The Digital Project Manager Interviews: Belle Liu

Belle works as a Managing Partner at BeansBox. As well as being addicted to English football and interior design blogs, she can also be found regularly posting at Follow Belle on Twitter ยป

Tell me a little bit about the company you work for

BeansBox is a boutique digital agency I founded in 2003 when I decided to turn my freelance projects into a business – a small business based on values as opposed to just making as much money as possible. We now have a team of seven and specialise in the design and build of Drupal-based websites for clients in Hong Kong and abroad.

What is the ratio of digital project managers to production staff at your company?

I’m the only Digital Project Manager here so our ratio is 1 to 6.

Do you use any particular project management methodologies? If so, why? If not, why?

No we don’t have any specific digital project management methodology. We have a typical process for different types of digital project that we always modify it to suit a project’s own needs.

What online or offline tools do you tend to use for digital project management?

We use Basecamp for digital project management, Co-op/Harvest for internal communication and time tracking, Balsamiq for wireframes and Google Docs for sitemaps and content inventory.

How on earth did you end up managing digital projects? Few people start out with this aim. Tell me how you wound up being a full-time punch bag?

I was the sole web designer when I first started BeansBox, then quickly I realised I wasn’t good enough to do either the design or the coding, and there was just too much work coming in that I could take on. So I started hiring people and building up a proper web team. Naturally I ended up managing the digital projects and have enjoyed being the ‘Development Abstraction Layer’ ever since.

Do you just manage digital projects or is your role varied? If so, what other roles do you perform?

As the business owner my role varies almost on an hourly basis. I handle business development, client relations, marketing, accounting and HR. Sometimes I dabble in digital project tasks like wireframes, UX design, copywriting, QA and support too.

What type of digital projects do you typically work on?

I typically work on full design and build of CMS-driven websites, and quite a few e-commerce sites. We rarely take on campaign work because the timeline for those projects in Hong Kong is outrageous!

How many digital projects are you currently managing? What’s the most you’ve ever managed at any one time?

I am managing 7 digital projects at this moment. It sounds like a lot but they’re all at different stages. I don’t remember what’s the most I’ve managed; sometimes one bad project can take up 80% of my time so as long as the preparation work is done right I think I could manage more.

What percentage of a digital project’s total budgeted hours would you typically spend on project management?

Usually 15-20%.

What digital projects are you working on right now, and what digital project are you most proud of to date?

Right now we’re working on, a website that compliments a series of pocket travel guidebooks for the ‘tween’ demographic. It’s like a mini TripAdvisor with city tips, featured hotels, market place and user generated content etc.

The project that I’m most proud of to date is, a corporate site we recently launched for a consumer audio brand. Both the client and our team are very pleased with the result and the client is such a joy to work with.

Describe a typical day in the life of your role managing digital projects.

Every morning I’d go through all digital projects in Basecamp to see if we’re on schedule with the planned tasks, check in each team member’s status on Co-op, and plan my own tasks for the day. We have a small team here so I have a good idea of what’s happening and only rarely I’d do a one-on-one progress check.

How would you describe your managerial style?

The invisible manager? I trust my team to get things done, and avoid interrupting them as best I can. They know that they can talk to me anytime and I’d be the one to deal with client-related issues like scope creep, but most of the time I’d rather be invisible to them.

What are the common things that crop up on a daily basis that destroy your planned activities for that day?

Prospect’s e-mails can crop up easily because they usually have many questions and those e-mails have to be responded to swiftly. I also tend to go too far in analysing their requirements and researching appropriate solutions.

How do you keep organised personally, given the hectic life that comes with managing digital projects?

I’m a big fan of GTD and have a fetish for to-do lists. Getting things out of my head (no matter how small) helps me stay organised and relaxed.

The Projects

At what point do you typically get involved with a digital project you are to manage? Pre-sales and estimating or only post-sale?

As I’m also responsible for business development I’m always involved from the very beginning – from the first point of contact (enquiry) through scoping and contract signing.

What technique do you use to estimate digital projects? Do you use different ones for small and large projects?

I try to use past projects of similar nature to estimate the effort, and involve my team in the estimate process so they can identify the risky areas early on.

