Technical Project Manager Mark Klassen

A conversation about putting people before process, why project management is a bit of a misnomer, and the importance of self-awareness

If Mark were a candy bar, he would be a Twix, because “it’s all in the mix”. He brings that perfect blend of technical know-how and people skills to his role as technical project manager.

Mark is the latest addition to our team. We searched high and low for a unicorn PM like him, and we’re so glad we found him. He’s only been with us for three weeks, but he’s already managed to surpass all expectations with his strategic thinking skills, fresh perspectives and the well-rounded work he brings to the table every day.

We chatted about his people over process approach, why project management is a bit of a misnomer, and the importance of self-awareness and mentorship.

What’s your day-to-day like at Domain 7?

I spend most of my time facilitating between people to make sure that all the different pieces of a project are moving and are on track.

We have a very collaborative process here at Domain7 and my role is to steward that process: to help everyone understand clearly what we’re trying to accomplish and make sure that our internal team is engaged and our clients are part of the process and are excited about the progress we’re making.

Why do you do what you do? What makes your work meaningful to you?

I’ve thought about that a lot, actually. A technical project management role like this one really bridges two passions of mine.

A large part of my previous role involved providing technical leadership and I‘m an innovator at heart. The idea of combining creativity with technical knowledge is really exciting to me. I love building things that don’t simply stop at getting the job done and the best way to do that is by approaching a project with a mindset that brings creative thinking into the process of building technology.

I also really enjoy connecting with people beyond a surface level — getting to know what motivates them and seeking to understanding how I can help them grow, personally and professionally. Domain7’s mission is to create a more connected and empathetic world, and I’m really excited about being able to make empathy and connectedness such a big part of my role.

If you invest in people, the process will follow, because process is really just a way of connecting people.

That connection you’re making between project management and people development is interesting. Do you think a project manager’s skill of developing people is as important as developing a process?

I would even go further and — maybe controversially — say that it’s even more important than being really good at process. That might be a non-traditional view of what this role could and should look like, but it’s what I believe in.

If you understand people—what drives them, what motivates them, what they need to get to the next stage of their own development—things will move along. If you invest in people, the process will follow, because process is really just a way of connecting people.

What draws you to values like empathy and collaboration?

I need a deep connection to my work. It’s just how I’m wired. It’s important to me that my goals and values are aligned with the organization or company I work for. The idea of creating a more connected world, a more empathetic world: that really resonates with me. Those core values align with what I personally care about and it’s a large part of why I’m here today. It’s probably more important than my technical fit.

What makes for a good process?

A good process for me is about really understanding each other and working closely together. We’re inviting our clients into the process. They aren’t just the recipient of the work we’re doing for them. We want them to feel like a team member, someone who is directly involved in making this project happen.

It’s a bit of a shift from how traditional agencies work with clients. And it’s a shift some of our clients aren’t used to, but people really recognize the value of bringing collaboration and empathy into the process when they experience it. The overwhelming response is, “Wow. This is a really neat way of working together.”

The way we work is as important as what we’re working on.

Is there anything about the role of a project manager that you think is commonly misunderstood or misconstrued?

I think the title “manager” sets up some unhealthy expectations of the role in itself. The way I think about project management, it’s less about managing things or people and more about facilitation. I’m a facilitator, not a manager. I seek to draw the best out of both people and processes in order to see a project reach its greatest potential.

Most people, when they hear the term project management, they think of a person arranging puzzle pieces for the sake of driving an end result. I think there’s much more to the role. Project management is a way of working together that is just as valuable as the end result. The way we work is as important as what we’re working on. We want to make working with us an enjoyable and transformative journey that is as important as delivering a product. That’s something I care deeply about and people here at Domain7 care about as well — all the way from the account manager to the project manager to the developers.

What aspects of your role do you find challenging?

Even within a single project and working with just one partner, there can be a wide range of perspectives. Having to manage diverging approaches and expectations in a way that ultimately creates alignment and joy for the whole team is challenging. But it’s also rewarding and connects directly to my passion for understanding what drives people and how I can help them.

Another fun challenge, that is also a huge benefits for clients, is to be the dispassionate outside voice. We can often bring a new perspective and see things everyone else is acclimatized to. It’s a neat opportunity for us as a business and as a partner.

This idea of having a fresh view on things when you’re new to something: Can you expand a bit more on that?

When you’re in a certain environment for long enough, it becomes at times challenging to observe your personal and corporate spheres with fresh eyes and step outside of what has become your reality. As humans we can quickly become blind to our own assumptions, biases and groupthink. That’s true in all areas of life. When you step into a new role and a new work environment, there is an opportunity to recognize things that are different from what your experience has taught you.

