PMTips: Here with us today is Linky van der Merwe, who is a certified Project Management Professional and Agile Project Manager. She works as a Senior IT Project Manager at Santam Insurance and is the founder of Virtual Project Consulting, where she offers training and consulting services to business professionals who are new to project management. Virtual Project Consulting has been awarded in the 2019 African Excellence Awards as the Best Online-Only Project Management Consulting Services Provider.

Linky, welcome and thank you for doing this interview.

Linky Van Der Merwe: It's a pleasure, thanks for having me.


PMTips: With over 20 years of experience as an IT Project Manager, what kind of challenges have you faced in your professional life?

Linky Van Der Merwe: Well, yes, there are quite a few over a number of years. One of the interesting parts is that I started off as an accidental project manager, but I loved it and I decided to stay in the profession and rather specialize by becoming a project management professional, because that opened quite a few doors for me. And one challenge I had, for example, is that I had three children over the course of my career, and I had the need to work part time, which I could then do when I became a professional, because I worked as a contractor at companies like Microsoft Consulting services here in South Africa. And, actually, also I got opportunities then to work at other big companies like, you know, insurance companies, and mobile companies, and retailers, so I would say a challenge is that you need to be able to transfer that project management knowledge across different industries.

PMTips: Can you tell us how one develops a career in the rapidly changing and fast-paced digital world?

Linky Van Der Merwe: Yeah, I think it's very important that you decide early on where you want to go with your career, and if you can do a good qualification, or follow this certification route like I did, because that makes you more professional in the way that you work, and it also gives you that ability to have a solid foundation in project management that you can then apply across different industries. So don't stay just in one industry and think you are stuck there for your whole career. That is the beauty of working in this type of career – the fact that you can move around, you can work at different companies, and you can do the work equally well as long as you stay up to date and you basically keep pace with the current and latest trends in the industry. There's no reason, you know, why you can't gain experience at one company, and after a few years maybe decide to go and work at a different company and grow your skills that way. And quite often that's also the only way that you can grow your income, is by making a move into maybe more senior positions where you start working on more complex and strategic projects, and that way actually giving bigger value as a project manager.


PMTips: Is there one universal rule that should always be applied when a successful project delivery is in question? Or does every project have a story of its own and the advice you give and approaches you suggest differ from one project or program to another?

Linky Van Der Merwe: Sure, I won’t say [there’s] just one universal rule, but I have a moto that I've used over the years in all my projects and that is that there are three things that you need to be doing on every project. And number one – that's always be planning; number two – always be communicating; and number three – always be building relationships. You can't only do those things at the beginning of projects, you need to do them continuously throughout the project life cycle, and that way you actually increase the chances of that project to be very successful, and that has been my experience and that's why I keep doing it to this day.


PMTips: What are the most common constraints in the types of projects you work on? How do you deal with any arising issues during the project lifecycle?

Linky Van Der Merwe: Well, something that I’ve found on most of the projects that I've worked on over my career, and if I can highlight one constraint that's almost always there, that is the fact that you have shared resources. Those are the people who've got – they are good team players, they’ve got the skills that you require to work on the project, and sometimes they [are] subject matter experts – that can even be a bottleneck because they are spread across different projects. It could even be vendor resources, you know, like service providers that you get in to come and work on the project, where that specialist person that you need is only available for a certain time, so your resource planning becomes very important on projects like that because they're more resource constrained and you need to do that ahead of time. So always know what your resource requirements are for the next week, the next month, so that you can plan it accordingly, so that those people don't become bottlenecks on your project.


PMTips: In your experience which project management methodology brings the best results in terms of project success? Is it Waterfall, Agile or maybe a mixture of these two methodologies?

Linky Van Der Merwe: That is a good question, and it is something that's trending at the moment – there's this debate going on, that's why the question keeps popping up nowadays. And my answer is that it depends on the context within which you work. If the conditions of agile delivery, for example Scrum, if those conditions can be met, like having a dedicated team – so in this case you've got dedicated team members, not shared – if you have a healthy backlog of work that needs to be done, that becomes the scope of your project, and you can show working, tested software at the end of each sprint, then your agile is a very good approach to deliver value early and continuously on the projects, and it is very valuable in this fast-paced environment where products need to go to market quickly. But if you don't have those conditions, or they can't be met exactly, or you have different teams with inter-dependencies, you can also try a hybrid approach, which is something we've done where you do your iterative delivery in terms of having Sprints of build and test cycles, or design build and test cycles, but that you actually still have a phase at the end before you release to production that we call a Stabilization or Testing Phase, where the products can be tested on stable code, end-to-end, and with user acceptance before you actually release it to production. So on some of the big projects where we follow agile approach, we have been following this hybrid approach that seems to be working very well to help deal with the complexity that you have on these strategic projects in corporate environments.


