What Do You Do as Project Manager?

“What is the purpose of your visit to the United States of America?”

The US Custom and Border Protection officer was a big guy. He asked the usual questions in a deep and hoarse voice and was sitting on a rather tall chair behind his counter, which made him look somewhat dominating if not menacing. But that was part of his job.

I was on the way to a three-day seminar in a good location and was looking forward to a relaxing trip. Life was good. Perhaps the officer noticed my mood and wanted to hear more about it.

“What do you do for a living?”

Good question. Where do I start? The guy had a professional unblinking stare that he must have developed in his previous life, together with his flat ears. I decided to be short and sweet.

“I am a project manager.”

Despite my effort to look friendly – or because of it – the officer was not satisfied with my answer. “You mean you work in construction?” That sounded creepy because the most sublime answer to a similar question had just flashed in the back of my mind: “I build a Temple!” – but realized that I should not go there with this guy. Too late. His next question followed instantly, like the good old one-two:

“What do you do as Project Manager?!”

That felt like a TKO: after twenty years in the profession, I did not know where to start. To make things happen, I used to do a lot of things that were recognized as “project management” only later. On the other hand, many things that I did “as part of the project” had nothing to do with project management: checked stock in the warehouse, assembled the RF subsystem we were to ship a.s.a.p., drove team to and from the site, tested software, translated manuals, quietly tweaked jar files, taught MSP to the client who would otherwise use Excel or PowerPoint for scheduling, and stoically accepted feedback that I “do not care” because I am “not panicking” while running around the shop floor at 2 am, screwdriver in hand. Not one of those activities is mentioned in the PM Book of Knowledge, and I am a staunch believer that PMs should not

“Hello?” – The officer was squinting at me with professional concern.

No, I did not say all that. Back on earth again, I went for the answer that he could easily relate to; after all, I have learned something over the years of extensive project management experience.

“Yes, Sir! I do whatever I have to do in order to deliver on time, on budget and to complete satisfaction of my supervisor.”

The officer cracked a smile and wished me a pleasant trip.

And what do you do as Project Manager? What would you tell the Border Protection officer? Share your experience in the comments below.