Templeton & Partners presents Let's Talk Tech, a series of interviews aimed at tech professionals regardless of where they stand in their careers. Experts in different IT roles share their career journeys, industry insights, career advice, and tips on becoming successful in your field.
For our very first Let's Talk Tech, we interviewed Patrick Evans, a Senior Project Manager with over 30 years of experience in the field and a long track-record leading international and diverse teams in digital transformation. We caught up with him to learn what it takes to be a successful project manager and get inspired by his impressive career journey. Patrick also shared insights from his experience as a contractor and his thoughts on gender diversity in the workplace.
Patrick, you have many years of experience in the field and have managed to build quite an impressive resume over time. You have worked mainly as a project manager, but you are also an experienced programme and operations manager. What is the difference between these three roles?
The main difference is the level of responsibility of each role. Usually, a project manager deals with a single project or several small projects at a time. On the other hand, a programme manager would typically manage multiple project managers, driving the overall direction under which all these projects are sitting. And then, we have the operations manager who runs the day-to-day work. So he's not so much looking at the future. He ensures that things that need to be done on a daily basis happen, that people and processes operate as usual, and reacts to everyday issues when they occur. So it could be breakdowns or personnel issues or that sort of thing.
Have you always known this was the path you wanted to follow, or did it change along the way?
It's developed over the years. I initially thought I'd go into general management. During the last slowdown – about 20 years ago now - I decided to try project management. I know I'm quite good at it. I get kicks out of seeing things complete successfully, and I enjoy that sort of positive feedback.
What does it take to be a successful project manager? Does your field require any particular skills or educational background?
There's a minimum requirement of education to a certain degree. What's more important is the training and ability to perform to complete your projects. So let's take a step backward. From an educational perspective, it's not essential, but it helps to have some background knowledge of the technical aspects of the job. Because, within the field that I specialize in, most people generally talk to you about technical problems.
On top of that, it's also worth having some project management qualifications, like PMI and PRINCE2, which are accepted in the UK and generally in the western world. Once you are qualified, it gives you a background of how things should be done officially. But then, it's a matter of experience, really. Learning by doing, being exposed to project management issues, and working out how to manage them best.
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What about personal qualities? What traits do you need to have to make for a good project manager?
In fact, there are several. First is the ability to plan in detail. That also means trying to avoid managing things on the fly, as we say in the UK. The planning element is important because you've got to have a lot prepared before speaking to people and instructing people to do things. You also need to be able to cope with crises in a calm manner because there'll be a lot of people who can get quite upset quite quickly. And also, your stakeholders might be getting very alarmed about things happening, and you need to be able to show that you have a handle on the situation and that you know the direction you need to go to get a solution. Moreover, being able to talk confidently and in public to a bunch of people you may not know is also a big advantage. During my career, I've given several briefings to very senior people, and being able to talk confidently to them and make sure you get your message across in a succinct way is an integral part of the job.
Throughout your career, I believe you have worked with a number of diverse teams. What is the importance of interpersonal skills when dealing with people of different backgrounds?
Yes, interpersonal skills are essential. I originally was military, so there's a lot of the interpersonal and leadership element of it I brought with me from those days. And that helped quite a bit in the beginning. As a project manager, you are the leader of a team. You need interpersonal and leadership skills to bring that team along, even if they're not entirely convinced. You need to be able to move them all in the same direction, even though they may have different thoughts about how to do things or other opinions about the direction that the overall project or programme should be going.
Is there something or someone in particular that influenced your career? A specific person you admired, a mentor, or a role model you had?
There wasn't anyone in particular. However, when I was operations manager, I worked with several project managers, and they were very good at what they did. That opened my eyes to the possibility of me moving from operations to project management.
Is there anything about your job you wished you knew before making that career jump?
No, not really. I went in knowing really what was required and what I'd get out of it. The project management side is something I've seen from a distance for some time. So I knew what I was walking into. The only thing slightly foreign was working as a freelancer because that's quite a different way of working as a project manager within a company as a permanent employee.
What do most people not know about project management? How would you describe it?
Project management is not something a lot of people would jump at as a career. You need to have a particular mentality to enjoy it. Trying t to sort out chaos and make sure things happen is the way I'd put it. You also need to get a kick out of delivering things. It's a strange ethos, a strange way of looking at things, but it's also the fun factor, which is an integral part for me. This feeling of satisfaction of completing something I enjoy a lot, personally, and that's what drives me forwards. That must be the same for other project managers as well.
Would you encourage young people to follow this career path?
Definitely, if you have the right mentality, you could do very well. In each case, you need to get some experience in the beginning, to discover which sort of industry you want to go to for project management. Personally, I focused on IT because that was my background, but there are all sorts of project managers in other industries. My advice is first to work out what you enjoy and which sector you want to join, then focus on project management.
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You've been working for more than 25 years in the field, but you didn't start as a contractor. When did you jump into contracting, and which were the main reasons behind this decision?
I was contracting from 2008 onwards. Before that, I was fully employed. I decided to give contracting a try to see if I liked it. And I found I did enjoy it a lot. It's quite a satisfying way of working and has many advantages.
What drove me into contracting were the benefits. You have more freedom as a contractor to do the things you actually enjoy. Since you're not tied to one company for a long period of time – which I've done previously – you get to engage in many different projects, work with many different organisations and people, and always learn new things along the way. After a bit, maybe after two or three years, I quite like the idea of moving on to a completely different company. It feels good sometimes to completely change the direction that you are in or the business that you are working for. Saying that, I worked for AT&T for over five years as a contractor, but I was involved in good, fun projects there. They were tough but very enjoyable.
Moreover, the financial benefits are greater. That was a significant factor at that time, as I had a young family and had to make sure that I could afford to pay all their costs.
