Sam Barnes is boss. Not boss as in jerky, micromanaging, tell you what to do boss, but boss as in: he knows how people tick. He’s a mesmerizing human on stage, and during the day he uses his knife of truth to cut through the bullshit we all encounter on our projects. We think you’ll really like what Sam has to say about doing work good; not well.
Sam, what was your nickname growing up?
Hmmm. I never really had one nickname people knew me by. I’ve just been called many things over the years. The most common one is Barnsey but I have many favourites, such as: Chunk, Barnes, Sam I Am, Frodo, Hobbit, Shorty, Little Cheeky Shit, Cheeky Shit, Cheeky Bastard, Little Shit, Ewok. My ultimate favourite is Warwick Davis.
What’s the craziest stunt you ever pulled?
There was that one time I used a table instead of a div to save a load of cross-browser pain. I know. #YOLO
Super powers? If you could have one, what would it be?
Oh, without a doubt I’d love to be able expose bullshitters, Megabeasts, and anyone in life or at work who causes other people harm and stress for nasty reasons. Imagine a world where you could just have everyone see them for who they really are. Yes please, I’ll have that.
What’s your worst fear? How do you overcome it?
One of my worst fears is public speaking. So far in my life, nothing comes close to how the build up to a talk and waiting to speak affects me. In short, I’m a bit of a wreck and even afterwards, it takes me a good few hours before all my vital signs return to normal.
I wouldn’t say I’ve overcome this fear—not even close—but by continuing to speak, I am finding that some aspects of the fear are reducing very slightly.
I get over the initial fear and agree to speak by not focusing on if I want to do it, or if I should, but instead on how I’d feel if I DIDN’T DO IT. So if I suspect that not accepting an invitation to speak would see me full of regret when the event is happening, then I should just accept and deal with the fear as a good price to pay to not feel that regret.
While this gets me over the starting line, my actual fear starts and the most consistent techniques to make me do less poop-in-my-pants are preparation and practice.
I know it’s a cliche and many speakers teach you not over prepare a talk, but for me it’s the only way I can create and deliver a presentation, be it a ten minute one at work in front of twenty people, or a one hour keynote to three hundred people.
I counter the common advice to avoid ‘robotic scripting’ by making sure the script I write is written how I talk. Then I practice. Lots.
This practice not only allows me to iron out any bumps in the way the presentation is flowing, but it also means I have comprehensive speaker notes in Keynote that I can see at all times. Speaker notes are a must for me when speaking, and I’ll even have my slides ready on a USB key and an iPad Mini that I’ll take on stage in case of technical issues.
One tip that sounds batshit is to use Power Poses before going on stage. I know, sounds like a load of hippy crap, right? However, when I watched Amy Cuddy’s TED Talk on the subject I went from skeptically smirking to thinking, “I must try this!!” Well I was shaking so badly before a delivering a workshop in London with Brett Harned that I tried it—and it bloody worked! Amazing.
I appreciate that Power Poses and all my preparation sounds borderline insane to some people, but over time I’ve worked out that being prepared for all eventualities on stage means I’m worried less about what could go wrong. This in turn enables me to get my cowardly arse up there and do what others seem to with such admirable ease.
Doing good rather than well means prioritizing the morally right over personal progression.
Hey Sam, tell us about your work. You work at a pretty cool place. What do you love about it?
After working at several digital agencies, I decided to try working in a product-based company as at the time I was publishing DPM interviews on my blog and realized that product-based project management was a whole different beast and I wanted to see what it was like for myself.
So I joined Venntro and have been here for four and a half years now. Venntro’s core business is online dating and is focused on helping people to find a life they love.
We do this by offering a white label platform that allows our partners to create dating sites in minutes and for all sorts of niches, from location and age to special interests. You name it and I’d bet we have a site for it. We currently have over 25,000 sites running off our platform and just recently registered our 50 millionth member.
I started out at Venntro as a DPM but am now the Development Team Manager which means I line manage a team of about twenty developers and ScrumMasters. I also deputize for our CTO and generally work each day to keep things running as smoothly as possible.
What I love about my job is the sheer variety it allows me on a weekly basis. When joining a product-based company, my biggest fear would be that I’d get bored of working on the same product every day. However nothing could have been further from the truth.
In my time at Venntro I’ve worked in so many areas—from your typical front-end user-facing features right through to work revolved around security, engineering, payment, mobile and much more. I’ve also learned a load about recruitment, line management, and all aspects of running a business. It’s great.
What I love most working at Venntro, by far, is the people. Having worked at a few places and with many other companies, I can hand-on-heart say there is something rather unique about Venntro people.
