In the summer of 2013, I landed my dream project management job with the CBC’s Digital Operations department. It was an opportunity to work with the best digital platforms, technologies, and talent in Canada. The Digital Ops team develops the technology and platforms that support the delivery of digital news, sports, radio, music, and television content to millions of Canadians every day.
A twist of fate
Five months later, my dream job was on the line. Rogers signed an exclusive deal for the rights to broadcast NHL hockey in Canada. Faced with the impending loss of millions in ad revenue, CBC announced that cuts would be inevitable. Another five months of uncertainty passed while management figured out where the cuts would land. I was told that due to the CBC’s impending layoffs, my contract would end early. As anyone will tell you, it’s easier to find a job when you already have one, so I began scheduling interviews.
You don’t need to look hard to find plenty of digital project management (PM) roles in Toronto. Software companies, agencies, and startups are always looking. You’ll also find PM positions in legacy media, retail, government insurance, banks, and telcos all “going digital.”
During my search I met with a number of companies looking for digital PMs. Generally they fall under these technology related categories:
Roles at big pharma, or health related organizations and retailers seeking to grow digital expertise, expand their digital audience, or bring more expertise in-house.
Usually programs are growing or changing. Not always service side, but generally exist to meet needs of a marketing department. Many of these roles are at web agencies.
Usually on the service side, but not necessarily digital agencies. These companies offer a unique service or platform product to other companies to use (rather than building one themselves).
Companies are usually looking for PMs to work in one of the following contexts:
- PM an in-house digital team
- PM an off-shore digital team
- PM projects in tandem with an on-shore digital agency
- Hybrid of 1, 2 & 3
For companies at the emerging or existing digital level, the “ideal candidate” possesses a mix of traditional PM skills. They want PMs that can document scope, communicate effectively, solve problems, manage stakeholders, and oversee budgets in the thousands to millions while flagging and mitigating risks.
At the advanced digital shops, companies are looking for something a little different…
Those special PMs
If you aren’t all that technical, but your core PM skills are solid, then there will still be a place for you in digital.
During my job search, I began to notice more demand for specialized PM roles. Particularly in the US, there are more PM positions requesting skills in software development, experience with analytics, search, marketing or mobile, or having a background in technology.
Here are a few roles I found:
- Technical Project Manager
- Mobile Project Manager
- Lead Marketing Project Manager
- Search Engine Marketing (SEM) Project Manager
If this was the beginning of a trend where employers were targeting PMs with advanced knowledge in narrower fields of expertise, where did I fit in? Was I no longer marketable?
Was this the rise of the technologist PM where the most lucrative roles went to PMs with software development, analytics, mobile, SEM, video, or gaming PM experience?
Skills to pay the bills
I asked some colleagues what they felt were the most marketable skills PMs should bring to the table in 2015:
Understanding the possibilities of what can be done is integral to a project manager’s job. Being a project manager in the age of digital means you need to be up to speed on all elements of technology from APIs to SaaS platforms. If technology is foreign to you at first, that’s okay. Get close with your tech teams—they will be your best friends and guides in the digital space.
Peter Sena’s words seemed to confirm the direction the market might be heading, but could any PM really be “up to speed on all elements of technology”? I wasn’t even sure what “all elements of technology” looked like. I found a partial answer by referencing the Gartner Digital Marketing Transit Map. Have a look at that map. I think we can all agree, that’s a lot of technical ground to cover.
I shared the Gartner map with one of my colleagues at the CBC, a guy who’s also worked with some of the larger digital shops in Toronto. I asked him how important it was for digital project managers to also be technologists. He told me it was impossible to stay on top of it all, and PMs should learn to balance being cognizant, being familiar, and being an expert in the technology that surrounds them. He shared that having dated knowledge is just as dangerous as a lack of knowledge. PMs definitely have their work cut out for them.
Being a full-on digital PM technologist is probably an out-of-reach goal for most of us, but what about being a PM that specializes in one specific segment of the digital market? What does that value look like?
My colleague believes in specialization. He says marketing yourself in roles like a ‘Video PM’ or an ‘Analytics PM’ could be rewarding—and even lucrative—as our industry evolves.
Hiring PMs with specific technology or industry segment expertise makes sense for employers, too. Their specialized knowledge adds value to both the project and organization. And if I’m an employer, wouldn’t I favour hiring a PM that brings more value than one that doesn’t?
The answer depends on the context of “value.”
I reached out to Nathan Ng, Program Manager at Digiflare in Toronto. We worked together developing an Xbox One app for CBC. Nathan is a lifelong technologist with a degree in Systems Design Engineering from University of Waterloo. He’s among the most technical PMs I know, so I asked him if specialized or tech skills would eventually trump the traditional PM skill set and this is what he said:
Since the nature of PMing is a facilitator role, my opinion is that everything boils down to how quickly you can ‘knowledge transfer.’ My opinion is that it is important, but perhaps not critical to have a solid understanding of technologies/platforms.
My CBC colleague agreed with Nathan that while important, technology specific skills will not trump core PM skills in the short term. He figures that generalist PMs who can work the matrix will eventually take on roles like program directors. On the other hand, he believes that Technical PMs who can’t see the big picture will “languish and decline.” It’s all about closing those gaps.
So, if you’re worried about being out of a job, the good news is this: if you aren’t all that technical, but your core PM skills are solid, then there will still be a place for you in digital.
In the meantime, you can execute your next project just a little bit better or prepare for that next role by filling in your knowledge gaps a piece at a time. Like Peter Sena says, reach out to your technical teams. You’ll be surprised by how willing they are to help.
As for me, I’m happy to report that I’ve rejoined the CBC working on their Audio & Video platform. The AV team is guiding me through my quest to one day code something useful. We’re working through it, one syntax error at a time and I couldn’t be happier.