Barbara Irwin of Turner & Townsend explains how she went from PA to project manager
You worked for T&T for several years before moving into project management. Why the switch and how did you do it?
When I reached 40, I felt ready for a change of direction and wanted to get some qualifications under my belt, but I didn't want to leave Turner & Townsend. My boss agreed to sponsor me and support my move, even though it meant he had to find another PA. I went to night classes and summer school to do an HNC before going on to study for a management degree in the evenings at Glasgow Caledonian University.

What inspired you to become a project manager?
When I first joined T&T, the company had just started to move into project management. It was in an intensive phase of building up its client base and winning contracts and I got to know what the job involved and who the customers were. My two bosses, Alistair Wilson and Fraser McAllister, have also been an inspiration because they are excellent managers and command such respect from their clients and colleagues. I also knew the company was very keen on investing in its staff development, so I wasn't afraid to ask.

What projects are you working on?
I'm working for West Dunbartonshire council on a project at the Balloch Castle Country Park, where I'm involved in improvements to landscaping and infrastructure to enhance the park as a visitor attraction. My role is to manage a project team from all the consultants. In contrast, the migration management project we are working on at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum in Glasgow involves moving about 100 people to a new museum. This needs attention to detail and involves extremely tough timelines.

How have you developed personally and professionally?
The studying process took me five years but was well worth it. I feel much more confident and realise age need not be a barrier to achieving what you want from life. The organisational and people skills from my days as a PA have transferred well to my new role and I have built on this with the financial and analytical skills gained from my degree. I would advise anyone thinking about a change to just go for it!

What makes a good project manager?
As well as organisational skills and a good commercial head, a sense of humour is invaluable. It can be quite a stressful job juggling deadlines and dealing with the unexpected. The ability to empathise with a client and appreciate how they would want the project to be delivered is also essential. Good project managers have to be able to thrive on variety – for example, one day I'll be involved in relocating people and the next discussing landscaping with design teams.

Barbara Irwin

Age 52 Lives Glasgow Current job Project manager for Turner & Townsend’s Glasgow office Employment history Joined Turner & Townsend in 1990 as personal assistant to project management chief. Studied part-time and became a project manager in 1997. Has since worked on projects for clients including Sunderland Arc, Glasgow council and Telereal Qualifications BA with Distinction, DipMan, Member of the Association of Project Managers (MAPM) Interests Reading, socialising, swimming