It’s what new people in any department always comment positively about after just a few days. You’ll also find old farts like me citing the same number one cool thing about working at Venntro: Everyone is just so damn nice, welcoming, and most importantly, funny. I don’t think a single day goes by when I don’t cry with laughter, and I think many underestimate just how important to me that is.
Can you tell us a cool thing you are working on right now?
Working in online dating means that ‘scammers’ are the bane of your and your customers’ lives. You may have seen a news item or two about scammers. These are organized gangs that prowl all dating sites, using fake details and stolen credit cards, looking for vulnerable people to exploit through a variety of scams e.g. romance scams where they get their ‘target’ to fall in love with them and at some point ask for money. You know the rest of that story, I’m sure.
For this reason, my favourite projects to work on revolve around stopping these horrible people. For obvious reasons I can’t go into too much detail about these projects, but to me this is a cool sort of project doing a good thing.
Speaking of good things, what does it mean to do good and not well? How do people become strong enough to do this when our work world often rewards people for stepping over each other to get to the top?
Doing good rather than well simply means that you prioritize doing the morally right thing over and above doing what will see you personally progress in work or life at the expense of someone else or your own integrity.
I found the strength to start operating in this way by making mistakes early in my career and getting a taste for what it feels like to protect my job at the expense of my dignity. It sucked so much and did not sit well with me at all.
It’s really a moral choice that each person must make at some point in his/her career.
The title of my latest presentation, “You Can Do Well Or You Can Do Good” is taken from a UK movie called Spooks where the next line is, “Sooner or later they make you choose” … and at some point everyone will have to make this choice.
The trick is knowing it’s a choice before you make it, i.e. each time you’re faced with a choice at work where you don’t feel comfortable, just pause for a few minutes and recognize that despite what your boss says, you do have a choice.
If maintaining your integrity is important to you then you’ll tend to find the choice makes itself and all you need to do is have the courage to see it through.
If all else fails, remember what we learned from the movie Bugsy Malone: “You’re gonna be remembered for the things that you say and do.”
Choose how you want to be remembered!
You like cats. Why?
I have no idea. I seem to have a soft spot for most animals, but for some reason cats just make me so damn happy. Maybe it’s because our family has always had at least one pet cat. I honestly don’t know. They’re just so SQUEEEEEEEEEEE!
Tell us about this foster cat thing you’re doing. How does it work?
I volunteer a few hours a week my local branch of the RSPCA and my genuine bonafide job title is, CAT CUDDLER. Oh yes, amazing right!?
What this means is I go along to a cattery each week and spend time with all of the rescue cats they have at that time. These are cats that have no home. Some due to their owners passing away, others are strays, some are wild and unfortunately, many are neglected or abused by their owners.
For whatever reason they have no home and are often far too traumatized to be immediately re-homed and so my job, along with the other team members’, is to spend time with them and get them used to human contact again.
We try to build up their trust in humans to the point where their new owners will hopefully only have a happy cat in their home. This process can literally take months as the worst ones refuse to be touched and attack.
Chaos Monkeys & Megabeasts
What’s a Chaos Monkey and what’s the best thing to do if you meet one in the wild?
A Chaos Monkey is anyone at work that appears to ignore all of the rules and thus cause DPMs a world of pain.
If you meet one in the wild, you should first try and find out why he/she apparently enjoys annoying you. Often a private one on one can reveal something that’s easy to improve.
Alternatively, you can get the support of senior team members they respect more than you. They can help with understanding what the issues are. Sometimes one of his/her own seniors explaining what pain they’re causing DPMs and projects is more effective than a DPM trying it alone.
If this turns out to be the case, a good DPM will ignore that ego sting of wondering why a Chaos Monkey listens to his/her senior but not you. A good DPM will have done his/her job by removing a barrier that results in a smoother project.
A great DPM will not stop there, but will put improving that particular relationship on his/her mental list of long-term tasks and will work on removing the need for senior assistance.
In the past as a last resort, I’ve taken production team members into conference calls where I knew the client was going to shout at me for a mistake this production person had made. Note: I didn’t take them in because they made a mistake. I only do that when all else has failed and his/her attitude about the mistake is awful and nonchalant.
I won’t even tell the client the person is listening (a bit naughty I know), I will just let those team members listen to what it’s like in a DPM’s shoes when they’re covering for others’ mistakes.
Sometimes witnessing the sharp end of situation up close can work wonders, and is evidence to me that as DPMs we perhaps protect our teams a little too much from the onslaught.
Tell us about the Megabeast: what does it eat for breakfast?
Haha, Megabeasts eat your soul for breakfast.
