The Successful Digital PM, Part 1: What is a Digital Project Manager's Role?

Project management. Is it a dark art? Is it science? Probably some combination of both. Across the web/app/software development industry, consensus seems to be that finding project managers is easy, but finding great project managers is hard to impossible. At Metal Toad (and likely many similar organizations), a project manager needs a much broader skill set than the ability to create Gannt charts, track budgets, and manage scope. Metal Toad project managers are truly directors of their projects, owning them in their entirety from inception to go-live and beyond. The vast responsibilities of our PMs (see below) make it difficult to find and retain the right talent. Metal Toad has certainly struggled over the years in this area, but we've learned a ton along the way, and at this point I've nearly perfected who we're looking for and how we go about finding them.

A Five-Parter

After a multiple hypotheses, "tests", and conclusions, I've created a formula for hiring the right PMs (which is continually modified and perfected) that can be universally applied to the web/app/software development sector regardless of a specific company's tools or processes. This persona will be outlined over several posts:

More Than Your Average Project Manager

"Project management" doesn't sound glamorous. It often isn't. It can be a thankless job. The role and the title's connotation can sound painfully boring. Scott Berkun has a great blog post, "Why Project Managers Get No Respect" that touches more on the subject. The skill set required to be successful digital PM translates well to a number of other related web positions that many consider lower stress and higher recognition, and PM skills are useful in every job (see: "Everything is a Project" - I'm on a Scott Berkun kick lately). And yet, there are individuals out there (myself included) who thrive on pulling the strings behind the scenes and find gratification by embracing the challenges that every new project will bring. That's who I want to find when hiring.

The Role of a Digital PM

We've revisited the job title of our PMs repeatedly to determine if it's accurate and properly encompassing of job duties, and inevitably have come back to "project manager" not as the perfect fit, but the best fit of industry standard titles. That said, as a PM at an agency with a business built around creating the web, you'll be crossing over into the realm of a number of other job titles in your day to day work, including:

  • Project Manager (naturally): You will certainly spend plenty of time tracking budgets and schedules, managing scope, creating project plans, scrubbing ticket queues, calling out risk, and managing a development team to successful project completion. But given the scope of our projects (generally $100K to $1 million), the PMBOK 42 processes can be a bit heavy-handed. You'll need to master the delicate balance of too much process and not enough process. We're all about flexibility, so we're not an agile shop or a waterfall shop either. We fall somewhere in-between, and we customize our process to fit the needs of any given project.
  • Account/Client Manager: You are the front lines for client contact. Some clients are a dream to work with. Others can be a nightmare. Your job is to keep them all happy, even in the face of delivering bad news. You have to know how to steer projects while always keeping the client's needs in mind. You'll need to be strategic about when you can handle issues cropping up, and when it's time to escalate before it's too late.
  • Digital Strategist/Web Product Manager: Occasionally you'll find a client who has crystal clear vision for their project and a perfect list of requirements and implementation suggestions. However, in the vast majority of cases, you're going to be hand-holding the client through the discovery and design process to arrive at a business/technical specification that developers can execute upon. Developers will generally have your back on the technical side, but from a marketing standpoint, the more strategic and knowledgeable you are around web architecture, user experience, design, content, SEO/search, social media, and analytics, the better. The client knows what they want, but asking the right questions to get all the answers is crucial to the planning process. And improper planning will always set you up for failure on the project management side of things.
  • Sales/Biz Dev: As the person most connected to the client's marketing goals and the project status, you'll be in a position where you can naturally act as a non-salesy salesperson. You'll manage the project backlog/phase 2 wishlist as phase 1 progresses and be in the hot seat to have conversations about future phases of the project with the client. You won't be on your own on the sales front, but your input is invaluable when it comes to knowledge about the client's needs and whether clients are a good fit for your agency from the profitability and mutual client/agency happiness standpoint.
  • Quality Specialist: QA engineers can test and test again, but you're the person who owns the client's vision for the end deliverable. Is it up to quality standards? Does it look good? Has thought been given to the client's ease of use when entering content? Are all edge cases covered or knowingly not in scope? You're the person who makes the last call on when a site is ready for client demos and client review.

As you can see, that's not just your ordinary project manager position. You'll get to own every part of the project if you're up to the task.

That's essentially what you'll do at a very high level. In the next post, I'll get into how you'll do it with a post on self-process.

This is a nice description of this role in technology projects. I've seen this same role (or something very similar) called a few different things, including :
* Technical Project/Account/Program Manager
* Technical Implementation Manager/Engineer
* Deployment Engineer
* Customer Success Engineer
... and a few other less interesting ones.

Also, if your experience is like mine, I suggest one additional role: business analyst. Responsible for analyzing/scoping/recording customer requirements, especially those that surface during the implementation phase of the project, and ensuring those requirements are addressed (include, defer, alter, etc).

Business analyst is certainly part of the role. I think that falls into the "digital strategist" bucket above. Beyond that, we're still looking for the perfect title for our PMs.

We've avoided "engineer" to date, partly because our most successful PMs have often had more of a marketing background than a development background. While I know some code and have learned some of our common CMS implementations quite well, I certainly wouldn't consider myself on the level of our developers. They even shy away from "engineer" in favor of "developer" or "programmer", partly because in many industries and in other countries "engineer" implies a required certification was earned.

The most important skills for any project manager are managing your team and managing your stakeholder(s).

Understanding the diversity of your team (not just skills sets but personality, goals and aspirations etc) is vital. Managing developers and designers can be like herding cats and each type within you team (architects, developers, designers, BAs, testers) think and work differently, but then peel are individuals too. Understanding your team and facilitating them to perform with excellence is an art that is not taught in books or courses.

Stakeholders are another story, the senior excess are mainly focused on the bottom line, and often the power politics of their organisation. Their egos get in the way of good decisions more than would be expected. They will set the overall goals, but the SMEs are the ones you will work with day to day, and they often have different attitudes and goals to the execs. If your work cross department boundaries or national/regional ones in a global company then the complexity at the people level increases exponentially.

Often their other stakeholders than the business areas concerned - in a large company the operations department will have to be navigated too - security, process such as ITIL, and managing the worries and egos of the Ops guys can be a major challenge in its own right. Ops and Development have different goals and concerns that can sometimes be contradictory - Dev wants to deliver change and new things for a demanding customer, OPs wants to preserve the estate and ensure nothing stops critical systems running.

I think these dam and stakeholder issues are sufficiently important to be explicit requirements rather than implied in other areas.

No amount of process excellence will get around these issues.

A Digital Project Manager is NOT a project manager. The title is basically stealing the "project manager" title.

Add new comment

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • You can enable syntax highlighting of source code with the following tags: <code>, <blockcode>, <cpp>, <java>, <php>. The supported tag styles are: <foo>, [foo].
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

About the Author