Dr James 'Ox' van Hoften

Q&A Interview

PM pioneer, Dr James 'Ox' van Hoften
james van hoften.jpeg
Andrew Hubbard speaks to Dr James ‘Ox’ van Hoften, a former United States Navy pilot, astronaut and project pioneer about his experience as a project manager and the future of the profession.

As an experienced and accomplished practitioner, what is your view of the project management profession today?
Project management is very important. I give talks all over the world and I use the idea of the space programme as a project. We had the commander who was the project manager and every other member of the crew had a specific role to play in ensuring that the mission was completed successfully, to time and on budget. All projects are like this. I have a daughter who works as a project manager in a translation business. Although she may not be a project manager in a conventional sense, everything she does is what a project manager does.
It seems that more and more companies are calling their people project managers. The term is being used, but it isn’t defined in the same way. Like many people do, my daughter has excelled in her field and hasn’t undertaken any specific project management training as such. Instead she adopts the skills and methodologies of a project manager and even uses Microsoft Project to do her job. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Project management is an ever-growing profession. What would you say to somebody considering a career as a practitioner?
I would highly recommend it; it really is a positive thing for people to learn. What’s interesting is that a lot of people are aspiring to do it. To go and be a project manager on a big project is a goal for many engineers.

What does the profession need to do to move forward and continue to grow? 
It will do it on its own. The more successful projects are, the more the profession will grow.
Companies which are undertaking projects of any description will find it easier to succeed if they break it down into smaller projects. It is what we did at Bechtel for the Hong Kong Airport Programme. If you have a good project manager on each of these smaller projects you stand a better chance of reaching your goals.

What needs to be done to encourage the next generation of project professionals?
As an executive you are always looking for the right people and there is usually a person who stands out. However, for the next generation to come through, we need to focus on training. 
At Bechtel, we put our practitioners through a series of different disciplines to get them up to the standard required to be a project manager. It helps to get people into a position where they are really prepared.

How can the project community work towards a world in which all projects succeed?
It depends on the project. If it is a government project you have to get funding right.
In Hong Kong, for instance, we ensured that the budget was right and included a sensible contingency on top of the operational costs. As a result, we came in under budget in Hong Kong.
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