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Ben Aston: Thanks for tuning in. This is The Digital Project Manager Podcast from thedigitalprojectmanager.com.
So today is a lot about the Digital Project Manager name game. That’s what we’re calling it. We’re discussing names, or, probably to be a bit less oblique, the wonderful arrange of wonderful and sometimes strange job titles that we’ll have. It’s interesting because I think our business cards can say different things on them. Some of us get to choose our job titles, but some of us, perhaps, are just a tragic HR accident. Some of us are plain old digital project managers. That’s what I’ve always been. What is everyone else, and what are they doing? Today we’re gonna be discussing a little bit about a producer, an account manager, project associate, project lead. We’ve all got all kinds of different names. But really, we’re really wondering, is there’s any difference between us, or should there be any difference, or should we actually be calling ourselves something different altogether? That’s the name game that we’re covering of today.
But firstly, a big thank you to Emily Carbonell Ferguson who’s gonna be hosting the discussion today. She’s the catalyst for the DPM podcast actually happening. She started this job title conversation in our Slack team a few weeks ago. Which every one’s very excited about, and now we’ve jumped on it. A few weeks later, here we are, episode 3 of the DPM podcast. But this is our first proto-cast, or as Emily called it, our first round table discussion on a podcast. Which is obviously very exciting, but it might be a bit of a rollercoaster ride. This has never been done before, at least by us. So I’m gonna hand over to Emily to steer us through the discussion. So, over to you, Emily. Let the name game begin.
Emily Carbonell: Awesome. Thank you, Ben. As Ben mentioned, I’m Emily Carbonell Ferguson. I’m a digital project manager at Mighty in the Midwest. I’m just going into my third year of project management, so I have a ton of questions, which makes me perfect for this role. So before we jump into those questions, I’d like to just kind of introduce everybody who’s here. We’ve got a great spread of experience and other questions as well.
So, starting with Patrice Embry, who is a freelance digital project manager and a certified scrum master. She’s been in this field for more than 18 years, worked on agencies, corporations, everything between. She’s really passionate about project management, and if you’ve been in a Slack or Twitter conversation with her you can tell that. You can find her online at patrice-embry.com or follow her on Twitter at @patrice108.
And then obviously we’ve got Ben Aston who has spent the first 10 years of his career at some of London’s top digital agencies, including Dare, Wunderman, DLKW Lowe, and DDB … I’m probably butchering some of these … As account manager, project manager, producer, more. He’s gonna be able to speak into some of those different titles. After moving to Vancouver, Canada, he led the project management team before moving into product management earlier this year. He oversees strategy, experience design, and builds teams for FCV Labs. Ben is also a certified scrum master, PRINCE2 practitioner … Am I saying that correctly? I’ve never had to say that out loud before.
Ben Aston: That’s right, that’s right.
Emily Carbonell: And the founder of the Digital Project Management blog, The Digital Project Manager.
And then we’ve got Abby Fretz, who is a digital producer, consultant, and freelancer based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Abby works with clients to establish the best project practices for each unique team, manages complex projects, and in some cases walks clients through the process of team restructuring. Prior to working as a freelancer, Abby worked at Happy Cog. She’s a passionate educator and helps run DPM Philly, a local project management meetup group, and finds the best project management practices in nature. Talk to her about bees. She’s very passionate about it. She’s got lots of great thoughts, and you can see some of those bee facts on her Instagram account, where you can find her at @abbyfretz.
So let’s get into it. The first thing that we started to do when thinking about this whole gnarly conversation about titles, roles, and what that we’re actually doing in projects, is to just collect a list of all of the names that we could have and what we do. I just want to rattle through those. Shout out to Rachel Gertz who helped us to kind of start this piece. She has an awesome project management apprenticeship program, Louder Than Ten. You should check it out.
But we’ve got project manager, which is the most common. Project owner, project lead, project director, program manager, producer, account manager, digital project manager, senior project manager, junior digital project manager, project associate, success manager, traffic manager, resource manager. There may even be more than that, but before getting too deep, I’m curious, given your current responsibilities and role, if each of you maybe starting with Abby … What do you most closely identify with right now regardless of your official title?
