What Does a Project Manager at MetaLab Do?

A 10,000ft Overview

There are two common questions I get asked time and again. One being if my hair color is real, the other being what do you do? Which generally leads to a follow up of “Really?” and “What’s a project manager?” respectively. Both things are apparently strange and confusing concepts. To this day my own mother doubts I have a real job and that going to work means doing “stuff” on the internet, playing ping pong and drinking beer at lunch. Which isn’t exactly wrong but obviously there is more to it than that. So this is for all those strangers, co-workers and moms out there who are just dying to know what Project Managers actually do at MetaLab. And for those of you that aren’t dying but just want to read something so it looks like you’re working, this is also for you. I’ve got your back.

I’m a big fan of metaphors, probably to a fault. So, I’m going to try and weave this into a metaphor warning you in advance that it might fall down halfway through, but we’ll get the point across together I promise. That, or I’ll really confuse everyone. We’ll see!

Project Managers are like air traffic controllers. Planes are coming in, they’re going out, they’re circling the area waiting for an open runway and we’re up in the tower making sure disaster doesn’t strike. That’s it. At the most basic level, a Project Manager’s role is to ensure things run smoothly so the pilots and flight crew can do what they do best while the passengers feel safe knowing they’re not going to fall out of the sky or crash mid flight. None of us would make good pilots anymore than we’d make good designers or developers, yet as Project Managers we get to be the shepherds of their successes and live our creative dreams vicariously through them.

What does that look like in practice? Project Managers have their little fingers in all aspects of a project from start to finish. Once the service delivery team has decided a particular client is someone we’d like to work with we jump in, devouring as much information as we can. Who are these people? What do they want? What do they actually want? Why don’t we have any clients in Hawaii? From there we assist with estimating the cost of the project, support our all star team and prepare a proposal to put forward to hopefully seal the deal.

Once a client is landed, things really take off! To start we build out a project timeline to detail where we’re headed. If I take it back to the original metaphor, this is the flight plan with each stop off being an integral project milestone. Yet, getting a plane in the air isn’t simply just planning it’s route and wishing it well, guidelines need to be put in place beforehand to prevent disaster! For us guidelines are created through a project plan, scope of work, defining the deliverables and setting project constraints. From there it’s our job to get us to those milestones on time and within budget while following our set guidelines.

Getting a plane from point A to point B takes a ridiculous amount of behind the scenes work. As travelers, we’re generally oblivious of such intricate goings ons. Project Management is much the same. It is our daily job to support the client and our teams. This support comes in many forms that aren’t immediately apparent. We’re always in a state of “radio-on”, that is we’re constantly communicating back and forth with all relevant parties. We’re taking in requirements, distilling feedback, keeping a pulse on how each individual team member is doing, setting and managing expectations (client and team) and always adjusting as things change. Flight courses are adjusted to changes in weather patterns, PMs just as equally correct course as we go. We’re often working with different departments in different stages of flight and it’s part of our role to make sure they all have successful journeys both together and independently of each other. We must be quick on our feet, endlessly organized and incredible communicators.

There are risks to flying a plane and it doesn’t always go 100% as planned. As PMs we are responsible for recognizing those potential risks and creating plans to mitigate them should they come to fruition. On the rare occasion a problem arises we’re right there to put out the fire and get us back on track. Those darling travelers need to get to their destinations darn it!

Outside of risk mitigation we’re continually updating the client on work in progress, feature planning, answering questions and pushing back on requests that aren’t within reason. We also work alongside our internal teams making sure they’re on track and have everything they need to succeed. On top of that we’re building the runway ahead of us to be ready for our next takeoff. Not to mention we’re a team in our own right and are always striving to better support each other and push the department forward.

I’m going to stray from the metaphor. Just a little. I warned you this might happen! We want to be the “airline of choice” for all our clients. We all know about “those airlines”, the ones you have to take because it’s your only option, but it’s a nightmare every time. They’re never on time, the staff is rude and inattentive, they lose your luggage and laugh all the way to the bank knowing their passengers don’t have any other choice. We know our clients have choices and we’re glad they do! By being one of the main points of contact for clients our role is instrumental in reaffirming that we’re the right choice. We accomplish this by making it easy to work with us, by making flight simply effortless. And just like those mysterious air traffic controllers, if we’re doing our jobs well no one will notice, which is generally how we like it.