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January 9, 2008 Vol. 1, Issue 1


As a member of the first class of the Ames Project Excellence (APEX) program, Pete Zell has had no trouble integrating his new skills with his day job.

“I didn’t have to go out and search for things to try and improve my skills on — I had it all sitting in front of me,” says Zell, deputy project manager for the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) Thermal Protection System. “The fact that I was on a large, multi-center project gave me plenty of opportunities to apply the skills to my work.”

In 2006 Zell was selected to go through the pilot year of the APEX project manager professional development program. (APEX also runs a systems engineering program.) His first task was to conduct a self-assessment and determine his skill level—developmental, functional, or proficient — in 26 core competencies for project management.

APEX integrated Zell’s competency ratings with the needs that Ames center management had identified for competencies in its project managers. He then had the opportunity to choose four competencies to focus on for the year. “The thing I found manageable about the program was that it didn’t try to do everything. It didn’t try to improve you across the entire spectrum which would’ve been overwhelming,” he says.

Zell chose budget and full-cost accounting, requirements development, scheduling and work breakdown structure (WBS) development, and risk management as the four areas in which he would like to improve his skills over the year. “I could pick something that I needed to do anyway. By doing that, it helped me focus within my project, which was valuable, and it gave me constant feedback.”

A key component of the APEX program is mentoring, which Zell says took place on multiple levels. Ron Johnson, Chief of the Ames Systems Management Office, and Claire Smith, Deputy Program Manager of APEX, provided guidance in terms of the overall program. The participants had regular group gatherings with a veteran NASA project manager as well as individual coaching sessions with the NASA Academy of Program/Project & Engineering Leadership’s (APPEL) Performance Enhancement team.

Zell was also assigned a personal mentor at Ames. “We hit it off in terms of our philosophies of project management,” he says. “We basically spent a lot of time talking about common experiences.”

Beyond the structured requirements of the program, Zell found that one of its greatest benefits was simply the sense of permission it gave him to concentrate his efforts in a few areas. He used a fire hose analogy to describe the project management context. “In project management you have these 26 competency hoses shooting at you at all times. The APEX program lets you shut off twenty-two of them and focus on the four,” he says. “You can really be bombarded with stuff from all angles. If you can’t concentrate and turn off the volume, you’re not going to get as deep.”

Read more about APEX.

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