Episode 4 — We Are Consummate Learners and Teachers
Working in an industry that moves so fast, we are inherently adaptable and open to new processes, ideas, practices, and deliverables. We follow what’s happening in our industry from all angles, and do what we can to account for change to make our projects more successful. We’re open to bettering ourselves, and our peers, by sharing our work and practices openly and freely with other DPMs as well as our team, clients and stakeholders. We recognize that learning and teaching builds trust in what we do, and benefits others, and leads to stronger partnerships and outcomes.
In this installment of Sprints & Milestones, Brett and Greg share their personal stories of how they landed in design and project management careers. They also discuss the importance of continuous learning and teaching in the digital space to push yourself — and others — to be better. It’s not about learning everything in school, in fact, it’s all about learning on the job. Some topics discussed include:
- Finding your role, but also finding what you love to do and continuing to grow within that role
- The value of certifications
- Being a part-time project manager when your focus is in another area of a project
- Resources for learning about project management for PMs and non-PMs alike
- The value of community
- How teaching can bring about learning opportunities
Links Mentioned in This Episode
Transcript: Episode 4
Announcer: Welcome to Sprint and Milestones, a podcast where Brett Harned and Greg Storey share war stories, tips, tactics, and anecdotes on navigating the sometimes rough waters of getting digital projects done. If you're leading projects and want some help and reassurance that you're doing the right things, you've downloaded the right podcast. Enjoy the show.
Brett Harned: This episode is sponsored by TeamGantt and Harvest, two companies who've supported me and the Digital Project Management community for some time now. TeamGantt is an online project management platform that helps you to create intuitive and beautiful project plans. For more information and a free account visit teamgantt.com. Harvest, if you don't already know, is a leading time-tracking and reporting software that has helped me to keep many budgets and projects intact. For more information and to start your free trial visit getharvest.com. On with the show.
In the last episode we talked about how project managers need to be lovable hard asses, which let us to talking about trust and awkwardly safe words. This week we're going to talk about education, which relates to the principle in the book We Are Consummate Learners and Teachers. So let me read that really quick. "Working in an industry that moves so fast, we are inherently adaptable and open to new processes, ideas, practices, and deliverables. We follow what's happening in our industry from all angles, and do what we can to account for change to make our projects more successful. We're open to bettering ourselves, and our peers, by sharing our work and practices openly and freely with other DPMs as well as our team, clients and stakeholders. We recognize that learning and teaching builds trust in what we do, and benefits others, and leads to stronger partnerships and outcomes."
I think for me this one is really important, because I'm such an advocate of just continuous learning and teaching. I feel like in my career, I've learned everything that I know about what I do just working on the job. So Greg, why don't we talk a little bit about how we got into our careers? How did you get into design and working on the web?
Greg Storey: Well, I've always been I think like a natural artist. And so, I've always been drawing and later in school painting and whatnot. I should say there was always a pull towards design. I would pour over the Sunday newspaper, and I wasn't so much reading all of the articles as so much just looking at how things were typeset, how they were laid out. I always found that interesting that they would break up a story and continue it somewhere else in the paper. Just all facets of that, especially the Sunday paper. With some of the dynamic layouts they would have for features. Just as I grew older, I became more and more curious about that. That's about the time that Apple started rolling out the Macintosh. That machine was just prime for graphic design.
And so any time I could get my hands on one of those, either at school or a friend's house or whatnot, I was always playing around with some type of facet of graphic design. Then, in college, I actually wanted to get a degree in design, but the program that was running it, I just didn't care for it. So I went in to advertising, which had a graphic design class, and I figured what better way to kind of get in that, you know, to be able to do that in a career, than study the things that are kind of related to design.
And then, the internet came around. Then all of a sudden, you had this platform that would enable you to design things and publish them with no costs. With no, you know there was really no barrier. I could take all these interests I had, design, technology, and content, and that was kind of the perfect ven diagram of all my interests.
Brett: That's awesome, and then you spun that into just a full career, and being really a leader in the design community.
