What do you actually do!? Episode 32: Vivien Chung, Project Manager in tech

In this week’s episode of What Do You Actually Do!? we talk to our guest Vivien Chung about how a big career change led her to become a Project Manager in the business technology industry, and learn about what her job is like.

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Vivien graduated from York with a degree in English and Education, and spent three years working in the TV industry at institutions like the BBC before deciding she wanted a career change. Four years later, she now works in the business technology industry, managing complex systems implementations for companies in the retail, manufacturing and service sectors to enable them to refine and better their business processes.

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Kate  0:02  

You’re listening to the What Do You Actually Do?! podcast. Each week we want to bring you an inspiring interview, a useful tip, or encouraging message to help you find your place in the professional world. This episode was recorded during lockdown. 

Kate  0:15  

Hello and welcome to this episode of What Do You Actually Do?!. My name is Kate Morris and I’ll be your host today. In today’s episode, we’ll be talking about making a career change and working in the tech sector. Today we’re joined via Skype by Vivian Chung, who’s a project manager at HSO. So Viv, what do you actually do?

Viv  0:35  

That’s a good question. I think a lot of people think I just sit on my laptop all day and talk on the phone for eight hours a day. My main responsibilities are to ensure the resources, so that’s the people who work on a project, the budget for the project, and the timeline of the project are on schedule. And then also a big part of my job is to liaise with the customers. So I spend a lot of time going on site, meeting all these different people and businesses that HSO works with, building a good relationship and trusting rapport with them, and then helping to deliver the implementation of the system that we’re working on as per what their business needs. Because a big part of technology implementation isn’t just about the technology, it’s about how businesses can become more efficient. So you’ve got to find a good middle ground, as it were, between the business process and the IT system that you’re trying to implement.


So you are having to, sort of, work with the client to understand what their business’s needs are, what they’re trying to achieve, and then recommend technology that’s going to help them do that?


Yes, it’s very much like that. Specifically HSO sells Microsoft technology. So we work in the ERP sector, that’s enterprise resource planning, and the kind of systems we implement have the capabilities to do sales ledger, purchase ledger, inventory, manufacturing, warehousing, retail point of sale systems. So the kinds of things that you’ll go to Tesco or Sainsbury’s, and when you’re paying for something we implement systems like that, which are quite large and most businesses do need. So our target market is usually medium to large businesses. At the moment we’re working with companies such as Fat Face, Russel and Bromley, Trainline, London City Airport. So there’s various retail, manufacturing and service sectors that we engage with, and they all need old legacy systems ripping out, and new legacies going in… sorry – new systems going in. So it’s important to understand not only how best to replace the old system, but also how can you better the way that that business is working. So the beginning of projects are usually what we call analysis and design phases. We go in and we try and understand, as consultants and project managers, what the business is like, you know, how it functions, what the end users do every day. And then from that, we extrapolate requirements to fit gap analysis, and then the fun part – I say the fun part, but the stressful part really – is fulfilling those gaps with developments. So we spend a lot of time writing, designing systems and then writing the code, and then testing it, and then delivering it to the customer, and then they test it, and then we go live.


So are you designing and writing code yourself? Or do you work with colleagues who are more specialised in that? How does that work?


So as the project manager, thankfully I say, because I’m not a very technological, techie person, as it were, I don’t have to get involved in the details. The project manager’s main job is to sit at the highest level, we don’t get too involved in the depth of the project. We need to have breadth across of it, so we need to understand what everybody on the project is doing, both on the customer side and internally at HSO. So that’s my main job – is to keep everything ticking, and making sure we’re delivering every single day what we’re supposed to be delivering and on time. We have consultants on the projects, so their job is to go in and they understand the system, and they also understand business processes. So they’re sort of the glue with the customer. They work with… So the finance consultant will work with the finance teams, retail consultant work with their retail teams. And we also have developers, whose jobs are to write the code for the developments that the consultants will write design documents for. So those are the three main branches of types of roles in the business that I work in.


