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  • Zeb Carlson

The lowly project manager

When I started my current project I had a training session with other new hires. In that session, I sat next to a smartly dressed woman with a hip haircut. We introduced and I asked her role. She said something that rocked my brain:

“I’m just a lowly project manager”

Now, I won’t focus on how baffled I am by the defeated tone of this statement. Of course, she may just have a bad ‘tude. But it reminded me (in a totally simple example) how different a digital PM or Producer is often compared to the print PM.

Also understand that she is a print project manager and her role in is fundamentally different in one primary manner. Never mind the skills themselves, I’m focusing on the approach within our actual discipline.

Both play the role of mother hen. We're the ones that ensure your schedule is being upheld, your budget is being tracked, and so on. We ensure we stay on course and find solutions to each new dilemma and concern.

It's worth mentioning that project management in traditional media essentially wasn’t a discipline 20 years ago. Many of the project managers you know today that work on print ads or OOH experiences were likely in the industry many years before their new title. Some even received the title as a replacement from print buyer or traffic manager. A few were office managers or administrative assistants. They earned the title, for sure, but their role stayed the same. Note how I’m defining it as title and role.

Stemming from software development and web development, the role of a digital project manager is quite different. Our responsibility is to understand the strategy and channels that are activated to produce the strategy, build detailed schedules, activate and inspire a UX & design team to build an experience, engage developers in technical pleasantries, and ensure our communication is vividly transparent to our teams. The reasons “why” remain the same in both situations, yet the “how” is more elastic in our discipline. I believe these reasons lay the foundation for the tension between print and digital media: I have an easier time understanding the “how” to print media, while a traditional PM tends to be overwhelmed in our discipline.

In digital we build a variable. Our deliverable is something organic that fluctuates, and it is rarely (if ever) a static object. Additionally, within our teams, all tend to play the role of project manager and share the responsibility. For example, some of the best information architects I’ve worked with have been wonderful at project management tasks. Some of the best developers in the industry tend to manage their projects like champs. They just take these roles on, regardless of title. Title doesn’t really matter; its like a village building a website.

See, in the beginning of the project, we agree that we are unsure what we are actually going to build. We agree that we know it’s a website, not sure what CMS, how we’ll house the video assets, what devices we will focus upon, and so on. We all fall into our roles as we adapt to the project. And we remain comfortable with this organic road that we travel upon.

And let’s face it: Most traditional folks are damn intimidated—and fundamentally don’t believe with what I am saying above. And now we are back to the tension talked about above. There is creative tension and then there is visceral tension. The good tension, of course, is the creative tension. When we are debating the intricacies of a project and assuming the successes together vs. working so hard to understand why we are 4 days late on our schedule and finger pointing to why. Who cares why, how do we solve it?

You get this, right?

To land the plane: What would I tell her? Own your responsibility. Be the one that leads the team, not drug along as the project rolls along. Never think of yourself as lowly, think of yourself as the leader. You are in control of the project success and failure.

If you are hiring for a person that will solely execute your digital production needs, then you need to find an assistant or production manager.

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