Maximize Career Advancement with Project Management Training: Interview with GGU’s Marie Spark, PMP®

Marie Spark, MBA, PMP® has more than 15 years of project and quality management experience within technology, banking, and the nonprofit sector. She originally discovered teaching at Bank of America as a Six Sigma Black Belt coach. After leaving BofA in 2012, Marie chose to apply her skills and experience to teaching project management as a career. She started at Golden Gate University as an adjunct instructor in 2015 and advanced to her current role as Project Management Program Director a year later. Spark has also taught “boot camps” that prepare professionals to pass the Project Management Professional (PMP®) exam. Marie has been very involved in the PMI (Project Management Institute) San Francisco chapter and has served in keyboard and operations leadership roles.

In a recent episode of the Project Management Podcast™, Spark was interviewed on the subject of taking your project management education to the next level. She also touches on how GGU’s academic programs are relevant to a rapidly changing business world.


Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to The Project Management Podcast™ at www.pm-podcast.com. I’m Cornelius Fichtner. We are coming to you live from the energizing 2018 PMI Global Conference in Los Angeles. And with me right now is Marie Spark. Good afternoon, Marie!

Marie Spark: Good afternoon, Cornelius! Great to be here!

Cornelius Fichtner: I cheated a little bit because I said that we are at the PMI Global Conference. We’re not yet at the conference. We are at the PMI Leadership Institute Meeting to be absolutely precise. It’s a couple of days before the conference actually starts. How is the LIM for you?

Marie Spark: Oh, the LIM is fantastic. The Leadership Institute Meeting brings project managers from all over the world. I sat down at the table with people from Nigeria, Portugal, and Vietnam and we had a great talk from people PMI Global and someone from Pixar relating project management to wonderful animated movies. How can you tap that?

Cornelius Fichtner: Our topic is career advancement through project management training. What can our listeners expect to learn from our conversation?

Marie Spark: Well, the world of project management training keeps changing in disruption just like everything else but the exciting thing is I think our listeners can think about going beyond the traditional bounds of what is learning and hopefully we can explore the possibilities in this conversation.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah! Let’s take a step back and start at the very beginning.

Marie Spark: Sure.

Cornelius Fichtner: What is your background in project management and also in project management education?

Marie Spark: Sure. So the funny thing on me is I am a full-time faculty member now in academics. But that is not where I started and I never would have guessed that I’d be here. So I was an IT project manager in banking and operations and I also am a Six Sigma Black Belt and I really fell into being in education after leaving my last job and suddenly realizing that my favorite thing I did was Six Sigma coaching. And thinking I would be in professional training to make a long story short, I am now the director of a project management program and I really enjoy the fact that I combine my professional background with education.

I think things are changing so rapidly that I think we just all need to assume we PMPs® are in continuous learning mode.

Cornelius Fichtner: And what exactly it is that you do for that program and just you know for full disclosure it’s Golden Gate University.

Marie Spark: Sure! It’s Golden Gate University. So I’m a professor of project management Project Management Program Director. I teach, but I also hire faculty. In a way, I am a project manager for the program because I get to figure out what courses we need to refresh, how we can change our program. And I do outreach. And when I come to events like PMI LIM, what I love is I get to network as part of my job to learn from others.

Cornelius Fichtner: What are some of the changes that you are seeing in adult education?

Marie Spark: Oh my goodness, like everything else, those are the days, and you probably know too, Cornelius. Although education is changing rapidly, I run a graduate program as I mentioned. And the thing is people are looking for shorter education and they need it to be available. They are not necessarily looking for a degree. But they say: “I need training for my job that I need right now.” They are looking for online learning. They are looking for mobile learning. Then there are providers like some of the online providers and coding booth camps; so it’s a very interesting time to be in education but definitely those of us in the university community having to rethink how we provide value to students.

Cornelius Fichtner: And these trends — shorter, mobile, online — is that the same in project management? Because frankly, project management is not something that you can do in 5, 10-minute videos on YouTube.

Marie Spark: Yes. I would agree with that. So I think for some of the technical skills, you can do some of the online learning and video and that kind of thing, but where I see the value in in-person classes, and that’s not necessarily in my program but there’s also certificate programs and other things; and I do think with the Talent Triangle™, there’s the recognition that project managers need those soft skills, leadership skills, things like negotiation and motivation; and maybe it’s not going to a graduate school or university program but definitely, there’s still the need for project managers to do something in person where they are getting those people skills and professional skills.

Cornelius Fichtner: And how do these changes affect how we, and by ‘we’ I mean project managers, learn throughout our careers?

