Michael Mordak is joined by Robyn Birkedal—Senior Digital Producer—to talk about the journey that took her from rebellious student to insertion order faxer and eventually to Digital Project Manager.
- Robyn’s background [0:58]
- As a little kid, she wanted to be a music video choreographer.
- Grew up in Anchorage, Alaska
- A child of two anthropologists
- She works as a senior technical project manager or producer right now in the agency space.
- How did Robyn fall into digital project management? [2:42]
- In college, she felt at home in a lot of the business classes and she enjoyed working with people.
- She was project managing before she knew it was a job.
- She worked at a small agency’s media department after college, but ended up quitting her job and moved back down to Portland.
- Other parts of the job that Robyn was really awesome at [5:41]
- She’s constantly finding out new things that she’s good at, and other strengths that she’s not so talented at, or doesn’t want to keep participating in.
- She saw this TED talk a couple years ago from Emilie Wapnick and she identified the term called a “multipotentialite” – somebody who’s excellent at learning new things, at failing fast at things, and is intensely curious. They’re people who have a lot of mini hobbies.
Successful digital project managers are insanely and intensely curious. We really like rapidly learning, and we love a certain type of chaos that keeps us intrigued.Robyn Birkedal
- Some areas of the job that Robyn needed to work on and improve in order to thrive in that role [8:31]
- She’s trying to practice holding space for her team members.
- As producers, sometimes our personality types are, if there’s a pause, we jump in and try to provide a solution.
- She’s also trying to be more at peace with some of the things that we don’t love to do as PM sometimes.
- Robyn’s goal for the next step [9:55]
- She’s pretty happy in her role as a digital project manager right now.
We should normalize that you can spend time in a digital project manager role. It’s completely great for you to stay in whatever space that you feel comfortable in.Robyn Birkedal
- As PMs, our minds are busy and we always have a plan B.
- Sometimes she fantasizes working at a Safeway or a grocery store.
- She also thinks about being a couples counselor one day.
- What Robyn loves about PM [13:26]
- Mastermind community within the DPM Slack group
- She loves jumping in on the topics involving interpersonal conflict on teams – how to stand up to your creative director or how to push back on the client for those rounds of review.
- What is the one thing about the job that she could do without? [15:27]
- Statements of work – writing them and even the proposal before you get to the statement of work is like a certain place of hell.
Meet Our Guest
Robyn is a Portland, OR based digital project manager. She’s been in the industry for more than 10 years and has produced a wide swath of digital efforts including websites, product UX/UI, digital experiences, social, and even a national broadcast spot.
As PMs, our minds are busy and we always have a plan B.Robyn Birkedal
Resources From This Episode:
- Join DPM Membership
- Subscribe to the newsletter to get our latest articles and podcasts
- Connect with Robyn on LinkedIn
Related Articles And Podcasts:
Read The Transcript:
We’re trying out transcribing our podcasts using a software program. Please forgive any typos as the bot isn’t correct 100% of the time.
Michael Mordak: Hey, it's Michael from The Digital Project Manager and welcome to today's Member Spotlight! We've managed to string together the biggest and baddest collection of project managers who are out there creating change and challenging the paradigms that exist in projects today. But these people were not born the inspiring and forward thinking PMs they are today, which is why we're sitting down and sharing their stories with you.
Today, we're speaking with DPM expert and longtime community member, Robyn Birkedal. Robyn's career started at a small marketing agency in Alaska of all places, doing jobs that no one else wanted to own. Over time, she learned to play into her natural curiosity to find a role where she finally felt at home. So let's dive in and find out more about the journey that took her from rebellious student to insertion order faxer and eventually to Digital Project Manager.
What did you want to be when you grew up, like, as you're going through trying to decide, what you wanted to do at school, that kind of thing, what did you have in mind for your future?
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah, this is such a great, rich question, and I think it says a lot about somebody. Unfortunately, I don't have anything super exciting about that. As a little kid, I definitely at one point wanted to be a music video choreographer. And unfortunately, my life path did not result in that being my formal career.
But I've always wanted to be behind the camera or part of the leadership and not really the star. If that helped?
Michael Mordak: Yeah. Did you have a dance background? You did that when you were younger?