Abby Fretz: This is a really, really tough one for me. I am doing freelance work and consulting. I kind of take on a couple of different titles depending on what I’m doing. I think senior project manager, in some cases, makes a lot of sense for me. The producer does as well, though I’m having changing feelings about that title, which we’ll get into later. But I think something like project management consultant makes the most sense for me right now.
Emily Carbonell: Got it. Project management consultant. Patrice, how about you?
Patrice Embry: If I were trying to tell someone who doesn’t know me what I do for a living, I would say, digital project manager, just because it encompasses project manager, which people can usually sort of understand, and throws in that digital part so they realize that I’m not on a construction site helping out there. So I would say digital project manager is what I would bill myself most often.
Emily Carbonell: Yeah. I would say the same, and for similar reasons. Ben, how about yourself?
Ben Aston: Yeah, I mean, I kind of moved into product recently, but I think … Similar to Patrice, I go for just calling myself a digital project manager more than … And I’ve been everything from a project director, senior project manager, but actually just calling myself a digital project manager is something that people … It’s more easily explainable, so that’s kind of where I net out usually.
Emily Carbonell: Yeah. So, Patrice, just to kind of like, orient for those of us like myself who … I started two years ago in project management and at a very small shop that doesn’t have a formal hierarchy at all or system for growth for project managers. Can you help orient us on the basics? How do junior, senior project manager, account manager, how do those roles typically fit together as far as hierarchy but also growth for an individual?
Patrice Embry: Sure. Well, your junior or associate type titles, some of the ones that you read on offer junior digital project manager and project associate. They tend to be the folks coming in entry-level, or maybe with only up to one or two years of experience. A traffic manager typically is someone who’s maybe a little bit lower on the hierarchy. Then you move into more of the project manager, digital project manager. Project lead is sort of in that mid-level. You get, then, to the senior project manager … A project director is more of a higher level. Where producer falls is sort of up in the air, which we’ll talk about soon, because it means a lot of different things to different people. Even in project manager, that could be someone who’s got four years of experience, it could be someone who’s got 15 years of experience, so it really depends and there’s not a huge amount of growth there. A lot of places don’t even have a distinction of a junior or a senior or even a project director. It really depends on where you are.
Account manager, program manager, the success manager that we talked about, you don’t see those that often and if you do they don’t always have anything to do with project management, except for that account manager, which sometimes gets misused and is really supposed to be an account and project manager either rolled into one, or a mislabeled project manager, or it could be full-on, real account manager. That always depends. I always am very careful to look at the job description when I see an account manager role.
Emily Carbonell: So what would be an example of the purest form of an account manager in your experience then?
Patrice Embry: So an account manager would really … If you were looking for bullet points in the job description, you would not see things like “manages projects” or “manages timelines” or things like that. You’d see more bullet points about client management and management of the relationship and more overall management of the relationship and not just projects.
Emily Carbonell: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Patrice Embry: But if you do see some project things being kinda popped in there, it could be a hybrid role, and if that’s what you want to do then that’s great. It’s just good to kind of go through it and make sure you know what you’re getting into.
Emily Carbonell: Yeah. So this is a question to everybody. What factors distinguish junior from senior project manager in your eyes? Is it just time, is it number of projects, is it the X factor?
Patrice Embry: I happen to think it’s time, personally.
Ben Aston: Yeah, and I think-
Abby Fretz: I, too, agree.
Ben Aston: Yes, I think there’s time, but obviously, you can be working for a long time and actually do the same kind of projects in a junior role. They’re not really getting exposure to the more complex projects, or perhaps even a range of projects. So I think it’s someone with a diversity of experience as well. As you become more senior and seasoned, you have a broader experience in running different types of projects. As a project coordinator or a junior project manager, often you kind of start out doing the maintenance. Perhaps part of a work on an account, or you’re doing a very small kind of campaign project.
As you progress, typically you’ll begin to work on increasingly more complicated projects, because you’ve got the experience to be able to manage that kind of thing. So I think, in my experience, it’s the … As you progress and become a project manager and senior project manager, you’re typically working with bigger projects with higher risk, with perhaps more important clients with more resources, bigger budgets. So there’s more stuff to go wrong. So that experience of when you’re a junior project manager or project coordinator, you’re learning the skills to manage and control and lead a project, and then as you become more senior you’re becoming the leader of the project. You’re typically not working to someone more senior, but you’re … The buck kind of stops with you. If a project goes off the rails, everyone can very clearly point to you and say, “Hey, this person was supposed to be project manager here.”
