Welcome to the latest installment of our PMO Spotlight series, wherein we delve into our customer’s PMO to uncover the personal histories and unique viewpoints behind the customer use case. Our spotlight feature in this edition is Aimee Shea, Director of Program Management at Cisco Capital. We hope you enjoy the insights and experiences she has to share.
Director of Program Management | Strategy & Product Development, Cisco Systems Capital Corporation
Please tell us about yourself, your education and background?
I was born and raised in San Jose and received a finance degree from San Jose State University. My first job out of university was in finance, but I quickly determined that I wanted a role that was more focused on problem solving and helping people rather than running numbers.
My first job at Cisco was on the IT team, as a Network Engineer for their internal voice and call center system support. We conducted large, successful deployments. When a client project got off track, they asked me to help course correct and ended up leading that project. At the time I did not have any formal Project Management training, and in fact did not even know it was a profession yet!
I came to Project Management after being asked to lead this effort. Since then, I moved into Cisco’s Advanced Services group and led client projects around the United States and a few globally. It was at this time that I went through my first formal project management training. I acquired my PMP certification; Master’s Degree in Project Management from George Washington University and a professional credential at Stanford University as a Stanford Certified Program Manager (SCPM). I received certifications and training in a large variety of project management methodologies; Waterfall, New Product Introduction (NPI), Six Sigma (Green Belt), Agile (Scrum Master) and Scaled and Agile Framework (SAFe). I’m currently close to completing the Adaptive Strategic Execution Program at Cisco to receive a certificate from Duke Universities Fuqua School of Business.
You came to Project Management naturally, but what is it about Project Management that appeals to you, and makes you want to stay in this profession?
What keeps me interested in Project Management is that the results of your work truly add value to an organization. A Project Manager is uniquely positioned to see the before and after images, and I find it particularly fulfilling to compare those two images and witness the tangible improvements and benefits of the work we have put into a project.
On a deeper level, I also enjoy the combination of discipline and creativity inherent in this role. Any well-run project needs structure, a clear plan of action, and a well mapped path to completion. But project management veterans know that things change, and it’s the adaptive part of the job where a creativity is critical. Taking the changes in stride and finding the best solution to a new problem is what stimulates me.
When you are not working, what are your hobbies?
I love to Ski and have spent a lot of time in Lake Tahoe – primarily in Heavenly and Squaw Valley and Whistler Blackcomb in British Columbia. It feels great to be in nature. I have an athlete’s mentality and love to compete and stay active.
I also synchronize swim and am part of a USA Masters National team which competes across the nation and in the international Pan Am Games, taking Gold or Silver many times. Synchronized swimming appeals to me because it takes a lot of practice, rigor, and teamwork but the choreography has a creative aspect to it as well. Team routines are highly regulated, and Duets allow for more creativity.
My competitive nature along with the creativity and rigor that synchronized swimming requires mesh well with my profession. Project Management takes discipline and planning of course, but I would also argue that it has a creative aspect to it that is often overlooked.
What do you like most about working at Cisco?
I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to go into so many different functions within the organization, and run so many different types of projects, without ever leaving Cisco. Those horizontal opportunities have helped me grow my skillset and understanding of the field. In addition to, or perhaps because of this, I also had vertical opportunities, and I have been able to advance my career from an individual contributor up to a Director role. That is a big benefit of working at a large and well-established company like Cisco.
I also appreciate their flexibility in allowing me to work from home and raise my daughters. A lot of my work can be done remotely, thanks to the Cisco technology and tools we create. Though there is a certain trust between employee and employer that Cisco provides on their end that I appreciate, because it has allowed me to spend time with my family during the all-important formative years, without a drop in production or loss of career advancement.
Our corporate mission is to “To power an inclusive future for all” and we take that very seriously. It is hard to not feel pride in working at an organization that gives so much to causes like homelessness for example. More recently Cisco donated $255M worth of funds and equipment to COVID-19 relief. And when Puerto Rico was hit badly by hurricanes last year, we responded by sending equipment, supplies and people to get the communication and network availability back up.
In 2012 you were tasked with starting a new, centralized PMO for Cisco Capital. What challenges were you faced with in this initiative and how did you overcome them?
With such a large and established enterprise, each department has their own style of working, existing systems in place, existing processes and project templates being used. So, when I took the job, I made sure I had the freedom and authority to redesign everything from the ground up. I saw that there would be a huge diversity for the types of projects we would run in Cisco Capital and knew that we needed an adaptable approach and a flexible PPM technology as well.
I was familiar with all the PPM tools which Cisco had been using, having been a user of them myself through the years, and knew that none of them would be flexible enough to handle the large diversity of project types our new PMO would be managing. So, I decided to go with Clarizen and in fact I conducted most of the design and programming of our initial implementation myself. Luckily, I had that programming background and I had a clear vision of what I wanted the system to do for us.
I knew that, to be successful in the long run, we needed to demonstrate the value of our new PMO team internally. The PM function was initially seen as administrative and not critical. They did know that improvements were needed, so the thought at the time was to try out an PMO model and see if it would help. That was a challenge in and of itself, to monitor and measure constantly with an end-goal of demonstrating the value of the new team.