Greg: Yeah, and a lot of that had to do with what we're talking about here, is not just doing something once, and kind of saying, "Okay, that's cool, but how do I do that better? How do I push myself?" And then of course, what helped is the internet was also evolving, both in technology and processes, and it continues to do that today. So, there's never a dull moment in this industry, as long as you try to keep up in some capacity.
Brett: Yeah, absolutely.
Greg: So how did you get into project management, because I don't think you went to school for that.
Brett: No I don't think I could have. I'm that person who never knew what he really wanted to do, until he finally got into a job. So I started my college career in pre-med, and quickly self selected out of that program by almost failing out my first year of college. And you know, I ended up in English and fine arts, because I felt like, I always had that kind of creative mindset. When I graduated, I had zero help in finding a job, and turned to the internet. So this was back in '99, when things were still pretty fresh, right? The start up boom was happening. I really wanted to be a part of something like that, that was so exciting at the time. So I found s job as an editor for a sports instruction website called, back then it was called mysportsguru.com.
And it wasn't the content that excited me, as much as the work and how much I could learn on the job. So I was tasked with writing and interviewing professional athletes, and turning those interviews into written content that would be paired with motion capture animation, so at the same time, I was learning how to direct video shoots, how to conduct good interviews, how to write flash, like program in flash, which it's crazy because I would never jump back into something like that today, it's just ...
Greg: The good old days.
Brett: I still have somewhere, like on a floppy disc, is like one of the animations I did which is a flyover of a bowling alley, complete with my voice doing like voiceover work. It actually got used on the website. You know I started that first job, and I just learned so much, and I was doing UX work, I was doing photo shop work, I was writing, but at the end of the day, I was really kind of just managing projects. And I didn't realize it back then.
Fast forward, you know of course, I got laid off from that job. It went under, as they all did, or many of them did. Fast forward to my time in an agency. I got a job in an agency working as an account director, still doing project management work in some way, but I really didn't know what project management was. And it wasn't until I got recruited by Razorfish here in Philly, for a project management role. And I had to ask the recruiter a few times like, "Can you explain this job to me again? I really don't know what project management is." But it's kind of funny considering where I am not in my career.
But after I listened to her, and I contemplated and I realized, okay so this probably is the kind of job that I want. I get to work with creative people, I get to use my skills in communications, and planning, and budgeting, and just working, working with people. That's what I love to do. And then I felt like, I worked there for a couple of years, and the PM role was so behind the scenes, and I'd come into the job as an account director, so I was always doing more strategic work, being really the client liaison, working directly with designers, and being really strategic. And I loved that job.
So that's when I started looking for something new, and that's when I found Happy Cog, and it was in that role at Happy Cog as a project manager that I felt like, I could use all of the skills that I had kind of built up over time in my career, right, like I was able to be a part of the team, and sit at the table, and talk about design, and UX, and development in a way that I couldn't in a more behind the scenes role. I was interacting with clients, I was brainstorming and collaborating with the team, and I was really happy. And that's kind of how I got into it, so it's not like I have any kind of formal training.
At this point I have a scrum certification, but you know that's really just like ... I took a class and then I took a follow up test that I had to pay for. It doesn't mean anything to me. What means the most to me is the experience over time, and just kind of figuring out what good project management means to me and to the team, or the company I'm working with.
Greg: Yeah, and to go off on a tangent real quick, those classes that you pay for and that certification what not, I can't tell you how many times I've come across or worked with some folks that have those fancy certificates of achievement or accomplishment, or you passed, graduation, or whatever it is. And they're not much smarter about things than the folks that didn't, you know. And I think it's important, especially in project management where I feel like it's, I don't know, maybe five or six years behind in terms of a career path that's as developed as say, design or development, right?
And those certifications, sometimes they are important to get promotions within larger companies, but for those folks listening, that is not an avenue that they can go down. You're not necessarily missing out. As long as you're doing what you did, which is kind of get in there and roll your sleeves up, and kind of get messy, right?
Brett: Yeah, I think the thing about those certifications is, there are some industries where you absolutely need it. You need a PMP to be a construction project manager, and I get that. And that's why that PMP has become so big, because people really kind of point back to it. I get a lot of people asking me at this point whether or not I think the certifications are worth it, and I can't say that, no they're not worth it. That would be a really dumb answer, like a really not considering all things. At any point that somebody can educate themselves or find opportunities, they should take them up.
