Is project management a thankless job, and should you strive to be an invisible PM? Ben Aston debates with Justin Handler how to do invisible project management; understanding technology, setting your team up for success, client and expectation management, and having difficult conversations.
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Ben Aston: Thanks for tuning in. I’m Ben Aston and this is The Digital Project Manager Podcast from TheDigitalProjectManager.com. So, today I’m joined by Justin Handler, and today we’re going to be talking, or discussing really about is being a PM a thankless job or not? Justin’s just written an article on this, for us, on The Digital Project Manager, and Justin doesn’t think so. He doesn’t think it’s a thankless job so I’m looking forward to discussing that with him, but Justin, we’ve not really met before at all. I know you’ve written a couple of things for us on The Digital Project Manager, but first, just tell me a bit about yourself. Where are you? Where are you based and what do you do?
Justin Handler: First, thanks for having me, Ben. I appreciate it. My name is Justin Handler. I am Head of Accounts for a digital agency called O3 World. We’re located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. We’re a digital product design and development company, so I came across your site I think from actually our local DPM Philly that I’m part of. Somebody mentioned it to me and I found you, and you’ve been nice enough to let me write a couple of articles for the site.
Ben Aston: Good stuff. Head of Accounts, so is that a PM role or is that looking after a PM team? We have all kinds of different job titles and roles, so what does the Head of Accounts mean to you?
Justin Handler: Sure. Yeah, so my background is in digital project management. I was a DPM for about 6-7 years. I mean, I still am to some degree, of course. In my role as Head of Accounts, I oversee a team of four project managers, and then I also oversee our accounts from a strategic level. Making sure that we are driving the products that we’re building for our clients forward, making sure our clients are happy, making sure that their projects and engagements are structured properly for both them and us, as well as just helping to drive the strategy forward. It really is an all-encompassing client services role, where I’m overseeing the project managers as well as the accounts high level.
Ben Aston: Cool. Good stuff. You talk about product management and project management and how you’re doing … It sounds like you’re doing a mixture of both for different clients. How do you delineate between a product and a project for your clients?
Justin Handler: Sure. Yeah, so we are an agency so the projects that we do are projects. Now, we don’t have specific product managers per se. That’s typically on the client-side. We have project managers that are managing projects that happen to be digital products. What I mean by that is anything from a web app, software, mobile app, et cetera. We also do enterprise web development. We don’t do your typical smaller marketing site, but we’ll do large scale enterprise level corporate websites that typically have some sort of complex integration or internalization, or pretty heavy third party customizations.
Everything that we do, we view them as digital products. That can mean different things to different people, but we don’t have specific product managers per se, but we have project managers that are managing these projects that happen to be digital products.
Ben Aston: Cool. So, tell me about some of the … What’s the most exciting project that you’ve, I guess worked on in the last year or so?
Justin Handler: Yeah so, because of the nature of the products that we build, a lot of these we’ve been building for several years. I would say my favorite project overall is a project called “Goal Investor” which is an online financial planning tool. It’s great for planning things like retirement, education funds, emergency funds, et cetera. The tool’s really great because based on our clients methodologies, as well as their modeling, basically we’ll create goals for you, and then provide really detailed and unique advice for you to help you reach those goals.
We’ve been working on this product for 4+ years, completely agile project, great client, great engagement. Just constantly iterating on it, coming up with new features and functionality, doing user testing, et cetera. It’s been a really fulfilling project for me. I went from being the project manager to the account manager to now overseeing the project strategically as well as with the entire project team. Again, just a really fulfilling project, really unique and interesting, and really being built the way that products should be.
Ben Aston: Good stuff. Yeah, it’s interesting. I stalked you out on LinkedIn and saw that you’d been at O3 World for like seven years. Tell me, how did you get … I’m always interested to find out. How did you end up being a digital project manager? What was your journey to becoming in this place where you’re managing digital projects?
Justin Handler: Yeah, it’s a great question. My brother, my older brother, is really into computers. He’s been a developer for probably 20 years, and I was always interested in what he was doing. I had a degree in marketing but I always had this interest in digital through my brother. Like, I always saw what he was developing and playing with, the tools that he was building, et cetera. So, after I graduated college, he had this website that he had been working on for a while and he wanted to get it redesigned. He essentially asked me if I wanted to help him find a small agency to help with that.
