Top 5 Things I Learned in 3.5 Years as a Project Manager

When’s the last time you heard a kid say, “I want to be a project manager when I grow up?” Never? Me, neither. The truth is, most people take a winding path into project management, and like many (if not all) jobs these days, it’s something you learn by doing — not by sitting in classroom. Although I’ve watched the videos (shout-out to the City of New York for offering free, remote Lynda access with residents’ library cards), sat for the bootcamps and workshops, devoured books like Jeff Sutherland’s Scrum, I’ve gained what I believe to be the most useful tid-bits of knowledge — the true gems — via my day-to-day work.

I’ll preface this list with a disclaimer that project management can vary wildly across different organizations. I specialize in digital project management and the bulk of my experience has been with start-ups, boutique agencies, small social enterprises, and non-profits. That being said, I’ve worked both remotely and in-office with multiple types of companies, and find these take-aways relevant in all environments.

1. Always check work. In other words, don’t trust the checkmark. Take it upon yourself to assess and verify a task is truly “done” before putting it to bed. (Real life example: A developer marks off that she has completed a task to integrate a JSON feed on a webpage. I open the page to find that although the feed is technically working, the formatting looks funky on mobile and the data feeding in, which in this case is a list of the event dates, appears to be from last year’s, not this year’s, series of events. So maybe the task was technically “done,” but in certainly wasn’t “done-done.”)

1A. Then get a second, and third, and fourth pair of eyes. After staring at something for days, weeks, or months at a time, even the most detail-oriented eyes will soon glaze over. Whether you have the budget to contract outside QA testers or must make-do with enlisting colleagues, test, test, and test all the little (and big) things: across browsers, devices, and from copy to links to buttons to error messages in form fields…you get the idea. (And, ensure you’re as diligent and organized about your testing processes as you in earlier project phases.)

2. Screenshots are money. The old adage rings true: a picture is worth 1,000 words. An annotated picture is worth one million words. This can be done in countless ways: I’ve uploaded screenshots and then marked them up via Dropbox’s annotation tool; added notes, call-outs, circles and arrows over a screenshots in Photoshop as well as in Keynote; used Droplr to take and annotate screenshots. I particularly love FireBase for it’s ability to take screenshots of an entire page and then convert the page to an image or a PDF that can be marked up in Preview.

3. Clarity is king. Don’t assume your designers, developers, server administrators, marketing managers, clients, CEO, COO, etc. (we project managers interface with lots of people) can, or will, read between the lines. Do your best to cut out guesswork or extra steps. It’s part of your job to maximize other people’s productivity, and taking a few extra minutes to ensure your communication is super-specific, concise (and ideally, tailored to your audience) will save you headaches in the long-run.

4. Don’t assume no news is good news. Although it’s important to respect your team’s need to spend some time heads-down in the “code cave,” never assume that no news is good news. In some cases, it can be tempting to let stand-ups slide when there are deadlines looming and everyone has their marching orders. But, for junior people or new teams especially, it’s critical to to check-in regularly to ensure progress is being made and the path forward is clear. If you start to feel like you’re being annoying, get creative with your communication style: e.g., a genuine “How’s it going? Anything holding you up that I can help out with?” will often go over better than “Send me a status update by 6 PM EST today.” (That being said, again, tailor your message to your audience and pay attention to who needs a gentle nudge vs. who needs a hard line in the sand.)

5. Having extra skills can add tremendous value to your team. Although it’s important to know when it’s most efficient to do something yourself vs. assign it to someone else (remember, your time is valuable too) there are times when I’ve saved serious project resources by taking on tasks that weren’t “technically” my responsibility. I’ve written and edited copy, created and updated low- and high-fidelity mock-ups in Sketch and Photoshop, made dashboards in Google Analytics, tweaked HTML and CSS… the list goes on. The truth is, being a project manager can often feel like being a “jack-of-all-trades.” Although you certainly don’t have to be an expert at everything, being able to contribute in areas where your organization is short on (wo)man power will make you an indispensable team player, and provide you with an opportunity to continue adding skills to your wheelhouse, which is a win/win all around.

Agree? Disagree? Have a takeaway of your own to add? I’d love to hear about it!