Q&A: Talking with Tara Ajello, Mid-Atlantic Director of Projects, Internal Project Delivery Transformation Lead
Jacobs’ Tara Ajello talks about her engineering and project management career and her tips for creating a diverse career.
Tara Ajello is a project management leader at Jacobs. She’s a trained engineer, with experience focusing on water resources projects—climate change, watershed management and more.
So, while she can still knock out hydrology calculations, she’s now shifted to the project management side, where she is a Geographic Director of Projects. Using her passion to help project managers across Jacobs, she manages projects while also leading a corporate initiative to improve how projects are planned globally.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I’m a Director of Projects, and so I can be running a pricing and risk review on a new project in one meeting, and then be doing a monthly review of major projects for my whole region, the Mid-Atlantic region in the U.S., in the next meeting. I’m also responsible for overseeing the quarterly financial forecast for my region, working with the Regional Director of Projects.
But besides the operational aspects of running projects, I spend a lot of my time thinking about and working with project managers, especially those who are new. It’s always been a passion of mine—finding ways to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained in my career, and inspiring them to try out the new processes and tools Jacobs is implementing that can make their lives easier.
Tell us a bit about what you’re working on these days.
I’m still a project manager, while also taking on the more operations and manager roles as a geographic director of projects, which means I provide guidance to our managers of projects. One of the big things I’m focused on now in that manager role is career development for our project managers. This means building training and continuous improvement into our culture, and setting an example for the project managers by doing all of the training myself.
On that note about continuous improvement—one of the things I love about Jacobs is that people like me are able to raise their hands and get involved with corporate transformation projects. I actually led an initiative to reimagine how we plan for projects—everything from who owns the process to who has access to the information and everything in between. It was both a process improvement and a technical solution as we created a new global tool for it. It’s really gratifying to see it in use and already helping project teams to be more efficient and collaborative!
As a trained civil engineer who now oversees dozens of project managers and is taking the lead on Jacobs’ global transformation initiatives, how did you find yourself in this role? What made you want to go this direction?
I have the technical experience as an engineer—I can still do hydrology calculations! But I started to manage projects pretty early in my career, and that’s when I started to see opportunities to help other project managers at scale. And it became a real passion for me. I love being able to help people when they ask, ‘I have this situation and I have no idea what to do, what do you suggest?’
Now working on our project delivery transformation initiatives, I’m able to connect the dots between all the interactions I’ve had with project managers over the years and how we can build it into something that improves project management for all Jacobs team members. This is especially relevant in the planning phase of projects, which is inherently a very collaborative and team-oriented exercise and exactly why it is so important to me and why I raised my hand to work with our corporate and IT teams on solving it.
Digital transformations are everywhere in our industry and with our clients’ businesses. What’s one area you’re paying attention to?
Data management. It’s fine to improve a process with a new tool. But on the front end, sometimes it can actually make it more complicated with duplicate data entry if you don’t get it right. And on the back end, having that policy for data management can’t be an afterthought. It needs to get baked into the overall strategy.
What advice would you give to young professionals?
Be open to things that come your way, and especially if the idea of pursuing it makes you a little uncomfortable. I never thought I’d be involved transforming how we deliver projects globally at Jacobs and building technology to do that. But here I am! And I have so many connections now that I never expected and a much more diverse and global network of smart people.
What do you enjoy most about being part of the Jacobs family?
The global community and interconnectedness. Working with the corporate project delivery team really connected me with more people outside of my geographic team—I work with people in the Asia Pacific, Europe, the Middle East and more every day. It’s a constant reminder of how many valuable points of view there are to doing any given thing.
If you aren’t working, what would we be most likely to find you doing?
Running! I’m a half marathoner. I find this distance is perfect for me as it’s a challenge and something I need to plan and prepare for. I live in Washington .DC., , and my favorite race overall is the Army 10 miler—I've done it five times now! And this year, it will help me prepare for the DC Rock n’ Rock Half Marathon in November.
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