Ever wondered what it takes to lead a team and grow a department into a $1.7 million powerhouse?
Tune in as we glean insights from the inspiring journey of Christina Avino—an associate director of project management at Seer Interactive—whose strategies and experiences have helped her shape her PM department into a lucrative business arm.
From her humble beginnings as a co-op student at a marketing agency, she’s honed key project management skills and attributes. She shares with us what makes a great project manager, the importance of technical know-how, and the number one skill that all PMs must master.
- Introduction and Journey [1:17]
- Christina dreamed of being a successful businesswoman but chose marketing as a major due to the perception of it being the fun side of business, influenced by the movie “What Women Want.”
- She initially envisioned a career creating cool Nike ads but discovered during a co-op at Drexel that the day-to-day job of a marketer is more specialized.
- She found a niche in project management during the co-op experience, shifting focus from marketing to a more specialized area within business.
- Works at Seer, a digital marketing agency that specializes in SEO, paid advertising, analytics, Creative, and CRO.
- Success and Growth in Project Management [3:40]
- Being organized, having a Type A personality, and a natural inclination for planning are essential traits for project managers.
- Christina discovered the project management skill set during a co-op at an agency, realizing its value and witnessing professionals building careers around it.
- 90% of the PMs in their team at Seer, totaling 10 members, did not have the title “project manager” before joining but have been highly successful in the role.
- The ability to break down problems and navigate ambiguity is crucial in project management, as the services offered and platforms used are often new and subject to change.
- Confidence in dealing with the unknown and the ability to chart a course despite ambiguity are essential qualities for project managers, highlighting the importance of leadership in the role.
No matter how far you advance in your career, there’s always going to be ambiguity in project management. So being able to feel confident in the unknown and being able to chart a course as a leader is incredibly important.Christina Avino
- The Role of Technical Knowledge in Project Management [7:09]
- Soft skills are considered more valuable than industry knowledge because agency functions can vary significantly, and on-the-job learning is possible for industry specifics.
- Christina emphasizes that soft skills, such as communication and problem-solving, are transferable across agencies, while industry knowledge might not be entirely applicable in a new agency setting.
- She mentions instances where individuals at Seer transitioned from being practitioners to project managers, leveraging their deep understanding of deliverables as a valuable asset.
- Navigating Skill Gaps and Upskilling Strategies [8:57]
- Christina stresses the importance of finding a balance between doing enough research to ask smart questions and relying on subject matter experts to fill gaps in knowledge.
- She highlights the value of knowing what questions to ask and being comfortable with what one doesn’t know, especially when transitioning between industries.
- Considers the ability to approach specialists and rely on their expertise as crucial for project managers.
- Future Trajectory [12:19]
- Christina has never considered a career beyond project management, given her unique and fulfilling role at Seer.
- She’s at a pivotal point where the efforts of the past eight years are coming to fruition and the project management department is firmly established at Seer.
- Aims to continue building and expanding the project management department, with a focus on furthering the careers of the team that played a crucial role in the department’s success.
Meet Our Guest
Since joining the team in 2015, Christina has built and defined Project Management practice at Seer. She discovered her knack for project management immediately upon entering the working world and starting her career at small creative and dev agencies where she wore many hats and discovered her love for process. Today, she brings that passion to find efficiencies for their clients and team. Christina graduated from Drexel University with a Bachelor of Science in Marketing and a minor in Psychology. Outside the office, she is a fitness enthusiast and avid foodie. When she’s not teaching spin classes you can find her indulging at one of Philly’s many local gems.
The number one skill that a PM needs to have is knowing what questions to ask, being comfortable with what you don’t know, and being able to go to the right folks when you need some answers. Because at the end of the day, you can never know it all.Christina Avino
Resources from this episode:
- Join DPM Membership
- Subscribe to the newsletter to get our latest articles and podcasts
- Connect with Christina Avino on LinkedIn
- Check out Seer Interactive
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. What I love about this community is that it's full of people who probably wanted to do something totally different with their lives.