So I think there’s … Kind of the amount of time you’ve been in the job, but also in terms of experience as well.
Emily Carbonell: Yeah. So diversity of experience.
Abby Fretz: And that was a great description, I think, Ben, on top of that I think … Just the client-facing piece of it … All project managers, junior or senior, should obviously have the propensity for good client relations, or have the skillset to be able to really manage clients. But I think on top of the complexity of the project, and Ben alluded to this, as you become more senior I’ve seen a lot of people be put onto projects where the client relationship may also be a little bit more complex or just higher profile. And so you’ve kind of developed the skills to manage difficult clients as well, or not even difficult but just more complex clients.
Emily Carbonell: Do you feel that that kind of distinguishing factor between junior and senior is very different depending on the size of the shop or the company they’re at? For example, I’m on a team of like, four project managers, and internally I’m definitely not seen as junior, but in the grand scheme of project management, digital project management, I am junior. But I do take on some of those more complicated client relationships, some of those more complicated projects. Is that common for smaller shops, and is it very uncommon in larger places?
Patrice Embry: Well, I can talk about the smaller shops. It’s absolutely common for everybody to be lumped into the project manager role whether they’re junior or senior or super senior, everybody is basically called a project manager and the senior gets added on almost as alike, “You’ve been here a while, we want to reward you with something, here’s a title.” But generally the people you’re working with, the clients you’re working with, are not changing all that much. It’s almost just like you’ve reached a career milestone, which is why I thought that time was really the biggest indicator. But it does remind me of some of the other places where I’ve worked, where that’s not the case and I think that Abby and Ben have worked for some larger companies where that’s probably a lot different.
Emily Carbonell: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Ben Aston: Yeah, I think one of the things that sometimes happens in smaller agencies is … And I benefited from this myself … Is in a smaller agency they’re often very keen to keep you and retain you, and so there’s a propensity for job title inflation. So you can sometimes get an incredibly large apparently-senior team because the small agency is trying to position itself against the bigger players. So they want, from a client’s perspective, they’ve got this requirement to be presenting the face of the senior team, so they want a senior project manager. And that’s another interesting thing I think as well, is that clients obviously … If they’re working with someone who has a job title that’s “junior project manager” or “project associate,” as a client I’d be kind of freaking out a bit. I’d be like, “Hold on a second, why are you giving me a junior project manager? It doesn’t sound like they know what they’re doing yet. Or a project associate. Is that … Am I in safe hands?”
One of the things that we’ve done in agencies that I worked in the past is someone might be a junior project manager internally, but we just externally call them a project manager to give them a fighting chance with the clients. Because you don’t want clients to think, “Okay, well can you escalate this with your manager, please?”
One other thing I was just thinking is that in IT they have a … We haven’t really talked about it, but they often have “project manager one,” “project manager two,” “project manager three,” right? They got a more clear linear progression, and then they go into “senior project manager.” But you can be a project manager for a really long time, whereas in the agency world we tend to have this job title inflation thing a bit. And I think that’s partly because we’re trying to keep clients happy and we’re trying to keep people … The staff, the project managers, feeling like, “Hey, I’m progressing, my job title’s changing every two years, I’m doing pretty well.” So we’ve kind of got ourselves into this situation where people keep on wanting a new job title.
Emily Carbonell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, and it feels like there’s an optics thing there, right? Our shop has talked about, you know, do we keep the “junior” part of the title only internal but leverage the “senior” part of the title to show off like, “Hey, these are the project managers that maybe have a more diverse set of experience. But you don’t really need to know who’s junior, they’ll be learning alongside somebody.” Has anybody ever felt held back in a project that they were working on or something that they were trying to do, by one of their titles? Whether it be that someone assumed you weren’t as capable because you were a junior, or maybe that you shouldn’t be directing work because you are, quote-unquote, “Just a project manager”?