So as a project manager, do you have an oversight of all of those three areas then, and you sort of having a strategic role, rather than going in and implementing stuff kind of role?


Yeah, absolutely, definitely strategic. So normally we have, like, fortnightly or monthly steering meetings – is what we call them – with the customer to make sure everything’s on track. Got to produce a deck or a PowerPoint, and run those with the customer. So sometimes I’ll be sitting with CIOs, CFOs, sometimes CEOs, so that they know what’s going on with the project, because they expend quite a lot of money on these sorts of implementations – system implementations are extremely expensive to do, and very time consuming. An average project can be between six months to two years very often, dependent on that release. Yeah, so there’s a lot of risks involved as well. It’s not like, I don’t know, I think if you’re building furniture, for example, or you bake a cake – usually you can sort of time how long that activity will take. With these sorts of projects, things are changing all the time, and that’s part of the reason why I really like my job, actually. Because it’s challenging, and things are different every single day, and I’m always growing as a person in my career and outside of work, I think, from being challenged at work. But it’s also very stressful, because you don’t know if things will always be on time, because sometimes the code just might not work or, you know, you fix something in one part of the system and it breaks something else in the system, which can be quite stressful. So yeah, it’s a rewarding job but a difficult one as well.


So, obviously we’re in the middle of a global pandemic right now. Are you able to work from home in your role? And how is your day different from normal?


So I work in quite a strange industry in that we have a mix of both remote working and traveling on site working. People like me – project managers, consultants – we generally have to be on site a lot of the time to build relationships with people, and also to understand how their business works. I’ve gone to so many different factories and warehouses to see how end users are using the systems – old systems and current systems – all the time. So generally speaking, my week is – work from home on a Monday and a Friday, this is pre pandemic, obviously. And then Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday I’d be on customer sites. So if I’m on one main major project, I would normally work from home on a Monday. If it’s very far away from where I live, I would travel on Monday night. Or if it’s fairly close within a two hour traveling window, I’d probably do it on Tuesday morning. And then I’d overnight stay at a hotel, live out of the suitcase to be honest with you. And then on Thursday I’d come home, and Friday I’d do remote working again. And I actually quite like it, because it means I get a little bit of peace and quiet downtime to focus on a Monday and a Friday. And I get to be on site and be fresh for the customer on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. It’s not a lifestyle that suits everybody. I think parents with young children do struggle to find a good balance, unless their partner has a fairly flexible work-life balance. But it’s also quite nice to not always be at home, because we don’t have an office that we all are based out of, because we all live all over the country. So it’s nice to be able to be with my team as well, when we go on site and get to know them, because our teams are constantly changing depending what projects that we’re on.


So it sounds really really flexible then.


Yes, definitely. And you have to be actually. We’re all treated like adults, you know, we are all trusted to go and do our jobs, travel when you’re supposed to travel, work from home and not, you know, just randomly disappear for four hours at a time. We all use a lot of technology that helps us keep in contact as well. So we use things like Microsoft Teams, because obviously we sell Microsoft technology, so we use a lot of their systems. And all sorts of other various tools to enable us to keep in contact on a regular basis. So actually, when the pandemic hit, in some ways we were already ready for it, because we work from home so much as a business. Whereas I recognise a lot of my friends and family really struggle with the remote working, because they just don’t have the technology set up for it. And I think, as someone who works in the technology sector and implements systems, I think it’s so interesting where the pandemic will take us, because things like Teams and Zoom, they’re going to become the norm in the business world and the world of technology. And interestingly, I think in my business – the business that I work in rather – I think we’ll actually go more towards remote working, although I still think it’s important to have on site meetings, and go and meet the customer, and have that face to face relationship. It’s clear from what’s happened since the Coronavirus hit and the lockdown happened that you can do remote working, you can use webcams, technology does enable you to continue your working life as it was before. So it might reduce not only the carbon footprint of the world, as it were, especially in my business, but also I think it’ll help us save so much time, because there are some projects I spent up to 10 hours a week traveling for, which, I’m not gonna lie, are not fun. I mean, you can read a lot of books if you’re taking public transport, or get through a lot of Netflix, or work on the train if you have the brainpower for it after a very long day. But it’s not fun to do it week in and week out, it’s quite exhausting mentally and physically. So it’d be quite nice to explore the options that we have after the pandemic has gone away I suppose, and things have settled down a bit more.


