This month, we talked with Kelly Williams, our Project Management Fundamentals instructor. During our conversation, Kelly shared her strategies for project success and how she avoids project failure.

Kelly Williams is a certified Project Management Professional (PMP).  She has been an Information Technology (IT) professional for 30 years.  Her Bachelor’s degree in Linguistics and Computer Science from UCLA has served her well as a Software Engineer, Systems Analyst, Delivery Lead, and Project Manager on various government and private sector projects.

Kelly is employed as an IT Project Manager at BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee (BCBST).  After earning her PMP® certification in 2015, she joined the Board of Directors of the Project Management Institute (PMI) Chattanooga Chapter in 2017 as the VP of Training and Development.  She currently serves on the Chapter Board as a VP at Large.


Kelly Williams

Tell me a little bit about yourself and your background and how you got into project management.

I have a degree in linguistics and computer science from UCLA. I was always excited about communicating and wanted to learn all the languages of the world and be an interpreter for the UN when I was about 10 years old. Then, I realized that is a lot of languages, and I will just learn some computer languages that segued into computer science.

My career started as a software developer working on a lot of projects. I realized I was doing projects and project management type things my whole career. I started writing device drivers and working in government systems and doing small projects that had a definite result, a definite end, and definite goal. I enjoy working on projects because they are temporary, so I got to do something new about every year or so. To me, it is very fulfilling to complete something and have something done.

I think even in my personal life I have that same goal. I think I was born to be a project manager because I have that natural ability to see a problem, figure out how to solve it and then implement the plan.

I officially got into project management when I worked for State Farm Insurance in Illinois. I started working on projects and doing a bit of the project development. I got a chance to see what project managers do officially.

I thought to myself that I could do that job. Overall, I liked the job because you got things done, and I very much enjoy getting things done. That is how I got into project management or interested in it.

When I moved to Chattanooga I start looking in project management jobs. Of course, to get a project management job, you have to have experience as a project manager. So it is kind of a hard to jump straight into a project manager role. But, I did see the opportunities were there, and for me, it was my next step from being just a developer.

I applied for a job with BlueCross BlueShield as a business systems analyst, and the day I walked in, they told me, “Well, you are actually going to be taking over this project.” I didn’t know what that meant exactly, and by my second meeting, I realized I was a project manager.  By the third meeting they were saying that I had all this project management experience managing large projects at State Farm, and I was like slow down, slow down, slow down. So that is how I got in. Just walked in the door with a role change, and I was named the project manager.  That was the first time I was officially titled the Project Manager of a project and then, three years later I was seating for the PMP.

When starting at BlueCross BlueShield BlueShield, were you intimidated by the official title of project manager?

In my career, I owned a business and we managed projects. So, I had been a leader and held leadership positions. Also, I worked for smaller companies before I started working at bigger ones like State Farm and BlueCross BlueShield. At smaller companies, I always wore many hats, I will say. So the thought of managing high-stake stakeholders and dealing with all the levels of development and communication was not out of my path, which is why I knew I wanted to be a project manager. It was just people’s expectation of the project management I was not aware of because I hadn’t got my PMP and understood or studied how to be a PMP or what that meant.

How would you define project management?

I thought you might ask that– I jotted down a few words and I took some words from Velociteach. Project management is the art and science of getting work done, but if you were to encapsulate it into one word, I would say ownership. You have to own it, and I learned that after studying for my PMP. My instructors would say you own everything, you are large and in charge and this is your project. Project management isn’t saying, I am helping those people get their work done. Instead, I look at project management as this is my work that I need these people to help me get done. When I switched that mind set, I began to understand project management.

People were always asking me questions about what this person’s doing. I do not know what that person is doing because it is not my job. But I realized in those moments when everybody’s coming to me, I am the single point of contact. I am the project. People want to know what’s going on with it. They are going to ask me. So, I am ultimately responsible or everybody on the team and what they are doing and how they are doing it and how well they are doing it. Once I began to own that ownership word I found the key to project management and obviously the art of getting things done.

What are some project management misconceptions?

That you don’t own it. That it is not your responsibility. That anything that happens, “Why would I know I do not have to do that.” That other people are going to care more about your project that you are. That it is just a series of tasks that you are getting done, you are secretary. That you have to be an expert in what the project is delivering to be effective. None of that has to be true. I have seen people who manage projects effectively without ever having understood the actual nitty gritty of what the work is.

When you are managing IT projects, do you ever want to jump in and complete someone else’s tasks?

When you realize how much work you have to do, you realize you cannot do at all. So, you have to delegate. But when you hear things that do not make sense as a former developer, then you are able to actually question that. I think that is has been an advantage for me for IT projects.

