The Successful Digital PM, Part 5B: Professional Development

Following parts 1-4 on what makes for a great digital PM, part 5A covered finding and hiring those great project managers. Part 5B gets into some strategies that we employ for professional development to make sure our project managers are on-boarded with proper training and have the opportunity to grow professionally on a continuing basis.

Other posts in this series:

The New Hire Ramp-Up

Every once in a while, a project manager new hire is going to walk through the door and hit the ground running. But for the vast majority of PMs, the first six months can be a brutal period of trial by fire, or at the very least filled with some bumps in the road. This has been true to some extent regardless of previous PM experience or familiarity with technologies we're using. Integrating at a new organization and learning the subtleties of particular clients and developers just takes time! Our experience with the timeline for new hire ramp-up often looks something like:

  • Month 1: Review tools and processes, shadow other PMs on lots of calls and tasks, and take on an initial project or two (often with an existing client).
  • Month 2: Actually start to understand and regularly implement tools and processes, ramp up on additional projects, and start to get busier.
  • Month 3: Begin to get a good understanding of subtleties of working with specific clients and developers, and have a few early mistakes on projects come back to bite you.
  • Month 4: Wrap up some initial projects, and start thinking you feel comfortable with taking on bigger projects.
  • Month 5: Realize just how little you knew in month 2 compared to what you thought you knew, and start seeing and avoiding repetition of common problems across projects and clients.
  • Month 6 or so: Have the "aha!" moment with your projects as a whole, and find yourself truly starting to integrate with the organization, knowing processes and integration points between the PM team and business development, operations, and leadership.

Learning Opportunities

Given the ramp-up period, training is key! We maintain a project manager handbook, several documents outlining our process workflow, and notes on tools and how to use them. These serve as both a good starting point and great documentation to reference in the future to get un-stuck on projects if someone feels like they're spiraling. But documentation and initial training is just a start. Recently (and by popular demand), we've increased emphasis of ongoing professional development. This is still evolving, but includes things like:

  • We're creating and curating a project manager resource library. This includes blogs, books, twitter accounts, podcasts, videos, and other media from the likes of Brett Harned, Sam Barnes, and Scott Berkun. There is ample PM material out there, but finding the 5% of it that doesn't read like a report from a scientific journal takes teamwork!
  • We scheduled recurring scenario and situation based trainings and role-playing with our PMs and extended teams, handling tricky scenarios often based in reality with input from our entire team. These are a fascinating look at the hardest situations we encounter, where often the best solution takes into account both tangible parts of the project and how to deal with tricky emotionally charged or political situations.
  • We encourage and block out time for R&D and blogging, usually about PM-related topics. I find myself with several new ideas for improving processes at Metal Toad every time I write.
  • We schedule workshops, sharing lunches, and internal sessions to cover topics like Agile, Drupal, PM tools, and often technical topics that project managers could stand to know a thing or two about. This includes a standing invite for a first-Thursday burrito lunch where the entire Metal Toad team gets together to have someone present on a topic of interest.
  • We send our team to conferences. This year's two big investments for the PM team were/are Drupalcon Portland in May and the upcoming Digital PM Summit. Conferences are a great physical and mental change-of-scenery, and a great opportunity to evaluate your organizational process from the outside to some extent.

Teaching to Learn

With a great deal of documentation (and the Internet) at our fingertips, the materials available to research and improve knowledge in are limitless. Yet it's a well-known secret that often the best way to truly learn a subject is to teach it. We want our project managers blogging, speaking at conferences, and doing other thought-based leadership activities as marketing exercises for both company exposure and personal branding, but the major side-benefit is that the time invested in preparation and execution of those sorts of activities leads to better learning and creative thought than reading a book ever will. Plus, the blog posts serve as documentation of sorts and become part of our PM training materials!

We want to hear what other organizations are doing for professional development of their project management teams. Let us know in the comments!

The last post in this series (finally!) covers retention, including why keeping project managers around can be a tricky proposition and some things we're working on at Metal Toad to make sure we keep our team intact.

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