“A CFO goes to their CEO and asks, 'What if we train our employees and they leave?' The CEO responds, 'What if we don’t and they stay?'"
About Terri Tidwell:
Terri Tidwell is a Director of Project Controls for SQUAN’s engineering division. Having grown up with both parents working in the telecom industry, Terri got her foot in the industry’s door as a manual drafter. From there, her path to project management excellence was paved by demonstrating a high degree of competitiveness, developing empathy through hands-on experience for her crews, and gaining the loyalty of her techs in the field by training and developing their skillsets.
Tell me, how did you get to where you are?
My parents were already working in the telecom space, and I first got started as a manual drafter. My stepmom, who worked for Southern Bell at the time, went to a contractor and said, “Can you please give my daughter a job?” Back then, everyone got a job in the telecom industry based on who they knew. There wouldn’t be a telecom industry without nepotism in the early days. But I worked twice as hard just to prove myself.
From there, it was fairly organic. This was before PMP certifications or anything like that, but by the time I was officially a Project Manager, I could already talk to clients knowledgeably about the work and drive other folks to get their work done. And I think a lot of what project management is is really just common sense and that desire to be a bit more organized. For me, disorganization just drives me nuts. So, I’d step into situations that need help and clean them up.
How do you stay so organized?
Well, you really have to stay in touch with the progress of each project, and back then I thought Excel was my saving grace because before that I kept everything in notebooks, sticky notes, bulletin boards — all that kind of stuff. So I thought Excel was the be-all-end-all until SQUAN adopted Sitetracker. Now I keep everything in Trackers! It’s all clean and streamlined so that you can immediately see where the problems are. And that's one of the things I love about Sitetracker is that the conditional formatting is already built into it so you can see when things are starting to go sideways. I just finished the Sitetracker Certification course too, and the more I learn about it the more excited I am. It’s game-changing for me and my whole team.
What lesson in project management do you most want to share?
When it comes to managing upwards, transparency is a huge one. Everyone loves to hear good news; the bad news is much tougher. Don’t wait until the last minute to bring it up. Give the bad news when it occurs - ideally at least three days in advance of its impact. You know, if you’re not going to make a deadline, tell somebody before the due date. Not every project is going to run smoothly. You’re going to run into hurdles, but the sooner you can call out problems the better the news will be received, and ultimately resolved.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about project management in telecom?
Back when PMP certifications first became a thing, companies were hiring people that knew nothing about the work or the people they were trying to manage. The basic idea of the PM role was someone pushing spreadsheets. In my opinion, this was very wrong. There’s no formula for successful project management, but there are characteristics you have to have, including an understanding of the industry, knowledge of the work, and empathy for the crews in the field.
That last one is very important. I’ve been there. I used to do fieldwork as a field engineer, so I was out there in the trenches staying in hotel rooms for weeks, sometimes months at a time. You have to remember your crews are people. They’re probably missing out on time with their families by being there, working for you. They could get stuck in Minnesota because their engine blocks froze because they don’t know that they need to winterized their vehicle for those kinds of working conditions.
The people in the field make or break a project, not the person sitting behind a computer, so you have to treat them well.
What’s the biggest industry shift that you’re anticipating?
It’s already happening - a talent shortage. I see headcount as the biggest strategic challenge to the industry in the near future. Companies have to start hiring fresh employees and be willing to train them. It’s like the story where the CFO goes to the CEO and asks, “what if we train them and they leave?” And the CEO responds, “what if we don’t and they stay?” If you don’t train your folks, they’re going to jump ship two years from now for another couple of bucks. But if you take in folks and you're willing to train them, allow them to make mistakes, and give them opportunities to learn new things, you're always going to have a wealth of talent and loyal people. It just takes a time investment. But if you don't start now, in 5 or 10 years you're going to have folks retiring with nobody replacing them.
How do you measure your success?
Well, everyone lives and dies by their revenue and their budget — you know, the dollar sign. But in order to achieve that, the number one thing is reliability. That’s what we really pride ourselves on at SQUAN. All of our PMs have pretty strict due dates and high-quality standards. SQUAN actually won’t accept work that we know we can’t complete. We see other companies making that mistake, and when they don’t deliver, the client will come to us instead because they know we’ll get it done. Reputation is everything. All it takes is one bad word and you may never recover.
What’s your secret to great management and building, training, or developing a great crew?
This one’s tricky because a lot of management success is intangible, so it has to come from within. I’m often asking myself how I feel at the end of the day. When it comes to my team, I think fostering open and honest dialogue is key. My success is my team’s success, and that applies to every individual in the company. We celebrate each other all the time, but most importantly we’re not afraid to call each other out on mistakes. We do this in kind of a joking way though, and that’s really important. You don’t want to make people feel bad for making a mistake, and calling one out with humor has been really effective. In the same way, you also want to have your teammates bounce ideas off of each other.
This happens here at SQUAN at the executive level too! I actually look forward to our management meetings — something very few people can say honestly. But here’s the thing: I’m usually most excited for what comes after the meeting, just grabbing a drink afterward with everyone and sharing stories.
What’s your favorite story to share?
That’s a tough one. I don’t have a favorite story per se, but I do love telling this one: I was out in the field in Louisiana, and there was some concrete-encased fiber cable that had to lower for a DOT project. So we had to break the cable out of the concrete before we could actually lower it. Since there was a risk of damaging the cable, we had to use a sleeve on the jackhammer and had to keep the blade parallel to the direction of the cable.
Now here I am, fresh on site and I didn’t know any of the guys down in the hole. I’m keeping an eye on the guy doing the hammering, and I see him start to turn the jackhammer to get an easier but riskier angle. Of course, I’m shouting and shouting, but he can’t hear me over the sound of the jackhammer. Finally, I resort to grabbing a handful of pebbles off the ground and bouncing them, one at a time, off his hard hat. I continued to do this for each operator for the duration of the project.
The whole crew got such a kick out of my “creative communication” that when it came time to eat, they bought me lunch (by the way: my first “boudin”). I guess the moral of the story is that sometimes you’ve really just got to do what you got to do, and people will respect you for it.
Do you know a fantastic project manager? Someone who hits deadlines, has stories to share, can get around any roadblock, and pushes projects over the line? We want to feature them in our Projects Are Life series. Shoot us an email and tell us why they are awesome at PaL@sitetracker.com.