PMTips: Considering that you are PMP and PMP-ACP certified, could you tell us how important it is for professionals that aspire to become project managers to acquire any of PMI’s certifications and what are the benefits for project management professionals to keep earning PDUs after obtaining such certifications?

Linky Van Der Merwe: I do believe these certifications are important. They have served me very well in the past and still do. They open up doors for you to work at some of the bigger companies, like I already mentioned Microsoft Consulting Services. You can work on big projects in the public sector or in the private sector. In different companies you can transfer those skills across, because often these companies, even though they use different methodologies, they may all be based on the PMBOK®, the body of knowledge from PMI. So for me the certifications prove that you actually have experience with the knowledge and that you took the time to invest in your career. And the fact that those certifications require you to keep earning PDUs, you know, the Professional Development Units, afterwards forces people to stay current, up-to-date with the trends and the latest research in the project management industry, and that's why I believe it's a good thing.

If you even look at some other sectors, like the medical profession, they also require the same things from their professionals, and if you go to a doctor you would want to know that that person is up to date with the latest medicine and research, so that they can treat you well in terms of getting better. So it's the same thing in our profession, so that is really for me an important factor if you want to work as a professional person in this industry and not just accidental project manager who does it for a while and then decides to do something else.


PMTips: In 2009 you founded Virtual Project Consulting, a company that offers online training courses and consulting services. Through the platform you also share practical advice on PM processes and give recommendations for PM resources. Can you tell us what kind of value any additional training and access to resources brings to PM professionals? How can it affect the progress of their career?

Linky Van Der Merwe: Yes, I believe that it would help people if they're looking for resources, that they find many of these resources in one place and that it is recommended by a person who has, you know, the depth of knowledge and experience in the career that they are also in, and there they can find the answers that they're looking for. The fact that there are articles that are shared on the blog of these types of websites like I have, is that you actually share a lot of best practices that are based on experience over the years, from your own projects as well as other people who contribute articles to the blogs. So that is something that can serve people well, who are trying to develop themselves and make progress in their careers.


PMTips: At Virtual Project Consulting you have developed the Fast-track Growth Program for New Project Managers, an accelerated learning program for growing critical project management competencies. What was the inspiration and intention behind the creation of such a program?

Linky Van Der Merwe: Yeah, that really came from my passion that I have for successful delivery on projects, and I don't want to let people without the necessary knowledge and skills fail on projects when they’re new, and in that way giving project management a bad reputation for non-delivery. So it's really making a contribution to try and help turn around the statistics of successful project delivery, that you help people who are new, and drawing it out that they can become competent and more confident much quicker, by knowing what the right things are to do on projects, what those essential skills that they need to apply are.


PMTips: For many years you have been sharing your expertise and knowledge with the PM community through various means. Aside from your work as a Program Manager, consultant and trainer, you are an active member and volunteer for Project Management South Africa (PMSA). What drove you to help others expand their knowledge and improve their skills?

Linky Van Der Merwe: Yes, I think it's important to belong to an organization in your country that represents the project management practitioners in that country. This is what our organization does, it provides opportunities for knowledge sharing events, you get speaking opportunities where you can actually present research, and you learn from experts who've written books. It gives the opportunity for networking, and overall just peer-to-peer support, you know, supporting other people who are also doing the same type of work that you're doing, so you give to exposure to all the other people out there that you may not see from day-to-day but you do see them because you're both members of the same organization, and you actually have the same aspirations and motivation for improving yourself.


PMTips: You are involved with an initiative called Success Stories Shared – tell us more about that?

Linky Van Der Merwe: Yes, so we've been busy with this a few years now, and it is really about retaining the knowledge and wisdom from the older generation of project managers who are retiring or have been doing it for a very long time. So we do it by means of interviews with experienced project managers, so that I can share their learnings from past projects, and then these stories get published on my blog and the colleague that's doing it with me. And in that way it is shared with the wider project management community, and you retain some of that wisdom, also for future generations. So this is our social responsibility initiative that is ongoing and that we still enjoy doing.


PMTips: Sounds great.

What would your advice to all project managers be? Which skills do you think they should focus most on developing in order to bring significant value to the projects they manage?

Linky Van Der Merwe: In my opinion, I believe that the skills that project managers of today and the future will still need to develop our skills, like leadership skills, because you will be leading teams, your emotional intelligence skills, you know, those soft skills are important. But at the same time you also need solid technical skills, you need some business skills, especially for the sector industry that you're working in. You need to be resilient, because things don't always go as per your plan, as per your expectations, and you need to bounce back from that when things go wrong. And just have that attitude of continuous learning and that you're always busy with self-development in order to lead the projects that you are on with confidence.


PMTips: Linky, thank you for joining us today, for providing advice, and for sharing your professional experiences with our readers and listeners.

Linky Van Der Merwe: I really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you very much for the opportunity to do this with you today.

PMTips: Likewise. Thank you very much.


Interview conducted by Ana Mitevska