I’ve only been with Domain7 for a short time, but throughout that time I’ve been really taking on that mindset. I’m trying to bring that outsider look to the organization and observe things that are “unobservable” for others. I can see how some organizations might react to that with hostility, but so far, my ideas have been openly welcomed. That’s not necessarily a default position for a business, but I’m glad it’s the default here. And it’s something I think we have to embrace as an organization, because that’s the mindset we wish to see in clients and partners we work with.

I highly value having good goals, and I’m not going to let the challenges of pursuing them get in the way of trying.

How do you cope with hitting a wall or feeling low of energy in your job?

I always try to expend most of my energy on things that deeply resonate with me and that I care for as an individual, instead of things that I just do because I have to. So when I reach that moment where I feel like I’m hitting a wall, it’s that much easier to reflect and to remind myself that though this might be a tough moment, my work connects with me. And if I succeed in making things happen, it will bring me joy.

That knowledge in itself is the tool that helps me break through that wall. It gets me re-energized and motivated and it helps me ask myself the right questions. I guess it all comes back to self-awareness. It’s not something that’s always culturally promoted, but I think it plays a vital role in growing as an individual and being able to handle stress and tough situations.

Can you think of a childhood story that still personifies you to this day?

Growing up, my dad’s workplace was close to our house, but you had to cross a major highway. When I was about four years old, I showed up at his workplace one day. He asked me, “Where’s Mom?” And I said, “Mom’s at home.” I somehow had escaped my mom’s watchful eye and crossed a major highway to go hang out with my dad. That was crazily dangerous for a toddler, but in some ways that situation still personifies me today. I’m not saying that I’m putting myself into dangerous situations on a daily basis, but I knew even as a four-year old that crossing that highway was an obstacle I had to face to achieve my goal. That’s still my attitude today: to say, “You know what? That’s a goal worth striving for. And even though I might not be fully equipped yet to do this, I’m going to go towards it and work for it. And against all odds I might even achieve success.”

I’m not saying that I’m this extremely ambitious person who knows exactly what he wants and goes for it at any cost. My point is more that I highly value having good goals, and I’m not going to let the challenges of pursuing them get in the way of trying.

What role has mentorship played in your life?

Mentorship has been a huge influence in my life. I love reading educational content and tapping into online resources, but it can’t replace that someone who knows you and cares about you. Having a person, who gives you new ideas and helps you develop your own, is so much more valuable than just digesting ideas from a source you have no relationship with.

I always strive for having three levels of mentorship in my life: Someone who’s mentoring me, a group of peers that I can discuss things with, and someone who I’m mentoring. I find that filling these three levels is an incredibly valuable catalyst for growth.

What is one thing most people don’t know about you?

Lots of people don’t know this, but I’m also a professional production music composer. For about 15 years I have been creating scores for short films, video games, and even released a few albums. I have done a lot of world music, orchestral, ambient and electronica. It’s not something that I’ve pursued to make money. It’s more of an outlet for the creativity that bubbles out of the innermost part of me.

Throughout my career in corporate or technical contexts, I’ve always made sure I’m also engaging with creative work for clients in web design, graphic design, photography, video production and music production. I’d say the reverberations of my creative side echo into all of my work, no matter how technical my job is.

Do you think that dabbling in different professions has helped your career in the long run?

I think that it was part of my process of discovering what I was both skilled at and passionate about. I had some jobs and gigs along the way that matched one or the other. I was either good at it, or I cared about it. That’s why I kept looking for something that I’m not only gifted at but that I actually really enjoy and love. I feel really lucky that I was able to find that sweet spot.

I think the other benefit of dabbling in different professions is that it helps you develop a holistic way of thinking. I can bring a good understanding of finance, of marketing, of the creative process, and of team leadership to any new role. All these different points of view come together and provide me with a better understanding of how all the pieces fit together.

What are three things that have influenced or inspired you?

Jim Collins | Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t

A very well known work on business strategy, but deservedly so. It’s a research-driven examination of what makes some companies truly great. Collins identifies several key ideas that have proved to be very useful for me in business leadership and throughout my own personal journey. Most of the examples focus on large enterprises, but even if you are a business leader who doesn’t fit into this category, I’d say this is a must-read.

Dan Ariely | Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

As someone who once believed that I make decisions rationally, this book helped to dash that ridiculous idea to pieces. Predictably Irrational looks at how humans are innately poor at making certain types of decisions rationally. What was surprising to me is that this irrationality tends to fall into well-defined and predictable patterns. This book totally changed how I think about my own decision-making process.

John Dickson | Humilitas: A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership

This is a fascinating look at the surprising history of humility, a virtue that is woefully undervalued by our culture. In a context where puffing yourself up is often the norm, Dickson makes a compelling argument that the humble person can be far more persuasive and motivating than someone who’s arrogant. This extends from personal growth to business leadership, and it’s an idea that has transformed how I think about my place and impact in the world.