Understanding the World of Project Management – The Project Controller

project controller

The Project Controller

In this month’s Understanding the World of Project Management blog, we delve into the role of the Project Controller, gaining insight into what they do and where they do it. Plus we get the inside scoop from two experts who work in the profession.

What do they do?

As the title would suggest a Project Controller’s role is all about helping the project manager control what happens during a project or programme. They monitor, track and review various processes including scheduling, resources and budget; and recommend and initiate changes where necessary. They often keep records of project progress, conduct data analysis and frequently feedback to other members of the team on the project’s development via reports and project updates.

Where do they work?

Project controllers are needed in all industries that conduct large scale projects and programmes; having a project controller is not typically necessary for smaller projects. Industries where project controllers are often required include construction, engineering, transport and civil infrastructure amongst many others.

What do they need to know?

There are no formal qualifications needed to become a project controller, but many individuals may have begun in project management, planner or risk roles before moving into control. Due to the holistic approach needed to oversee and control a large project, a Project Controller will need good analytical skills, ability to think critically, good time management, and strong team working skills.

How do they fit into the PMO?

As mentioned above, depending on the set-up of the PMO and the size of the projects being worked on a Project Controller may not be needed. However when they are part of the team some of their responsibilities may overlap with other team members, so it’s important that everyone in the PMO understands what they are specifically accountable and responsible for. They will normally report to the project manager, and will work closely with all other members of the team in particular planners, resourcing, scheduling and finance.

Profile

Name

Adele Hicks

Job Title

Senior Project Controls Manager

Company

Arcadis

How long have you worked there?

11 Months

Describe a typical day

I work as a consultant and consequently work with a number of clients, meaning my day can vary hugely from project to project, client to client. I’ll describe a typical day during a long term project I worked on for a well-known pharmaceutical company.   The most important thing I had to do was the weekly reporting, updating the project lead and Senior Leadership Team on any changes within the project. In addition to that I’d also have to manage activities that needed adding to the plan, and remove activities that had become obsolete. There were multiple change projects being run within one delivery portfolio for the company, so I was also responsible for reporting on the individual projects as well as how the wider PMO was managing. Due to the fact many of the projects were interlinked, I had to make sure I was keeping abreast of any changes that could impact other projects, it’s like putting a puzzle together using all the information other people gave me.

How did you get into it?

I didn’t start my career with the intention of getting into project controls; the first time I thought about it I was working in the spares and repairs department at Thales UK, and a project controller job came up which I applied for but didn’t get due to lack of experience. When a similar job came up a few years later I applied again and got it thanks to my exposure to planning in my old role. But I didn’t have any qualifications in planning or experience, so the first thing I did was complete a primavera course so I could use the software. After that it was a case of on-the-job training and I really had to prove myself. Fortunately due to the previous roles I had a really good understanding of how things worked on the ground and that meant I was able to implement new processes and had an advantage of previous connections with the people I was supporting. After this my controller career began to take off, working hard to gain experience and promotions; now I’m lucky enough to be a consultant.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

As a consultant what I like most is the variety, I’ve had the chance to work in so many different industries and countries, doing different roles, and I’m constantly getting the opportunity to try and learn new things. You really can take this job into any industry which means the possibilities for growth are virtually endless.

Most important skills

I think one of the most important things is to be open-minded and not to assume you know everything; this can be difficult but it’s really important. You also need to be able to think creatively, see beyond the initial information you’re provided with, and be aware of what’s going on around you and how that may impact what you’re doing. But to be able to use this information you need to be able to not only recall it, but find ways of putting it together that others may not have thought of. Obviously you need to be organised and methodical and you definitely need to work well in a team. That being said, that’s not to say if you don’t have these skills you can’t be a project controller, but it definitely helps.

Adele’s top tips:

  • Open-minded
  • Creative
  • Problem solver
  • Organised
  • Methodical
  • Team player

Profile

Name

Chloe Healey

Job Title

Project Controls Manager

Company

BAE Systems

How long have you worked there?

Around 18 months, although I did spend some time consulting for them before becoming a full time employee.

Describe a typical day

As a Project Controls Manager a lot of what I do now revolves around managing people; much more than I expected it would. I have to make sure the people around me are doing things as effectively and efficiently as possible, while also trying to drive forward improvement for the whole team. I’m also responsible for reporting to the business on the status of various projects and programmes so I have to support project and programme managers to do their job, but sometimes have to let senior managers know when things aren’t going quite right.

In addition to the people management and support side, much of my time is dominated by the weekly and monthly reporting cycles, where I have to use the data we have to understand any areas of concern in the projects, and let individuals know if they are at risk of not completing a job on schedule. Because of the nature of the projects we work on, I have to make sure things are ready on time, so there’s a delicate balance between the schedule and costs. To help manage this, my team and I are also responsible for forecasting; we use the information from the teams working on the project and compile that to do in depth analysis and reporting to help us mitigate risks in the future.

How did you get into it?

I actually studied biological science at university, intending to go into the pharmaceutical sector. But I soon realised that wasn’t right for me, and after coming to recognise my natural aptitude for planning and analysis, I started investigating controller jobs. My first role was with Westland Helicopters and I helped them run a major construction project which I joined mid lifecycle and saw through to the end. After that I ran a number of smaller projects, before moving to work with Thales UK, helping them manage a move to Oracle and Primavera PM software, and a various other projects. Thanks to the exposure I got from these roles I was able to start working in a consulting role which is how I found my current full time role at BAE.

What’s your favourite thing about your job?

I love how project controls is really central to how a project functions, it helps tie all the different strands together. I also like that I get to work across lots of different projects; it makes it much more interesting. Oddly I also enjoy the fact that projects never really run like clockwork and there’s always something you can do to improve things.

Most important skills

I think the most important one is an analytical mind-set. Project controllers work with a lot of data so I think you need to have a natural ability to quickly identify patterns and trends. To not only see the key points, but be able to draw conclusions from them. You need to enjoy working with numbers and have good numerical skills, but you also need to have good communication skills. Stakeholder management is one of the most important aspects of being a good project controller. It doesn’t matter how good someone is at manipulating and interpreting data, if they can’t present it clearly and use that data to influence the project team and support them in its completion, then the data will be virtually useless.

Chloe’s top skills:

  • Analytically minded
  • High degree of numeracy
  • Communication skills
  • Stakeholder management

We hope you’ve enjoyed our exploration of the Project Controller role, and are starting to understand how all of the different roles in a PMO fit together and contribute to the overall success of a project.  We’ll be covering another PMO role next month, so be sure to watch this space.