When we started in 2012, we started small as a growing team and had only 4 projects completed in Clarizen. However, that quickly built out to 25-30 projects completed each year, and these are quite large and multi-layered projects. As we built our portfolio of completed projects it picked up steam and attention internally, so we landed even more projects. Today I am rather proud to say that we have a 98% success rate and other department heads are coming to me and asking for best practices.
It did not happen overnight; it took time and a level of discipline to pull this off. Despite the variety of projects, we made sure to establish commonalities and rigor across them all. What may seem like small things such as making sure every project has a project plan, a start-end date, ensuring that statues are kept up to date and in a universal scale to make reporting easier and more consistent. Other items like who the Executive Sponsor is, who the Project Manager is, everything needed to be accounted for and people were held accountable to make sure those details were provided. These small things add up to a big result, accuracy and confidence in the data should never be taken for granted. Discipline and project data hygiene for all these things was a key our success, and it wasn’t done this way before, it was a gradual and steady change in how we did things.
What do you feel is unique about how your team approaches/conducts their projects?
My team’s style is highly customer centric; it starts by having a close partnership with the business sponsors I mentioned earlier. By having their input and buy-in on the project from start-finish, we ensure that a project’s success is a joint determination and that all decisions made during the project are unilateral and understood. That improves our success rate and builds upon the trust our team has within the organization. A big part of customer centricity is listening, and I would say we’re all great listeners. We’re not just hearing, but truly understanding the business needs we’re looking to solve for.
The next important step then is to communicate back to the business, what we’ve heard and how we’re going to approach the project. That extra step is often not taken and can easily lead to complications down the line during the project cycle, so we’ve adopted an open communication style between the business and IT teams were working with.
Another unique aspect to our PMO is again the cross functional nature of Cisco. Cisco employees do not typically work on 1 project, it is not uncommon for someone to be running 4-5 projects on top of their normal job because for their subject matter expertise. That’s a lot for people to retain, so our team has become very good at capturing & storing data in an organized way, in order to help fight the confusion and inaccuracies which often are a result of having to manage so many large projects at one time.
What types of projects is Cisco managing with Clarizen today?
Like I said earlier it is quite a diverse set of projects which use various approaches including Agile, Waterfall and Hybrid. We run projects for sales and partner enablement, new financing introductions, new finance type arrangements, country enablement, compliance projects, internal audits, asset management projects, credit projects. Our team handles of a lot of system consolidation projects, system upgrades, disaster recovery enablement, and the list goes on.
We are also managing a MASSIVE software project for our ERP process that spans 14 different vendors. 6 Agile teams work in parallel on the upkeep of that ERP platform using the SAFe Model. We run about 12 releases a year, each with 300-400 code changes across the whole stack including Salesforce -Tax Engine-Credit Management-Loan Management -Accounting.
So you can see the true breadth of what is handled in the PMO Team here on this list. In fact I use this as a selling point to acquire and retain talent, “It took me 16 years’ worth of work to gain experience across all these functions and project types, but if you come work on my team you can gain that experience in just a few years.”
Is there any 1 project in the hundreds that you have been a part of, that you remember as being especially unique or challenging?
While they are all unique in their own right, but there are two in particular that stand out. The first was what we called a Credit consolidation project. We were working with an outside vendor which was using a traditional Waterfall approach to manage their system. The problem was that this system was a small part of a larger global operations platform and its approach would impact the areas of our platform, which are being run on Agile.
So my PMO team got in there and become the “translator” or bridge between two worlds, gathering the requirements and understanding the processes which our partners on the Credit team needed, and executing those requirements in such a way that it didn’t slow down or impact the maintenance of the larger platform. We helped blend the methodologies of an outside vendor and how we do things internally at Cisco. That one was particularly challenging, but it was also highly successful and so is a rewarding one to think back on.
The other project that comes to mind is our massive ERP Project that I mentioned earlier. When we started out, we decided to start that project in the “simple” countries like Canada and Mexico first. I use the word simple, because there was less volume of business there and the regulations are not as complex. Then we scaled up to deploy the ERP in the US, which is the heavily regulated and where 70% of our portfolio lives.
We were very methodical and disciplined in our approach, and knew we needed to go through some learnings and iterations with less risk in the simpler countries, before rolling it out to the US where the impact of mistakes would be larger.
I see that you are a mentor and coach for incoming PMs at Cisco, is there any 1 piece of advice that you find you find yourself giving to all of them?
I often encourage flexibility in their thinking and encourage them to truly understand the tools in their toolbox, but also encourage them to use them well. Another recurring piece of advice is to “keep that customer focus”, and we discuss at length what that entails depending on the situation they are facing.
I not only mentor those on my team but others in the organization, and the program members will come to meet with me on a monthly basis or ad-hoc as needed, to discuss one project or another they are doing through. They may wish to get my advice on how to proceed with a project, or they will ask for advice on career paths they could take.
I try to give the feedback in small increments, so that they are absorbable. I often coach them on how to find and leverage the resource pool at their disposal within the organization. The PM is often not an expert in whatever field their projects take place, so it’s helpful for a PM to have a big network of peers to call on for expert input on any given subject.