Smaller projects (1 month or less) are quite straight-forward but most of our projects are bigger ones (3-4 months) and we will break it down into 4 or 5 stages that map with an invoice schedule.

How do you handle unrealistic digital project budgets and schedules?

I just say no. That’s one of the reasons I’ve setup my own shop, so I can make decisions like this. After 8 years, we’re at a stage where we can be selective.

One thing I absolutely love to hear from prospects: “Your quote is not the cheapest. We have to go with another firm” – I celebrate whenever this happens.

How does your company approach scheduling all the work currently in the pipeline?

This is an art – things never happen as planned. I’ll weigh up a lot of factors to shuffle the priorities as needed on a daily basis and be as transparent to the client as I can. I find it helpful to share with the client any unforeseeable difficulties we’re dealing with, and just be honest about the situation.

You receive a new digital project to manage, what are the first steps you’ll take?

I’ll brief the team and make sure they’re clear about the scope, set up Basecamp and put everything (milestones, to-do, assets etc.) there and go through the scope and schedule with the client face-to-face again before kicking off the digital project.

Do you manage all aspects of digital projects, like design, front-end and back-end development, or do department leads manage production based on requirements you capture?

I manage everything as I’m the only Digital Project Manager here.

What deliverables do you personally typically produce on a digital project? Sitemaps, wireframes, functional specifications? Or are these produced by someone else? If so, who?

I usually do most of the functional specifications, some site maps and a few basic wireframes. If the project contains very technical elements I’ll get the Lead Developer to help with the functional specifications.

What are all the things that will be defined and approved before design or development begins on one of your digital projects?

Contract, strategy document, design brief, site map and some key wireframes.

How do you tackle the art of monitoring digital project budgets versus progress?

We use Harvest to setup a budget and task/person rate for each project, everyone logs time there so I have a good idea how much budget each digital project has used up.

Then I check the percentage of budget used against the percentage of progress made (milestones/to dos) in Basecamp. It’s hard to be precise but as long as we meet every major milestone and keep hours under budget I’m happy.

How do you manage the inevitable scope creep on digital projects?

I never say “NO” by default. First I’d try my best to understand why that creep has appeared in the first place and tackle it from the root. Then I’d educate the client about our process and how creep like that would impact on the schedule/costs etc.

It’s important to be firm when the first creep happens (no matter how trivial) so it won’t get worse. If budget and time allows, I’d allow some creep as long as the client acknowledges that it’s out of scope. Some creep isn’t that clear to define so it’d be down to our relationship with the client – if we enjoy working with that client we tend to be more accommodating.

What advice would you give for managing difficult clients?

Try to over-communicate – imagine the client is your girlfriend or boyfriend.

Many clients become ‘difficult’ because they don’t know what’s going on. They feel that you’re not giving them attention and their digital project is going nowhere. Even if there’s already a project plan, weekly update emails and occasionally meetings – try reach out to them on a daily basis and share everything – even if you don’t feel it’s necessary.

How do you ensure past mistakes on digital projects never happen again?

Some were so horrible that they haunt me in nightmares so I’m pretty sure that they wouldn’t happen again! For not-so-horrible ones, we will share on a private Writeboard in Basecamp, and get together to review the digital project (and these mistakes) after launch.

We’ll talk about why it happened and how we could avoid it in future.

The Big Questions

What websites, blogs and podcasts are you currently using regularly for inspiration?

Can’t list them all! I also follow the tweets and blogs of all agencies and individuals I admire, and stalk some of their delicious bookmarks.

What do you think are the key personality attributes required to be a good digital project manager?

Communicative, positive, passionate, diligent and… charming!

What, in your opinion, is the hardest part of digital project management?

To earn the trust and respect of your team. You have to show your value, knowledge and guts, and that you’d stand up for them (not a “Yes” man to senior management or clients) when needed.

In three words, how would you describe digital project management?

Servicing, Juggling, Humbling.

Thanks Belle! I think I will always remember the advice to treat clients as if they were your girlfriend or boyfriend. Thinking about it, we often treat ex-clients like ex-partners :)

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