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The Successful Digital PM, Part 4: Knowledge

It's time for part four in my multi-post series on the makings of a successful digital project manager. I previously covered the role, PM self-process, and traits to look for. This post covers some of the working knowledge that you're going to want as a digital project manager. Whether you're already familiar with the list below or throw yourself into the fire and learn it on the job, it will all be important to excel in the role. It's also worth checking out my semi-related post, Programming Skills Every Non-Programmer Should Have.

Other posts in this series:

Become a Subject Matter Non-Expert

There's no rocket science behind this post. Just like a construction project manager is probably going to want to know a thing or two about construction, a digital PM is going to want to know digital. However, unlike a developer, your knowledge of specific technologies doesn't need to go deep. In fact, broad knowledge is often better. At Metal Toad, we subscribe to the T-shaped person philosophy to some degree, where we expect team members to have deep knowledge in a primary area, and wide knowledge in complementary areas. As a project manager, your deep knowledge is project management tactics and process, while your broader knowledge should be digital details of your projects and company operations. The specific technologies in play may vary a bit from organization to organization, but here's a fairly comprehensive list of knowledge areas that will serve you well in any digital PM position.

High Level Concepts

It's okay if you find yourself a bit lost when developers start talking database optimization and various querying methods, but if you know what a database is and how to interpret database schemas, you'll be able to talk with developers about client requirements, and you'll also be able to distill technical information down into sound bites that a customer can understand. That's true for hundreds of different tech concepts. Here are a few key ones to know:

  • The Hows and Whys of a CMS - If you're working with client websites, content management systems are often at the heart of your end product. Know how data is organized, how the site interacts with the database, the technologies and languages involved, and benefits and drawbacks of different CMS options. Further, know how to make the case for a CMS to a client and the benefits of dynamic versus static content for the sake of content management and site administration. When it comes to content management systems, we work primarily with Drupal, but also spend time working with WordPress, Django and a few others. Once you have a conceptual understanding of one, learning more becomes easier. I'd suggest WordPress as a good starting point due to its simplicity and ease of installation.
  • Open Versus Closed-Source - There's long been a debate in enterprise business about the merits of open source versus closed source software. Know the difference between the two and key benefits of choosing one over the other in order to intelligently contribute to the discussion. We're big open source fans at the Toad!
  • Server-Side Versus Client-Side - Aside from some familiarity with the languages in use at your organization, make sure you understand where those languages are executed and if they're client-side or server-side. This important concept plays into numerous discussions, from hosting requirements to caching and performance.
  • The Hosting Stack - Hosting and systems administration is a completely separate realm from web development, yet the two are increasingly closely tied. This contributes to the dramatic increase in DevOps positions, as opposed to traditional hardware and IT management. Customers often understand that they have CMS software backed by a database sitting on a server somewhere, but there's a lot more to it. Know the different types of hosting (shared, virtual, dedicated, "cloud") and different configuration options (multiple servers, load balancing, failover, and more). Know what the software layers on host servers looks like. For instance, with Drupal we usually use a LAMP stack (Linux operating system, Apache web server, MySQL database software, and PHP server-side scripting language).
  • Domain Names and DNS - The domain name system is an oft-overlooked component of websites. There's a bit more to it than purchasing a domain name. Know the basics of how DNS translates domain names into IP addresses. Know what DNS records are, some of the more common types used, and how they're configured.
  • Version Control - Version Control is crucial to the development process, especially when multiple parties are involved. Know the terminology and the common operations used to manage code repositories. A Visual Guide to Version Control provides a good basic introduction.

Client Software Specifics

Make sure you know a fair amount about the specific software and applications used at your organization for client websites and apps. Topics to learn include:

  • Core Functionality - Know some details of how your primary development platforms are structured. In the case of Drupal, know what functionality comes with Drupal core, what the common modules to use on every site are, and how content is managed.
  • Vocabulary and Terminology - Know primary terminology and definitions to be able to communicate with your development team and explain those terms to clients. Again using Drupal as an example. Know the difference between a node and a page. Know what blocks, panels, panes, and other page layout tools are. Know content types, taxonomies, and field types. And don't forget about modules!
  • Common Implementations - Take the time to review the types of projects your organization takes on, and look at the specific customizations within those implementations. For eCommerce, that might be Drupal Commerce. For video, it might be Brightcove integration. Be familiar enough with your company's skills and past experience to make broad suggestions without committing the development team to something they can't fulfill within the budget.
  • Site Administration - Perhaps most importantly, know how to administer content and configuration. The goal should be to know administration tools well enough that you can a) train clients on their sites with minimal developer assistance and b) make content or configuration-level updates for a client without bugging a developer.