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah. So I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska, which is definitely a wild place to grow up. And so my dance training wasn't very professional to say the least.
I don't think I would have been qualified. I guess in terms of my upbringing though, what really shaped me towards more of what I do professionally now is that I grew up the child of two anthropologists. So we were constantly observing and interacting in different places and spaces and people.
And I think that just made me pretty open and definitely in terms of rebellion, I turned towards advertising, right? Consumerism, the ills of things. And that kind of felt like a good way to go to the dark side. And here I am, which is in a way studying people.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, that's true, actually. So I guess for people listening, what is your title and role and what are you working in right now?
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah, well, my name is Robyn once again, and I work as a senior technical project manager or producer right now in the agency space. So I work for about a medium size agency based out of the US and we work on enterprise level web apps.
Michael Mordak: And then we can jump back over to that journey we mentioned. So what you wanted to be when you grew up, a bit rebellious and trying to go against your parents wishes as anthropologists. And then at some point, obviously you you got to be where you are today. So was there a point where you realized you were a digital project manager or like, did you apply for that role? How did you fall into that place?
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah. Well, in addition to always being curious and interested in people, in college I really felt at home in a lot of the business classes. And I think for a lot of that is because we were having a lot of group projects. Which I understand most people really hate, but in my classes, I always enjoyed working with people. And I never seemed to have that experience where somebody would just do the whole project, and I was not that person who would do the whole project.
Unfortunately, I was that annoying person that would step in and say, Okay, well, what can you do? And I'll take this part, and then like, I was project managing before I knew it was a job. Like I had no role models that really said, this is a career path and what feels easy for you is actually like really rewarding.
So while in university was in like an advertising group, which was competitive and very extroverted and not as extroverted as that anymore. But at the time my path took me back to Anchorage, Alaska, and I cut my teeth working for a very small ad agency up there. And I definitely was almost fired from that job.
Michael Mordak: I was there, positive, because we have to go into that. What happened?
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah, well, it's your first job after college. And personally, I did not think I'd be moving back to my hometown. And I was placed in the small agency's media department. So I was like, faxing insertion orders and making job jackets. For those of you that might know what those are.
And I just was like, not enthusiastic about print ads and schlepping gear. And it just, it was the wrong fit. But through those experiences, actually, when I found my path into being a digital project manager. So at the time I was tasked with this, they saw as like non important job of helping manage the production of the agency website.
And we were working with this external third party, technical group who was doing that. And I remember the exact moment I was talking on the phone with this person that was called a digital producer and I was like, I left that person's job. Because I was pouring all my energy into this stupid, non-tangible project that nobody cared about, but there was all these moving pieces.
And it was a reprieve from like, all these really difficult personalities telling me that I was not successful in what I found to be like a surprising work environment. So I ended up quitting my job and moving back down to Portland. And that's where I've been ever since successfully as a digital project manager.
Michael Mordak: So you mentioned that there were some things that you were just naturally really good at, like when it came to organizing your group members in college and stuff. I guess, yeah, were there any other parts of the job that you were really awesome at and when you learned about being a digital producer, drew you to that position?
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah, this is something I think I'm still uncovering and exploring as a person in this space. And I'm constantly finding out new things that maybe I'm good at, and maybe other strengths that I'm not so talented at, or don't want to keep participating in. But I think for me, I saw this TED talk a couple years ago, it's like Emilie Wapnick, forget the name exactly, but she identified this term called a multipotentialite.
And essentially, it's somebody who's really excellent at learning new things, at failing fast at things, and are as intensely curious. They're really defined as people who don't have a ton of hobbies or they have a lot of little mini hobbies. And I felt so seen when seeing that TED Talk. I identified so deeply with that, and I really find that's a key personality trait or attribute that really successful digital project managers have, is that we are insanely and intensely curious. We really like rapidly learning, and we love a certain type of chaos that keeps us intrigued.
I think there's certainly a special sort of potion or sauce when we come to the work of non-tangible forms of digital creative and technical solutions. I think it's an ongoing art form or output that we don't really typically see when you work on some traditional media format. So say that print ad or say a national broadcast spot, which are all great and wonderful executions, but these kind of tend to live on in multiple channels for a very long time.