I was living in New Jersey at the time, I did some research, found a local agency, and basically my brother paid them to redesign his site and I was involved in that process the whole way. They did a logo design and I was involved. Then they got to mock-ups of the site design, et cetera, and I really enjoyed that process being the “client.” About three-quarters of the way through the project, which wasn’t necessarily going that well, but it was still an enjoyable process, the owner of the agency mentioned to me that they were looking for some help on the marketing side, on the project side, et cetera.
Again, I was fresh out of college, I was about 21, so it really piqued my interest. I went in and saw what they were up to, and I ended up getting that role, and really what I was doing was I was playing a supporting project manager role for about three to six months. Then, throughout the year I started to take over the projects and I just really took a liking to it. I really dug in and started to understand how the technology that we were using worked, and how the designers were doing what they did, et cetera. I just developed this really deep interest in digital project management, as well as the digital industry.
Now, during that journey, there was really no resources for me to find that could help understand the digital project management field, techniques, et cetera. So, again, that’s why websites like yours are so interesting to me, because now there’s this vast array of different resources for people. There’s your site, there’s the local DPM kind of chapters which I run here in Philly, along with a few others, as well as the DPM Summit which is a very popular conference run by a friend of mine named Brett Harned.
So, yeah. I mean, that’s been my journey, and then after a year there, I wanted to move back to Philly and that’s how I found O3.
Ben Aston: Cool. You help organize your local DPM meetup?
Justin Handler: Yeah, I do.
Ben Aston: Is that right?
Justin Handler: Yeah. It’s a local meetup. We meet about every month and a half, two months. Various different things from we’ll get speakers to come, we’ll get sponsors to come, talk about their products. Then, we’ll also have various different types of events that the group wants us to hold. I didn’t start the group. Again, that was actually started by Brett Harned who, again, runs the DPM Summit and several other events.
A few years back, I wanted to get involved, so I asked him if I could help and he was nice enough to let me join the team and start planning these things, et cetera. It’s been a nice journey. I know that there’s other chapters in other cities. We’re not necessarily affiliated, but we are aware of each other and sometimes we’ll call each other in to do things like this, or video chat, or whatever the event may be.
Ben Aston: Yeah. That’s cool. For anyone who’s listening and you’re wondering, “Is there a DPM meetup near me?” If you head over to the community page on TheDigitalProjectManager.com, you’ll see we’ve got a post there that links to all the digital PM meetups that we’ve found, predominately in the US, but also in the UK, Canada, Australia, and there are some in Europe as well. If you’re interested in finding some other people who are like you, your crew, go and check out our list of meetups and head down to a meetup and you’ll find all kinds of interesting people who are doing the same thing as you.
I think one of the things actually that having been to some meetups, some DPM meetups myself, that sometimes happens, there’s a bit of a tendency, and this kind of relates to the article you’ve written Justin, is when PMs get together, one of the things that they can say to themselves or say to one another is talk about, “Oh, I’m so undervalued. I’m underappreciated. I know I’m awesome, but why is it that no one’s noticing how good I am?” I’ve got to be honest, I do understand this kind of mindset. A shameless plug here, I’ve written a little eBook called “So You Think You Want To Be A Digital Project Manager?” And if you’re interested in becoming a digital PM but you’re not quite sure what it is or what it means, or how to become one, then check out the eBook on my site, TheDigitalProjectManager.com.
But in the book, I discuss some of the things that I love about being a digital project manager. I love solving problems, I love making things happen, I love seeing ideas just brought to life and bringing teams together and the fusion of different disciplines that we get to work with. In the book, I also try to be a bit realistic and the truth is, it is hard. Like, what we do as digital project managers is complicated. We’re often an easy target in as much as if there’s one person that you single out to blame for something going wrong, the project manager’s a good person to point to, so it could be stressful. We’re at the mercy of others or our team, as they’re the ones doing the work rather than us most of the time.
In my book, I actually finish by saying, “No one will ever thank you,” and this obviously flies in the face of Justin’s article where he’s suggesting that being a project manager isn’t a thankless job. So, I thought this would be an interesting discussion. Now, the reason I say it’s thankless, just to explain that kind of perspective, is while I find that industry and clients are happy to celebrate beautiful design and brilliant new works, people that get excited about awesome technical wizardry, and there’s awards and there’s dinners, and people get very excited about them, and actually pay thousands and thousands of dollars to submit themselves for awards, and then go to the awards dinners, and then pick up their trophies.