I think the thing that I warn people about those courses, is that they're teaching you what's in a book. They're not teaching you about real life experience, and like you said, it's about rolling your sleeves, and rolling up your sleeves and experiencing things and making mistakes and learning from them.
Greg: Yeah, I'd say the things like PMP, that's where when risk mitigation is a huge part of the project, right?
Greg: And I think we're gonna see more and more of that in the industry as a whole, you know I'm seeing that in my current role at my large employer where we deal in insurance and banking, so as you can imagine, there's a lot of government regulation, which means there's needs for compliance, and there needs to be awareness of compliance, and eventually that kind of responsibility isn't on our design practice, but we're going to be taking some responsibility to know enough to know, when we need to bring those folks to kind of take a look at our work.
Greg: So I could just imagine other project managers that are out there, and product managers, where there will come a time when some of that training, that specialized training, is gonna be important. But overall, not necessarily required to be a good project manager.
Brett: Yep, absolutely. So one of the things we've kind of talked about, and really is kind of an central focus of the book is, you know this idea that everyone is kind of a PM. So I'm curious to know, when in your career path have you had to be the kind of part time project manager? And how did you handle it?
Greg: Well, probably not well, if you ask the people that I worked with. But yeah, it's true. There have been moments in time where I could think back to a couple of times early on, when as soon as I had a team, my team was comprised of creatives, developers, and sometimes journalists, and I don't even know, I don't think I even knew what a project manager was back then. You know, I'm sure they were around, but I don't understand exactly what they did, and the web was so new, that it just seemed like overkill that we would have somebody like that.
But so yeah, as the leader, I took it upon myself to ensure that the team knew what they were working on, what we were all working towards, and to have some type of time constraint around that. Understanding the dependencies, for one, for work to pass from one person to the next. I've just done that in any time that I've had a small team. And that even includes when I started my own studio, Air Bag, as soon as we got to become three people, you know that was Ethan. As soon as I hired him, it was evident that there were even more project management related tasks and activities that were necessary for us to be successful.
And then by the time we added a couple more people, then it was really evident that one, I was not gonna be the best full time project manager, and so we ended up hiring somebody.
Brett: Okay, so I'm curious to know about maybe some tips or tactics on how you learned project management. You know, I know that you've got a pretty impressive bookshelf and you've share project management books with me, but what are other ways that you kind of, aside from bringing somebody in to take on that role, learned about best practices and things that you can do to be a good PM?
Greg: Yeah so, well then you mentioned the bookcase, bookshelf, so I have to mention the 1997 classic, David Siegel's Secrets to Successful Websites. And that helped, that actually helped me understand what I need to be curious about, and that had to do a lot more with process, and that there was much more details and nuance in all the different types of activities of work. It helped me understand that, hey we should probably talk about requirements, and understand more about the current state of things, so that then we can talk about what we want the future state to be.
And so that book helped out a lot, and then it was more of a study of understanding more about the practice of design. Understanding the differences between the designers and their ability to deliver work at the same quality, but some people take longer than others, so understanding the nuance of personal skill sets and skill levels. You know always having to understand what the needs of the developers were at the time. To understand what they needed from design. Also, vice versa. You know what designers needed to understand from developers, so that we would avoid creating something that just could not be completed.
And then at the time, just trying to join or find, discover whatever community might be out there that was also sharing kind of lessons learned, from their own activity of being a part time project manager, or a full time project manager. So, A List Apart was one of the first that I can think of. There's been several that have kind of come and gone, where they weren't necessarily devoted to the practice of project management, but there was definitely questions around that, and just enough to ask questions of my own and be able to help others.
Brett: Yeah. There's definitely a theme of how we work, in a lot of text out there, right? Like whether it's something like A List Apart or even just the design books that I think, are really helpful for any PM just being curious about the way that work gets done, and what motivates people, and how you can manage that is valuable.
Brett: Even just as valuable as on the job experience.