… in terms of providing an academic program, you need to have to understand the concepts within the PMBOK® Guide. We have an Agile management class. We have things like team leadership and having a framework … But you’re not done with just the foundation.

Marie Spark: Yeah, well I think we all have to be in continuous learning mode. I think they are used to this idea that you, with a lot of professions, but project management, you work your way up the food chain. You got your Project Management Professional (PMP®). In a certain way, you are a seasoned project manager and you could kind of focus on that.

But I think things are changing so rapidly that I think we just all need to assume we are in continuous learning mode whether that’s learning new technical tools, new methodologies like Agile and hybrid, new business models because the business world keeps changing. And how do we continue to add value to the business? Because it used to be we could all be focused on the technical project management aspects but more and more business needs us to do the things that are right for the business and glued in on the business. Also having that business understanding is I think even more and more important for project managers.

Cornelius Fichtner: So on the one hand, adult education is changing continuously. At the same time on the technical side, project management is changing continuously. How do you stay relevant in designing and developing a program?

One of the things I always recommend to people is the PMI Breakfast Roundtables. In every city, they have roundtables. They are free and open to anyone, and you can show up and talk to project managers about project management.

Marie Spark: Very good question! We’re still working on it. But I mean I would say some of the fundamentals are the same. I mean in terms of providing an academic program, you need to have to understand the concepts within the PMBOK® Guide. We have an Agile management class. We have things like team leadership and having a framework. I think the framework doesn’t go away. So those out there who have PMP®, I say don’t listen to the people say that’s not relevant. I think the foundation is still really important. But you’re not done with just the foundation.

So definitely in terms of an academic program, keeping the foundation but also figuring how to make it relevant. In my programs, we incorporate a lot of article research. So, actually, I kind of crowd-source some of the class content. I have my students present articles throughout the term, and that’s how we stay focused on what is the next best thing because I certainly can’t be on top of all the trends. So it’s this combination of the basic framework and then keeping on top of everything that’s changing; and it’s like continuous improvement.

Marie Spark and Cornelius Fichtner

Cornelius Fichtner: You already alluded a little bit to it, the PMI Talent Triangle™. And just as a refresher for everybody who is listening, it’s a triangle. It has three sides obviously. We have technical project management on one side. We have leadership on the other – and then strategic and business management on the third side. How does that fit into everything?

Marie Spark: Well great point. I think the reason that PMI kind of went into this model is traditionally … and I am dating myself. I got my PMP® in 2003 … the focus was on those technical project management skills. Back when our triangle met the triple constraints of time, scope and cost, that was what we were supposed to focus on – those of us in project management. But there’s the recognition more and more that to be relevant and to be successful project managers, we need to understand business strategy and how our business works. I mean for the business arm. So if I’m in biotechnology, I’m going to have different sets of skills that I need to know than if I’m in banking or non-profits.

And then in terms of the professional side, the leadership side of the triangle if you will, the soft skills that are so important to succeed, things like resolving conflict and being a leader and managing without authority and all those things.

So where that all came together is that you really need all those pieces to be a successful project manager and that’s where project management, the view of project management education has changed. Because it’s not just enough to know those technical sides of the triangle to be successful.

Cornelius Fichtner: One thing that I’ve done here on the Podcast is I obviously, once PMI came out with the Talent Triangle™, I started to invite a lot more guests to talk about leadership, a lot more strategic and business discussions that I’m having. Are you seeing that infiltrating your own courses as well, that thinking and that teaching?

Marie Spark: Good question! I mean I think the thing is I wouldn’t say it has changed how we teach our classes but it’s helped the value proposition in terms of when someone says: Why would I get a graduate degree? All those things that you mentioned are part of a graduate education because you’re learning advanced, thinking in analysis skills, leadership skills. A lot of our students can because they are at that point in their career where they are kind of stuck, and they need to take it to the next level. And so I think we have been doing that along, but now it’s really great to have PMI acknowledge and for people to realize those skills are important. I think it’s unfortunate they are called soft skills because I think it minimizes how important they are.

Cornelius Fichtner: Soft skills are really, really hard.

Marie Spark: Yes, very much so.

Also look at the PMI Chapters. A lot of chapters offer workshops of various types … Let’s say you have been doing work that really is project related but you were never a project manager — it’s a way of branding yourself. It’s also a way of learning the language and terminology so that you can brand yourself as a project manager and that people will buy you as a project manager.

Cornelius Fichtner: Our listeners are anywhere in their career. Somebody may be listening to this as their first podcast on project management, and somebody is a seasoned program manager or portfolio manager. So let’s take a look at what type of educational opportunities that we have out there for people throughout their career starting at the very beginning. What kind of basic project management training do you see?