Yeah, I think that’s really interesting how people are learning to work in a different way, and realising how much you can do remotely actually. So will be… I agree, it will be interesting to see how that impacts on everyone longer term. So, you began your career in the media working as a freelancer in production. So why did you decide to make a career change? And how has your media experience transferred into the tech sector?


So, to give you some context, when I was at university at York, my whole life outside of my degree was YSTV – it was your student television. I joined it because a friend wanted me to join, I wasn’t even really that interested, in all honesty, of helping out at a TV station – student or otherwise. I got in there and loved the people, loved the atmosphere and the vibe, everyone was so friendly and so welcoming, and accepting. And after that I built a big friendship group from that, and also skill sets that I didn’t think I ever needed or wanted. So I learned to produce a TV show (an amateur TV show), I learned to write, direct, edit, produce. I became the Production Director for my last year of university. And from that I started to become interested in the possibility of a career in TV and film, and the media generally. So I started to, very tenaciously, look at work experience online, I did a lot of googling, followed a lot of people who were hiring in that industry – like the BBC, and ITV, I applied for all of their graduate schemes. And luckily, actually, before I graduated, in the summer of my second year, I got picked up by the BBC to do a BBC Three show called Hot Like Us, which never continued. But I did that for… I think it was, I want to say maybe two or three weeks we were filming for, and I was a runner logger on it. I was following cameramen around whilst they were filming, writing down notes of what we were filming, and those would go to the edit for the producers, and the directors, and the editors to be able to find the right footage where they needed it and cut it up. So I did that for two or three weeks, and it was a really fun experience, and I thought – ‘Okay, that’s what I want to do after I graduated’. So then I went back to the BBC when I graduated, and.. You start as a freelancer in the TV industry most of the time – it’s very very rare that you can get a long term permanent job. So I think at the BBC you have to have worked for at least two years permanently back to back as a freelancer before they will offer you what they call a staff job. So my intention at the time was to stay in that industry, and potentially work my way up into becoming a drama producer, because that’s what I was interested in at the time. But I ended up down the entertainment route for a while, I did lots of children’s TV. And when I eventually got to drama, I was already about two years in, and my final year of TV was primarily doing drama productions. So both in the office, working scripts and making sure the actors were where they were at the right times, organising the hotels, transport, a lot of the admin logistical stuff. But also I ended up working on the floor, as a floor runner and as a third AD (a third assistant director), where you are helping the director and the first AD film. So you’re on set running around, making sure everyone has tea and coffee, and making sure the actors go to makeup and costume, making sure your filming is on schedule. You’re working 12-14 hour days in drama, it’s very different to the rest of the TV industry. You get paid more because of it, but the expectations are a lot higher. So I remember on one film or TV show I did, I was working 11 days out of 14 I think it was. So I was working Saturdays and Sundays occasionally. And we were doing night shoots, so we were working from two in the morning to two in the afternoon, because they’re 12 hour shoots. The normal working day on a drama is – you start at seven and you get given breakfast and lunch, and then you work all the way till seven. So it’s a 12 hour working day from beginning to end. But as a floor runner, you’d have to be there at the beginning to make sure people have gone into hair and makeup. And at the end of the day you’re cleaning up after everybody else when they’ve gone. So that was quite a trying year for me. It was really eye-opening, and I’ve had amazing experiences and travelled all over the country to do filming. But I also was so physically exhausted by it, that I felt like my mental health was declining as well. And my physical health occasionally as well, because I didn’t have enough time to look after myself. And I think after that year, I thought… I sort of reassessed my options, and I thought to myself – ‘Well, what did I really want out of a job? I am having fun. And I can definitely do this for a career’. But long term, what I really wanted was to settle down, have some stability. You know, if I had a child, for example, I really wanted to have maternity leave and maternity pay, and that’s not something that the TV industry offers. There’s no sick leave, and all that kind of stuff. There is a union, but it’s not very well organised. And I just didn’t feel comfortable working in that industry. And I also really wanted to be mentally stimulated more. It was a very physically demanding job, but I didn’t feel like I needed… I wasn’t being creative, for example, and I also wasn’t using my IQ on a daily basis. I was using common sense and that was basically it. So I really wanted something that was a bit more challenging on that front. So I decided to take a year out, and I decided to be an au pair in America for a year, which was a really random choice. But I wanted to travel – I never had the opportunity to – and I wanted to just stop and reassess my options properly, and enjoy my life as a 20-something year old. So I went to Chicago for a year, lived there with a family. I love kids, I love working with kids. And then when I came back again, I reapplied for work, and that’s how I ended up at HSO – which is where I am now – and completely changed my career. But that’s essentially why I wanted to change. It’s an amazing industry to work in – the TV and film industry, but it’s very demanding. And I honestly think unless you have 100% of your heart and soul in it, you’re better off trying something else because you really have to be dedicated to that craft. [inaudible]