But none of it could have happened without a digital project manager, but that said, no one ever celebrates that, and no one’s ever going to call you out for amazing project management you did on an award-winning project, because it’s just considered table stakes. (…) in the book is that you’ve got to be confident enough to know that you rock anyway. So, but Justin, I’m interested in your perspective. When was the last time that a client actually did thank you? What did you do that was thankworthy?
Justin Handler: Sure. Yeah, it’s funny. I’ve gotten many thank-yous over the years. I mean, I don’t think it’s because I’m some great project manager. I think what it comes down to, honestly, Ben, is being helpful, being educational, and solving problems for your clients, right? Like you said, it’s table stakes that your project’s going to go well. It’s an expectation that everybody has for the project manager and you should hold yourself to that expectation, but I think throughout the process, if you have an engaged client, you’re going to be working with them constantly to solve problems.
I think that’s where I’ve really “made my money” in project management, is being able to creatively solve our clients’ problems, and that specifically is where I tend to get thank yous, right? A lot of times our point person might come to us and say, “Hey, our timeline has shifted. We need to get this done sooner” and then we’ll go back to the resource planning group and we’ll creatively solve their problem. We’ll come back and they’ll be very thankful that we solved that. Or, a client will come to us and say, “Hey, we have this change to our scope but we can’t pay anymore money” and then we’ll creatively come up with a way to make it work and maybe drop out another feature that wasn’t scoped to solve their problem.
I don’t think that if you don’t have a client that’s engaged you’re ever really going to get thank yous. I don’t see it as really that client/agency relationship anymore. I really see it as this full circle partnership and if you’re working together to solve problems and to get the project done correctly throughout the way, I think you really form this bond and you will get those “thank yous.”
Ben Aston: Yeah. I buy that. I think that’s so true. I think it is. When clients see us as people who are not just project administrators, when they see that actually we can help creatively solve problems, I think that’s when we’re adding value. That’s when clients begin to see that okay, we’re not just an overhead. Because I think so often when clients use an estimate and they see account and project management and it’s say 20-25% or 30% of the overall budget, they’re like, “Hold on. What’s that for? Why can’t I just talk to the resources directly? I don’t think I need to talk to you, do I?”
Justin Handler: It’s such an old mentality, honestly. It’s so old school not to respect and understand why project managers exist. There still are many, many client/agency relationships that view it that way. I’m just fortunate enough to be in a situation where we work really as partners with our clients, and I think that’s where the mentality shift happened.
Ben Aston: Yeah, definitely. But be honest, though, what don’t you love about being a PM? What is, for someone who’s listening thinking, “I’m interested in becoming a digital project manager,” but from your perspective, when is it difficult and how is it a hard gig?
Justin Handler: Sure. Yeah, I would say it can definitely be stressful. For me specifically, it’s stressful when I can’t solve those problems that I mentioned, right?
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Justin Handler: I’ll have sleepless nights not because a client’s upset or we had to shift a timeline. I mean, those things happen, right? That’s just normal stuff that happens in any collaboration. It’s not even necessarily a project, right? But when I can’t solve a client’s problem, that’s when it really stresses me out and will keep me up at night. I mean, I had a client come to me yesterday, our project manager’s out on vacation, and the client came to me with a question about something to do with Drupal.
As I talked about in the article, I like to be educational so I like to understand the technology and the products that we’re using for our clients, so that I can answer questions when they came up. They had a question for me about a piece of functionality that I couldn’t solve and it was driving me absolutely nuts yesterday. I’ll definitely try and solve those things or at least help figure them out myself and I spent several hours and I was working on it in the evening, and then fortunately one of our developers that I had asked the question to messaged me late last night on Slack with a solution that he had found out actually on the Drupal Slack.
So, had he not figured it out for me, or at least helped me solve the problem, I probably would have been up all night thinking about how we could solve it. I would say that, for me, is what really stresses me out. I really don’t get stressed about the work or timelines and things like that. It’s really about if I can’t solve a problem.