What are some tips that have helped you reach projects success and delivery?

My tip is that I never send an email that the person is not expecting. I do not ask for status in an email. I do not ask questions that take more than a yes, no, or a sentence to respond to because emails do not replace conversation. You have to have a conversation because you cannot pick up tone. You cannot allow that person to elaborate without thinking, “Oh my gosh, she wants my status. I have to write this four page email with five bullet points and 16 things.” And you cannot respond to each statement. I have seen emails that have five paragraphs and then the person is trying to respond to each paragraph and subparagraph. They start color coding and it just gets out of hand.

So, my tip is to converse with people. Have the conversation with people and help them to understand why you are asking statuses. When you talk to someone verbally you can understand their tone—something that is absent in email.

The most successful projects and relationships I have had are the ones where I make conversations a priority. Develop a personal relationship so your team members know urgency and the importance of the project tasks.

In your opinion, what factors contribute to project failures?

Well, the opposite. Not having a good and clear direction of what your expectation is of that person and understand who’s responsible, who’s accountable, who’s consul

ted, and who needs to be informed. If you do not have that at the beginning of a project, you have a risk of failure.

For instance, I was managing several projects, and I had an additional project added that was very high-profile and specific to a key objective and goal. The additional project had a deliverable that needed to be delivered within two months. With juggling several projects, I didn’t sit down with my stakeholders to have a conversation about expectations and roles.

At the end of the first deliverable, I received feedback from a stakeholder letting me know that she felt she was doing parts of my job. She was left with the impression that I wasn’t engaged enough.

Once we established those communication channels, and I acknowledged her needs, we were able to move and have continued success.

It wasn’t necessarily a failure, but to me, I felt that I had not done my due diligence at the beginning. I knew what happened, and I knew how the problem arose, but circumstances didn’t allow me to do the job that I needed to do for that stakeholder.

What are some trends that you are seeing in project management?

I do live in a bit of a bubble, but I do try to go to conferences occasionally with the PMI. Some of the trends I am noticing are how traditional project management and the agile process marry. PMI is beginning to introduce the agile conversation and have recently developed an agile certification. Big

What advice would you give to someone looking to enter project management as a career?

Start working on projects. You do not have to lead a project to work on a project. By working on a project, you see the project team’s dynamics and see what happens. You get to take a step back and look at it, not just as a member, but as a person who is seeing the whole picture. You can see how the project manager engaged people and what worked.  You can build your own personal lessons learned register of the project manager–good or bad.

I think you learn more from mistakes than you do from successes. If you always saw a project run perfectly, you don’t really know how to handle a project that doesn’t, and there will be those that won’t go according to plan.

When things go awry, you get to see how a person bounces back from a missed requirement or what affect late work has, or even, the swirl of business requirements never being solidified. Those mishaps are just as important as seeing a successful project.

One way to get into project management is to start as a project coordinator where you are taking notes and minutes. You begin to develop the necessary understanding, and you work closely with the project manager. You get to learn, acquire the skills, and ultimately, prepare for a role as a project manager.

Overall, I would say just being in an environment where there are projects to be done is helpful.

You are Chattanooga PMI Board Member. What benefit is there in joining a local chapter?

I am of the mind that if you can make a difference, you should and I knew that I can make a difference on the board because I had training background. I had a passion for helping people. I think that the PMI Chattanooga is one of those opportunities. You get to be likeminded people that are helping you professionally and networking.

Half of our board members who did not have a job or who were between jobs, got jobs, just by attending networking events. I think that coming to the events you gain great connections and learn valuable insights.

By attending the monthly chapter meetings or the socials, you get to reach out find the common struggles of project management and also the successes.


Switching to your professional personal life, do you have a daily habit that you believe is key to a successful day.

I have several daily habits actually. I always figure when I am going to exercise. I do not say, “Am I going to work out?” Instead, I say, “When am I going to do to work out?” That helps me setup a healthy balance.

I try to eat food that is good for my body and that tastes good. I try to tell my husband I love him every day.

I try to live by the golden rule. That’s my thing. I treat people the way I want to be treated, and I ultimately don;t think that people are out to get me or to out to make my life bad. You see a lot of people go, “Why did she do that to me?” Instead, I think what was she doing that made her not see how that action would affect me. It wasn’t directed at me. When you really look at what was going on, she just was not thinking about me when she did her thing. She was thinking about her because she has to take care of herself first.

When people put themselves first, it might feel like they are sliding you, but it is really what would you do? Do you walk around your day thinking about everybody you are impacting all the time? No, because you have got to get your stuff done. If you are not being as considerate as you may need to be, it does not mean you are a bad person. It just means that maybe somebody needs to tap them on the shoulder and say, “When you do that, it impacts me.”