Abby Fretz: I don’t … This is Abby. I don’t think that I have ever felt held back by it, but I have certainly witnessed instances with clients where the project manager, because they have the title “junior,” or because they had the title “project manager,” the client perceived them in a particular way, and it was detrimental to the project. In a lot of cases, I think what happens at the beginning of a project, if a client doesn’t understand the role of a project manager, and this gets into being very clear about what any of these titles mean and what the jobs mean, I’ve seen a lot of clients say, “Why do I even need this project management item on here? This feels like overhead. Can’t designers and developers just manage their own work?” And that’s, again … I mean, that will probably take us down a different path, but that’s just a matter of, I think, client education. I think there are two conversations here. One is, “Does junior or associate title really impede the client relationship?” And, “Do clients even know what a project manager does?”
Emily Carbonell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Do you have a-
Patrice Embry: I will say that a big issue to that, Abby, in the farmer world. That’s a huge issue in the farmer world. It’s a pretty substantial issue, in my opinion.
Emily Carbonell: Can you unpack that a little bit, Patrice? Do you mean that people are not cool with a junior or do you mean that not cool with project management as a line item?
Patrice Embry: Not cool with project management as a line item. That’s probably, like Abby said, a whole ‘nother discussion that I would love to have, actually, as project management as an overhead piece or “Why do I have one?” Or, “What do they even do? Why can’t my account manager do all this stuff? I don’t need to know about this, I don’t want this on my project at all.” It really, I think, depends on the agency, if it’s an agency, and how they’ve positioned this before the client even gets to the part where they see line items. But it definitely has held me back substantially in some places where I’ve been where I’m not allowed to have client contact, because I’m … I’m using air quotes … “Just a project manager.” So we should probably talk about that at some point.
Emily Carbonell: There we go. Podcast number four, Ben. Already ready to go. Abby, can you talk a little bit about … We’ve kind of touched on it a little bit … What is a producer? What does that mean and how has your thinking about it, kind of you mentioned, evolved even just over the past week?
Abby Fretz: Sure. So, this is a tough one. The term “producer,” as it relates to digital project management, has become increasingly about the dialogue about title. I have a couple of points about this in terms of where it came from, and I think it stems from the need to be able to indicate to a client … Mostly a client, but maybe internally as well, to a team … That a digital project manager is not always just managing timelines and budgets and making sure things get done. That in some cases, and this is again dependent on the agency or the software company whatever we’re talking about here, that in some cases a digital project manager is taking on a role of actually doing some project strategy. Maybe a little bit of a business analyst role or even just having a deeper understanding of what kinds of, for example, what kinds of deliverables make the most sense for a project, what kind of meetings we should have, workshops with the client, those kinds of things. So being involved in the project in a bigger way and a bigger kind of strategic, creative way … And I think the term “producer” came out in that broader conversation as a way of addressing that.
One thing I think a producer would do differently than a project manager if you would have both would be that strategy piece, which implies maybe a higher understanding of project management, so it might be a more senior role. The issue with the term “producer” that I’ve seen kind of happen as well, though, is that it now adds another layer of complexity to the title or to the role that if a client already didn’t understand what a project manager does, they certainly don’t understand what the term “producer” means for a project. I think that’s where my changing feeling … I’ve been back and forth on the value of the term “producer,” I very much like it and refer to myself as a digital producer in some cases. But I have seen, more recently in some of my consulting work, that the term “producer” has introduced, both internally to a team and to clients, this level of confusion, simply because it hasn’t been very clearly defined. The reasoning behind changing from a project manager title to a producer title just hasn’t been laid out in a very succinct way.
Emily Carbonell: Are you seeing specific types of jobs or companies using this title more than others? My guess is probably smaller agencies.
Abby Fretz: That’s where I’ve seen it the most. It would be interesting to really dig in and look at that and see if “producer” is being used in different ways at bigger companies, or maybe … I think it’s largely digital agencies, to be honest, and not as much product. But for sure smaller agencies. Just, again, to do that, it’s a higher touch. It indicates maybe a higher-touch role with a client. So, again, smaller agencies really want to justify having that role and having somebody who can be part of the creative team as well as management.
Emily Carbonell: Do you feel like there’s … So the confusion that you just unpacked, do you feel like it’s about the title or about thinking of a team player making something but not having their hands-on design or development or something that is concrete that people really understand? Do you think it’s in the role and the what or the title “producer”?
