Women in Tech: Elizabeth Volini, Director of Project Management

Originally posted on ThinkIT, SingleHop’s blog, July 18, 2017. 

 

There are a number of reasons projects can fail in the workplace, from poor communication and lack of strategy to lack of leadership and accountability. The top tactic to tackle these project problems: a great project manager.

In IT, there’s a vast range of skill-sets and great minds that can make for a highly innovative team when working toward common goals. An effective project manager understand the diverse dynamics of each team and is able to strategize workflows, facilitate communication, and monitor execution to ensure that projects are moving forward and successfully meeting objectives.

In this second edition of SingleHop’s Women in Tech series, I took some time to chat with our Director of Project Management, Elizabeth Volini.

Tell me a bit about your role as the Director of Project Management at SingleHop.

The Project Management team at SingleHop has gone through an evolution since I started here four years ago. I was brought on as a hired gun to manage the buildout and migration to SingleHop’s flagship Data Center in Chicago. At the time, there was essentially no Project Management work being done at the company. Over the years we have built out the team to four internal Project Managers.

Fast forward to now, and the team of internal PMs does a lot that doesn’t resemble traditional Project Management work. We support all areas of the business, and have brought in tools and process to lead an Agile revolution (#shagile). We are all focused on making SingleHop teams and initiatives successful for the company and we take on any challenge to make things work. I feel lucky to work with all of the awesome people at SingleHop and they inspire me everyday to keep working to be a good leader.

You’ve actually expanded your role at SingleHop, right? What was it like to move up in the company?

One of the things that we talk about here at SingleHop is to just “get ‘stuff’ done.” My personal philosophy is to try to never complain about something without offering a suggested solution. That extends to my role here, when there is a problem or a gap that needs to be filled, and I can, I go ahead and just do it. Over time, these small incremental things add up to more responsibility. It means that I end up with my fingers in a lot of different pots, but becoming Director of PM organically happened from all of these small things adding up. I think this is a roadmap that anyone could follow. Don’t be a victim. See problems and actively work to fix them.

What brought you to work in the technology industry?

Many years ago, I decided to pursue an undergraduate degree in Engineering at the University of Illinois. I did this because I didn’t know what to major in, and my brother didn’t get accepted to the engineering program at UofI (he is amazingly smart and went on to be a very successful mechanical engineer!). Competition with my big brother was not a good reason to choose my life path, and I quickly found a Management of Information Systems degree instead.  I went through a lot of technology classes and had an internship with a .com IT startup so I knew the vocabulary of the industry. When I was graduating, everyone wanted to work for the “Big 5” Consulting Firms and the lines at the career fairs for these companies were really long. I really didn’t want to stand in the long lines, so I randomly started chatting with the company that had the shortest line, they needed developers on the east coast. So, I ended up at my first real technology job, loved it, and the rest is history!

In the tech world, things are constantly evolving. Does that influence how you manage projects?

The Project Management skill set is technology agnostic. PMs of course need to have the basic vocabulary, but fortunately PMs aren’t valuable because they can program javascript or build a network. They are valuable because PM skills complement the skills of the people that can do the technical things. The first technical project I ever managed was many years ago on my first day at Cars.com. I was assigned to manage the purchase and configuration of a brand new SAN. I nodded and smiled with enthusiasm, but I will admit now that I didn’t even know what SAN stood for when they assigned me that project. I stayed up all night that night and did tons of research, and by the next day I was able to sit down with the project team, and ask intelligent questions about the things that needed to be done to get that SAN up and running. I will never know how to configure a SAN, but I know how to ask what needs to be done and lead the conversation to resources, tasks, and next steps to make it happen. That skillset applies to all types of projects and teams. And the more projects you manage the better your questions and process gets!

What does it take to complete a successful technical project with many different skills and diverse minds in the room?

I always say that good Project Managers worry about everything. When you wake up in the middle of the night worried it drives a lot of behaviors that drive successful projects. When you worry, you probably are going to talk to people to find out how things are going and then let others know when something happens (good communication skills). Your worry is probably going to make you think about all the things that could go wrong and have a plan for them if they happen (risk management). And then you are probably going to ask other people about how they are doing and what they are worried about (building relationships). I think that PMs have to have the vocabulary to understand what to worry about in technical projects, but that making that worry go away is how they successfully navigate through any project, team, or situation.

Earlier you mentioned an Agile revolution. Can you tell me a bit more about the value of Agile?

In IT, there are Agile purists, that really embrace the structure and cadence of using Agile.  These people live by story points and strictly defined Agile artifacts. But, the value of any methodology is to embrace the core concepts that work for your situation. What works for SingleHop doesn’t necessarily work for somewhere else. #shagile is the SingleHop version of Agile development that we have applied to 80% of the teams across the organization; from Billing, to Legal, to Network Operations, and of course to Development. Each team is embracing what works for them, and leading the efforts to improve how they use it. We love the iterative structure, empowered teams, transparency, and flexibility of using Agile.SingleHop has embraced JIRA and Confluence as our vehicles to support Agile, and we are all constantly learning and working to improve our consumption of Agile ideas and concepts. As an organization, I think we are at #shagile version 2.0, and looking to move forward with continuous deployment of future improved features and versions.  

What have you learned about leadership in your career?

I feel like most of my leadership has come from learning from my own mistakes and listening to people. Like Agile teaches us: fail fast, fail often/ learn fast, learn often. I have failed as a leader a lot over my career, but I have had the privilege of dusting myself off and learning from my mistakes. I think that continuous learning, acceptance of not always knowing the answer, and being willing to work to figure it out are critical to great leadership. I think the most important things a leader can do include: Transparency, Building Trust, Acknowledging Effort, Listening, and Continuous Learning.

Any advice to young women pursuing a career in tech or project management?

I think women in tech need to speak up. You aren’t going to see a lot of people that look like you, that can be intimidating and turn a lot of women away. But, the perspective of diversity is usually missing at the table in the tech world. Your voice is going to be different from most of those at the table, and that is needed! Like targeted advertising on Facebook, that only shows you the things that it thinks you want to see. Homogeneous opinions create stagnation in companies.  It can be really hard, but don’t be intimidated by being the only female in the room.  Instead, embrace it — ask questions, seek out mentors, and contribute everywhere you can, in whatever capacity. You are adding value. If you see a problem work to fix it, don’t wait for someone to tell you what to do, let your voice be heard! And don’t worry about being different, your differences are keys to everyone’s success.

 

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Hi, I'm Jackie!