The Digital Project Manager Interviews: Cola Richmond

Espresso-driven mum of one, Cola is a Digital Project Manager with the London-based digital agency, The Group and posts articles at Follow Cola on Twitter.

The Day Job

Tell me a little bit about the company you work for

Founded in 1991, The Group is an interactive communication agency.

Initially providing investor relations services to Australasian and UK companies, we began delivering corporate and investor web sites in 1994. We’ve now evolved into a full service provider for online corporate communications – offering design and web development, online brand strategy and web analytics – all underpinned by a hefty technological infrastructure.

Our clients include Aviva, Barclays, Imperial Tobacco, Kingfisher, InterContinental Hotels, J.Sainsbury and SABMiller.

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

Well, up until last month I was the ONLY dedicated Digital Project Manger but we also have 5 Account Managers who juggle account and digital project management responsibilities on a daily basis. Anyone confused by this should read Sam’s 3-part post, account management for the Digital Project Manager. Following a bit of a cabinet reshuffle we now have a nice ratio of 1 to 6.

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

In a word “no”. Because of the nature of the digital project lifecycle, we’ve cherry-picked from Prince2, Waterfall and the Dynamic Systems Development Method (DSDM) and formed something that works well for us.

Our process places more emphasis on design, branding and content development than other development methodologies do. Each project’s lifecycle is then planned according to its unique requirements within a standard overarching template.

We divide our approach into six phases (Planning and analysis, Strategy, design and architecture, Build and content development, Testing, Implementation and Support) although in practice, some elements always end up overlapping.

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

I’m not very PM2.0 when it comes to our tools. Windows Live Messenger is my best friend when I don’t have time for phone calls – we only use this internally though. For wireframing and sitemaps we use Visio and Mind Manager. For scheduling and resourcing, we used to use MS Project but last year migrated across to Paprika, a fully integrated job costing, project management and accounting system.

Also I have Clutterpad open all day long. It’s my invisible PA.

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 a project manager in the film industry until 1998 when I got hooked on the internet. I re-trained and spent the best part of a decade in web production – eventually becoming a senior developer.

A couple of years ago I had my first child and just no longer had the time to keep up with the continually evolving world of web development. I’ve always been a ‘people’ person and it felt like a natural progression to shift into digital project management. I did an Open University Masters in IT Project Management and I haven’t looked back since.

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

I still dabble in programming and flash development when resources are tight, but I try not to cross that line too often. The digital projects vary, but my role rarely does.

What type of digital projects do you typically work on?

Large corporate rebuilds, Annual and CR Report microsites, corporate comms. including social media and the odd Flash game.

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

I’m currently managing six. Two of these have been running for a year and are on-going. The others are shorter – two to three months in length. I’d rarely take on more than six at a time.

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

Oh man, how long is a piece of string? It depends on the project and the client, but usually 10% to 15%. I probably work more “free” hours than anyone else in the team though :(

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

If I told you, I would have to kill you ;-) I’m proud of all my projects, big and small.

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

Load up on espresso, scan my to-do list, read emails, respond to emails, prioritise morning tasks, catch-up with teams, document* writing/amending/ripping-up, more espresso, scan my to-do list, read emails… and so on, until home time… when I can’t help but log-on to check emails again – just one last time.

*PIDs, estimates, content plans, wireframes, functional specifications, timetables, status reports etc.

How would you describe your managerial style?

In a word – participatory – all the way.

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

Delayed content drives me potty. We work with many companies who have to release reports and results on specific dates throughout the year. January through May is our busy time as it’s Annual Report season. Deadlines can be ridiculously tight and if someone doesn’t get crucial content to us on a pre-agreed date, it can kick the critical path right off kilter.

It can be difficult sometimes trying to explain to clients that throwing more resources at a digital project does not get the job done quicker.

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

It’s just in my nature. I can’t stand being disorganised and not having a plan. I love lists. If it’s not on my list, it’s not getting done.

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?

I can be required at any given point in a digital project. Every day is full of surprises. I can be required to project manage large pitches and at the other end of the scale, I can be pulled in as late as the build stage.

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

Break it down! I split it into our six key phases, list the resources required per phase and the number of hours required for each. Reducing everything down to the granular level means I can plan for the unexpected.

How do you handle unrealistic digital project budgets and schedules?

Cry? No, seriously though, we always try to be candid with clients so as not to get into a position where we end up with unrealistic targets. From time to time we will accept work that runs at a loss, but that’s rare and only with established clients, and even then it’s usually on the understanding they will bring the next large project our way.

Otherwise, if we feel budgets and schedules are unachievable then we work with the client to cut back on scope, plain and simple.

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

We thankfully have a dedicated team for this otherwise it would be chaos. The Resource Director works to a rolling 12-month plan so everyone knows week to week exactly what they are scheduled to work on – we also have a dedicated maintenance resource manager.

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

I can get brought in to a project at one of two stages – pre and post “agreed budget”. The former is always preferred, but rare. The first step is a lengthy sit-down with the Account Director to get a clear understanding of the project and to go over exactly has been agreed with the client in terms of deadlines, budget and scope.

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?

Yep – I manage all aspects. However, if I have a large team of developers working on a particular project then it’s always more effective for me to communicate solely with the lead developer and leave them to manage their team.

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?

This depends on the size of the project. For small projects I will write most of the documentation – including the design brief and produce the wireframes. However, on larger projects I will typically produce the site map and site development plan and leave the meaty stuff like wireframes and functional specs to our UX architect.

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

Timescales, budget, site map, functional specification, technical specification, brand guidelines, creative brief and resources.

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

We use an integrated job costing and accounting software system called Paprika which has been tailored to our company’s requirements. It offers real-time tracking, which is great. We also have a lovely Financial Director who alerts us if he thinks something isn’t looking quite right.

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

Oh dear – a toughie. We always start out with a Terms of Reference (TOR) but I’ve never worked on anything that was set in stone. We’re a friendly / bend-over backwards bunch here so will always carry out changes within reason. That said though, when a client’s requests start to impact on the launch date or my resource pool, then I make sure it’s addressed pretty quickly.

What advice would you give for managing difficult clients?

Hmm, it depends how “difficult” is defined. It’s the same in any industry – communication is the key. Listen to them and keep them in the loop. You also need to manage their expectations and never promise anything you can’t deliver. To be honest, I’ve never had a client I’d call difficult. I have clients who continually miss deadlines or are impossible to get hold off until the day before launch, but we know who they are, have come to expect this so try and factor that into our timetables.

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

A post-launch review is vital and it gives everyone who worked on the project the opportunity to have their say. We don’t close a project without it. I also forgive but never forget – a flaw in my personality that serves me well!

The Big Questions

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

What are the biggest differences between managing website projects and web application projects?

Not sure I’m qualified to answer this one as I haven’t had much experience in Web Apps, but what I have had been involved in a lot of time spent requirement gathering, compiling numerous iterations of functional specifications, serious version control and overseeing reams of testing. There’s more flexibility and quicker turnarounds in digital projects.

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

You need to be a “people” person – an instinctive communicator, good listener and motivator. You also need to have the ability to think fast on your feet because, like the medium we deal in, changes can come in thick and fast. Bundle all that in with a good sense of humour and a serious passion for all things digital, and you’re pretty much there.

What are the biggest common misconceptions about digital project management?

That it’s easy and anyone can do it.

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

Tactfully conveying to both my team and clients at any given moment that I can’t magic a rabbit from my ass hat.

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

Fun, diverse, necessary

Thanks Cola! Remind me never to ask what projects you’re working on again, death threats aren’t my favourite thing in the world ;-)

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