Abby Fretz: I think it’s both. I think if people better understood what a digital project manager’s role is, you wouldn’t even need the term “producer,” to be honest. If people knew that part of digital project management is being very creative in the way you’re approaching a product and ushering a team through that process of making those creative strategy decisions, then there would be no need for the term “producer.” But I also think, just like with project manager, being associated with a lot of different industries, like Patrice said, construction, any number of things … Producer is, too. Movie producer. Any number of other industries use the term “producer.” So it doesn’t really actually help clarify anything in terms of the industry. It all comes down to just educating clients about what a digital project manager does and what value they bring.
Emily Carbonell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Patrice Embry: I will-
Ben Aston: I think-
Patrice Embry: Go ahead, Ben.
Ben Aston: Oh, okay, yeah. What I love about the term “producer” … I was a producer. In fact, being a producer was my first foray, or my transition from an account manager to a project manager, the step in the middle for me was being a producer. When I stepped into it, I thought it was actually an account management role. I was tricked. But I realized very quickly that I had become a project manager.
The thing I love about the producer job title is that it doesn’t carry some of the negative connotations that a project manager job title does. Whereas I think the, yeah, we keep on touching on this kind of, “Why is project management important” discussion that we tend to have with our clients and when they’re arguing, “Okay, why is 20-30% of the budget being spent on account and project management?” But the great thing about calling yourself a producer rather than just a project manager is there’s connotations of you actually facilitating something happening. You’re not just the person who’s monitoring the cost, the timeline, the statement of work. You’re not just a policeman and someone who’s creating invoices, but you’re actually leading a team. You’re enabling a whole thing. You’re enabling stuff to happen. You’re making the magic happen. That’s what I love about the word “producer” is that it feels a bit more creative, it feels more like you’re making stuff happen than someone who’s the kind of traditional project manager.
And, you know, IT project management has got a bad rap because of this, but they’re just the people who create reports at the end of every week. Like, “Here’s how much money we spent.” That’s a very different role to, I think, what we do in digital project management, where we’re casting a vision for where a project should need to go, we’re engaging with clients, and we’re making stuff happen. We’re steering the project, and it’s that steering that I think that you get a sense of in the word “producer.” So I think that’s kind of helpful in helping clients understand, and perhaps internally too, what it is that we do.
Abby Fretz: That was great. I think that’s much more succinct way of saying … Of explaining why producers, the title, there are a lot of better fits to it. I just recently came across a job description on Google for what they had called a “design program manager,” and now I’m looking at it and it says “UX program manager,” but it had said “producer.” They’ve changed a little bit. So what the job description says that I really, really like, they say, “Combining expert project management skills with a passion for” … And it was “design” originally but now they’re saying “user experience” … “Design producers work cross-functionally to collaborate with managers, designers, and engineering teams.” Which I love. It really implies a lot of that hands-on with all of the cross-functional aspect of the role and expert project management at the same time.
Emily Carbonell: So that kind of gets into ownership, right? And really owning, not just establishing timelines and making sure that we’re on budget, but thinking about the bigger picture and what we are delivering and how. What do each of you think a project manager … Let’s just use that title for a little bit of focus … How would you describe the level of ownership that a project manager should have on a given project to be most impactful and most successful? Patrice, we haven’t heard from you in a little while. Maybe you can start.
Patrice Embry: Well, I think a project manager should have a lot of project ownership and they don’t often get it and that can be a detriment. It can also be somewhat helpful depending on how the project is going. But basically, ownership of a project really helps solidify the project manager’s actual role in being able to say what gets done. Project management is tough because you’re responsible for something, but not people. So you’re responsible for the work that everybody’s doing, but you can’t … You don’t have any stand to be able to take anyone to task other than for the things they’re supposed to be doing. In other words, you can’t yell at someone for not doing their job and you can’t reprimand them the way a manager would because you’re not their manager, you’re just managing their work. Being able to have more ownership over the project allows you to be able to manage people who don’t report to you more effectively.
If you don’t have that kind of ownership over the project, you’re really just seen as the person who’s pushing the paperwork, that’s bugging someone about logging their time. That doesn’t help you to be able to make really good decisions and be able to convey those decisions to your team. No matter what your role is, there is a part of project management that there should be, for most project managers, there’s a part of your job that’s really about saying that something has to happen, whether or not you’re making that decision or you’re bringing in information from your stakeholders or from the other people on the project. Someone has to be able to say, “Okay, we’ve heard everything and this is the way we’re going.” And if that can’t happen with a stakeholder or there’s too much disparate information coming in, it really needs to come from the project manager.