Megabeasts are what I call people at work or in life who seem to be pretty obnoxious, take pleasure from other people’s misfortune, bully colleagues, and just generally make people in their vicinity unhappy.
I think most people will have encountered one or more Megabeasts in their career and it’s always such a horrible thing, but one you should actively aim to change and help others suffering versus playing the Megabeast’s game or keeping your head down. In my opinion, this is the cowardly option.
When’s the last time you encountered either and what did you do? What do you tell people to help them out of a situation like this?
Whenever I encounter a Megabeast, my strategy is always the same: to keep doing the right thing no matter what. A colleague once taught me this approach, and my word, is it effective! It takes a lot of patience and strength to see it through, but it really is the one surefire way to defeat a Megabeast.
A Megabeast is essentially a bully, and the last thing you want to do is let a bully see how he or she is affecting you. My parents always taught me that a bully detests nothing more than getting back a sincere and genuine smile each time he or she tries to cause tears and upset.
Thus, no matter what the Megabeast throws at me, I receive it with a smile and aim to do the absolute best job I can at all times. What this approach often results in is that over time people around the Megabeast begin to see the differences in the way they react versus how you react, and after even more time, the consensus and support from those people and eventually the business swings in your favour, which completely disempowers the Megabeast.
Megabeasts are used to two reactions: submission and combat, and they can deal with both so they remain in control. When they face someone who doesn’t react at all, it really confuses them and they don’t know what to do.
The reason people take this approach so rarely is because it’s so damn hard, and takes months and years to bear fruit. But I can honestly say it’s totally worth it.
So this is my advice to others: if you are being bullied by a Megabeast, ignore him/her, do your job the best you can without trying to fight directly at his/her pathetic level. People around you will begin to wake up, and more importantly, speak up.
Teams & communities
What do you think about homogeneity in our industry? Do you think it’s good to ‘hire for fit’ or do you think we learn more from people who are different than us?
This is an area that I’ve thought an awful lot about in the last few years as I had to hire more and more people in order to build an awesome team. Annoyingly, my answer is ‘it depends.’
It really does depend on your business and/or the needs of the business or projects at that time. For example, on my current team I’ve found a certain type of person fits much better than another and so I continually hire people of a similar type. These people tend to do well in my team, enjoy the work, environment, and culture. However, this same person may have a nightmare of a time trying to fit in and adapt to different team that is of equal size and skill, but that is missing a few of those variables.
At the first DPM Summit, Michael Lopp gave a great presentation entitled “Stables and Volatiles.” In this presentation he delivered the message that in order to build a great company, you must learn how to manage both stables and volatiles. Stables being relatively reliable and predictable employees who while would never let you down or cause huge issues, would also never come up with that innovative idea that changes the company or world.
Volatiles, on the other hand, are unpredictable and the quintessential loose cannons on a team. They’ll amaze you and the team with their unorthodox approaches and insights while at the same time being annoying, disruptive, and generally a complete pain in the ass to manage.
Michael suggested that you need both types on your team and you must find a way to manage both. The presentation challenged my own views right up until he also said that if you have a team of only stables, then the best you can hope to be is an IBM or Oracle, and never ever an Apple or Google.
At this point I disagreed, because contrary to popular ‘cool’ belief, not everyone strives to be Google or Apple, and you know what? IBM and Oracle are pretty successful, too, I believe.
Who you hire really depends on what you want your company to be, the stage the company is at, and the culture.
For example, if I was leading a technology startup with just a few people, then I would definitely want/need many volatiles onboard who would push the boundaries and create something amazing. A stable is much less likely to do this.
If I’m running a large, mature technology company, then chances are I’d want mostly reliable stables, mostly because, in my experience, volatiles in this environment become extremely bored very quickly and cannot deal with any form of traditional management hierarchy.
At a higher level, of course it makes sense and is actually beneficial to have a mix of different people in a team or company. Without this, learning would slow down and life and work would be pretty boring.
What kinds of things get in the way of a good team? What do you look for when you’re hiring or working with other teammates?
Lack of honesty and poor management get in the way of good teams.
If you have a team of 40 people, it can take a ripple of just 3–4 of those people being negative behind people’s backs to create a large wave of shit that engulfs your entire team and ultimately destroys it.
I’ve seen it happen and for this reason, I make team honesty the number one rule. This doesn’t mean everyone is happy all the time. Of course not. But it does mean that when people get upset about something, there’s a clear expectation that they should voice their concerns in an adult way instead of resorting to schoolyard gossip.
If a team can operate this way, you tend to find they resolve issues very quickly and this results in a great team spirit.
Then again, you can have the best team in the world, but if you manage them poorly then you’ll turn them into an average team—one that you complain about.