I think that golden rule is all about stepping into somebody else’s shoes–especially when you do not understand why they have done something, and you take it personally. I do not take anything personally because it is my choice to make what you said or did hurt me or not. I choose to say, “I do not know if that was your intention, and if it was, it is good information cause I know how to react next time I see you.”

It is ultimately how you interpret people in their intentions and I just think that people do not intend to do harm.

Are you reading currently reading anything?

I was in a book club, and I could not keep up. When I have downtime, I take it. I do not spend my life thinking about my next project management move and how I can be a better project manager. When I end the job at 5:00 p.m., I am good.

I will reflect at work, but I try to have a home life and a work life. I do not read professional development books because I think at some point, you just have to be and stop. There are so many. You could read a million books and still not be an effective person because you are too busy in-taking, and you are not really processed. Be a practitioner. I am not on a diet, I am on a live it.

Is there a quote that you live by?

The golden rule and I made this one up. It is, “Be true to yourself and be true to yourself.”

Meaning do not tell yourself things that are not true, and you would not tell others. Such as, “Oh, I am going to work out today.” Do not tell yourself that if you do not mean it. Be true to yourself–honor who you are. Do not try to be what other people need you to be. Try to be what you need yourself to be because you need to be able to be comfortable with your choices. I just think that being true to yourself means know who you are and what you need.

This is another quote, “I am not in the pursuit of happiness. I am in the pursuit of healthiness.” Happiness is a byproduct of healthiness. Once I learned that that happiness is very hard to define, but healthiness is really easy to define. Are you sleeping? Are you in pain? Are you troubled? Are you anxious? Are you nervous? Those are unhealthy. You know what healthy looks like, but do what happy looks like? And does it change day to day and the thing that made you happy yesterday, does it make you happy today? “Oh, this ice cream Sundae, maybe me happy!” But, if you ate an ice cream sundae every day, would you be happy? Healthiness is a daily aspiration of mine.

How do you take care of your mental health?

I practice yoga. I try to own who I am. I own, Kelly, as my project, I own how I move in the world. I own what I do. I used to be a very anxious person. I used to care a lot about what people think and then I heard this quote, “You wouldn’t worry so much about what people thought of you if you knew how little they were thinking about you.” They really aren’t thinking about you. It is really not about you, and I got very mentally healthy when I let go of trying to meet other people’s expectations of myself. I set my own expectations up myself and meet those. I go to bed happy and proud of myself every day because of the things I said I was going to do, I did.

How do you stay up to date and relevant in your profession?

By being on the board is a great opportunity. I get to go to national conferences and regional conferences and having that professional development day, which is an eight hour opportunity for us to earn professional development units. PMI requires you to attend professional develop if you want to keep your PMP. That means that you are constantly having to stay current or doing something that is relevant to your profession.

Well you also teach the PMP, so I am sure that keeps you up to date.

I had to learn PMP from version five to six, so I am still topical. It is a great opportunity. I love teaching. I love instructing. I have been teaching since I was in college. I was a tutor in computer science. I almost dropped out of my major because my tutor gave me the answer and not the tools to get the answer. I saw a gap and a need, and I decided to fill it. So, I started teaching people how to think, and I used to say to my professors in college, “I get you are writing a bunch of stuff on the board, but what is your brain doing to make you be able to write that on the board? That is what I need to know.” I do not need to copy what they did instead I need to think like them.

Overall, when it comes to professional development, I think the board is a great opportunity for me not to have to work really hard to stay topical and keep up with my professional development.

What is one of your favorite topics or course that you have been through?

Last year our professional development day had two speakers. One topic was how to be a thoroughbred leader and the other one was about improvisation in project management. Right. Those were two of the best development courses. Improvisation is what life is. You don’t have script for when the owner of the company walks in randomly and asks, “How’s your project going?” That’s not in the book. You cannot say, “Oh, let me check my spreadsheet and print you a status report.” You have to be able to answer that person at his level or what he’s asking and understand how to respond correctly. The techniques and the tools from that course was one of my favorites.

What would be a piece of advice you’d give someone in their career journey?

I life coach on the side, not for money, just for people that come to me for life coaching. I tell them that you do not have to know what you want do when you start on your journey. You do not have to know where you are going, but you do have to try things. You need the experience to decide. You need to understand what you like and what you don’t. Along the way, you get to know yourself better, and then you say, “This experience has shown me these positive things and these negative things. Now, I need to go to this direction.” Even if you do not like something, it does not mean it wasn’t valuable for you to have gone through–like a relationship or a job or a manager–because you can always find something to take and put in your toolbox for your next job or opportunity.