Michael Mordak: I love that you brought up that TED talk. What was the person's name again?
Robyn Birkedal: Emilie Wapnick.
Michael Mordak: I'm asking because my wife literally showed me a video of, it must've been Emilie the other day. Because I don't know, I have this conversation with her all the time about how I feel like I'm always taking on all these little mini things and getting obsessed here and there with all these different kind of hobbies and interests and that kind of stuff, but never really focus on any one thing.
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah.
Michael Mordak: She show me that video and I went, Oh my God, this is me. It's me. It was so eye opening and so validating and I felt so good listening to that.
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah. Speaking back to my upbringing too, I think when everybody asks you what you want to be when you grow up and it's so easy for some people to say like, I want to be a firefighter or an archeologist. And for me, I just felt very lost.
And so finding myself in this space of being a digital project manager, I can do all the things. I can work on websites about immunization. I can work on websites about athletic leggings. I really get to learn about a ton of topics all the time.
Michael Mordak: That's awesome. Okay. So I'm going to flip this one on you.
So those are some areas that you were already maybe good at or aligned with who you were. But it would be really cool to know, what were some areas of the job that you knew you needed to work on and improve in order to really thrive in this role?
Robyn Birkedal: That's a great question. I think I'm constantly trying to obviously improve and grow in different spaces and places.
Right now, I'm trying to practice holding space for my team members. I think a lot of times we're working remotely and we don't necessarily give a second for somebody on that video call to respond. Also, as producers, sometimes our personality types are, if there's a pause, we jump in and try to provide a solution.
And that's really culturally something I'm trying to shift where we feel that psychological safety and also out of a place of respect. I've seen over the last couple of years by me learning more and more how to take a step back. It's really given space for other people to step up and shine, which have been great.
I'm also trying to be more at peace with some of the things that we don't love to do as PM sometimes. Like actually, just buffling down and participating in QA or content migration if the project calls. So just sucking it up.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, well, they're always going to be those parts of the job, I think. I mean, it can all be perfect, every day when you walk in.
That's awesome. So you've, like you said, you're always evolving and you're always improving in this role and bringing your skills up to par with where you need to be. And then I'd love to also get from you like, where do you see yourself going from here? Now you've come from somebody who worked at this print ad agency to, falling into this digital producer role where you feel at home.
Is there something that you're looking to next that you're allowed to share and that, yeah, we're what's the goal for you for the next step?
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah, well, as a permanent multipotentialite, as we talked about, who knows. I think for me, I'm pretty happy in my role right now as a digital project manager. I think we should normalize that you can spend time in this role. I think it's completely great for you to stay in whatever space that you feel comfortable in. You don't need to be here for a couple years and then move on to something else. So right now I'm trying to have that practice. But for me, as PMs, our minds are busy and we always have a plan B.
So I don't know. Sometimes I fantasize about like, this one's pretty embarrassing. I like to fantasize about working at like a Safeway or a grocery store, like a normal franchise one. And I don't want to work behind the cash register, I just want to stock the shelves. And I'm very particular that I do not want to work at a fancy grocery store, it has to be just a normal one.
Michael Mordak: Awesome. As somebody who previously worked as a shelf stocker at a normal grocery store, it's funny to see that somebody, admires that role, and he looks up to being that one day.
Robyn Birkedal: It looks meditative.
Michael Mordak: It is nice though because it's a kind of job where you can just, you clock in, you show up, you know what you're going to do. There are no curve balls. No one's going to like throw some big mess in your face and expect you to clean it up. And then you clock out at the end of the day and it's a steady paycheck.
Robyn Birkedal: Exactly. Obviously, that's not the real goal, but although I have questioned if I want to try that sometime.
Alternatively, I like to think about maybe one day being like a couples counselor. I think that would be really fun to help people navigate their own interpersonal relationships. And then who knows, like I've had a few friends just go back to school and become nurses. And I'm like, well, so who knows?
Michael Mordak: That's interesting. I mean, I feel like the couples counseling thing in a way lines up with a lot of this stuff that project managers will do just with, a team like norming and forming it out, all that kind of stuff, like making sure that people are getting along in their roles and able to work together.