Ben Aston: Yeah. No, that is so true. Definitely. So, one of the things that you talk about in the article which I think is really interesting, and it goes back to my point about no one’s ever going to notice. No one ever notices great project management because it is, well great project management just means that everyone else shines, but you talk about being an invisible PM. Do you want to just unpack that for people who haven’t read the article? What is an invisible PM and should we always be invisible? How does that work?
Justin Handler: Sure. Yeah, so what I was referring to is about just being a really good PM means that you’re not constantly putting out fires for your clients. I mean, you’re always going to have problems to solve. That’s, again, table stakes, but you’re not constantly having this negative attention brought to your project. When things are going smoothly, people don’t really take a step back and realize that the PM might be running things so efficiently or anticipating problems and solving them before they happen, et cetera.
Things just run smoothly, your stakeholders or your management doesn’t need to worry about your projects, and same thing on the client side. That’s really what I meant. It’s like, our Creative Director … I’m sorry. Our Chief Experience Officer, Mike Gadsby, he did a presentation at an AI event at Comcast last week, and he talked about having great design is invisible and what that means is that when people are using products and it’s so seamless, the experience is so smooth and there’s no interference, there’s nothing that makes you stop and say, “Wow, that’s really problematic” or, “Why did they do that?” Et cetera, that brings negative attention to the UX or the UI. It’s invisible.
I think the same thing for project management. If you’re so good at solving problems and running these projects that there’s not constant issues that crop up, major issues I should say, being a great project manager can be “invisible.”
Ben Aston: Cool. Yeah, no, I think that’s really helpful. In your article, you talk about six things that you should be doing to run projects more effectively. Some of those things are about managing a team, the other about managing clients. But your first point you talk about setting the team up for success and obviously that starts with a great brief and you mentioned in your article doing things like setting them up by writing great user stories, taking the guesswork from them, but what are the other tips? What are the other things that you can do as a PM to really set your team up for success?
Justin Handler: I think for me in my role, I think the number one thing is setting clear expectations with our clients. Starts at the beginning of the project for me, right? You want to make sure your clients understand how this process is going to run, potential risks, et cetera, and really establish that great relationship at the start. So, I like to be the one to set those expectations at the start of a project before it’s handed off to our project managers so that the client is well primed for what they’re going to experience, how the contract’s structured, how the project’s structured, et cetera.
That’s for me. Now, as a project manager, it’s about to what I wrote in the article, it’s about doing those little things that will set the team up for success. You mentioned writing great user stories, right? You want to take the guesswork out of it, but you always want to leave enough to the team because they are creative people, they are creative thinkers, to be able to make it their own. But you don’t want them having to constantly ask you questions, constantly have things unclear to them based on what’s been designed or what the requirements are.
You want to take those major inquiries away from them before it even gets to their plate so that they can work seamlessly. I think doing things like that are really, really important to run your projects smoothly, but also just build trust with your team and your client. You need to always be one step ahead in both cases, so that people aren’t constantly having to stop and asking questions. That, again, goes back to that process of being invisible, right?
Ben Aston: Yeah.
Justin Handler: You want them to get the tasks that you’re assigning to them and just say, “Oh, of course, Justin” or Ben. “I already thought about this, and I don’t have to go back and ask for credentials to log in to this system” or, “I don’t have to ask what customization I have to do here or there.” That’s really what it’s about for me.
Ben Aston: Yeah. No, I think that’s great. I wrote an article last year I think it was about … It was called something like, “Why Do Your Teams Suck?” Fundamentally I make the argument that it’s because you’re not briefing properly, and not setting your teams up for success. Because I think all too often a project will land on our laps and there’ll be a really tight deadline, and so we’ll just try to get things started. We’ll pull a team together and just give them a really loose brief and then just hope they get it, and then be surprised when for some reason, they don’t get it quite right. Or, in fact they do something totally wrong.
It all comes down to the fact that we didn’t brief them properly, but if we’re not briefing people properly and the people on our team really don’t know what the criteria for success are, or really the why behind what we’re asking them to do, and the details that they need to include. Like, if the requirements aren’t clear, then we’re really setting our teams up for failure. I think this is so important, setting our teams up for success is so key in being a great digital PM.
Justin Handler: Yeah, it’s huge.
