An interview with a project manager in quantum

Dr Georgia Mortzou

Quantum Communications Hub
Project Manager

After studying archaeology and anthropology at postgraduate level for a number of years, Dr. Georgia Mortzou decided that a career in academia was not for her and chose instead to pivot and pursue a career in research support within the Quantum Communications Hub, based at the University of York. Georgia has been part of the Hub since its inception in 2014 and we caught up with her to find out more about what inspired her to get involved in quantum, what her role entails and what her hopes are for the future.

You have a background in archaeology and anthropology, can you tell us more about your journey to working in project management and in quantum specifically? It’s not the most obvious move so what attracted you?  

I studied archaeology and anthropology at postgraduate level for several years, however, I found doing research on my own and writing it up was a very lonely experience and quite isolating. I could not handle the pressure of having to chase grants all the time and having to publish in peer-reviewed publications regularly. This was not something that I enjoyed personally and so I decided a career in academia was not for me. Having said that, at the same time, I loved being in a university setting, being surrounded by young people and having discussions about new ideas and new potential projects, so I decided that I could have the best of both worlds and work in research support. I was quite knowledgeable about what it takes to design a project, write up the methodology and apply for funding. I was familiar with research council funding and knew a lot about the process of applying for it. I was organised and quite good at writing reports and balancing budgets, and so I thought becoming a project coordinator or project manager would draw upon my skills and enable me to contribute to a large-scale project behind the scenes, so to speak. Before I joined the Hub in 2014, I didn’t know anything about quantum, however, I read up a lot about it before my interview and it sounded like a very exciting new area. There was certainly considerable investment in the field by the UK Government and I decided that it was something that I wanted to find out more about and be involved in.

What do you think are the most important skills for a career in project management, particularly within quantum?

I think organisation and good record keeping are key. Beyond those, I think it’s important to be able to form good relationships with people, and then the rest will follow. It’s important to enjoy being around people and be good at communicating with them, because, unless you build strong relationships, it's not easy to get people to comply every time you ask them for information to include in a report or return some data on their budget. It is also helpful to have good writing skills because there is a lot of report writing involved and so if you can develop a style that's concise, and clear, that would be advantageous. One other thing is being good at taking in the bigger picture and not getting lost in the detail. It’s an important skill for project managers to be able to review processes, evaluate systems that don’t work and come up with more effective approaches.

It's a job that allows for a lot of flexibility, and so if you’re adaptable and you enjoy the subject, then you can work your way up and make it your own.

Flexibility also helps with risk management. Sometimes things go wrong, through no fault of anyone like, for example, in the last 18 months, we've all had to deal with a global pandemic, which is not something anyone expected to have to deal with. We all pulled together and came up with certain coping strategies, both in terms of supporting each other, but also in terms of managing to catch up with delays and still deliver the main objectives of our project. So it’s good to have flexibility in your approach and agility of thought – to be able to come up with practical solutions at short notice.

What does your role as Project Manager of the Quantum Communications Hub involve and what would a typical day at work be for you?

I deal with all the non-research aspects of the project. My role involves working to support colleagues to ensure that we deliver against the project aims. I'm responsible for the financial management of our budget, making sure that we don't overspend and that we spend money on what we said we would, always complying with the financial regulations that are part of the terms and conditions of the grant. I'm responsible for collating information from our researchers and creating all reports for submission to the funder and to our advisory board. This would be the same for someone who was managing a project where reports were required to be submitted to an ethics committee, for example as part of a clinical trial. I'm also responsible for HR and contractual aspects of the project, this involves hiring people and putting employment and/or partnership or collaboration contracts in place, assisted by the legal team. As part of the central operations team, I work with the Business Director and with the Communications and Outreach Officer to deliver outreach and user engagement events. I help to plan and deliver those events, which enable us to disseminate our work to a wider audience.

I think it's fair to say that it's an office-based job, or at least a desk-based job and, on a day-to-day basis, I spend a lot of my time doing email correspondence, communicating with our team, or with many partners outside of the University of York, or answering queries from interested parties about what the Hub is and potential avenues for collaboration. What I enjoy most about the job is that it has many different elements to it and so one day I might spend my time doing financial accounts and then the next day could be taken up with meetings, preparing for a big event, or for a big reporting meeting with the funder.