Marie Spark: Okay and there is a lot out there. So when I got my MBA in the mid-90s, I heard about project management, but there really weren’t a lot of options that I knew about. But now, if you’re someone for instance like we’ll start at the beginning. If you’re someone who really doesn’t know what project management is all about, there are a lot of things out there in terms of PMI articles just to get familiar and definitely joining PMI’s organization. One of the things I always recommend to people is the PMI Breakfast Roundtables. In every city, they have Roundtables. They are free and open to anyone, and you can show up and talk to project managers about project management. In terms of classes or certification, if someone is new to project management, I would say start with a class of some type because that’s the advice I got when I was starting out. I went to my manager and I said: “I want to get my PMP®.” And she said: “Well you know, that’s great eventually. But if you want to be a project manager and learn how to do that why not you take some classes first.” So I sought out a program at my local extension university and it was really outstanding. So there’s a lot of programs. I’m not going to recommend any particular one, but I think that’s definitely something to consider.

Cornelius Fichtner: And in that situation, it’s probably mostly focused on the technical side, right? How scheduled management works, how cost management works and learn the basics.

Marie Spark: I think yes, and those are the nuts and bolts basics I would say. So for sure, the extension is a great way to get a foundation. It’s also a place you may meet other professionals.

Also look at the PMI Chapters. A lot of chapters offer workshops of various types. In terms of PMP® because people always want to know whether I get the PMP® or not, I know some of the listeners already have the PMP®, but if you’re trying to figure that out, there are different reasons for it. One of the things I think is that you have experience as a project manager but you don’t have it on your resume. Let’s say you have been doing work that really is project related but you were never a project manager — it’s a way of branding yourself. It’s also a way of learning the language and terminology so that you can brand yourself as a project manager and that people will buy you as a project manager. I’ve had students who felt like they were doing project management but there were stuck in their career path and they say: “Well if I get a masters or if I get a PMP®, my manager will see me as a project manager and I can move to the next level.”


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Cornelius Fichtner: And then above that, let’s talk a little bit about graduate level courses. For whom are these applicable?

Marie Spark: Sure, I mean I think the people who go to the graduate-level project management programs tend to be people who normally would go for an MBA but may not have known that project management is an option. I do actually have a project management concentration within our MBA programs, so I get a lot of students that way. In terms of the slice of students who come to my program and just in general, one big set of individuals are veterans. So it’s very appealing to veterans who have funding from the GI Bill. So many veterans really do have project experience out doing what they’re doing. I’ve had students who built bridges out in the middle of you know their time and that kind of thing. And so then they can brand themselves as project managers. Sometimes it’s people in the business world who are at that point in their career where they need to take the leadership skills to the next level; and once again, it’s the kind of person who might have considered MBA — but if they’re in project management, a Master’s Degree in Project Management might be a good option. ###

We also get international students. PMI and the PMP®### are just really exploding around the globe and in Asia so we definitely have people from Asia who realized that a graduate degree from the United States is a really good ticket for them.

Cornelius Fichtner: And of course and above that, there’s also the PhD option, right?

Marie Spark: There is. At our school, we have a DBA or a Doctor of Business Administration but they might also PhD. So I actually stayed at the master’s level but yes, you can get a doctorate as well.

Cornelius Fichtner: Right! How can our listeners identify which of these is right for them? I mean we looked at it from the terms of your career if you are the beginning, start with the nuts and bolts and then move on. But if you are not really quite sure, what do you look at?

Marie Spark: That’s a good question. I’ll just say right off the bat, when people come to me — and I do get asked those kinds of things a lot — I never would just say: “Well, of course, you have to go to my program, right?” It really has to do with I think people will have to consider: “Where am I in my career?” and “What is it I’m trying to achieve?”

You know for instance, if they are deciding between a certification versus a class versus a degree, you know for someone where they feel they need an advanced degree to move forward in their career, well then maybe a graduate degree in project management or an MBA with project management will be the right move. If they’re in the job market, I think definitely the PMP® is important if you’re trying to get a job as a project manager — that you need to have that name recognition of the PMP®. If you’re really just looking for: “You know, I just need to do my job better and understand how project management works on a practical level.” Then that’s where I’d say that you would be best off doing classes because classes are really where you’ll learn practical skills.

I’m very grateful to have my PMP®. But I’m very grateful for my manager who advised me to take classes first because that’s where I learned how to be a better practitioner. The PMP® is where I learned to understand the framework and theory and also be more marketable as a project manager.

