What I’ve Learned as a Project Manager At SitePen

By on September 25, 2015 12:10 pm

expert As a developer, I had worked in the past with certified and degree-wielding project managers. They knew the rules. They knew waterfall, agile, Gantt charts, specs, and all those wonderful bits and pieces that seem to be second nature to the project management world. I, as a developer, didn’t pay much attention. I just knew I was in endless status meetings and had to update my tickets, fill out paperwork, answer nonstop emails, and talk with the project managers every day. If I failed to do this, the fragile framework tracking the project timeline would come crashing down.

Three years ago I opted to set aside my pursuit of development and data warehousing to step into the world of project management. When I joined SitePen and started learning how to manage projects, I decided to put my best foot forward and research the role. At first I scoured the Internet for information about project management, got familiar with the various methodologies and tools, and purchased a few books. I even considered getting that very popular project management certification.

Unfortunately, everything I had learned in my research of project management as a discipline left me completely unprepared for SitePen. SitePen’s project structure is, simply stated, adaptive. We work with start-ups and Fortune 500s, open source projects, training workshops, consulting, support services and the list goes on and on! We have a lot of great, yet very different initiatives going on at any given time. What does that mean for us? In the words of one of our team members: we are more agile than Agile.

No template, conventional rule or process was going to address everything going on at SitePen. We never do the same thing twice. Without realizing it, I began to draw on my experience as a technical lead to fill in the gaps. This is what I’ve learned in the exciting world of project management!

Know Your Subject

Don’t believe that you can effectively manage anything without truly understanding how it works and the complexity involved. I do not need to be an expert in JavaScript. What I do need to understand is how code is written, the principles behind programming, how servers work, how various frameworks work, and how to not be lost when confronted with a Git repository.

Downtime? What’s that?

I have a to-do list a mile long. And it’s not just for my project priorities but things that will make SitePen a better company. Sometimes, I see things that should be done and I step in and figure out how to make it happen. I do not wait to be told what to do. I don’t wait for my team to ask me to do something. Anticipating what your tech lead and organization need is what makes you an invaluable team member.

Pitch In

I don’t draw a hard line between team roles (ie. the “engineer’s job” and the “project manager’s job”). I’ll take on anything that I think I can effectively handle.

Does the team need help with end-user QA? I’ll do it. They want to show me something and get an opinion? I load that app and try it out. Do I know something technical they don’t? I’ll research it for them. They need help putting together an outline for a technical document? I’ll draft the outline with them. The important part is to contribute as a member of the team, not as somebody that’s overseeing an operation.

Be Positive

Web application development, especially the calibre of which SitePen outputs, is difficult, challenging work. If you foster negative attitudes, you will end up bringing your team down with you. As jaw-clenching as some projects can be, always look for the clichéd bright side. Defuse tense environments with humor. Focus on what’s being accomplished and the success rather than the hiccups. Cat gifs are an effective tool.

Help your Lead

Lead engineers are always juggling architecting applications, providing team guidance, and planning for what’s next. Whenever possible, lift as much work as you can off of them so their path is cleared for achieving the project goals. They’ll thank you later.

Improve the Process

Times change, companies change, and oops! some processes remain in place because everyone’s moving forward so quickly and didn’t think about “why”. At some point, it worked but now it doesn’t. If you see something that fits this description, question it and either a) remove it to save everyone time or b) improve it so it fills the actual needs.

Avoid Interruptions

When I was a developer, I once caught an article by Paul Graham entitled Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule. At the time, I thought this piece of literature was the greatest article I had ever read and I actually used to forward it to my project managers when they started overloading me with meetings. I’ve seen this type of article repeated many times, and it’s true. There is a zone when you’re developing and an interruption can cost hours of work.

Focus your team and provide them with an atmosphere that’s lacking in unnecessary interruptions. Don’t ask them questions every five minutes and minimize the instant messages and emergency phone calls.

Accept Delays Gracefully

In regards to delays, I tell my teams: “Stuff happens. Bigger stuff will happen if you don’t tell me early enough.” Okay, “stuff” might not have been the word I used, but you get the idea.

I emphasize (constantly) that I am okay with delays and bad news. I just need to know early. I know development is subject to all kinds of snags. The important part is to handle it with grace and just make it work. Your team should never be afraid to give you bad news and you shouldn’t panic because your timeline has changed. The appropriate response is: “Okay, timeline blown. What does it look like now?”

Sum of all Parts

You are a project manager. They are engineers. One position is not greater than the other. They’re just different roles. Treat your engineers with respect, lead by example and go forth as members of one team!

The End Goal

As a professional consulting firm, SitePen is in the business providing its customers with quality application architecture, source code and advisement, delivering an amazing user experience, on and offline. Of equal priority is the cohesion and contentment of our team as a whole, where helping our customers achieve their goals and accomplishing SitePen goals through effective teamwork maximizes everybody’s happiness.

The key to all of this is adaptability. We adapt to do what works best for each customer, for the project, and for our team.

Comments

  • Tom Kigan

    Nita, cool stuff (this is the word I’d like to use :)). What about the tools for project management. I’m referring to Basecamp, Wrike, Pyrus and more. Are you using any of them in your daily work? Would like to hear your feedback.

  • Nita

    Hi Tom!

    We use Redmine to manage our individual projects: http://www.redmine.org. It’s a fairly straightforward task management tool, however it’s very flexible. Since no two projects are alike, we set up the individual projects/tasks/milestones different ways to meet our needs for tracking progress, and we make sure the built-in wiki has all of the information for a project. For our open source initiatives, we’ve started using ZenHub: https://www.zenhub.io/, which gives us a nice overview of the open issues and where they are, status-wise. On top of that, my fellow PMs and I use a general todo list (HitList) to capture critical checkpoints or items we need to address/check in on. It’s a very simple solution, but extremely effective. You can’t avoid an action item when it’s right there on your list for the day.

    We’re also huge fans of collaborative tools. We use Google Drive (Docs, Spreadsheets, etc) and Etherpad for various items, such as meeting notes, initial planning, and documentation.

    Thanks for reading!

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