Greg: Yeah, and you know it's the need for community, the need for kind of collective intelligence that's exactly why you and I kind of looked around and noticed, hey there's a lot of conferences around design and development. But there is not anything really geared towards the practice of project management and part management. And that's why we started the Digital PM Community.
Brett: Yeah, I mean for me, it was so eye opening, you know coming to a company like Happy Cog that did place such a value on learning, and speaking, and teaching, and writing which is amazing. I mean any company that does that for its employees is brilliant I think, because there's so many benefits that come out of that, which is a whole other conversation, but for me it kind of gave me the drive, or the kick in the butt to find a community of my own. So I was going to an amazing events and conferences like an event in part, and other ones. It was finding that there wasn't much content for me, and then realized there's not much content for me on the web either.
Brett: So then I started DPM Philly in Philadelphia. Just a local meet up but it's still happening.
Greg: That's awesome.
Brett: And started the PM Summit, and it was just an amazing ... like I don't know if you remember, but that first event, the whole feeling was, oh my gosh, there are people out there who are doing the same thing as me, and I can actually talk to them now. It sounds a little pathetic looking back on it, but it was so inspiring because it just, it got so many people to join a conversation that I think was so much needed, that is now, like it's really a part of the conversation on the web at this point.
Greg: Well yeah, I mean, just for the listeners benefit, I think to add what you're saying Brett, when we opened that event, it was packed out. The venue that we had was packed. And as I recall, you gave kind of the opening keynote, and the first thing you did is ran across the tables in the front, and hi-fived everybody, and was, "Woo woo!"
Brett: Such a nerd, I did that.
Greg: But you know what? I mean everybody responded because they felt the exact same way, right? I mean everybody, the first five minutes of that, the hair on the back of my neck was standing straight up, because the energy was so, it was just electric.
Brett: Yeah absolutely. And I think what's so cool too, is what came out of that first conference, right? That contributes to what we're talking about now, which is learning. That first conference, it inspired more people to join Twitter, because so many PMs are not on Twitter. Start sharing information. It inspired people to start writing blogs and contributing to websites. New websites popped up. There's now training programs, there are conferences all over the world. There's a conference that I attend in Manchester, in the UK, where they bring a whole course of university students who are taking digital project management classes.
Greg: You're kidding.
Brett: I think a lot of stuff, like that event and just finding the opportunity to build a community created so many opportunities for teaching and learning, and I just feel like it's so exciting because it keeps growing, you know?
Greg: Yeah, it's a really good illustration of, if you feel a need, right, and if you see a need, it's likely you're not alone in seeing that. Somebody's gotta start something somewhere, sometime, right? Like if you wait for someone else to do the thing that you want, you're likely gonna be waiting for a long time. And then the best thing you can do is go, is to start, and it doesn't mean that you have to own it for the rest of your life, but you don't wanna wait. That's the worst thing you can do.
Brett: Absolutely, and I would even tag onto that and say, just because you see something out there now, doesn't mean that you shouldn't contribute to it. So, somebody's out there writing amazing blog posts, or has a great newsletter, and those things are out there in DPM, that doesn't mean that your voice isn't needed or wanted in the community right? I love it when I see new people writing and sharing their perspectives, because everyone has something to offer.
Greg: Well not only something, when you have people that have something to offer, and people are doing that as a community, that's validation, right? Whether it's validation of problems that exist in the industry, or validation that a thought or an idea you had was, it was good. There's just so much that can come from that to help you in your career path as a project manager, you know to kind of validate where you are and even where you need to go next.
Brett: Yeah, so I think that kind of brings us to another topic, which is the teaching side of things, right? Personally, I feel like I'm continuously learning, even if my career now as a consultant. Any time I take on a project, as a project manager or work with a client to help them with process issues or whatever it might be, I feel like I'm learning something valuable that contributes to my point of view on how project management should work.
