Projects are Life with Cristina Iacona, Project Manager at ZenFi Networks

I knew Cristina Iacona needed to be featured in the Projects are Life series the day I met her in the Sitetracker Certification course. I could tell immediately that she was smart, super organized, a world-class communicator, and had a great sense of humor – all great qualities of a person, and even better qualities to find in a project manager. We hopped on a Zoom call to talk a bit more about how Cristina got into project management, why she loves the culture at ZenFi Networks, and why communication and collaboration are so important while everyone works remotely. 

What is your role? 

My title is Project Manager and I manage our customer-driven projects we build and deploy in our NY and NJ network – I’ll see those through from implementation to delivery. In addition, I work on the fiber transport delivery for small cell deployment which can be a few hundred nodes at a time.

How did you find the telecom industry? 

I ended up in the telecom industry purely by chance.  I went to college for communications but I didn’t really know what direction my career would take. Luckily, I found a great company to work for.

How did you make your way into project management?

Natural progression. When I was hired at Cross River Fiber, I was the first employee underneath the executives. When they first opened their office, I was responsible for everything from office management to operations support, finance support and sales support so I was doing a little bit of everything. As the company grew my position became more defined – my superiors spent the time and made the effort to teach me, support me, and elevate me through those next few years. We worked together to find the best position for me while utilizing my strengths along with what I wanted to do. Project Management was the natural next step. 

I’m guessing you never thought you would be in Project Management when you were little. What did you want to be when you grew up? 

So this is a funny question because when I was little, what I can remember wanting to be was an owner. It didn’t matter of what – there wasn’t one specific business or idea, I’ve always been enamored with the entrepreneurial spirit, the chances that entrepreneurs take and the idea of creating your own success and fortune. I was always saying “I’m going to do that someday.” Obviously I’m not doing that right now but I think it is a big part of why I work for this small, startup company – because that inspires me. 

What is the best part about working for ZenFi Networks? 

I don’t take it for granted that ZenFi Networks is where I ended up because I think its where I belong. In this atmosphere, in this culture where we’re constantly driving to meet an end-goal and working together as a team to create success. At ZenFi Networks, you definitely don’t work for some big corporation where you’re just a number. You really are an important part of the team. We have a great company culture, we have great people working here, and we each have that team unity spirit which I think is important. That startup culture is what I’ve been in now for almost 8 years and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

I love that! So, back to project management. Let’s dive in a little deeper. What is your favorite part about project management?

I really enjoy being an integral part of the team. I love working together with my colleagues to complete and deliver results to customers. I’m able to work cross-functionally and bridge the gaps between different departments and help drive those projects forward. I really value the sense of accomplishment it gives me to be a part of making a project come together. I also enjoy working with different people and I feel like that’s a strength of mine so I’m glad that I’m able to bring that into my job.

What are the core metrics that are important to you?

I’d say the most important thing is turnaround times on project milestones – it’s key for getting those customer orders delivered on time if not early, and really measuring those from implementation to delivery. To be able to track, not only for the current projects but also trying to manage future projects, pulling in time frames and giving an accurate message to the customer.

How did you measure those before Sitetracker?

Before we implemented Sitetracker, we were using a program called Smartsheets to manage projects. Prior to that, we relied heavily on email. We were a lot smaller too, so it was on each individual to follow up every day where we were with our projects, on an internal system. Having Sitetracker definitely helps us, especially with more people involved and more projects happening at once. Having that task management and accountability has been significant. The automation of reports and dashboards has also been really helpful for reporting.  When I work directly with my team and we are in a specific project we can easily give management an overview of our progress And the reports have such a clean and smooth aesthetic!  

The reports do look really good! And they are so easy to use… 

They do! They really do! Having reports so management can see,  for example, an order was estimated to take 6 months to complete and we were able to complete in 5 months. We are able to track that success very easily and on the other hand, we can see if any orders were overdue, what may have led to that delay and how to improve for the future. Being able to see that with a push of a button or an automated report has been greatly beneficial and a huge indicator of our success.

What do you think the benefit is of having Sitetracker for you and for your team?

I believe the accountability, task management, and organization are the biggest benefits I see in my day to day work with Sitetracker, especially with so many projects going on at once. We depend on Sitetracker to keep us honest and keep us moving forward.

We depend on Sitetracker to keep us honest and keep us moving forward.

What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your four years as a project manager?

I would say I’ve learned that good communication is vital, internally and externally. If you’re not asking the right questions or you’re not getting what you need from somebody else and then you’re not saying that correctly to the next person you’re never going to get from point A to B. I think it’s important that we all remember that communication is key – there are no dumb questions. If you have a question you should ask it and ensure everyone on the team is on the same page, so that you’re delivering the right message to the customers and vendors.

Proper communication is key, internally and externally.

If you had to give a piece of advice to a new PM, what would you tell them?

I would advise everyone to ask questions, inquire about best practices, and learn from the telecom veterans because there is immense value in experience and knowledge, especially in this industry. But don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo as well. I feel strongly that just because something has been done a certain way for however long doesn’t mean you can’t bring something new to the table. the industry is always evolving and it’s important to move forward leveraging experience but also adapting to changes. 

What do you think the biggest misconception is that people have about project management in telecom?

Project managers are notoriously known for being “box checkers” – honestly, I think that’s the biggest misconception about this role. I pride myself on being involved and knowing every facet of the projects I’m working on. It’s not a yes or no or a box check or if the task was done. It’s really being involved and knowing how the project is moving along so I can speak intelligently on it. 

So can you run me through a day in the life of Cristina? What is your first thought in the morning?

So I would say no day is average. When I wake up – other than contemplating that last snooze- I really think about, what’s my agenda for today? What do I need to accomplish? My morning routine consists of obviously getting ready, but as I’m getting ready what’s my first few things I have to get done? So, when I get into the office – which is currently my dining room table – I focus on any email follow up from the previous day. Throughout the day  I pay a lot of attention to my incoming email and staying on top of my communication.  In addition, working within Sitetracker to update tasks and milestone is a big part of my day.  In addition, especially in this environment, several conference calls and meetings a day just to maintain business as usual. Basically collaborating all day!

Collaboration is so important, especially now, with so many teams working remotely. 

I agree. ZenFi Networks has been able to embrace the craziness of the current environment and work together to continue to succeed. The leadership team has done a great job of getting everyone accustomed to working together, while apart, without missing a beat. Sitetracker also helps because it keeps everyone on the same page. And, we started doing virtual happy hours which are pretty fun! 

ZenFi Networks team happy hour.

That is awesome! Usually, I would ask what you like to do outside of work, but I’m going to switch it up a bit. How have you been staying busy during quarantine? 

I’ve been cooking a lot and trying new recipes. I can’t watch too much TV but there are definitely some binge-worthy shows out there! Playing games, taking walks and video calls with family and friends have also been great ways to keep occupied.