Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.
We are project managers. We are the unsung, behind-the-scenes heroes who are (finally) getting our time in the limelight and connecting within our growing community. For years we’ve overseen our project budgets, timelines, project teams, and launches. We’ve struggled with perfecting project documentation and managing client requests oozing with scope creep. Talking about these things has led to amazing communities and a growing library of resources—a world of project managers sharing their tricks, stories, and their own best project practices.
But our industry is growing up. It’s not an infant needing guidance out of parenting manuals anymore. Today the digital project management community is an adolescent, and as PMs, we can—and need to—do more. It’s time to write new manuals and become role models for the DPM industry’s teen and young adult years. The project management world has whizzed through its development1 and is poised at the brink of adulthood asking, “Who am I, and what can I be?” We’re experiencing a collective identity crisis. But guess what? We also have the answers right in front of us.
Against all odds
Years ago, against all odds, a project management team I was a part of championed the transition from desktop to responsive design as an agency. We were a small marketing firm in a city most people have never heard of. At a time when responsive design was just becoming a web industry buzzword, we were still creating static mockups and designing for desktop only—like most other small agencies. Our team was sick of feeling behind the curve, demoralized as they saw newer, better projects happening elsewhere in larger cities. Collectively, our project and tech leads decided we needed to push through a change to responsive design on our next big project.
The agency took on a small client with a budget higher than most and the PMs agreed that this was it: we were doing it. We designed the project around our goals—a beautiful, responsive website designed in the browser—our final product. Our tech lead, the account executive, and I sat in a room for hours prior to the project kickoff to plot out timelines and milestones that would set us up for a responsive site launch.
As a team of PMs, we set the standard for future work at that agency. Every project we took after that was pitched as responsive. Our project team planned within the constraints of the project and we achieved it, which sent ripples across the company.
The web industry now considers responsive design a standard best practice on web projects. The companies I’ve worked with since make responsive design a baseline for project proposals. Google has even introduced a mobile-friendly ranking this year, using mobile-friendliness as criteria for higher ranking in search results.
We could be heroes
Discussions around change and web best practices are nothing new. As project managers, we’ve had these discussions on a micro-level, speaking and debating about pricing structures, project management methodologies, proposal and estimate standards, and everything in between. Yet most of the time, we leave the discussion of the web’s greater future to our designers, developers, and those entrenched in the day to day work of web production. We can’t do this any more.
In human development, the adolescent stage is the bridge between childhood and adulthood. It’s a time of radical change. It’s at this awkward stage that teenagers begin to choose their own ideologies and begin questioning those their families raised them with. We project managers have stepped on that bridge. We’re standing in the middle with one eye on our projects and another carving a new path that aims to question what we do and the communities we come from.
While we don’t know exactly how many digital project managers exist, we estimate there to be over half a million marketing/ad/digital agencies worldwide.2 LinkedIn groups related to digital or web project management tout anywhere between 5,000–8,000 members each. With those estimates, we can safely assume there’s a huge number of digital project managers working all over the world. That means our growing population has access to many people, many teams, many projects, many clients, and most of all—we have a staggering amount of power to change the status quo.
We talk a lot about diversity in tech and best practices,3 calling on designers, developers, and business owners to become more aware of these causes. But we have the power, as project managers, to be the driving forces behind them. We can make real change because we’re in the perfect position to do so: we are client, project, and team touchpoints.
We can and should be champions for best practices in development and design by creating standards for accessibility, accounting for performance, and building diverse teams to work on our products. In a recent talk, Paul Boag said, “Never settle. Never accept the constraints imposed upon you. Never stop fighting for a better user experience.” In the same vein, we need to look up from the day-to-day granularity of the project process and become more than cogs in the machine. We must start questioning what we do and how we do it.
Our place in the world
The role of managing a digital project is not one person’s responsibility. It is a team effort…the only way you will manage a digital project is through the hard work, compromise and specific skillsets of multiple people.
The future of digital project management involves change in the way we think about our roles.4 Historically, our job was to make everyone else’s job easy. Now, we talk about running projects so efficiently that we’re phasing ourselves right out of the picture. Our PM adulthood and the future of our jobs lies somewhere in the middle—a world where we not only manage projects, but also lead the way in setting new standards for the ways our teams think about and create web projects.
We are well positioned to make real change within our industry. Becoming involved in things like hiring, community development, and mentoring means we can build diverse teams and challenge our companies to do even better. Spearheading initiatives like enforcing accessibility standards and increasing performance on our digital projects helps our teammates define and stick to practices that also make our work better. A practice that ripples out to our teams and our clients.
If we wait for someone else to push the button on progress and enforce new standards and best practices, we short change the people who come after us. We need to strengthen the digital project manager role in our communities so we can push through this uncomfortable adolescence together. We can guide our industry across the bridge and watch it become a full grown adult who recognizes the power of intentionality.
What if we were more than just champions of our projects? What if we could extend our reach across the world and spread these concepts of inclusion, equality, accessibility, and happiness at work across the planet? I think we owe it to our future adult selves to stand up a little straighter and speak up a little louder to champion change. Don’t you?
See Diversity: The Elusive HOW, The Responsibility of “Diversity”, Breaking Down Tech Privilege From the Inside, On The Verge, Reframing Accessibility for the Web, Disrupt your sector through a better user experience ↩