Q&A: A Fireside Chat with Jim Snyder


03 August 2020

Jim Snyder, founder of PMI

PMIEF sits down with Jim Snyder, founding member of PMI and current fellow, for a candid Q&A.

There’s a sense of well-deserved reverence associated with the name James R. (“Jim”) Snyder, the man who propelled the Project Management Institute Educational Foundation (PMIEF) from an idea to a reality. Today he is Chairman Emeritus of the Foundation. Click on each question below to see Jim's answers about the History of PMIEF.

As one of the original founders and a fellow of the Project Management Institute, Jim has served as PMI president, chairman, volunteer executive director, and remains an active member. But nothing seems to light the fire of excitement in his voice more than a discussion of the potential impact project management education has on the youth of the world and the communities they will one day inherit and lead.

Jim recently took time to answer some questions about PMIEF – its past, present and future – in a revealing and inspiring Q&A:


Q&A with Jim Snyder

Being one of the early founders and driving forces of PMIEF, what was the inspiration to get it going – what put the wind beneath your wings?

Jim Snyder: In terms of some historical background, the Educational Foundation was not a planned organization. PMI’s Board of Directors didn't say, “We need an Educational Foundation.” No one said, "Let's start one." What actually happened was the local chapters began to give scholarships to people in the chapter.
So the Educational Foundation began with a telephone call from Virgil Carter, who was CEO of PMI at that time. Virgil said, “I've got a guy – Lew Gedansky – who's doing work on this Educational Foundation but I've got other things for him to do. I was wondering how you'd like to take over the Foundation and see if you can pull it together.”

Did you have employees or a board to help you?

Jim: There were no employees. Dorothy was assigned to help me but she was already busy as Virgil's secretary. Virgil picked some people to form a board whose first job it was to write and put together the selection process that has pretty much stayed the way it is now, with a number of people appointed by the Educational Foundation itself and others selected by the PMI board to form the PMI Educational Foundation board.

What was the first project launched by PMIEF? And what kind of impact did it make?

Jim: With the use of PMI volunteers, we were able to create a brochure called Careers in Project Management, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation that volunteers could take to high school career-day events to show what project management is all about. The youth focus happened very early on. Now the definition of youth has changed over the years, but if you throw everybody in elementary school, high school, and college into one bucket, you have what we were thinking about.

We got a lot of very good feedback. In the days before “downloads” we would print it and mail it to people. We took it into a significant number of schools and it was used by a number of different chapters in a lot of different ways.

I think it was significant in two ways. First, it may have encouraged some kids to actually think about project management and what projects are and perhaps one or two of them may have gone into our profession. Second, I think it made a significant impact on the chapters because it gave them a tool for social good, and as a result they branched out and did more and more things. So now you've got all kinds of social good programs, career days, Future Cities, Habitat for Humanity, and all kinds of other project work.

What is your favorite memory related to your work with the Educational Foundation?

Jim: I went to Tennessee to recognize the PMI Nashville Chapter for the work they did in developing the next major product that the PMI Educational Foundation produced, Project Management Skills for Life®  it was such a significant contribution. Then my home chapter, the PMI Delaware Valley Chapter, completely rewrote it to bring it up to date, both in terms of the year and in terms of the project management skills, and turned it into Managing Life's Projects. Now it's been translated into 26 languages. From those beginnings from one person in Tennessee, this effort has grown and morphed and changed into an international product that's used in schools all over the world. It's the basis for many programs  and not just in schools. It's being used in civic projects, in community projects, in prison projects, in learning programs, and more.

How has PMIEF has grown over the years?

Jim:  I think PMIEF has moved significantly in the direction of a worldwide nonprofit provider of project management knowledge and education, whereas it started off as a provider of scholarships and project management. PMIEF has now grown to the point where it's providing the education itself, rather than just paying for it. 

We were one of the first groups to take project management into high schools, and I think our emphasis on youth and on teaching project management to as young a group as we possibly could is really a significant and important role that PMI Educational Foundation has had. It has been a supporter of project-based learning since the days project-based learning started. And its early association with the Buck Foundation in California and a number of the other organizations has prompted the academic world to begin looking at project management as a life skill and at ways of incorporating it into educational programs and academic curriculums.

A lifelong goal of mine is to see every high school graduate having had at least a basic introduction to project management before they go off to college. I don't think we're anywhere near there yet. But I'm hoping that the programs we're undertaking now will head us in that direction.

If you could share one lesson about working with PMIEF, what would it be?

Jim: We must understand and teach the importance of basic, old-fashioned project management to high school kids. I've always said my goal would be that when freshmen walk into a university course and the professor says to them, "All right, your project for this semester is XYZ," they can sit back in their chair and say, "I know what that means  I know what I have to do. I know how I have to undertake this job to accomplish this project in this semester." That would be extremely impactful.

I recall going to a school, in Rochester, NY, where Helen Drury Brown consulted with Kodak and also taught project management to local students. I went back to Rochester about six months after that, toward the end of the school year. I went into a classroom and the teacher was about to start a new lesson in geography. She said, "We're about to undertake a project to study the sea." About 40 percent of the hands went up in the classroom, and students asked questions like, “What's the scope of our project? What's our timeline? What resources are available to us?” These were fourth graders using the language of project management and understanding what it meant! Clearly, fourth grade is not a bad place to start teaching project skills.

If you could offer one piece of advice to the next generation of project managers, what would it be?

Jim: Learn basic skills first. We have a lot of wonderful programs being developed by PMI and by consultants and by universities that are advances in project management. For instance, you've got all sorts of new ways of looking at risk and risk analysis. But let's not forget that you can't do any good risk analysis or really use any of the more advanced techniques of project management until you first understand the very basic concepts. This goes back to the old world of PERT and CPM, and that generation of project planners who were able to tell you how much time or money you can save by increasing resources on a small project or even on a large project.

We put a man on the moon with good project management. I'd like to see us get back to some of the basic skills that were used in those days. I think we tend to drift away from some of those foundational skills of the 60s and 70s.

Why do you feel it's critical for youth to learn project management at an early age?

Jim: I don't think we can deal with the issues of our time without understanding how to manage the projects that can resolve those issues. In the 40s, 50s and 60s, I think that it was possible to manage projects without any processes, simply because of the size and scope of the projects. However, we are now at the point where every project is huge. And you just can't manage them without good project management.

Project management is as critical to life as any of the STEM skills that are taught today. You can ask the same question and say, “Why teach science or mathematics?” Project management is just as important.