The biggest mistakes management can make with teams are: not trusting them, giving them pixel pushing-esque instructions, and generally thinking and treating them like a factory line.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a huge advocate of the hippy-esque management of today where you just leave teams alone and they’ll deliver you record breaking products, growth, and revenue. This is just utopian and naive bullshit, in my opinion. It’s rarely achieved by any company and often the claims of success tend to go no deeper than a blog post that sounded good on their website.
In the the middle of all of this is where I believe reality and optimal business performance meet, and that’s pragmatism.
If management and teams manage to strike a deal where the levels of autonomy, trust, and empowerment are balanced with the need to ship, grow and make money, then you see happy management and teams.
If either party wants something that will tip that balance, that’s when conflict starts.
Honesty and an understanding of this balance is what I look for in teammates.
Another thing I look for is humbleness and humility. You’ll often hear me saying to others that I don’t care how many mistakes you make (within reason), or how big they are. What I care most about is how you react to them.
A teammate who makes a mistake, feels awful, apologizes and does his/her utmost to resolve it, while minimizing the chance it happens again, will always have a place on my team.
A teammate who makes mistakes and mostly blames his/her teammates, blames the company, blames the technical department, and generally won’t just feel bad or say sorry? He or she has no place on my team, even if he/she is a genius.
Why? Because asshole geniuses kill your team.
A book that does a great job of explaining this is ‘The No Asshole Rule,’ by Robert Sutton. In it, he talks about something called the Total Cost of Assholes (TCA) and even gives an actual formula that allows you to work this out at your company.
Do you think other people are starting to pay attention to this DPM movement yet? Do you think it’s important for non-DPMs to perk up and pay attention? Why or why not?
Absolutely! The DPM movement is an amazing thing I’ve been lucky enough to see from its very early beginnings, and it’s vital that non-DPMs take note.
Why? Because the lines between what we all do in this digital industry are becoming more and more blurred, to the point where no longer can an ex-marketing person deliver a digital project with ease.
Instead, it requires a much more specialized DPM who has knowledge in a vast number of business, creative, and technical areas. Thus we’re starting to see DPMs essentially taking over many areas of digital teams that used to be held by non-digital people.
Those who choose to ignore us and the movement will, at some point, find themselves obsolete in this fast-changing world.
What should we do to make this community stronger?
I believe we should continue to do what we are: more blogging, tweeting, speaking and networking.
We can make the DPM community stronger by being the first community that shuns divisive camps and embraces a flexible and pragmatic approach to deliver projects with healthy cash flow and teams.
However, I also believe we’re approaching a time where DPM standards could be beneficial. By this I don’t mean a PRINCE2 set of rules that must be followed, but instead, we need to unite a little more and drop the small number of camps that exist. E.g. Waterfall, Agile, NoEstimates etc.
All of these have their own merits, but I think people tend to become too militant in their support for a certain way of thinking when instead we should focus on seeing all these as a large toolkit at our disposal on a project-by-project or account-by-account basis.
We should set about learning what we can about each and deploy as we see fit, mixing them up and breaking the so called rules if need be.
All focus should be on how successful projects, products, or whatever we make are, how happy the teams and clients are, and if everyone made a nice profit. If this is achieved with a Waterfall approach, then who gives a shit!? I get so annoyed when someone says there is a right approach and a wrong approach without taking the results into consideration.
We can make the DPM community stronger by being the first community that shuns divisive camps and, instead, embraces a more flexible and pragmatic approach to deliver projects with healthy cash flow and teams.
Hopefully Brett Harned and I will help further the cause through PatherfinderDPM, and some of the company’s fundamental beliefs on this topic and the future of digital project management.
Final Sam thoughts
Sam has packed a wallop into this interview and he’s still on a roll. Follow Sam and find out how he’s shaking up the world of DPM this year.
Where are you speaking next?
I’m due to give a keynote in January 2016 at DPM:UK16 in Manchester, UK. It will be the same one I gave at the Digital PM Summit in Philly. Let the irrational nerves and OCD preparation begin!
That sounds wicked (despite the pooping-in-pants fear). What’s the next exciting thing you’re doing?
I’m extremely excited to be the co-founder of PathfinderDPM with my friend and now business partner, Brett Harned.
PathfinderDPM’s core offering will be digital project management training and consulting in the UK and US. We plan to offer training to people about what it’s REALLY like to manage digital projects versus just the usual theory stuff that often assumes ideal working environments etc.
Can’t wait to hear more, Sam. One final question: what’s one PM tip you’d offer to burnt out PMs or ones who are just feeling unsupported?
You are not alone. We’re here to support you and you’re here to support us. JOIN US.