General Development Topics & Tools

  • Photoshop/Creative Suite/Design Tools - You certainly don't need to be a Photoshop master, but knowing some basics can be helpful from time to time. Some developers are better than others at slicing up a PSD, so the more you know, the more you'll be able to ensure that the end product is true to design comps. The same goes for any other design tools your organization may use. The better you're able to visually communicate your ideas, the more successful you'll be.
  • MS Office/Google Docs - This one is somewhat a given, but you'll want to know word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software like the back of your hand.
  • Web Browsers - Web browsers are generally easy to pick up, but you'll want to know some of the minutia of what the different inspectors and development tools are capable of, how to clear caches, and strengths/shortcomings/supported features of each browser. You'll be spending some of your time reviewing sites before passing to the client, and the more familiar you are with browsers, the faster you'll be.
  • Markup Languages & CSS - Marketers are becoming increasingly fluent in markup languages by necessity. If your customers know it, you probably should too. Be very familiar with HTML & XML, and if you can wrangle some CSS to make things look good, even better.


  • Content Strategy - As primary client contact, you'll be in a prime position to lead the client on the steps they need to take to prep for their site launch. Content strategy often tops the list when it comes to the time-involvement needed from the client. If you can lead the client's planning around content strategy, you'll be that much more likely to launch on-time and on-budget.
  • Analytics & Optimization - Analytics and A/B testing/optimization improvements are usually big priorities for your client. If you can't measure it, why build the site/app? Be familiar with the common metrics and tools that exist so you can discuss plans with the client and make a business case for the sometimes seemingly-odd requests that come from clients to your development team.
  • SEO & Social Media - Regardless of whether you think SEO and social media are overblown or the life-blood of websites, your clients are going to care about them. Know common integrations of social media, the basics of social marketing, and some top site improvements to ensure content is optimized for search engines.
  • Overall Business and Marketing Goals - Be able to step back and look at your client's big picture and overall marketing strategy. By the time you're talking details of implementation on a site, everyone can start to lose perspective. If the client doesn't step back to make decisions based on the big picture, they'll thank you if you're able to keep everyone focused on overall goals and decisions within their bigger branding objectives. This will also help protect your scope when the client starts asking for changes for the sake of changes, regardless of whether or not they align with business and project goals.

Your Organization's Offerings

  • Estimation Process - Have a clear understanding of process on the sales and estimation side of the business. Whether or not it's tightly aligned with project management, understanding the methods used to estimate projects will help you keep budgets in check and communicate scope effectively with clients.
  • Proposal & SOW Details - I'm a big proponent of production team review of work being sold. Given that we're the gatekeepers of the PM iron triangle, we have great gut instinct for major risks on a project before they're even sold. Being familiar with proposals and statement of work documents will ensure that you're able to raise concerns about projects that have failure written all over them from the start.
  • Product Offerings - Relating back to the part 1 post on role, your direct contact with clients and day-to-day focus on individual projects will put you in a position to identify additional business opportunities with clients. If you have a strong understanding of exactly what the company does, who target customers are, and what the best fit project-wise looks like, you'll help keep the sales pipeline full and the entire organization healthy.
  • Sales and Networking Strategies and Tactics - Business development is a hard job. Some people are naturally gifted at it, but in any client-facing role, developing your ability to talk business without coming across like a used car salesperson will serve you well. Networking is equally important, partly to represent your organization in potential new business situations, and partly to grow your own career.

That's Just a Start

While this post just scratches the surface, hopefully it's readily apparent why being a learning addict is an important trait for any project manager. You don't need knowledge of all of these to get hired as a digital project manager, but to get to the point where you're good or great at your job, they're all things you'll want to learn. Once you've mastered all of these, keep going; the more you know, the better.

The next post in this series covers finding and hiring candidates that match the profile outlined in these posts. Check it out!

Date posted: July 24, 2013

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