I work on the recruiting team at Viget, a DC-based digital agency. Viget partners with a wide variety of clients—Politico, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, to name some recent examples—to create exceptional digital products and platforms. Whether the client is a small start-up, a non-profit organization, or a big brand, digital project managers (DPMs) are critical to the success of the project. They help shape its vision. They build strong relationships with clients. They support and challenge others to do their best work. It’s a tough job and a great job. And, over the years, one of my sub-specialties has become helping find, evaluate, and hire people who thrive in the role.
At Viget, we’ve based our recruiting processes as much as possible on work sample tests. In Work Rules!, Google’s Laszlo Bock extols the work sample test—a sample piece of work similar to what the applicant will do on the job—as one of the best predictors of job performance. Some DPM tasks lend themselves well to the work sample test, like analyzing a task order and cost build or converting a set of wireframes into a series of tickets for developers. We use similar exercises to determine how well applicants will perform those very same tasks if they join Viget full-time.
But, as Bock himself concedes, work sample tests have their limits. They do not measure certain characteristics that are important to the DPM role, like how you might respond to various pressures or how you might collaborate with groups of people in complex circumstances. One of the unique problems of DPM recruiting is that much of the work is nearly impossible to replicate in an evaluation process.
That doesn’t mean we haven’t tried. Over the years, Viget People Director, Emily Bloom and I have developed a robust and innovative evaluation process for DPMs. It has involved presentation assignments, a mock kick-off exercise, shadowing stints, and sample training sessions. We often tailor the order and details of the process to each individual applicant so as to better assess their strengths and weaknesses. And yet, there have been times when we’ve neared the end of an assessment process, still unsure whether the person would thrive in the DPM role.
A DPM apprenticeship is born
Everyone used the word ‘ping’ a lot. I kept wondering: how do I ping somebody? Do I need to access a system?
Last spring, during one of our regular meetings, Emily and I found ourselves discussing, for the umpteenth time, how to improve our DPM recruiting. Emily and I had occasionally kicked around the idea of a DPM Apprenticeship. Last spring, during one of our regular meetings, we found ourselves once again weighing the possibility. A few things were clear to us:
- We knew from occasionally bringing on other staff as contract-to-hires that it would be great to evaluate someone in the DPM role over a sustained period of time.
- Yet we knew that contract-to-hire scenarios almost never work out in terms of timing the right project work with an applicant’s availability between jobs.
- We knew from testing a DPM Internship in 2012 that it would be critical to expose someone to the full life-cycle of a project.
- We also knew from bringing on a couple user experience apprentices that new and recent college graduates form an increasingly valuable demographic of potential hires.
This time, as we chatted and drew connections between past experiences, Emily decided it was time to give it a try. She set up a conversation with DPM Director Kelly Kenny and the Viget project manager we hoped would serve as our first mentor: Amanda Ruehlen.
Meet our mentor: Amanda Ruehlen
Amanda first met Emily at a UNC career fair for Journalism majors five years ago. Amanda remembers saying: “I’m at a career fair for journalism, and I’m not even sure that I want to be a journalist.”
Amanda joined Viget as a DPM shortly after graduation. By the time we tapped her to help hatch our Apprenticeship plan, she had led projects like PUMA, Vitae, and GoPole, to name just a few.
And yet, she came very close to never learning the the DPM role even exists. “I got incredibly lucky,” she says. “Had I not come across Emily at that career fair, I would’ve never known that this job was out there or that I’d be interested in it.” When Emily and I approached her with our apprenticeship idea, the chance to help introduce others to the DPM role through a formalized program immediately appealed.
As much as Emily and I intended the apprenticeship to serve a recruiting purpose, we didn’t want the program to be about recruiting alone. Teaching and learning have always been core to our culture at Viget. We wanted to make sure we’d bring real educational value to the apprentice, regardless of whether he or she would join Viget afterwards.
I was really eager to see how we’d be able to balance learning mode with hands-on practical experience to make sure we could provide someone with valuable education around this industry/field.
This past fall, well into her fourth year at Viget, Amanda served as a mentor for Viget’s first-ever Digital Project Manager Apprenticeship. For twelve weeks, she led DPM Apprentice, Becca James, through the ins and outs of work and life as a Viget DPM.
Did we manage to strike a balance between our recruiting goal and our sense of an educational mission? I think so. Becca wound up joining Viget as a full-time PM. And when I spoke with her about the experience, she reminded me that the educational component was what drew her to the apprenticeship program, as much as the chance to land a full-time job.
I wanted to learn and gain experience to see if project management would be a good career choice for me, and one of the things I learned was that I love learning. Being in that learning mode as an apprentice was great—and that’s what I now realize I love about the career. Each project is a learning opportunity.
