October 8, 2018

By: Heidi Schneider, Project Manager

As a Gresham Smith project manager who specializes in project delivery on behalf of the Georgia DOT, I manage transportation projects related to safety and traffic operations. These include intersection improvements, roundabouts, pedestrian upgrades and multiuse trail projects. I was recently asked: “What exactly do you do on a daily basis?” As I contemplated my response I realized that it wasn’t that easy to describe, as a Department of Transportation (DOT) project manager position is comprised of multiple, complex responsibilities. In this post, I share an average day on the job in an effort to explain the role of a project manager for a DOT.


Like a Symphony

At the Georgia DOT, I’m responsible for making day-to-day scope, schedule and budget decisions for 24 transportation projects in various stages of design. To give a high-level definition, the scope represents what you and your team are going to deliver by the end of a project. The schedule is the driving force as it determines when you will make the all-important final delivery of a project. Defining a budget and then adhering to it throughout the design phases—from concept and preliminary design to final design and construction—is the third constraint placed on a project.

On any given day, I focus on the vital relationship between scope, schedule and budget as they are the keys that make each of the design phases work and must be balanced constantly. I like to compare them to a symphony—if there are a couple of notes off, then the entire symphony is not in harmony.



No Two Days Alike

The majority of my day is spent coordinating transportation projects via email, whether I’m providing direction on required revisions for submitted documents and plans, or responding to requests. For example, providing project status updates to upper-level DOT management. When I’m not fielding emails, there’s a good chance I’m leading a meeting either in person or via the phone, which is also an important part of my day. These meetings provide a constant and consistent line of communication between myself and subject matter experts such as designers, environmental specialists, archeologists and utility managers. The meetings also serve as a useful tool in terms of generating discussions to evaluate project risks.

I’ve learned that you can easily create a calendar of events, but when you’re managing a large number of projects at one time, it’s all but impossible to foresee certain issues that can alter your pre-planned day. I think it’s safe to say that there is no such thing as a “standard” day in the life of a project manager for a DOT.



A Juggling Act

Each day is an exercise in realigning my priorities. I truly think of myself as a juggler managing multiple project tasks at the same time and for numerous projects. I have to determine which task to put in the “air” before I can return to it. In the meantime, I’m grabbing another task and deciding where to move it. To be successful, there are times when you have to know which project tasks require multiple, rapid-succession touches, and which tasks can be touched less often. So, it creates an interesting and effective way of prioritizing.


Communicating Expectations

Communication is an integral part of what I do on daily basis. Without good communication skills, I couldn’t be effective at my job, which involves directing a diverse group of people to deliver various components of a project on time and accurately. Whether I’m dealing with my team or subject matter experts, it is imperative that I have a good line of communication with those I work with. In essence, project management is very much about developing relationships and how well you communicate your expectations. And let’s face it, you want people to want to work with you!


Keeping Your Eye on the End Goal

One thing I do at the end of each day is look a week ahead at tasks that are going to be part of a schedule to make sure I’ve built in enough time. Sometimes, I look as far ahead as a month or more to make certain a project isn’t lagging behind the schedule baseline, given the numerous moving pieces that require coordination. And I always have to remain cognizant of the end goal, which is to Let the project to construction by a specific date.



Why I Do What I Do

I’m often reminded of the old saying: “Expect the best, plan for the worst, and be prepared to be surprised,” when I think about the art of project management, as delivering projects on time and on budget can be a daunting task at the best of times. But it’s a task that is personally worth it for me, as each transportation project that stays on schedule and doesn’t somehow get sidetracked or sidelined positively impacts lives—and in many cases saves lives. And that is all the motivation I need.