So he just thought: ‘Well I have this sort of low-level job.’ … But when we talked about it, I said: ‘No, you have this really great skill. You were satisfying clients. You are managing teams. You are managing requirements and you are meeting deadlines.’

Cornelius Fichtner: When we originally spoke about what we wanted to talk about in this conversation. You said: “Oh we have to talk about the accidental project managers.” We couldn’t really find a good word. In German, there’s a fantastic word for it. It’s called quereinsteiger. It’s somebody who starts out in, I don’t know, horticulture, and suddenly after a few years, it turns out that they have managed so many projects that they are now a project manager. They don’t even know that they are a project manager yet. How does project management education help those people?

Marie Spark: Excellent question and I would just say I realized it’s funny when as I have been thinking about this, I was also an accidental project manager myself. So my very first project management job was something I didn’t realize was a project management job. And that is after college, I got an internship with National Public Radio and it was a lot of fun and I loved it! And I thought I wanted to be a journalist. But when I think back, what I loved about it was project management. Because what they would do is this is pre-Internet so I’m dating myself. But they would say: “Hey, Marie! Such and such just won the Nobel Prize for peace and this newspaper just did a story in them so they probably have the person’s contact information. We need you to track that person down and set it all up.” And so I would track the person down. I called the reporter. They would get me the information. I called the people and I would organize the studio time on both ends. Well, that’s project management. And so the thing is, later on, I ended up becoming a project manager.

I think the thing is because now I work with students and I also get asked this question a lot. First of all, there’s this great self-realization that happens because we all know how hard projects are. But if you’re out there and let’s say I was giving you example, Cornelius, of this fellow who is in the framing and installation business. So he worked for a company did art framing and installation. And he was talking about a lot stressors in terms of people changing what they wanted to do and the people conflicts. When I started telling him about stakeholder management and the change control, all of a sudden he realized: “Oh! You mean this is a normal thing that happens in projects.” So first of all, understanding that these things that you think are just you being stressed out are … actually, there’s logic behind it and a framework behind and it is very reassuring. But then it’s also realizing that those gifted people, the framework and terminology so that they can market themselves in a different way.

I mean I’ll give the example of this fellow who is doing this framing business. He was really in mid-career and trying to figure out how to move to the next level. So he just thought: ‘Well I have this sort of low-level job.’ That’s how he thought of it. But when we talked about it, I said: “No, you have this really great skill. You were satisfying clients. You are managing teams. You are managing requirements and you are meeting deadlines.” And so when you position it that way, suddenly someone who feels like they don’t have anything to offer. They can really sell themselves and end up doing something they enjoy.

I was talking to the executive assistants saying: ‘Well, you do things like organize conferences. You organize your boss’s travel schedule … like he or she is taking a trip somewhere and you organize all that.’ And when you start saying that and then you tap tight in the project management terms then they begin to see the ‘light bulb’ that it connects to them.

I would say the other thing is I find that people realize that they are very passionate about project management. They just didn’t realize that’s what they like about their job. So in this fellow, he really enjoyed that aspect of it, and it wasn’t until we had the conversation that he realized: “Oh, if this is what project management is then I think I want to pursue that.”

Cornelius Fichtner: I think you hit the nail right on its head there. They don’t know that they’re project managers which means they are not actually listening to this. But of course, we have thousands of people listening to this who are project managers, and they need these accidental project managers every single day. So how can we “educate” project managers and by “educate” I mean we know we’re project managers help these other people who are project managers but simply don’t know? How can we help them to become real project managers?

Marie Spark: Well I think one of the things when someone like that is frustrated in their job or talking about what they do, I think the thing is those of us who are project managers, we can help reframe what that person’s doing by like explaining all: “You know it sounds like you are really frustrated because things are changing all the time in the work you are doing.” But that’s something that we expect as project managers and what you’re doing is called change management.

I found when I’ve had these conversations, the funny thing is that for a lot of years when I would say I was a project manager, people will draw a blank. When you start having these conversations where you start explaining it in these terms, a light goes on for people and then they started saying: “Oh I’m beginning to see that there is this logic to it. Tell me more about this project management stuff because it sounds like what I’m doing.”

I would just say, I also had a very interesting experience this past year. I spoke to a conference of executive assistants; and I was invited. It was a professional development conference and it was great to have this room full of people who basically they are running projects all the time but they are really underappreciated. They just really, when you start using the terminology and mapping it to what they do … I think the real key thing is not just using the project management terms but mapping it to what they do. So when I was talking to the executive assistants saying: “Well you do things like organize conferences. You organize your boss’s travel schedule like he or she is taking a trip somewhere and you organize all that.” And when you start saying that and then you tap tight in the project management terms then they begin to see the “light bulb” that it connects to them.

