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The Learning People: Digital Project Manager Q&A

Below is the full interview transcript from a Q&A I took part in for The Learning People. I’d like to say thank you to Tash Mills and everyone over at The Learning People for the opportunity.

What are the initial stumbling blocks you frequently come up against when given a new digital project?

If I’ve not been involved in the pre-sales part of a new digital project, often the very first stumbling blocks are around what has been sold and also how it’s been sold. By that I mean, it’s unfortunately commonplace to be given projects to start that you can see almost immediately have been sold too cheaply, with a large scope and short timeline – this is so painful, but you have to deal with it.

A photo of a grey cat snarling showing their teeth with one eye shut, representing a bad Digital Project Manager.
What’s that? You just sold another project for $10.00? Sweet. HISSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS!!

As an overall rule, if this is happening to you, you must do all you can to change it. Start by explaining to your boss and those selling using experience and historical evidence. You may need to go further and push to get involved in the pre-sales process. It’s up to you to change things.

When encountering this scenario, the first big and immediate challenge is to manage the client’s expectations in such a way they don’t lose all confidence in your company straight away. This is a tough thing to when they’ve just signed on the dotted line in good faith are excited and expecting all they were promised in the sale.

How you go about this one of the arts of digital project management and no checklist or tool in the world will help you. You need to factor in multiple variables e.g. what type of client, how important, what were they sold, is it repeat business or could it warrant extended scope due to future potential, the atmosphere at your own company, financial factors of both parties and much much more.

You can be blunt with a client if you think that will work, or you can turn the common ambiguity in line items sold by an overzealous salesperson into the elastic scope discussion you must have e.g. if one ‘feature’ sold is listed as simply “Contact Us” page then this can range from a full featured Google Maps, geolocation, intelligent forms that integrate into third-party systems, but could also mean a simple non-editable page that shows nothing more than contact details.

If the salesperson hasn’t defined things in detail then you have room to manoeuvre and done correctly, can result in a realistic scope, budget and timeline.

This is a great skill to master but you should only ever see it as a temporary option while you focus 100% on influencing the pre-sales process to be more realistic for both the client and your own company.

How and why did you get into digital project management?

I got into digital project management by accident, as do most Digital Project Managers. Once when giving a workshop in London to 100 Digital Project Managers, when asked to raise your hand if you specifically chose to get into project management, one single person put their hand up!

A greyscale picture showing a large paved landscape with just a single man in the bottom right of the image, representing a lone Digital Project Manager.
Number of people per 100 that chose to become a Digital Project Manager.

Me personally, I started out as a Front-end Developer and loved it, but over time I took an interest in how my work was coming into me from Account and Digital Project Managers because at times it was painful and just made my life difficult, which translated to a lower quality service to the client and minimal profit and efficiency for the agency I worked for.

So I started making suggestions of a few tweaks we could make that would just help me and the rest of the production team out while resulting in better and faster delivery. My managers listened and we started to make changes that worked well. I didn’t realise it at the time but that was when I took my first step to being a Digital Project Manager.

Over time I made more suggestions and at some point, I guess through demonstrating I could talk / translate technical to non-technical people, I was taken to client meetings as ‘the tech guy’, then one day, I’m not sure when, I found myself alone in client meetings and talking about more than just tech.

For a short time I managed to both do these meetings and resulting actions as well as continue coding, but at some unknown point in time I wrote my last line of code and just did project management.

What I soon realise was, while missing the coding side of things, I also got satisfaction from seeing a project going from an idea into a reality, while running things in a such a way that meant I had both happy clients and production teams.

As a speaker on the subject, what questions do you commonly get asked about digital projects?

The most common questions I get asked are around project management methodologies, specifically Waterfall vs. Agile. Which is better and why? How can digital agencies with clients adopt Agile? So many questions yet often the same answers.

A Dilbert cartoon strip where the punchline is that a digital project manager thinks Agile means doing more work with less people.
The scary thing is, this isn’t too far from what many believe.

It does not matter what methodology you use to deliver projects or product so long as the results are positive in the places it needs to be. If you’re delivering something in a way that means you’re profitable, have reasonably happy staff and clients, you’ve nailed it.

You may need to tweak, adapt and perhaps change the method completely in the future, but as long as you do that, then it doesn’t matter how you deliver!

When has a project you’ve worked on succeeded and why?

Projects that have succeeded for me are the ones where they’ve been started on good foundations. They’ve been sold correctly in terms of scope, budget and timeline with expectations set correctly also when it comes to how digital projects are delivered.

Getting these foundations right increase the chances of a successful project more than anything because everyone involved is aligned. The client has been told what they’ll be getting and the common challenges faced in projects, the production team can see the scope, budget and timeline is realistic and thus they’re happy to do be able to do good work, management know what to expect and when by and you should be able to do what you need to with less stress than when foundations are bad.

Get the expectations and relationships right at the very start and you’ve already won half the battle.

When has a digital project failed and why?

It’s more often than not to do with the pre-sales and early stages of a project for me. Most projects fail because someone has essentially promised things than cannot be delivered and it causes months of back-pedalling by all parties.