Now if you don’t have a lot of ownership, that’s gonna be really difficult to do. When you do have ownership you start having the responsibility for having made those decisions and how that comes back to you. So that’s where it can get a little bit dicey if you do. The ownership of a project really needs to be with the project manager so they can be effective. I’ve not been in that situation. I’ve been in a situation where I’ve not had ownership. Made my job a hundred times harder.
Emily Carbonell: Mm-hmm (affirmative). So how would you … And I’m thinking about really specific point in a project, like saying that “We’re done.” Right? Saying that something’s good enough to ship or good enough to show a client. Are those the types of things that you talk about when you talk about ownership or is there kind of a co-ownership aspect depending on the type of work that you’re managing?
Patrice Embry: I mean, I think it really depends on the project. I hate when people say, “It depends on the project, it depends,” but it really does, it really does depend on what you’re doing. If you need to get sign off from a client that something is working, let’s say, as an integration with their systems, you can’t say something’s done. But if you know that you’ve delivered everything you’re supposed to, especially if you have a client that tends to over-reach and tries to get some stuff that they probably didn’t … Wasn’t stoked for. You need to be the person to be able to say that something is done. And the project ownership role is an actual role in Agile. That’s what complicates things as well, because there is something out there called a project owner or product owner, and that is not necessarily the same thing. It doesn’t always translate to project management. So, as with everything, it’s complicated.
Emily Carbonell: So tell us a little bit about what a project owner is and means in the world of Agile.
Patrice Embry: Project owner or product owner in Agile is literally the person who is able to say, “Of all the different things in your backlog, these are the things that are important and these are the things that have to be done first or these are the things we’re not doing.” And that role is very separate from the scrum master so that the scrum master can be completely agnostic as to what’s being done. They’re not looking at all the things that need to be done and prioritizing them the way they want. They’re prioritizing them by what the product owner wants. They’re very separate roles in Agile and we don’t always have the luxury of having two different people to do some of those things.
Emily Carbonell: Would you say that you’ve seen more success when the same person is sort of the project manager/owner or when there’s two sort of siloed roles … “Siloed” isn’t a great word, but distinct roles within the team.
Patrice Embry: If you need a decision made quickly and you don’t have time, especially if you’re on a distributed team the way I am and I’ve got folks that I’m working with in the Asia Pacific area where our time differences are huge and you need an answer done quickly it’s great to be able to be the person who is managing the project and can make those decisions. If you need the be able to focus on a larger project and you need to be able to focus on all the different moving pieces for the project to also have to answer questions about what should be done, could be a little much. For me, I would rather be able to answer those questions quickly. Be able to have a point of view. It also makes me feel more validated as the project manager if I’m allowed to have a point of view and have that be something that’s meaningful. The difference is between a product owner in Agile is pretty big and pretty distinct and pretty rigid.
Emily Carbonell: Does anybody have any sort of tactical advice for a project manager who’s looking to gain more ownership internally? Because I think that is … There’s the external portion of that which is getting your clients to believe in you but then there’s the internal portion, which can be really complicated depending on where you are. There may be a design director who needs to see things before they go out. There may be an owner that is also a design director. It can be a complicated conversation to essentially ask someone to believe that you can own the project when maybe they think of you as someone who just schedules things. Have any of you run into this before? Do you have any advice for a project manager who’s looking for more ownership?
Ben Aston: Yeah, I’ll step in here just for a sec. I think that this is such a great question and I think that as a junior, but kind of project manager, or someone at the beginning of their career, this is the thing that’s really tricky to get a handle on. It’s the challenge that you have when you’re working with a creative director who’s very opinionated and who wants to take a project in a certain direction, normally at the detriment to the budget and the timeline. You have technical directors who are trying to do things another way. So we’re kind of in the middle.
