The Project Manager’s Bookshelf: Technical Skills

Last week, I listed a few books that I recommend for developing people skills. Next week, I’ll close out the series with a list of books on developing business acumen. But this week’s list is about technical skills.

PMI Talent TriangleThe phrase “technical skills” means different things to different people. A programmer, an industrial welder, an aircraft engine mechanic, and a pharmacist each have their own technical skill sets, and their own courses of study and reference books. I’ve collected a short list of books that I’d recommend to a practicing project manager or someone who aspires to that role, to help develop what I would consider technical skills for our domain.

Business Mathematics

Business math skills as foundational to much of what we do as project managers. From analysis to presentation to decision making, our ability to “do the math” is assumed. I won’t recommend that you aspire to the skill set of an engineer (or an actuary, for that matter), but good project managers are both literate and numerate; an MBA skill set is a good target. These two books cover the basic stuff. Once you realize how much you’ve forgotten, you’ll likely want to go deeper. And you should.

Schaum’s Outline of Basic Business Mathematics by Eugene Don and Joel Lerner. If the mere thought of doing math makes you queasy, start at the beginning. The first two chapters are a review of middle and high school topics, but after that, it becomes about payroll, depreciation, interest and discount, annuities, stocks and bonds, buying and selling, and insurance.

Introductory Statistics by Barbara Illowsky and Susan Dean. This book was designed for a first course in statistics, for students majoring in fields other than math or engineering. I just downloaded the Kindle version for free, and the table of contents maps pretty well to the book I still have from the intro course I took in the 1970’s.

Data Visualization and Presentation

Every complex bit of information you need to explain to an audience, where in person or in print, benefits from thoughtful presentation.

Slide:ology: The Art and Science of Presentation Design by Nancy Duarte. A classic. Her TED talk on the secret structure of great talks, incorporating as-is and to-be into a presentation, is also worth your time.

How Charts Lie: Getting Smarter About Visual Information by Alberto Cairo. A bit lightweight, but a good introduction to visualizing data and presenting information to decision makers.

Excel Dashboards and Reports for Dummies by Michael Alexander. I’m not a fan of the “For Dummies” books, but this one gets the job done. Once you learn to leverage functions into complex formulas in Excel, a thousand ideas will present themselves.

Tools

You don’t need to be a ninth-cloud turban and diaper guru on MS Project, Excel, or Visio to be a successful project manager, but these are the tools I’ve used the most, and I work at mastering them.

Microsoft Project Do’s and Don’ts: The Definitive Guide to Jumpstart Your Project by Sam Huffman. I’ve read over a dozen books on MS Project and I even wrote one. This one is the best I’ve ever read.

Microsoft Excel 2019 Data Analysis and Business Modeling by Wayne Winston. This is the sixth edition; I had the second but left it to a colleague. It’s an excellent reference book. Some of the later topics are a bit “out there,” but you don’t have to read the whole book—just the parts that resonate.

Microsoft Visio Advanced – A Step by Step Visual Guide by Richard Walters and Karim Dastgir. Lots of screen shots with not a lot of text. I use Visio for a lot of chores, from block diagrams to flow charts to hierarchy charts. This book goes much, much deeper into tools and techniques than I normally use, but my interests are not yours.

Design and Development

I was tempted to add several more books to this list, but my goal for this series was brevity.

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal and Ryan Hoover. Designing products that attract repeat customers. You’ve probably seen this book on other lists, for good reason.

The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition by Don Norman. Not just about how people interact with user interfaces, but how they think about the things they want to do. A true classic—one of the most interesting books I’ve ever read, and I’ve read it at least four times in the last 25 years.

Review: Bad Meetings Happen to Good People

Bad Meetings Happen to Good People: How to run meetings that are effective, focused, and produce results, by Leigh Espy

Leigh Espy is a practicing IT project manager with over 15 years of experience, but she has also worked as a counselor to at-risk families and served in the Peace Corps. In addition, she coaches and writes about project management, leadership, and performance at ProjectBliss.net. From that background, Leigh has crafted a book that manages to both cover the basics and provide a detailed compendium of techniques and best practices.

The opening sections explain how to use the book and who can benefit from it, followed by the rhetorical question:  Do I really need to hold a meeting? Leigh describes some of the most common types of meetings and when they are appropriate.

Part 1: The Basics is quite a bit more than the name might imply. This part covers actions to be taken before, during and after the meeting. Preparation includes everything from establishing the purpose and selecting participants to creating and sharing an agenda and supporting documents. The sections on “during” cover best practices, such as ways to manage conflict, take notes, drive decisions, and identify action items. “After” begins with the wrap-up, followed by preparing and distributing meeting notes and action items and soliciting feedback.

Part 2: Boosting Your Impact is essentially a reference book. The first few sections describe meeting types, with the objective, recommended approach and common challenges. A number of sections address common behavioral and situational problems you may encounter and effective ways to address them. Leigh also goes into professional presence and communication skills, including cultural sensitivities. She closes with seven(!) alternative meeting room layouts and points to consider when selecting them.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough. Leigh writes clearly and succinctly and stresses positive outcomes even when explaining how to deal with obstacles. The result is a book that you’ll reach for several times a year, and recommend (or gift) to colleagues who struggle to keep their meetings effective.

Review: Microsoft Project Do’s and Don’ts

Microsoft Project Do’s and Don’ts: The definitive guide to jumpstart your project, by Sam Huffman

I’ve read several books on Microsoft Project and I even wrote one, but this is the first one I would recommend to a beginning project manager. Sam Huffman worked at Microsoft as a member of the Microsoft Project development and support team, so he’s widely considered to be one of the leading authorities on the product. He’s also a trainer, and this book reflects that experience.

Chapters One and Two describe the user interface, the hierarchy of calendars and how to configure and use them, and how to choose between manual and automatic scheduling. Chapter Three goes into best practices for organizing tasks and creating a task outline. Chapter Four explains task types and durations, followed by dependencies and sequencing tasks in Chapter Five. When working with junior project managers, I find that this is the place where they need the most guidance—Sam does a masterful job of explaining alternatives and best practices.

Chapter Six covers creating resources and assigning them to tasks. This is another place where MS Project can overwhelm the noob, and Sam’s guidance is excellent. Chapter Seven goes into the why and how of creating baselines, while Eight explains Tracking. This is an area where even experienced project managers don’t necessarily understand the alternatives or how to choose among them, and the level of detail is just right. Chapter Nine covers reporting, closing with three Appendices.  Appendix C is a simple checklist of steps to create and maintain a project file.

Highly recommended.