What work experience would you say could be beneficial for someone considering a role in project management?

I think you can come to be a project manager through many different avenues. I came from an academic career, but that's not really the norm. I would say that ideally you need a degree in something, it doesn't necessarily have to be the field that your project is in, although that could be an advantage, but clearly, I'm an example of a someone who works on a project which is not related to my background and that’s ok. All a degree manifests is that you have the discipline to see something to the end and that you’ve been taught some methodological approaches for considering, reviewing and tackling problems, but that in itself is useful.

It helps if you have an understanding of the funding landscape and how projects are funded by a research council, or equally, by charities or the government. If it’s a university-based project (although this would be the case with an industry-based project as well), it would be good to understand the wider context of the project aims and potential impact within the relevant sector(s).

Most students nowadays must deliver a project of some sort as part of their studies, so that's a useful first step. It would also be good, if you're interested in a career in project management within industry, to perhaps undertake a year in industry as an internship, for example, to gain experience in the field. In a way, I think the more stepping stones you take along your career journey, the better. The wider the world experience you have across many different settings, the more prepared you will be.

Ultimately I think any experience, in any job, can be good background for becoming a project manager. I don’t think there’s any particular type of experience that is crucial, but anything that involves forming a plan and a methodology about how to go delivering it, along with some data tracking would be great. And of course experience with managing budgets in any setting would be very useful.

Is there a particular application of quantum technologies that you are particularly excited to see the development of in years to come?

Not as such. There are exciting applications of technologies from all different areas of quantum but what would be exciting for me to witness is the routine integration of quantum technologies with existing infrastructure. There are many quantum technologies that are already part of our everyday lives, although we don't necessarily realise it. I certainly didn't realise before I started working on this project that, for example, laser technology is based on quantum mechanics, as are computers, the components that make them, and the internet. I'm finding that some of the applications we are told will come with the full rollout of quantum technologies seem as if they could be some years away. What I'm personally drawn to and find particularly interesting is things that are on the cusp of something, at that intersection of becoming the next big thing. We're almost at that point with quantum, but not quite. I'm not waiting for the largest quantum computer to be installed in a bank, or in a government facility, what I want to see is all those little changes that are imperceptibly adopted as part of everyday life but that have a profound impact in the long run. There's no doubt about it, quantum computers are going to be groundbreaking for many sciences in particular and will enable things like faster drug development or vaccine development, which we’ve seen the importance of over the last year. However, not everyone is working on drug development or on something like calculating the size of black holes, so for the rest of us it will be the small things that make a big difference. The small changes that contribute to a completely different landscape - that’s what I’m excited to see.  

What are your hopes for the future?  

I really hope that quantum stops being an intimidating word for many people. It was for me before I started work on this project. I'm surrounded by many talented scientists who are very enthusiastic about what they do and they're incredibly good at communicating why they do it, how they go about it and what they hope the end result is going to be. I hope that as many school kids as possible are surrounded by teachers who feel equally enthused about the possibilities of quantum. Certainly as part of our project work, we’ve collaborated with colleagues in the National STEM Learning Centre to train a cohort of quantum STEM ambassadors with the aim of visiting schools and inspiring the next generation of quantum practitioners! I hope that more people find out more about the potential applications and benefits of quantum and realise that it's not a scary word, it’s not science fiction, it is a reality, and it could contribute to many wider benefits.

What would you say to young people who are considering pursuing a career in STEM, particularly in a role like yours?

Just do it! You don't have to have a background in STEM to become a project manager, but it certainly helps if you want to work on a large science-based project. Even if you don't want to be a project manager and you want to be a quantum researcher, or a quantum entrepreneur, or a quantum data analyst or patent lawyer or communications expert, then do it. It's a very exciting area, there are lots of interesting things happening, there's a lot of investment at the moment and there’s a growing quantum community which is very close knit. Most of the people who work as part of the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme know each other, we all support each other and that is the case for people at other university institutions, which are partners in this programme, or small startups, or even big multinational companies. Quantum is big news, but the community is very close knit and works very well collaboratively, so it's exciting to be part of it. Anyone can do it because there are many opportunities in many different directions, so come and join us!