But while we all come from a diverse set of backgrounds, roles, and industries, we found our calling organizing the chaos that is - projects. Our unique stories have been shaped by the lessons we've learned, the skills we've developed, and the people we've met along the way. If you want to join, or just learn more about the community, come check out our website at thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership.
Today we're speaking with esteemed community member and associate director of project management, Christina Avino. Christina started out her professional career as a co-op student at a marketing agency. Since then she's done many things, including building out a PM department that has grown to be a $1.7 million department with 10 PMs.
We'll hear about Christina's journey as a digital project manager, what characteristics make up a good PM, how much technical knowledge a PM should have, and the number one skill that PMs need.
I wanted to start from the beginning, if you could entertain me a little bit and talk to me about what you thought you'd be when you grew up and where you think your life was heading.
Christina Avino: Yeah. So I think I just had dreams of being this big hotshot businesswoman. It was less about the job and more like I wanted to wear heels and go into a shiny skyscraper every day, which is particularly ironic now because I work from home in pretty comfortable clothes 90% of the time. But never really had a concrete idea of what in business I wanted to do.
And then I picked marketing as my major cause I always thought of that as being the fun side of business, admittedly, because of that movie, What Women Want, made it seem so cool. Like you're making Nike ads all day. But then in my first co-op at Drexel, I learned that's not really what the day to day job of a marketer is and it's much more specialized. And that's where I found my niche in PM.
Michael Mordak: That's awesome. And so what kind of work are you doing at Seer? You're working at Seer currently, right?
Christina Avino: Correct. Yes.
Michael Mordak: And then what kind of work do they do?
Christina Avino: So they're a digital marketing agency, so I'm surrounded by marketers. I just myself do not do the marketing. And that's been true from day one.
So we specialize in SEO, paid and analytics with Creative and CRO. And Creative is actually how I got my foot in the door here. That was the avenue that I found most interesting and worked with that team exclusively and then have since expanded the PM practice to the full company, which is actually the larger divisions and the bulk of the work that we do at Seer.
Michael Mordak: Oh, that's awesome. So you're still able to work in marketing. I mean, you still get to tap into that part of yourself that wanted to pursue that, but yeah, you've put a bit of distance between that and what you're currently doing.
Christina Avino: A hundred percent.
Michael Mordak: And so you said you got in the door through creative. Is that because you had like a creative background when you got in that position?
Christina Avino: No, so it started with, I came from more web dev agencies and I was working at a shop with, was exclusively developers, so I wanted to go the other direction and work exclusively with designers and then that's how I found Seer.
I stumbled into PM and project management like most people do because I went to Drexel University, which has a co-op program. And I got my first co-op at a marketing agency in Wilmington, and, actually, Web Design Marketing Agency. And I was supposed to cycle through all the different departments and figure out what was the best fit, but project management was the first one, and it really played naturally to my strengths, and I haven't looked back since.
Michael Mordak: Oh, that's amazing. Yeah you went right into my next question there, which is perfect. No, it's totally fine. Which is going to be how you accidentally became a DPM, but we got the inside scoop there.
But you know what, that's totally fine because we can just jump right into maybe some of the details around that process of I guess, were there any kind of skills or concepts that you brought over from maybe your past experience that helped you stand out in those roles, that helped you get the attention?
Christina Avino: Yeah. So, I think looking back now, I don't mean this to downplay the skill set required for project managers, so much of it can come naturally.
It's like being very organized, typically type A, naturally like to be a planner, think through all the dependencies. So if you take anything that you do in life, planning a trip, for example, you are project planning that people are often doing that every day in their life. And until I had the experience to apply it at my co-op, I never really saw that skill set in me until I started working at that agency and being able to apply the skill and seeing these professionals making a career out of it, which I thought was awesome.
And that's how it took off. Now, obviously there's a lot of more to it than that, but I think a huge portion of it and a big reason why we can often go as like unsung heroes is that we discredit how much value we're providing, because it comes so naturally to so many project managers.
But it really doesn't come naturally to everyone. To be able to think through things in order and always be factoring in dependencies. Being able to manage a lot of different moving pieces with bird's eye level knowledge of understanding of so many different specialties. But I see it in my building out my team now that it really just does come naturally to some folks and that's a huge asset.