Cornelius Fichtner: We’ve looked into the past and seen what has changed in the past few years, let’s look into the future. What kind of disruptions do you see coming towards us and how do we as project managers react to that in terms of our own education?

Marie Spark: Wow, that’s such a big question.

Cornelius Fichtner: Magic 8 Ball, right?

Marie Spark: Magic 8 Ball. I think the thing is it’s interesting to see that PMI has embraced Agile but I think we as project managers, things keep rapidly changing. I live and work in San Francisco, which is the center of technology disruption. But I just think that as project managers, I think we tend to be a very adaptive group of people because the nature of jobs is managing change. But I think we just need to expect the unexpected and know that we can’t just stick to the tried … There is no tried and true. And we have to open to trying new methodologies. I think it’s really interesting for instance seeing the rise of hybrid. Because I know a lot of hardcore Agilists who are against the idea of hybrid but the reality is that big companies are going to embrace Agile. They have to hybridize it. But I suspect we’re going to have other methodologies. There are so many tools out there. It’s bewildering.

So what I’m really interested with the tool set is: Are we going to get to more of a standard set of tools or is it going to continue to be multiple tools? So that’s one thing as project manager that I will be very interested in. So yeah, I think the main thing I would say as project manager is the trend is to expect disruption. Frankly, I think project managers are well equipped to adjust to disruptions since we are managers of change. So I’m optimistic.

Cornelius Fichtner: Before we get to my final question for you, let me ask you this: If you could go back to NPR and tell yourself back then something about you know what type of education to get, what would you tell yourself?

Marie Spark: Oh my goodness! There’s a lot of things I would tell myself. You know I think the thing is that I think what I would tell myself that the creativity and enjoyment I got out of my job in NPR that I wouldn’t necessarily have to be in media or in some “creative field” to get that enjoyment. I think that was a real light bulb for me going into the business world because I started out as wanting to be in the creative field, being in media or journalism. And I think what I’ve told myself is: “Hey, you think this is fun and exciting but if you go into study business, study project management, you’re actually going to find that excitement because it’s something you enjoy.” Sometimes I think we think: ‘Oh well if I’m a creative person, I need to do something artistic.’ And yet I think I’ve always found that problem-solving has tapped into my creativity. So I wish I had figured that out sooner. But I’m glad I figured that out eventually. But that’s what I would tell … I think I will just tell my younger self: “Go with what you are passionate about and it’s actually not what you think it is.”

Cornelius Fichtner: All right! In closing, what are your top three tips for our listeners in regards to taking their education to the next level over the coming years?

Marie Spark: Excellent! So what the number one thing is I think having the mindset that you are just continuously a learner and we’re never done learning. And I said, we’re no longer in a situation where you can just kind of focus on your world. And you know it’s just we learn something new every day and being open to sources of information. I think that segways into my second point is to be open to different ways of learning. I think one of the reasons people are hesitant to do training or they think ‘I don’t have time for this’ is I think well ‘I don’t have time for classes. I don’t have time for workshops.’ And yet there are so many ways of learning now. Like for example, you are all listening to a podcast. I’m a big podcast listener and what I find is I learn so much about things when I’m walking the dog or riding the bus and it’s also not necessarily just project management: it’s being exposed to things about business and teamsmanship and that kind of thing. But I would just say if you find that you’re blocked and you don’t feel like you have time for training, find another way to do it because there are so many ways now of being engaged. Whether it’s even social media, or articles, or webinars.
And then the third thing is networking and mentoring. And I think networking is so important. With things changing as rapidly as they are, I find a way that I keep on top of what’s going on is by being involved with PMI and other networking.

There’s meetups out there but just talking to other people what they are doing. And the thing with mentoring, I’ve had some interesting conversations about this here at the Leadership Institute Meeting because I think we traditionally thought of mentoring as a: ‘Well I’m an experienced person and I’m proving knowledge to younger persons.’ Frankly, I think it’s two ways now because I feel that I learn a lot from the newer practitioners because things are changing so rapidly and I think that when, Cornelius, you were asking me about how things are changing and how we keep on top of that. I think the best way to do that is by connecting with one another and sharing information.

Cornelius Fichtner: All right! To recap, have a learning mindset. Be open to new ways of learning and don’t forget networking and mentoring. Marie, thank you so much for being here with us today!

Marie Spark: Thanks, Cornelius! It’s been a pleasure.

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