It’s interesting because often people think – ‘Ooh, I really love doing x, this is my real passion, and it would be amazing if I could turn it into my career’. And the reality of it as a career is not always as good as it seems from the outside. 




Plus, I think when you have a real passion for something, and it’s kind of a personal interest, once you’re doing it professionally – that can maybe kill the passion, and it doesn’t feel like you’re doing it for fun anymore.


Yes, there’s a huge sacrifice, I think, that has to be made to do something you love. You’ve got to make a lot of self-sacrifice for other things in your life. And I think I just wasn’t… I wasn’t willing to make those sacrifices. But I think everyone’s different; you’ve got to figure out what you want. And what I have now that I love is that stability. I’ve got great colleagues around me who I trust and who I really love to spend time with outside of work. And I’m also very mentally stimulated by this job, and constantly strategically thinking, like you mentioned before – thinking what’s the best way to deal with this with the customer, what’s the best way to deal with this within the team. People relationships and people management – all that kind of stuff was way more down my street, than doing a job where I was running around in the outdoors all the time for 14 hours a day, working with sometimes up to 100 people – 100 extras – and that was just too overwhelming for me, and I didn’t really enjoy that experience. So you learn about yourself, I think, as you’re growing up really and trying different things.


How did you identify tech in particular as the place that you would feel more aligned with?


To be honest, I didn’t actually think that… 


I was gonna say, was it a kind of a random, fortuitous thing, or a conscious thing? 


Yeah, it was serendipity I think. I don’t know if I believe in fate, but it does feel a lot like fate to be honest. Because I’m generally quite nerdy, I like to play games, I love board games, for example, and I love lots of things that people probably normally wouldn’t love. You know, I’m not a sporty person and I’m not… I don’t know what the right word is, but I’ve always been a bit of a misfit, I suppose, socially. What I love about the tech industry is that everybody else is just like that; we’re all nerds and geeks. I kind of found my niche of people, which was great. But I was just randomly applying, actually. I came back from America and I took maybe a month off. I came back around November time, I took Christmas off, saw my friends and family, it was so nice to be home again. And then the beginning of 2016 was when I put my head down and just went – ‘I’ve got to apply for everything and anything’. And I literally was just job hunting like a crazy person. And by the end of that I had so many different interviews and assessment centres. And I was so busy doing all of that – I didn’t really think about what the goal was. And the goal at the time really was just to get a job. I didn’t consider what industry I wanted to work in. So, yeah, the fact that I ended up in tech was completely chance, in all honesty. It was the first good offer that was given to me and I took it.