Michael Mordak: Yeah. As you say that, it's making me think, are there any specific characteristics or anything that you look for in PMs who are coming? I mean, some of those natural things that people might do or ways that they behave that show that they're going to be a good fit for the position?
Christina Avino: Yeah. So I'd say actually 90% of the PMs that we've hired, and we now have a team of 10 actually did not have the title project manager before, and they've all been incredibly successful in this role.
This team is rock stars. Some of the titles they have had before was event planner. Just working in any role in a startup, that's typically a really good sign that you could be a good project manager because you are naturally project managing a lot of things and wearing a lot of hats. So that has always been a key indicator for success in the role, but we actually do a step in the interview process that has you think through a mock like burn report and I don't actually care about the execution of it.
But just seeing their thinking of how they would analyze the, fake data that we give and just their thought process of how they would approach a problem and what assumptions they could make knowing nothing about the actual project and whatnot has been, is a great way to get insight into how they process things. Even if it's not one for one with what, how we would actually do it in reality at Seer.
It's, that's the indicator of okay, you know how to break down problems and navigate ambiguity, because ultimately no matter how far into your career you get, I think there's always going to be ambiguity in project management because services that you offer are new, platforms are new, things are always changing.
So, that is huge. Being able to feel confident in the unknown and be able to still chart a course, be a leader is incredibly important. And that's that not exclusive to the role of project managers at all.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, no, that's great insight. And one of the things I was thinking about as you were going through all this is there are a lot of skills and concepts that are great for project managers to have.
But none of the things you really mentioned there were technical knowledge about marketing or technical knowledge about like software development, that kind of stuff. And obviously, you're working for a marketing company, but what, like how much technical knowledge do you think is required for that role?
Do you have to know about like the inner workings of programmatic display advertising or need to know, like how to code certain things or that kind of stuff?
Christina Avino: So definitely not in my role do you have to know how to code and knowledge of our services is always an asset. But if I could pick between some of the soft skills that are required to be successful and knowledge of the industry, I would definitely select the former because the latter you can learn on the job.
And what I found is that every agency functions so differently that it's not always, when you come in with that knowledge, it's not always 100% transferable to how we're doing things at Seer or whatever agency you move to. So, I think soft skills first, but obviously, yes, industry knowledge is an asset.
And we've actually had a few folks convert from being a practitioner at Seer to being a project manager at Seer. I mean, they have a huge leg up of fully understanding the nuances of everything that goes into a deliverable is a huge asset. I don't mean to downplay that at all, but it can be learned.
Michael Mordak: So, but if you were talking to somebody who was, in the market right now for a job, you would say, focus on soft skills, technical comes later.
Christina Avino: Yes, because that I can't really teach, like that's so much harder to coach to say wear many hats, navigate ambiguity, is like really hard to teach someone how to do.
Michael Mordak: Be a better people person.
Christina Avino: Yes exactly. I can teach you on the nuances and dependencies of different types of work streams that we do.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, so actually that's a great kind of segue into what I wanted to know next, which is what were those areas, so I mean, obviously you, knowing your background and coming into this role, you knew you had a lot of beneficial kind of crossover experience and skills that you brought to the job, which was why you stood out in that role and were able to pick up on it.
But were there any areas of the job that you were lacking and needed to upscale?
Christina Avino: So it is actually the technical component. So I, like I said, specifically in web development, I started in web development, which that like even more of a black box, I think a lot of marketing can be a little more intuitive.
We all search things on Google, understanding the algorithm at a high level, it's a little bit easier for at least my brain to wrap my head around like paid ads and things like that, but development and coding is like just completely beyond my realm. So when I was working exclusively with developers, that was a huge learning curve.
And so how I tackled it, because there was so much to learn, is like project by project, platform by platform, like researching and learning about it. And then a lot of it I did candidly just learn on the job because you can, research till you're blue in the face, but you won't, might not be able to uncover everything.