The way that we can kind of take on more project ownership is by having a really solid plan to start with. I think when we are able to demonstrate and show the other senior people in the organization, and they’re normally the heads of the department who we’re kind of jostling for with a bit for project ownership. When we’re able to demonstrate to them that we’ve got a really clear plan and there’s a reason for the decisions that we’re making … So we can say, “Hey, we’re … Yes, perhaps we could spend another couple of days on this design, but do you know what, we haven’t really got budget to spend anymore time on this. Let’s just take it to the client now and see what they make of it.”
It’s having that knowledge and the awareness of the project as a whole that gives you the validity, I suppose, when you’re having these discussions to say, “Hey, here’s the direction we’re gonna take. Here’s why we’re making that decision. I hope everyone’s cool with that, and let me know if you’re not.” It’s having that overall awareness. I think, obviously, to do that as well, you need to have really solid relationships with the heads of department that you’re working with. Because they need to believe you and trust you and you need to inspire confidence in them. I think it’s partly a … When you’ve got all your ducks in a row and people can believe you, you’re more believable, and you’ve given yourself permission to lead. But it’s also a relationship thing. It’s that trust between you and the heads of the department that you’ve got a solid plan that’s gonna work, that’s gonna deliver this project successfully.
Emily Carbonell: Yeah, I love that. I think that it definitely speaks to, some of this is just laying the bread crumbs for someone to believe that you know what you’re talking about. Sometimes I’ll ask for advice on things that I really don’t need advice on and I have a really good idea … just to prove that I have good ideas. You kind of have to show your work along the way, especially when you’re starting, to get people to believe in you for the big things. For sure. So, Ben, your PM career specifically has kind of gone toward more product management and strategy. Is product management a rare thing for a project manager to move into? Are you an anomaly or is this something that other people can follow?
Ben Aston: Yeah, I don’t know if it’s an anomaly or not. I think that it’s something that I wanted to transition into because I think I was interesting in being more hands-on. Even more hands-on than I was as a project manager. After lots of years of working with clients and feeling like often they made the wrong decisions, I wanted to make some right decisions. It was really, for me, a chance to get more involved in the … Okay, yeah, the strategy and the formation of the product at a more granular level. The difference between project and product management … There’s lots of differences. The key differences obviously being that product management is a project that never ends. You’re constantly iterating on it and it’s just a process of iteration. Within product management, as well, there’s just more things to think about because you’re doing the job that the clients we work with would normally do, as well. There’s the marketing aspect that you’re thinking about as well. You’re thinking about the long-term roadmap. So you are the product owner. Thinking about, “Okay, I’ve got a backlog here, how am I gonna prioritize it, how am I gonna take this to market?”
So let’s say, it’s a project that never ends, but it’s also bringing in aspects of the work that our clients would normally do and putting on our client hats. We’re thinking back at how directly does this affect the user experience and how might we on-board users and all things that, ordinarily, would kind of be things on the back burner. They suddenly get kind of right to the fore. For me it’s more interesting. But it’s certainly challenging, as well.
Patrice Embry: Meanwhile, for me, I’d be like, “Oh my God, I totally don’t want to do that. Just let me do the project.” So it really depends on the person.
Emily Carbonell: I sense a whole ‘nother podcast for career advice. Career pack advice. Let’s finish up with one question and solicitation for advice that Ben got on the Slack Team, the DPM Slack Team.
“Where does DPM go after they’ve done six years of digital project management at a high level, two year projects for apps websites, et cetera? Being promoted to account director feels good, but feels less PM-intensive and more focused on financing. Not sure if this is what I want, but surely something I should skill up in. I assume the answer is different to all, but when you’re interested” … Oh, “depending on what you’re interested in,” sorry. “I would like to stay in the DPM role or move to OPPS. At the end, always like to end at the top, CEO, et cetera. Is account management a good step in the right direction or wrong?”
Patrice Embry: I’ve been a project manager … I mean, I’ve had all kinds of different roles which is what we were talking about here to begin with anyway. I’ve had all kinds of titles and they’ve meant different things. At one point I was the “vice president relationship manager.” Who knows what that means? If I were moving into an account management role, if I were trying to figure out what to do, that would not be the career path for me. I like managing projects. Actually, I said over 18 years, it’s like 20 years now that I’ve been doing this, and I don’t mind being being just called a project manager, digital project manager. You could throw “senior” in there, that’s okay.
