excessive depth (there are many good PM books that do that), but I find that if you are bogged down or daunted by an imposing new knowledge area, if you can get a firm foothold, suddenly the rest of it starts to make a lot more sense.

On that note, I have another story: I had a course in University that was extremely tough and the workload was higher than any other course. The class was doing so much work we could not keep up and everyone was getting more and more confused (and frustrated). Finally the Teaching Assistant told the Professor he could not keep up with the huge volume of marking every week - so the Professor cancelled all homework assignments, and left the grades to the midterm and final exam. What happened next was in a word, amazing. Released from the pressure of "just trying to get it all done", myself and the others in the class actually had time to THINK. I spent the next week going over all of my notes, the homework so far and the textbook, and suddenly I figured it all out! Everything in the course expanded on one key concept - and once you had that, you could figure everything else out! I went from trying not to fail because we didn't understand anything - to getting an "A" because I had taken the time to simplify what we had been learning down to the basic parts - and then apply it. It was a valuable lesson in taking time to step back and figure out the basics first. Slow down to move quicker. You need that time to save time and frustration later.

Another point is that for learning to be successful, it has to be interesting, and wherever possible, fun. If you enjoy what you are doing and what you are learning, it is no longer "work" - you find you want to do it! I actually had a lot of fun in writing the book - and I hope the readers have as much fun reading it while they absorb the lessons.

Why 'Gazza?' Where does that name come from?

I first earned that nickname when I worked in New Zealand in 1990. Apparently it is a very common nickname for "Gary" in Australia and New Zealand, but it was unheard of in Canada. When I started my first business (just myself as a contractor), I was searching around for business names that didn't sound too dumb or pretentious. I was stuck on what to name it (and didn't want to be Business #1234567!) - and then I remembered the nickname from NZ. "Gazza Consulting Services" sounded a bit more unique and jazzy than "Gary", but it still means the same thing. So when I started my blog, podcast and then the book, I just carried the nickname through.

You use stories throughout your book to explain project management principles. What is your favorite project management story?

That is a tough one, I have some favourites in several areas. If you are talking about building teams, I would say it would have to be the "Russian Sushi Incident" in the chapter "People, we're talking about People!". Take the time to get to know your team - and their food preferences!

If you are talking about Risk, then I would say the Umbrella chapter - "Everything I Need to Know about Risk Management I learned from my Pocket Umbrella." There were a lot of painful truths in that one - and lessons to be learned. That one also happens to be the most popular article on the blog and the podcast.

Although many people quite like the Ice Cream chapter too.

What do you hope people will learn by studying your book?

Different people will get different things out of this book. If you are new to Project Management or learning about it, then this is a very good starting place to begin to understand many core project management concepts. If you are a more senior project manager, well, you won't get the same lesson benefits as a newcomer - instead, you may find yourself comparing methods, and you might find that you are doing many things in a similar way, or say that your way is better, and that's fair enough - use what works for you. I hope that it at least prompts some good discussions on different approaches.

What this book will also do for the seasoned PM's is give them an opportunity to read some other perspectives, and be entertained while they are doing it. It is far too easy to get mired in the details of your project and lose sight of the bigger picture and other ways you might approach things, so you need to step back every now and then and read articles and books. I personally find that it helps to stimulate my own thinking. You can read Gazza's Guide to Practical Project Management cover-to-cover, or you can simply pick it up and read the relevant chapter for your needs - although they do "flow", each chapter stands on its own as a reference.

If you could offer once piece of advice to new project managers, what would it be?

Keep things simple. Inside every complex problem there is a set of simpler ones trying to get out. Things can get too complicated very easily - and it is then hard to fit all that detail into your head. So when you are faced with a challenge - look at it from several angles to see if it can be simplified and get to the root of it - the lowest common denominator.

Of course there is a limit - don't try to over-simplify things to the nth degree, but get them to a level where you understand things clearly - and can also communicate at that level to others on your team. It's all about communication, in the end.

Thomas, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to chat - and thank you for having Gazza's Guide to Practical Project Management in the Project Management Book Club study!

I am looking forward to the study and participating in the group discussions. I am sure I will learn a lot from the readers!


Gary (Gazza) Nelson

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