Sometimes you can rescue things so you deliver a project, but often it leaves a bad taste in everyone’s mouth, but when you can’t, projects are cancelled and no one wins.

What excites you about the future of web design and digital project management?

What excites me most is the fact there is now an actual digital project management community forming thanks to the efforts of many people, but mostly Brett Harned who has done so much to create a centrailsed digital project management community.

Also, slowly but surely I’m seeing project management be more accepted and respected by production teams out there. Where once there was a huge divide, now it’s much more collaborative and respectful.

Do you believe enough young people are taking notice to fill the digital project management skills gap?

Few people choose to be a Digital Project Manager and many are one but don’t realise they are e.g. Account Managers in small companies, Business Owners, production people in small agencies who work heavily with clients etc.

Thus I don’t believe there is or will be a skills gap as most you pick up along the way in whatever area you work in.

Do you work to a particular digital project management methodology, and if so, which one?

My methodology may as well be called ‘Whatever Works’ because that is all that matters. Very very briefly and by no means as a rule, you could say

Waterfall is best used when you have a repeatable process that’s required to output very similar results and where change is, more often than not, minimal.

Agile (perhaps using Scrum) is best when change frequency is expected to be high and the desired result cannot be fully defined upfront. I find this is usually more applicable to product development and sometimes in a client/agency model where the client has the time to invest in the process e.g. very savvy client or a big account where the client representative is dedicated to that supplier.

There are many out there using a hybrid of these two methodologies and more, and that is absolutely fine! So many seem to think it’s not acceptable and they may choose a methodology, but this is nonsense. Pick what parts you need to from any one, plus invent your own processes and see what works and what doesn’t.

How challenging can it be working with digital project sponsors?

This can be one of the most challenging parts of running a project and requires a large amount of emotional intelligence from the Digital Project Manager in order to be able to deal with the myriad of personalities, politics and priorities involved.

But deal with them you must and I prefer to be consistent in my approach and that is to always be honest with everyone, no matter what. Being honest when giving good news is easy but not so when you have to have difficult conversations, but honesty wins each time in my experience.

You have to change how you speak to people, plus factor in the thousands of external factors affecting the environment, but being consistently honest, through the good and bad times, is always the best approach and earns you a huge amount of respect amongst all parties.

What makes a bad Digital Project Manager?

There are a few common signs of a bad Digital Project Manager but the big ones are:

  • Being a process robot for the sake of it.
  • Not respecting the production teams.
  • Not having the courage to challenge or say no to clients.
  • Not being honest.
  • Resistant to rolling up their sleeves to muck in and help.

What makes a successful leader?

I believe a successful leader is simply a person that makes decisions, makes promises and sticks to them, is willing to both lead and go make the team coffee and just consistently demonstrates that they’re able to show humility, be humble while handling the pressure of having to lead.

Being a leader is not the same as being a manager or CEO and too many don’t understand this and believe being higher up warrants respect and to be seen as a leader.

What stereotypes need to be overcome when it comes to tech professionals?

The main one is that tech professionals are all super freak geeks who have no social skills and have nothing to offer commercially and thus should be kept out of certain conversations and meetings.

Times have changed and despite the resistance, the geeks are taking over the world!

I think it would be great for more non-tech folk to start to realise how damn smart many tech professionals are and how much they can offer to each business they work for.

Another area where I think so much confusion still exists is around introverts and extroverts. The tech industry does seem to have a higher proportion of introverts than others and often teams of extroverts (CEOs, salespeople, Account Managers and Digital Project Managers) are placed in positions of authority over them.

Unfortunately, these extrovert groups often view the introverts as inferior when this is absolutely rubbish. Introverts and extroverts are not better or worse than each other, but are just different, both with their own pros and cons.

The smart businesses out there are the ones that understand this and leverage the huge power that can come from combining both types and using their best parts for the benefit of the business. Studies have shown that often the best partnerships, both personally and commercially, are when they contain a diverse mix of different types.

For anyone interested in this area, just read the book Quiet by Susan Cain. It will blow your mind and open your eyes so much!

What surprises you most about digital projects?

I would say what surprises me about most digital projects is how often people overcome challenges that at first seem close to impossible. Regardless of who sold what or who messed something up at any stage, when the chips are down and a team needs to deliver, somehow they always do and each time I find it pretty amazing.

Who inspires you?

Blimey, this list could be very long, but I’ll mention a few people that spring to mind:

  • Brett Harned for what he’s done for the digital project management community.
  • Holly Davis for being someone that embodies the new generation of passionate Digital Project Managers.
  • Paul Boag for his podcasts, especially the early ones, and inspiring me to share knowledge rather than hold it.
  • Susan Cain for her work raising awareness about introverts.

However, the entire digital project management community inspires me more than any single person.

The energy and passion it has is so infectious and just spending a small amount of time with them, be it on Twitter or at an event, just leaves me always feeling refreshed and energised to continue contributing to it and making connections.

I think most of these people will be attending DPM:UK15 in January.

If you’re in any way interested in digital project management or are involved in any way with delivering digital projects, I guarantee you’ll have a great time and come away with a wealth of new things to try!