But finding that balance of doing enough research so you can go to your team of specialists with smart questions that don't frustrate them, make you smarter for the next time around, but leaning on your SMEs as well. So I always like to do a little bit of homework, show that I am like doing my part to not be completely ignorant to subject matter X, but then knowing that like the folks that I'm working with are an expert in whatever industry you might be in and not being afraid to rely on them.
I say the number one skill that a PM needs to have, especially if you're, transitioning between industries, is knowing what questions to ask, being comfortable with what you don't know, and being able to go to the right folks when you need some answers. Because at the end of the day, you can never know it all.
That's why we are not the practitioner. That's why I'm not the developer. They will always know more than we do. So, just knowing the questions to ask is our most important role.
Michael Mordak: You mentioned that, you pick up on technical knowledge and learn, try to learn something new with every project or whatever it is that comes across your plate so that you slowly over time pick up more of that technical knowledge and improve in that area.
Are there ever times where you've learned something and then look back at a previous project and kind of felt Oh, I wish I knew that at the time because it would have made my life so much easier then?
Christina Avino: I have absolutely learned things in current projects that I look back, I'm like, Oh my gosh, that would have been a lovely nugget I've known for previous projects. I can't think of a specific example, but I know that is definitely quite common, even getting outside of the specific technical realm. The basics of even client management, scope management, it happens constantly. That's why I'm very diligent about trying to do retrospectives for every project, so that we do take those learnings with us moving forward.
I try not to dwell too much on the past and let bygones be bygones, but just look ahead and see how we be better in the future.
Michael Mordak: It's honestly probably a good thing that you don't remember any specific ones because clearly they're not that important.
Christina Avino: Yeah, exactly. I mean, and it's always just the thing where you're like, well, that would have made my life easier, this would have been significantly smoother but you're so far past the point of that being consequential.
Michael Mordak: Yeah, great. Well, I mean, I just want to switch tracks a little bit and we'll have a bit of a look at the future. So, you've come from, through all these, different roles going through co-op and falling into PM. And then I just wanted to get a sense from you. Do you have a plan for what's next?
And that you're looking to, working toward right now, like a, another role or position, or what do you see yourself doing after PM, I guess?
Christina Avino: Oh, well, I've never thought past PM, honestly, because I think I'm in this very unique and wonderful situation now at Seer where I've had the opportunity to build out a project management department, which has been truly like the biggest accomplishment and most rewarding experience of my life.
Because I started as the first and only PM and when there wasn't PM cross divisionally over the last eight years have now built it out to a $1.7 million department with 10 PMs. And a lot of that growth has happened in the last two years really. So I'm at this pivotal point where all of the work from the last eight years is coming to fruition and we've really established ourselves at Seer.
So really I have my eyes completely set on continuing to build this out, try to further the career of the team that has helped us get here, because I surely did not do this alone. Those ten folks I keep referencing are a huge reason why PM has become a success at Seer, and I'm just so excited to see what the future holds.
Michael Mordak: I mean, well, that's amazing. It's extremely impressive to be able to say that you've part of that build over those years. And yeah, I don't blame you for wanting to live in that moment and experience it since it's all kind of culminating in this at this time.
So that's amazing and beautiful in itself.
Christina Avino: Yeah, no, it's been a fun ride.
Michael Mordak: Awesome. Well, that's all I was really hoping to chat about today was just to hear your story and be able to share that with people listening. Because I think that one of the things that I have come to understand is that just everybody's story is so uniquely different and may not necessarily matter where you're coming from or what you learned previously.
We all have different things that we can bring to the role that will help us out, whether that's soft skills or technical skills, or whether we're natural planners or whatever it is. There's always something that we can bring and always things that we can work on as well. Important part.
But yes, thanks again, Christina, for your time this morning and good luck with everything. I just want to say yeah, all the best and hope that we get to chat again soon.
Christina Avino: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. It was a great time.
Michael Mordak: Thanks for tuning into our Member Spotlight with Christina. She has so much more knowledge and insight to share with you so come chat with us in the Slack channel, along with our entire community of digital project managers. You can learn more about membership on our website at thedigitalprojectmanager.com/membership.
Until next time, thanks for listening.