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Why Did I Become a Non-profit Project Manager? – Lex Van Der Heijden

Lex Van Der Heijden, also known as the ‘Practical Project Manager’, is a member of the ProjectManagers.Org community. He shares his story on why he became a Non-profit Project Manager in the following interview:

Why did you become a Project Manager?

I applied as Project Manager at IBM Global Services in 1997. I was hired thanks to my broad knowledge, experience and skills gained during many years working for eg. software houses in many different (international) companies such as Shell and in many roles. According to me it was time to apply my knowlegde/experience/skills as Project Manager because according to me Project Management cannot be learned from a book. Esp. the required soft skills.

What work were you doing previously?

I’ve had many roles starting as programmer in real-time environments, such as oil refineries and submarine similation, I developed as system designer and system engineer. Later on I’ve had also Consultant and Account Manager roles. I’ve been in the ‘mud’ for many years in many settings/companies in different countries which is according to me key to become a Project Manager. A Project Manager should know where he/she is talking about based on experience.

What are you doing now?

Currently I’m looking for a job. I also have gained, apart from over 30 years of ICT knowlegde/experience/skills, about 20 years of knowlegde/experience/skills in the worldwide rare diseases world. This is a rather unique combination!
I’ve founded a worldwide non-profit patientorganisation in January 1997 and I’m the president as well. My team of volunteers consists of about 30 people worldwide and consists of eg. professors, a former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, translators, social media consultant, etc. I’m also organising worldwide conferences in the Netherlands and used to do this in the USA before I’ve initiated an independent organisation in the USA.
For more info:

When was the moment you decided to make the change?

That was in 2012 … I decided to leave IBM and going to do what my mission actually is …

Are you happy with the change?

YES! Although it was a big change in my life with a huge amount of uncertainty (not nice from a risk management point of view).

What do you miss and what don’t you miss?

I do miss a number of colleagues and the atmosphere within IBM about 15 years ago. I don’t miss the extreme pressure and the short-sighted view that only revenu counts … According to me you have to deal with people in a decent way, with respect.

How did you go about making this career move?

That took place in a couple of days and in fact confirmed what I was feeling for a long time already.

What didn’t go well? What ‘wrong turns’ did you take?

Finding a new job is hard and this gives financial challenges.

How did you handle your finances to make your change possible?


What was the most difficult thing about changing?

The feeling from having a job versus not having a job. However, I realise that certainty in life is in fact only appearance … the only certainty you have is that you will die …

What were other difficulties and how did you overcome them?

I did have an accident in other country and needed to be operated the next day in the Netherlands. Recovery took a long time. One of my mottos is: don’t give up!

What help did you get?

A lot of personal help from friends in different countries.

What have you learnt in the process?

I’ve done eg a 3 years course from 2012-2015 to become Holistic Therapist. I’ve learned so much! Not only about human behaviour, other people but also about myself! Furthermore my themes are: patience, trust and letting go. Accept the reality. The only moment you are having is NOW. Listen to listen (not to answer). And so many other things!

What do you wish you’d done differently?

Don’t know …

What would you advise others to do in the same situation?

That is very hard to say … each person has his/her own backpack with history/traumas/etc. and his/her own path in life (and we don’t get a map/planning in the beginning nor during the execution of your life …). What is really important in life? What gives you energy? Live now! Listen to your heart and use your brain for the implementation etc. Don’t judge about other people. You don’t know the content of their backpack and neither their path in life. Make real contact with people. Respect other people.

Consider ‘failing’ as a learning process. You haven’t lived your life before … Learn from the past and apply this now.

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