It’s interesting though, because often people assume you need to have studied IT, or some kind of science related degree, to be qualified to work in the tech sector. But your degree was in Language, Literature and Education, and as you say, your working background was much more humanities, traditional creative kind of thing. 




Do you know other people in your field who have also come from a sort of humanities or social science background? Is that, sort of, quite a common thing, or quite rare?


I think in the consulting business technology world it’s a bit of a mishmash; you’ve got some people who have come from higher education and others who didn’t, who just happen to work their way up from the shop floor. So, a lot of people who work at Tesco or Sainsbury’s get to know their way around the system, move into head office, from there get a desk job, and then move into consulting, and then eventually maybe move into project management. So there’s all sorts of different routes into this industry, which I think is a good thing. So in terms of people who came from artsy backgrounds, I have quite a few colleagues who did things like History and Media Studies, and did Arts and Humanities at university and then went into this industry. But their intention at the time wasn’t to go into a business technology consulting industry, it was that they ended up, you know, somewhere else and then somehow along the long twisty winding road of life came across this kind of work. But I would say that the developers, for example, who primarily sit there and code everyday, they do come from CS (Computer Science) backgrounds, you know, they had to study that as a skill set. But as a consultant, and as a project manager, what I think the most important things are your skill set. So as a PM, can you manage other people? Can you manage your relationships with the customer? Can you manage a budget? Are you organised? Can you manage your schedule? And are you a good leader? That’s really important for a project manager. And as a consultant, again, how good are your people relationships, working with the customer? Do you have a mind for designing systems; understanding how that landscape works? And can you navigate different tools, different technology tools? And can you relay all of that to a developer, or to an end user, and try to understand those requirements, and put them into document, and essentially move that forwards, from a technology point of view. So those sorts of skill sets – I think it doesn’t matter what industry, or what background, or what degree you did, because it’s more about experience. If you’ve worked for a business, it’s way easier to transfer into doing my job, than it is if you did a project management degree at university, because you wouldn’t have any idea how a business works and how it runs. So I think for me experience is much more important than studying a very specific degree.


And that’s really sort of fascinating that how, even though it didn’t on the surface appear like an obvious sector for you to apply to, it’s turned out to be a role and a sector where you can really utilise your skills, you feel interested in what you’re doing. You have, although it still sounds stressful and quite intense, it’s a much better work life balance than what you had before. So I guess there’s a real lesson there for anyone thinking about what they might want to do – is being open minded to things that don’t look like an obvious fit until you’ve really checked it out. 


Yeah. It’s hard to know. I don’t think… It’s really one of the hardest things, I think, you can [do] as a teenager and as a young adult – is figuring out what you want to do. I think the most important advice I would give to myself as a 21 year old, or an 18 year old, making really big educational decisions, is – ‘It’s not the end of the world if you pick the thing that in five years time you realise you don’t even want to do. Obviously it’s not ideal, because you know, I think people feel that they’ve wasted time, as it were. But it’s not always the time, because you grow, and you change, and you learn, and they make you into a better person long term. I think it’s much more interesting to have worked in a couple of industries, and had lots of trials and tribulations, and learn from that experience, than it is to go from university straight into a job and just go – ‘Ok, I’m content with this’, and do that for the rest of your life. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I think that’s very admirable. But I think that’s got uncommon. I think most people probably do think – ‘Oh no, I’ve made a mistake’, and then they berate themselves for it or have loads of regrets. But actually, you’ll get through it, you’ll find another job, you’ll figure out what’s best for you. In some ways, I think you’d get picked, like… As a project manager, I feel like I was made to do it. Eventually, I think you will land into the position that you’re naturally inclined to do. And try not to worry so much, because I think the young people nowadays are so anxious about what they’re supposed to do. Just focus on what you can do now, and what you want to do now, and then figure it out as you’re going along, and learn from those mistakes, and learn from those experiences – that’s more important.