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah, it's an interesting thread that you're on that too. I've had this thought recently where, you know, right now we're talking a lot about emotional intelligence in the workplace and we're talking a lot about psychological safety. And I think for us, digital project managers, we've been practicing a lot of those tools already for years.
And then now we're just starting to educate others into that, normalizing that practice, right?
Michael Mordak: Yeah, I love that. It's cool to hear that kind of what might be next. Because that's actually a question that I hear and I see come up all the time in our community is, what's your next plan after digital project management?
Where do you see yourself going and what kind of, how can you transfer those skills over to a new role? So I think the reality is that there are a lot of different avenues you could go. That'd be a really neat path to take.
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah, I have a feeling when I'll be done with DPM, if there ever is a time, I'll be in a different category.
Michael Mordak: Cool. Well, I think we've covered a lot of ground today. And I don't want to take up all the time in the world because I know that you have lots to get back to. But maybe before we go we can just do a quick, just two quick questions. One would be like, what is your favorite, currently your favorite thing about project management right now?
What is like, I know we were speaking before this a little bit about the mastermind group that you're in through the DPM community. And yeah, I'd love to hear, like, what are some of the things that really bring you to this role and that, keep you coming back every day?
Robyn Birkedal: Yeah, one of my favorite things right now is definitely, my mastermind community here within the DPM Slack group.
We're a self organized group, about five of us, and we meet twice a month. And it's really been a helpful, safe space for me to talk to people that are just like me, that understand what these jobs are like and can really provide a lot of support and problem solving. And I feel like there's no topic that's off limits with them.
They're really helpful in tactical situations as well as situational. So that's been very helpful. I also appreciate it because then I don't feel like I need to lean on people in my workplace. Where that could potentially jeopardize really my role there or have people see me differently. So masterminds for sure.
Michael Mordak: That's awesome. Is there anything about like the job in particular about project management, like that's something that you love, like let's say something comes up in the community. Somebody has a question about a certain topic. Like what's the topic that you love jumping in on and responding to?
Robyn Birkedal: Ooh, I definitely love jumping in on the topics involving interpersonal conflict on teams. I definitely live for that spicy dynamic about how to stand up to your creative director or how to push back on the client for those rounds of review. I definitely love to have contributions on those topics.
Outside of that, I've, produced projects, everything from a national broadcast spot, for TV all the way through right now I'm just doing a lot of websites again. So variety is where it's at.
Michael Mordak: Awesome. And last quick question is what is the one thing about the job that you could do without?
Robyn Birkedal: The one thing I could do without in the role of digital project managers would be statements of work. I feel like writing them and even the proposal before you get to the statement of work is like a certain place of hell. I have no idea how people choose to work in the growth portion of any company.
Michael Mordak: I know that there are probably a lot of people that are just feeling all of those feelings right now.
Robyn Birkedal: I don't know why, but producers, it's like, you like, hold this deck or this document and you have to shove it in front of people's faces and they don't want to do it. But then they tell you what you did is wrong and so you just keep repeating this behavior until finally it's approved and it's just an awful ritual, so.
Michael Mordak: But then six months down the road when they finally sign it and you can start working.
Robyn Birkedal: I mean, I like it once you already have the rhythm down established, you can pump them out pretty quickly, but there's usually that. Yeah. You got to work those kinks out and the language between companies can be different, so.
Michael Mordak: Well, Robyn, really appreciate you taking some time and chatting on this more about your journey. Because, I mean, the fact of the matter is that everybody's got bizarre journey that might take them from Portland to Anchorage, Alaska and back in their search for, what they wanted to do.
And so I think this will be really helpful for people to listen to and also find out, if they are in the space right now, what could be next for them. A lot of great insight and I just appreciate your time.
Robyn Birkedal: Thank you, Michael. It's been fun chatting with you.
Michael Mordak: Thanks for tuning in to our Member Spotlight with Robyn Birkedal.
She has so much more knowledge and insight to share with you. So if you'd like to come chat with us in the Slack channel, along with our entire community of digital project managers, we'd love to have you! You can learn more about it on our website at thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership.
Thanks for listening and we'll see you on the next one!