It really depends on whether or not you are okay with the work that you’re doing and if you really … If those types of titles really matter to you. To me, they don’t. I like doing what I do, I enjoy the work that I’m doing, so as long as I get to keep doing that, I’m perfectly fine. There are plenty of people, though, who want to advance, and that means you do have to show a progression of some sort. So account management is often looked at as a graduation of a project manager. I mean, in that case, you’re doing the right thing.
Abby Fretz: I agree with you, Patrice. Additionally, though, I think there was a specific question in there about operations versus account management. They’re two very different roles in a lot of cases, and it really depends. I think project managers, though you have to have a wide variety of skills, kind of a wide range of skills, you know, the people management piece of it, operations type of roles … What you enjoy the most, like Patrice said, is really … If you want to advance into something more … If you love client management and you love the process of business development and sales and a little bit more of that side of the role, then account management is great and will probably be a great way to advance. Also, if you love more of the operations side of things, the business strategy side, then operations is a great way to advance. There are any number of directions project managers tend to take in their career trajectory, and it really should be focused on what you most excel at and what piece of your current job, as project manager, do you really enjoy doing and do well at.
Ben Aston: Yeah, and I think that’s great. I think one of the things that I’ve noticed, I guess, different to Patrice, is I’ve kind of stayed within agencies that as you become more senior the distinctions between the different roles become … There’s more overlap. There’s more overlap at the top when you’re a senior person who’s strategic, and who understands how the business works. But from an account director perspective, what you’re focused on there is really understanding the client’s business, their brand, you’re understanding and you’re developing the relationship in order to get more business. I think you’re all about the client’s business whereas a project director, you’re more in charge of, maybe, like a program of projects for a client or you’re in charge of multiple project managers who are working up towards you on a variety of different projects.
I think whichever route you take, whether that’s project director or account director, you become increasingly focused on, “Okay, how are we doing overall in terms of the numbers that we’re generating for the agency? Are we hitting our targets this month, this quarter, this year? How are we strategically growing the business?” And whether or not you’re project director or account director … As you were talking about in terms of, you know, you also want to end up being the CEO, well, if that’s kind of where you’re focused on then it’s making the right decision so that you’re more strategically positioned to be effectively running the business. It’s understanding, “Okay, what client work do we need to bring in that’s most profitable? How are we gonna tailor and architect the teams internally to be able to deliver that?” And you begin thinking about shaping and building the agency in such a way that you’re best positioned to win work rather than other agencies, and also deliver you’re best work.
You become more strategic, and I think that’s the case whether or not you’re project director or account director or director of CX, you have this high level view of, “Okay, what do we need to do to advance as an agency and deliver our best work?” And fundamentally that’s the kind of thing that the CEO’s doing, as well. He’s just bringing all these senior people together and saying, “How do we make this work? How can we be better?” So I think there’s … Whatever route you take, I would never be worried about, “Oh, if I do this I’m gonna pigeonhole myself into being an account director and then that’s the wrong route to take for advancing my career.” I’ve found that I’ve kind of flitted in between account management and project management throughout my entire career and it hasn’t really been a problem even though at the time I can feel … I know that I felt like, “Oh, I’m calling myself a project director now, does that mean … Is that the end of my client services career?” I don’t know if any other of you have felt that.
Abby Fretz: I really do think that you’re right, Ben. Flitting in between back and forth would make a lot of sense because there are so many roles that have a lot of that overlap. Just really depends on … I think a lot of this discussion comes down to the value you place in, kind of, title. In a lot of cases, title might matter to some people, but it really doesn’t matter, it really doesn’t have a huge impact on the trajectory that you’re career can take. Particularly in our industry. I know in some industries, title is super important and really is indicative of where you are in your career. In this case, I agree with you, Ben, I think that you can probably go back and forth and it’s not necessarily … Taking on one role doesn’t mean it’s the end of your previous role or the potential to go back and forth.
Ben Aston: Good, well, we’ll wrap things up here. Thanks everyone for joining us. Emily, Abby, Patrice, thanks so much for being part of this conversation. It’s great to understand some different perspectives and learn from each other. And if you’d like to contribute to the conversation, check out the community section of thedigitalprojectmanager.com and join our Slack Team where you’ll find all kinds of interesting conversations like this going on. Until next time, thanks for listening, and check out thedigitalprojectmanager.com for great project management content.