Ben Aston: So you touched on this just now, but you talked about setting expectations with your client being really important. In the article you talk about setting them early, you talk about setting them often, and you actually talk about setting them continuously. So, how do you do that? Like, obviously many PMs will be familiar with creating a statement of work to outline the expectations or the deliverables, outline the activities, but how else do you set the expectations throughout a project?
Justin Handler: Sure. Yeah, I think the biggest thing for me that I always try to remind myself is that whoever I’m working with on the client-side, it’s not their full-time job. At least most of the time it’s not their full-time job, so they have probably several stakeholders that they have to report to as well as more than likely, a full-time job that they have to attend to. Running digital products and projects is what we do, right? So, we need to educate and set expectations for our clients throughout the way and help guide them throughout the way so that they understand each step of this process.
Again, this is what we do every day, it’s not what they do every day. You can be setting expectations from the second the project starts. You can set that first deliverable date, and when you get to that first deliverable date and you hit it, and it’s time to present, you need to set the stage. So, what I mean by that is if you’re presenting a wireframe, you need to clearly set the expectation as to what they’re looking at, what it means for the project, as well as what type of feedback you want to receive from your client.
That’s just the small example, but it’s really guiding them throughout this process. When things come up like change orders or scope creep et cetera, your job is to call it out. So, you should be doing that constantly and constantly reminding them, “Hey, this is what’s scoped” or, “Here’s what we talked about in X portion of the scoping phase.” Whatever the case may be, but you shouldn’t be afraid to have those tough conversations and do it early and often. It actually builds a lot of rapport with your clients and if you’re doing it continuously, and you don’t have to be annoying about it, but there’s a finesse to it, right?
If you’re doing it consistently, they start to auto-correct themselves and you really get into this good working relationship where you’re totally in tune with your client because you’re constantly guiding them through this process, setting clear expectations, and making sure that they understand how this thing’s going to flow.
Ben Aston: Yeah. That goes onto another one of the points that you make about yeah, tackling difficult conversations with poise, tackling them head-on. So people have got an example of this to help understand, what are the kind of difficult conversations that you typically have with clients? What are the classic things that you come against, that you have to tackle head-on?
Justin Handler: Sure. Yeah, so most of the time it’s scope related. For the majority of our projects, our scopes are more or less time based so we don’t have fixed deliverables per se, but it’s more about how much we can get done within the time. But in a traditional fixed fee project with a fixed scope, there’s scope issues all the time. It’s almost impossible to predict exactly what the project’s going to need three months into the project when you’re scoping it upfront.
So, I think that’s the number one thing. The way that I typically handle that or recommend handling it is as soon as it comes up, like as soon as the request comes up, you flag it and let the client know, “Hey, this might be out of scope” or, “Hey, this is out of scope. We need to discuss it.” That sets that expectation that you’re going to actively manage the scope and that you guys are going to have this open and honest conversation. Now, if they request something and you agree to it and then realize it’s out of scope later or somebody says it’s out of scope later, and then you have to go back to the client, it makes that conversation much more difficult.
With any tough conversation, whether it’s scope, timeline, some sort of major blocker or hurdle, I think it’s important to go to our clients right away, make them aware that there’s an issue, set that expectation before you get on the call or set that expectation as soon as it comes up so that when you get on that call, everybody understands that you’re here to solve a problem, you need to discuss it, you discuss it open and honestly, and then come up with a solution. I also recommend that you always come to that table with a solution in mind or at least a couple of options for your client, because what’s most likely going to happen is that they’re going to have to go back and discuss this with their team.
Ben Aston: I think that’s such sound advice. Yeah, there’s one thing which is to raise an issue early, which is critical, but then there’s also just waiting a tiny bit of time, like give yourself long enough to come up with a really robust plan so that you’ve got some options to bring to the table that are viable alternatives, so that you want to go and tackle that conversation by presenting the client with a viable alternative that they can just say yes to. Yeah, if you’re trying to have that difficult conversation and you’re just going to them with a problem, it’s not going to end up well.
Justin Handler: I always tell the people on our team that, “Please don’t bring problems to me. Bring solutions. It’s okay to bring problems but also have the solution.” That’s something I learned the hard way early on in my digital PM career was when you first start doing this, these problems that come up, they feel really unique and you feel totally almost like in a bubble. Like, it’s so stressful to you, right? I learned early on that you have to come with solutions or else that’s going to be … You’re taking a negative conversation and making it worse, but if you do come with solutions, typically there’s an option there to make this happen.