I think you’re right. And I think, as you say, all of your different experiences add up, and they give you a broader skill set, and different perspectives that you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t had those experiences. And I think, again, going back to the current situation, I think it just highlights that you can’t control everything. And you have to adapt to what is happening, what opportunities there are. And even if right now you can’t get the ideal thing that you had in your head, doesn’t mean you can’t do it in the future, and it might not have been the best thing anyway. So it’s kind of, it’s just allowing yourself that freedom to try different things out.


Yeah, definitely. I don’t think… I don’t look back and go – ‘I wish I hadn’t gone into TV and spent almost three years of my life slaving away at doing that’, because I had amazing experiences, met some amazing people, and it really made me a better person at what I do today, actually. Like, I’m more confident, I had to become… I was quite shy, I think, before and, when you work in TV and you’re meeting new people all the time, every single day, you have to come out of your shell, otherwise you won’t survive. And now I feel like I’m a better leader in a team, because I had those experiences, and I was pushed to do that, and I had to step up. So yeah, I think that’s definitely a life lesson that I took from moving careers. 


What do you think the key challenges will be for the tech sector over the next few years? I know, obviously, we’ve got this global pandemic going on. So there might have been things that you were already thinking – ‘Ah, this is going to be key priority in, sort of, five years time’. I don’t know if, as you say, this current situation sounds like it’s presented potential opportunities for the tech sector. Are there things that students should anticipate, maybe look into a bit more? What do you think is on the horizon?


I definitely think the tech sector is in a really good place. It’s probably one of the people who have benefited from the pandemic. Because at the end of the day, we’re all staying in contact via technology. Microsoft Teams, for example, had a massive boost in subscription. And I think they actually gave away six months free trial for everyone, if they wanted it, when the coronavirus lockdown happened, so people could stay in contact. Similarly with Zoom, you know, they’ve had loads of people suddenly use it and subscribe to that platform. So I think there’s a lot more opportunities in tech, and actually the older I get, and the longer I learn and work in this industry – the more I realise I’m surrounded by people in my life who work in tech, actually. Lots of people from YSTV, who I graduated with, they’ve ended up in the technology industry in some form or another. And even people who don’t work in the technology industry, you’re going to work for a business, or an office, where you are using systems, and you’re constantly thinking about how to better and shape your business with that technology. I think that’s only going to be more so in the future. So I think there’s a lot of opportunity there. In terms of students looking for work in the technology industry, my advice is to utilise the internet to your benefit. There’s so much out there, that’s how I ended up at HSO. I googled everything and anything, and I applied for, you know, all sorts of things from Accenture, KPMG, PwC – the obvious Big Four as it were – all the way to places like HSO, that I’d never heard of in all honesty. And actually you can do a lot in a small business. So HSO is considered, I think, a small to medium business; there’s about 200 people in the UK. At group level there are 600 of us, and the head office is in the Netherlands, and we’re all over the world actually – we’re in Asia, North America. But it’s not a ginormous business. But I actually really enjoy working for a smaller business, because everything I do is valued and is appreciated. And I’ve risen up the ranks a lot more quickly, than if I worked for a big business like the BBC, like I used to, or for PwC. So just take every opportunity you can get. And there’s a lot of tech out there, a lot of tech style jobs to do with data, and consulting, and all sorts. So I think just keep an eye out on technology, using technology.


That’s really brilliant advice. For more information about the career areas we’ve mentioned today, I’m going to add some relevant links to the episode description and a link to the full transcript of today’s show. But I just want to say, Viv, thank you so much for sharing your words of wisdom with us today, and your time is much appreciated.


Thank you for having me.


Thanks for joining us this week on What Do You Actually Do!? This episode was hosted by myself, Kate Morris, and edited and produced by the Careers and Placements team. If you love this podcast – spread the word and subscribe. Are you eager to get more tips? Follow University of York Careers and Placements on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. All useful links are in this episode description. This has been produced at the University of York Careers and Placements. For more information visit york.ac.uk/careers