As far as we know, Viget’s DPM Apprenticeship Program is the only program of its kind in the nation. We have established a valuable starting point for an emerging career path in digital project management. We’d love to see more organizations give it a try—or discover new ways of developing similar programs. For our part, we’ve discovered a few key lessons along the way:
Tips for starting a digital PM apprenticeship
If your company is thinking about creating an apprenticeship, here are a few lessons we’d like to share:
1. Starting a new job is like travelling to a foreign country. Offer a tour guide.
“Everyone used the word ‘ping’ a lot,” Amanda remembers about her first months at Viget. “I kept wondering: how do I ping somebody? Do I need to access a system?”
To usher Becca through the foreign (to her) world of Viget, we assigned Amanda as her mentor. Becca shadowed Amanda, day by day, week by week. She observed the full range of Amanda’s work, from running internal meetings, to crafting weekly task notes, to writing development tickets, and performing QA. Becca could easily ping Amanda for help with new terms, tools, and scenarios. Having a sense of the larger context allowed Becca to understand the nuances of any particular decision.
Becca could follow my projects very closely. She was plugged in, which made shadowing much more valuable given that she had great context.
Becca agrees that the single-mentor model works.
When it come to project management, getting into the nitty-gritty of a project IS the job—getting intimately familiar with timeline, budget, team. So if I had been jumping around to a new DPM every two weeks, I wouldn’t have been able to see a project through.
And seating the mentor and apprentice close to one another was one simple, logistical strategy that complemented the single-mentor model. “Being desk buddies was key,” Becca told me, “You can ask quick questions, look at each other’s screens, see who’s doing what.”
With the single-mentor model, not only does the apprentice know who his or her go-to guide is, but the mentor can provide a much more targeted sort of guidance. Becca was also far less likely, in our view, to slip through the cracks than if different mentors were taking turns committing their time and attention. “I had a good pulse on Becca’s areas of interest or where she wanted to learn more,” says Amanda. “So I could proactively find those opportunities for her on other projects.”
2. When it comes to mentorship, being too busy might be a blessing in disguise.
One risk with the single-mentor model is that the mentor-apprentice relationship could suffer if the mentor comes under too much pressure from client work. But on the other hand, it’s also valuable for the apprentice to see first-hand how a DPM’s workload can suddenly spike. What should the mentor prioritize? How much should the apprentice be shielded from the pressures of timelines and competing imperatives?
Amanda and Becca experienced this conundrum first-hand. “I was kind of too busy the whole time,” says Amanda. “Sometimes I just had to blaze ahead—Hurricane Amanda—and just hope Becca could keep up, which she did.” For her part, Becca says: “I felt fortunate to witness ‘Hurricane Amanda,’ constantly going, in marathon meetings—it’s like I was in the eye of the storm, so I really got to see everything directly.”
And as Becca’s time at Viget went on, Amanda came up with her own solution to this problem. She simply started tasking Becca with the very things that were keeping her so busy.
One of my proudest moments came during my busiest period. I sent Becca a really quick IM— ‘hey, it’d be helpful if you could take a stab at the weekly tasking note for these three projects.’ I hadn’t given her much direction on that stuff, but she did it and it was great to see her run with something that I hadn’t spelled out for her.
In other words, the same busyness that can hinder a dedicated mentor is also an opportunity to practice delegation.
3. The hardest thing about teaching someone your job is letting them do your job.
Amanda’s proudest moments were the ones where she let go of the very work that defined her role as a DPM.
I learned that delegating is hard. Letting go of stuff and letting other people try even if that means it won’t be you doing it when you’re used to be in control of everything, that’s hard.
But that moment of first grasping the reins is critical for the apprentice to test her own capabilities, gain confidence, and see if she actually enjoys doing the job.
Becca gradually demonstrated that she could field the tasks that Amanda gave her. About a month into the apprenticeship, we moved beyond delegating discrete tasks and asked her to lead a new project.
The chance to manage my own project and make decisions about it and work directly with the staff—that was really important. If I hadn’t had that opportunity, I would’ve come out of the program really not knowing how to run a project, despite all the exposure through shadowing Amanda.
An emerging career path
We’re thrilled that Becca has joined our DPM team. And we’re eager to bring on more apprentices in the future. But we also know that we got lucky with a great first apprentice and some favorable timing.
One of the most valuable and interesting outcomes was the chance for Amanda to help forge a career path for others. Doing so enriched her own experience as a DPM. “Making more young people aware that this career could be a fit—that’s been really rewarding,” she says.
We know there are more Amandas and Beccas out there—recent grads and early-stage professionals with non-technical degrees and backgrounds who aren’t aware that the job of “Digital Project Manager” exists.
What if we find them? What if we let them give it a try?