Ben Aston: Yeah. No, I think that’s really sound advice. One of the other things you talk about is the importance of building great client relationships. So, I’m curious as to how you do that. How do you get your clients’ trust? How do you build that trust? What does a great client relationship look like to you?
Justin Handler: Sure. So, for me, I’m the type of project manager where I would rather prove myself to a client before I start trying to build that relationship. I’ve always built my relationships by proving it to my clients. Like we talked about earlier, being really educational and consultative, and guiding them through this process and solving problems for them, and making them look good is really a great way to build the relationship. I think once you prove yourself in a project, that opens up the door to get to know your clients better. I always try to spend a few minutes when there’s downtime or when I first get to a meeting or when I first get on a call, just to talk to our clients and get to know them a little bit.
I think people want to deal with people. They don’t want to deal with robots, so getting to know your clients through way of the project and proving yourself through that project, as well as getting to know them personally I think really is how I have always liked to do it. Again, I don’t like having this client/agency relationship. I like to look at it as a partnership, so I think if you can prove yourself constantly and you can get to know your client, then when you have tough situations, you can solve them and they’re going to be a lot more open to working through that issue with you if they like you, and you’ve proven yourself to them.
I think not only solving problems, but also being responsive is a really big deal, and something that I look back and have recognized as a reason why I’ve got some really good relationships with our clients is I try to be super responsive. Now, it’s not about responding in under a minute, but it’s about making sure that they hear you, right? So, I look at it as when I need something, when I’m hiring a contractor, when I’m hiring really any service industry, you always want that constant communication. You want to be updated, et cetera, so I think being really responsive to my clients is a great way to build relationships and show them that it’s not just about work but you understand that they … Your client needs you and you’re respectful of that and you’re responsive, and you’re constantly helping them, I think really how I’ve always done it.
Ben Aston: Yeah. No, I think that’s great, and I think yeah, it’s showing your clients that you care. You care not just about delivering the project because that’s what your job is, but you care about making them be successful, too. You care about their success and the project delivering the results that it’s intended to deliver as well.
Justin Handler: Exactly.
Ben Aston: It’s like what you’ve been talking about, being a partner rather than just thinking of yourself as, “Hey, I’m just here to deliver the project.” Well actually, you’re delivering a project because it’s intended to deliver some kind of results. A project is to change something, and so you need to be … When you care about the change that you’re trying to create through the thing that you’re creating, and the clients can see that, I think that’s great in terms of building the client relationships. When they feel like you understand their brand, you understand what they’re trying to achieve as an organization, it really helps develop that kind of client/agency partnership.
Justin Handler: Yeah, exactly, and to go back to a point that I mentioned, I think that when you have that relationship, it makes the tough conversations a lot easier. They know that they’re dealing with somebody that they care about, that cares about them, that cares about the project and it really does make those conversations a lot easier. There’s definitely many people out there that are strict project managers that will tell me that there’s account managers for the relationship, but I’ve always been of the mind that having a great relationship will make running your projects a lot easier. I think I’ve proven that and we as a company and many other project managers out there have proven that that is a reality.
Ben Aston: Great stuff. So, yeah, I hope that’s been helpful for everyone that’s listening to try and understand a bit more about how to run projects effectively. I think what Justin’s talked about are some really key things to running projects effectively which will help you be an invisible PM and then maybe just maybe someone will thank you for it. But I think the important thing and the important takeaway here is that as PMs, we need to be confident in our own ability.
Even if no one does say thank you, you can thank yourself. You can be confident that actually by doing your job properly, by doing an invisible PM and being seamless, and enabling a project to happen around you and facilitating that, you can be an invisible PM and you can be rest assured in the knowledge that you’re doing a good job. Justin, thanks so much for joining us today. It’s been great having you with us.
Justin Handler: Of course. Thanks for having me, Ben. I appreciate it.
Ben Aston: Good stuff. If you’d like to contribute to the conversation, head to TheDigitalProjectManager.com, check out Justin’s article, comment on the post, and then head to the community section of TheDigitalProjectManager.com to join our Slack team where you’ll find all kinds of interesting conversations going on. But until next time, thanks for listening.