Have you ever worked with someone who’s so on point and polished that you find yourself wondering what makes them tick? How’d they get here? What wisdom can I repurpose and bottle to use myself? We have, so we decided to do the unthinkable: ask them.
In this installment of our monthly AMA series, we landed a spirited interview with our Director of Project Management, Nancy Ketchum. We admire Nancy because she knows how to command any space and she’s fiercely faithful to upholding process. From majoring in Computer Sciences to sewing and being an all-around badass, here’s what we got when Nancy let us ask her anything.
What You Don’t Learn in College
Lauren Wiggins: What was your very first job? What’s something you loved about it or hated about it? Did you learn anything from it that you still use today?
Nancy Ketchum: “My first job out of college was as a Programmer in an IT organization. I loved the people I worked with, they taught me so much! I learned that process and standards are very important to be able to deliver quality technical software-related solutions.
“Without a process, you can’t repeat success. For instance, I thought that businesses were always right. I got into the real working world and I started realizing just by looking at code that no, businesses are not always right. People in business make mistakes and whether you write it in code or not, you’ve got to have a process and everybody needs to understand it. Then, it’s a standard.”
“People will hear “standard” and think you’re being inflexible, but processes and standards support 80-90% of the stuff that we do every day so that we don’t have to think about it.
Then, we can treat the 10-20% as oddities or exceptions and focus on the real problems, not the outliers.”
LW: Great answer! Yeah, you gotta get to the meat. So how did you end up in the metal industry? What brought you to Kloeckner?
NK: “This is making me think back through all my different jobs, and I’ve had plenty! I worked for a state-owned public utility and electric company. I worked at Coca-Cola. A lot of my software engineering time was with different software companies. I had my own business, which was a teeny little micro-business designing and manufacturing window treatments; of course, I had software that helped clients visualize the design. It was fun until it wasn’t. My advice is to never make your avocation your vocation. Then, I went to work for a company that built cell towers. It was construction project management.”
“I’ve just always been attracted to industrial work. A lot of people with software backgrounds go into the financial sector and that kind of thing. Anyway, I was brought to Kloeckner as a consultant through a friend of a friend situation. They were trying to set up the Project Management Office and find someone to lead it. Of course, COVID slowed some things down, but I was ready when they were. This is the thing I love to do. I love making order out of chaos. I didn’t intend to work in the metals industry, but it’s a tangible, understandable space for me.”
Piping Up & Making Your Own Luck
LW: I’ve spent the last eight years of my life pursuing a career in social media, so I understand making order out of chaos. Alright, next question: you received your BS in Computer Sciences, working with software, at a time that there weren’t many women in that field and DEI wasn’t such a hot topic. What was that like? Tell us about some of the challenges and opportunities you faced.
NK: “I have four older brothers and was brought up being told that I could do whatever I wanted and certainly anything my brothers were capable of. Not that I wanted to cut the grass or play baseball. The fact that I was a girl never really played into it. I was pretty sheltered and through college, the topic of gender discrimination didn’t seem like a real thing to me.
In my first job, I did experience a situation that changed my mind. I was on a trip to Arizona to vet a potential software vendor with several VPs from my company and I was the only woman involved. During the conversation with the vendor, I realized that their product would not run on the hardware we owned. I attempted several times to explain this – only to be brushed off as a young, inexperienced woman. I kept piping up, and after 2 days of conversation, one VP finally heard what I was saying. At that point, they began to see the issue and the conversation with the vendor went in a totally different direction to address how we could get their software to run on the machines we had.”
“I have found that while I was usually the only woman on a team for most of my career, the men on my immediate teams were courteous, also taking my thoughts and comments seriously and as valid as anyone else.”
LW: Yeah, I think there’s a lot of truth there. I believe in some categories and spaces, you can create your own luck if you have the voice and you know what you’re talking about. I think the challenge for many women comes with the thought, “how many times am I willing to pipe up and risk being perceived as the nag?”
Okay, I’m genuinely interested in this one because the most I know about your job is that you’re constantly in meetings. You came to Kloeckner with a breadth of experience leading projects and programs to be our Director of PMO. What does your day-to-day look like and how does it feel to know you’re helping pioneer the use of digital tools in an otherwise “old school” industry?
What Do You Do Here, Anyway?