I also enjoy going in and delivering something without having to be involved in the day-to-day politics of an organisation – and every business has some sort of politics. That means you can be quite independent about your thoughts and the way to do things. It also means that you're just responsible for delivering to one or two people. I like the simplicity of it and not having to worry about the overall political picture of what you're doing.
Are there any drawbacks to working as a contractor?
Well, you have to be very much in charge of your own finances and have a good understanding of where you want to go in life financially. You also need to have a good understanding of taxation and the rules and regulations regarding running a limited company business. Additionally, in the UK, there is something called IR35, which has been a big problem. This has definitely been a disadvantage because it means that financially life is much more difficult than it was before IR35 came in.
I much prefer to work outside IR35, and I have been until this role now. In my current job, I've been treated as though I'm an employee of Sky in everything but the name. And this wasn't originally the concept. As a contractor, you would go in, provide a service, and then leave. I feel as though the IR35 regulations don't have it right, and things need to change. I believe the current government has got some plans to change it. We have to wait and see if it really comes through or not. I'm hoping it does.
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What are your thoughts regarding workplace diversity, particularly gender diversity in tech – a primarily male-dominated industry? Why are women still underrepresented in the field, especially in leadership roles?
There are two elements to this. First of all, men typically go for the more technical engineering courses at university, and women don't. When I studied electrical and electronic engineering at Leeds, for example, we had this technical engineering course. Among the 80 students, only one was a girl. This goes back many years, but it struck me at the time that no girls were interested in joining the course. And that, to a certain degree, is reflected all the way up.
It follows that if there are no women taking technical courses at universities, then the personnel working in these fields will also be predominantly men. And then, to jump from that into IT and project management, for instance, it's similar because you tend to start off working in a technical field and then jump into project management in that same field. Therefore, if only a few women are coming through on the technical side, you'll also see fewer women coming through on the project management side. However, it's not as bad nowadays as it used to be.
You say that technical courses draw only a few girls. Is this because STEM subjects are not promoted equally to men and women, or is it more of a personal choice?
It's difficult to tell, but definitely, this division between the technical or non-technical route is something that happens during school rather than afterwards.
Then, going to the management side of it, I've been in quite a few organisations where there are a good number of women in the management teams. I wouldn't say full 50-50, but it's a fairly good balance. Partly, this slight discrepancy may be because some women take quite a chunk of time off after having children or don't return to work afterwards. And that knocks a big hole in exactly the same time of your career that you would be doing management.
The other thing is that in some organisations, you are expected to work until late in the evening and on some weekends as well. Suppose you want to have children; that would really make quite a hole in your personal life. I suspect this is a problem that many families face. When you have children, you want to be there for them, and no matter how well you plan your life, they will demand a lot of time from you. So you're being dragged in every direction at the same time. It's tough.
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Do you think this explains why there's still a gender pay gap in tech and women don't get equal opportunities to advance in their careers?
Yes, probably. In the technical world, I've seen people of the same seniority get paid the same. So, I think the gender pay gap in tech is because women are not getting into the promotions further up. That's probably where the issue is. There's also this perception that those who succeed in the senior management teams either don't have children or they're farming out much of their children's care to some support system. Senior management work requires quite a bit of travel, long hours at short notice, and when you have a family that can be very challenging.
Some women in tech say their gender affects how they are perceived and treated at work. Have you ever witnessed discrimination against women in the workplace?
Initially, I was in the British Army, and there was discrimination in the sense that women were not allowed to do specific roles. That's going back quite a few years; things have changed significantly since then. Now women can do a lot more, and efforts have been made to ensure they have the same opportunities as men in the military. Outside the army, I have not seen much of that. I can't recall any situation where women were not given equal opportunities. On the contrary, I've worked with some very strong and successful women during my career. So no, I've not really seen it, but maybe I just wasn't aware of it.
What should be the role of men in challenging unconscious bias and stereotypes? How can they become allies in progressing towards gender parity in the workplace?
I don't know whether there is any bias at the moment. At least I can't recall seeing discrimination of males over females, certainly not in my recent past. We've just operated equally, regardless of gender. My daughter is also a project manager for a 200-person company. She's a strident feminist, and she's also very much of the opinion that she gets equal chances as all her male colleagues, and there is no bias that she's seen.
The only thing would be perhaps in promotions. Someone in a permanent role may be more suitable to answer whether promotions are viewed similarly for both sexes. However, I believe that in some companies, when they're looking at promoting people, they're probably thinking will this person be with us and be able to work long hours over the next few years? Or is there a risk of them going off on maternity leave or require to take time off to support their children. I'm sure there's some of that.
I know of a small business, for instance, that refuses to take on women because, if they go on maternity leave, the company itself will have to pay for a proportion of their salary while they're away. And for a small business, financially, that's a killer. Maternity or paternity leave shouldn't be a cost borne by the business. Perhaps it should be fully supported by the government.
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In tech, apart from women, there are also other underrepresented groups of people. What can we do to make the tech field more inclusive?
The tech field is actually quite well supported for diversity. In most organisations I've worked with, probably 50% of my colleagues were of different ethnic backgrounds, which was never an issue. Maybe I'm saying that because I'm white and English. Therefore I've been in a luxurious position of never having to worry about being rejected because of my colour, creed, or sex. But on the whole, I've not seen anything negative about diversity first-hand in the last, let's say, 15 years or so. I'm sure things may have happened, but it is certainly not something I've become aware of.
On the contrary, organisations in the UK are very much inclusive and open to diversity, and the technical world is probably a lot more advanced in DE & I issues than many other industries. However, I'm sure different people have different perspectives.
A big thank you to Patrick for sharing his inspiring career journey with us.
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