And I also think at the same time, the Digital PM Summit has offered me many opportunities to put myself out there, and to put on workshops and teach classes. You know I taught a class at the University of the Arts a couple years ago in Philadelphia to graduate students about digital project management. I just taught a course to a room full of apprentices at the Urban Tech Project in Philadelphia, and I feel like in those instances, I'm still learning right? Because I'm creating a course where people are forced to interact and talk about challenges that they're facing, and things that excite them about project management, or things that confuse them. And every question or every point of view, I'm able to offer a response from my point of view, but then hear their experience with it, I feel like, keeps me in a position where I'm still learning. Like I'm teaching but I'm still learning, and I love that.
What about your experience with teaching? I know that you've mentored many designers and project managers. You've taught classes in workshops. What do you like about teaching, and what's your perspective there?
Greg: So going back to what you're saying, you know teaching is essentially one of the best ways to learn, and I think that comes from you need to, as the person teaching, as the person facilitating the workshop, whatever that situation is, the best thing you could do is to try to know more than just the thing that you're talking about or that you're teaching. You know meaning, you need to know information that is tangent and related to whatever that subject matter is, because for me in a classroom environment, you're fostering conversation, right? You're giving people a chance to participate, ask questions, share their point of view, which likely leads into tangents and related discussions and conversations.
And I just feel like for me to be a good instructor, I need to know more than just the thing that I'm teaching directly. I need to know what else is in the ... Not the syllabus, what else is in the back of the book? Bibliography.
Brett: There you go.
Greg: And taking a look at, where else do we need to go from here, to round out my own education, so that I can provide better education myself to the people I'm mentoring or teaching.
Yeah, absolutely. And I think it's point of view too, right? You have to have a strong point of view and a belief or feeling that something should be done in a certain way, or approached in a certain way, and I feel like, for me a lot of that comes out in what I wrote in the book.
But I also think, back to the community thing, and I just wrote an article about this in the Bureau of Digital Blog, just there's strength in a community that teaches. That's the title of the blog and I'll share the link, but there's so many opportunities out there for people in this community, whether it be the digital community at large, or just this smaller piece of it in the Digital PM Community, to teach. To find organizations that need help with their digital offerings, or to teach how to get things done.
You know volunteering, working with a local meet up, inviting students to events, there's so many things that you can do that just continue, I think that cycle of teaching and learning that is so important to, not just the PMs but everybody, so I'm excited about that. I think this topic is really important to me and gets me going, which is why we're speaking for such a long time on this episode.
Greg: Well and to give listeners an idea of what that looks like, the Bureau is a good community, especially the DPM group within the Bureau. A List Apart, An Event Apart, A Book Apart, you know that whole part empire is based on teaching. It all started with A List Apart, and there wasn't so much, "Hey, look at me and what I did," it was, "Hey, look at what I did, and I'm gonna tell you how I did it." And I mean if you really think about it, this whole industry has grown at such a crazy pace, I think because we've had things like View Source, that enabled a designer to learn from somebody that came before them. To see, what kind of tricks did you play here, or how did you structure your code, or whatever that was, but there's been a lot of transparency. And then on top of that, the transparency is that willingness in the early days for so many people to just come forward and say, "Hey I learned a new thing, and I just wanna pass this along for the betterment of all." Right?
Greg: And so, this desire, and I think the demand for teaching, and for free build teaching others has been there in this industry since day one, and it just needs to continue. That's why this industry is so special to me.
Brett: Absolutely, I couldn't agree with you more. So I think that brings us to the end of the episode. I think I mentioned, the book is full of links and resources that can help anyone to be a better project manager. And it's not just about my book, it's about a lot of different sources that can help you, and I offer a lot of links and titles to things you should look into if you're looking to expand your horizons.
Brett: So on the next episode, join us, we're gonna talk about how PMs can stay laser focused. We're gonna talk about goals, and a little bit more about teaching and inspiring, but I'm excited to jump into that conversation, and we'll see you on the next episode. Thanks.
Announcer: You've sprinted to the end of this episode. Milestone complete. Thank you for listening. If you're looking for more resources on digital project management, check out Project Management for Humans, by Brett Harned, which is available on amazon.com or through Rosenfeld Media. And of course, don't forget to subscribe on iTunes. And check out our show notes and more at sprintsandmilestones.com.