NK: “My day-to-day is back-to-back meetings. When my kids used to ask me what I do, I would explain that I don’t actually do anything, I get others to do things. While this is not really true, my role is more of a connector and facilitator to make sure that our leaders’ goals and vision are realized. So, I spend a lot of time talking and working with others to make sure things are pointing in the right direction. The main point of project management is to effect change, so bringing new tools and processes to the organization is exciting to me. I have worked in a number of places that one might consider “old school,” and I find this to be the most fun since even small steps toward using more efficient tools and processes makes quite an impact. It is rewarding to watch us grow and become stronger and better.
There are certain actions to it; for instance, developing timelines, estimating how long something’s gonna take, making sure people understand who’s involved and what role they’re playing, and how much something will cost. There’s proactive work too, like predicting things we could run into that would stop us from realizing a goal.
I look at PMO as a governance structure where we’re not coming up with the ideas, we’re turning the ideas into plans. I have a steering committee that makes the decisions, but I’m driving the details of the decisions.”
LW: Makes sense. We’ve talked a lot about business so it’s time for a fun one. Do you have a hidden talent? If not, what’s your greatest passion/hobby when you’re off the clock?
NK: “I’m going to sound like a grandma, but I love to crochet. It marries well with watching a movie and helps me sit still. I’ve made baby blankets for every one of my great-nieces and nephews. I love to paint and sew and most any kind of creative hobby. Right now, I have multiple projects going – I am crocheting a sweater and a rug. Oh, and I just finished a baby blanket. I also have a gecko that I am about halfway through. I’m painting several things. I am also very competitive and love games of any kind – board games, cards, and many others.”
LW: Sounds like you have a lot of ongoing projects at home. I know something about that, too. Each room in my house holds a different art project that I swear I’m getting back to.
NK: “Yes, and it’s funny because I don’t manage my leisure time as I do with work. One thing I hated about my window treatment business was that it felt like creativity on-demand. Now I just kind of do whatever I want when the mood strikes me.”
Solid Advice & Championing Change
LW: Amen. I was excited to discover you graduated from the College of Charleston. I’m a Charleston girl! Did you grow up there?
NK: “No, I’m from Sumter, SC. I stayed in Charleston and continued living there after I graduated though.”
LW: Okay, if you were giving a speech to the graduating class at CofC today, what’s the most important piece of advice you would give them?
NK: “Keep learning and growing! I started as a software engineer, I continued into managing software engineers and testers. I have owned my own small business, lead business process reengineering efforts, instituted Project Management teams and processes, and I’ve been the VP of an IT department and a management and business consultant. What I thought I’d do isn’t at all what I’ve done.”
LW: Very cool! Alright, we’ve eluded to some of this throughout your interview, but what’s the biggest, most important change you’re championing at Kloeckner, and why?
NK: “In what used to be a “ready, fire, aim” company, I’m most excited to start our projects off right in the first place. This means that we need to define in detail what it is we are trying to accomplish before we start doing it. It means we need to define clear requirements to meet before we go off solving and working on something. My favorite PM-related saying is: Most people don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan.”
A Doting Dad & Life After Raising Kids
LW: Well said! Here’s one of my favorite questions, just because you get such a range of answers. Tell us about your hero, a leader, or a public figure you admire – is there a principle they stand for that you’ve adopted as your own, or something in their work that inspires yours at Kloeckner?
NK: “Wow, that is a hard one. I am not sure that I have one particular person, yet attributes that I admire from several people. I think a lot of the things that I strongly believe in were instilled by my father. Like honesty. I’m all for transparency and being loyal, probably to a fault.”
LW: Your dad can totally be that figure. As I said, you get a real range of answers with that one. So, what’s Nancy like after hours? Are you big on family? Is there a fun activity/tradition you enjoy with family or friends?
NK: “I’m pretty low-key after hours. I try to connect with friends on a regular basis. My boys are grown, one is in college and one will be starting his Ph.D. program in the fall. So, I’m in that space where I am figuring out what life is like after kids! It’s kind of fun.”
LW: No empty nest syndrome here. Final Question – if you could turn back the hands of time and do one thing differently at any point in your life, what would it be and why would you change it? This isn’t a trick question, but it is tricky – some folks say they wouldn’t change a thing and that’s fine.
NK: “I would have realized earlier that life is about the people and relationships we make along the way. I would have spent more time with my Dad and Mom. I would have spent more time with my boys while they were younger. Life is about getting to know people and helping others. Toward the beginning of my career, I was all about the end results. I don’t think my boys are any worse for the wear. If anything, they’re just more self-sufficient, but you’ll always want more time when you can’t get it back.”
Another insightful AMA in the books! As always, we appreciate Nancy working us into her back-to-back calls to learn a little more about her journey. Stay tuned for more of this monthly feature, highlighting the awesome people who make Kloeckner great.