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2 project managers share their thoughts on technology production

I interview Danielle McNamara and Karina de Alwis about producing digital campaigns and products.

First off, what led you to work in advertising and technology? What would you recommend to someone as a starting point if they want to learn how to produce technology projects?

Danielle McNamara: My interest in technology led me here! I actually went to school for broadcast journalism with the intention to work in radio, but I graduated into a recession and ended up taking an administrative job.

Being the youngest member of my team, I was labeled as the person who understood technology best and I somehow fell into a role where I was writing, designing and developing online training courses in Flash. From there, I started getting involved in managing external software development projects and found my niche. I could combine my organizational skills with my love of technology and that’s when I decided to make the leap agency side.

My recommendation is to dabble in technology. I got my start by starting my own website on some old blogging software called Movable Type (don’t look for it – I killed it dead because it was embarrassing!) I wanted to make it look custom, so I started tinkering with templates. Then, I moved on to WordPress and started learning a little PHP. Not enough to build anything of my own, but just enough to understand how things work. I took classes in front-end development and database management.

I just wanted to be able to speak the language and wrap my head around foundational concepts so that I could help to take complex ideas and translate them for clients who might not be so tech savvy.

In my opinion, project management skills are more easily taught once you have that interest and foundation in how things work.

Karina de Alwis: When I graduated from uni, I had no idea what I wanted to do. Through the parent of a friend of a friend I was lucky enough to be offered an advertising internship at Publicis in Melbourne. I had majored marketing and psychology, so Advertising didn’t seem like too much of a stretch at the time. It also happened to be during the Global Financial Crisis (remember that?), so during my internship when a junior digital producer left the company, I started filling in for her, as they weren’t able to hire anyone new!

So I ended up in this industry somewhat by luck! I guess the fact that I enjoy this role so much is what has kept me doing this for so long.

For anyone wanting to be a digital producer, I would say, find the best way to get your foot in the door so you can start getting some real life experience. Everything I’ve learned has been from hands on project work – not from school, or from watching someone else.

Off the top of your head, what is something we, or our clients sometimes fail to consider when creating new digital products or campaigns.

Karina De Alwis: Often clients are so focussed on business needs that they can overlook user needs. Users are typically engaged with digital content for mere seconds, so having their needs in mind will shape the ideal user journey and the best approach for delivering content.

Danielle McNamara: We can build an amazing site or experience, but if no one ever sees it what does it matter? It’s not necessarily a “if you build it, they will come” scenario, so it’s important to think outside the technology product itself to how we’ll make it discoverable for users.

In your opinion, what are the most important factors to a project’s success? What can teams do during production to keep things running smoothly.

Danielle McNamara: Aligning on the goals for the project up front, and revisiting them throughout the life of the project to keep abreast of any evolutions or shifting. Keeping the goals top of mind is super important when it comes to decision-making big or small, and if our goals change, it’s critical to assess how it impacts our final product so that we don’t end up building something that doesn’t meet our client’s needs or expectations.

From a PM perspective, it’s important to understand the sequencing of tasks required to complete a project, and their priorities and dependencies within the overall timeline and then to check in on those frequently to make sure we’re hitting our milestones. Daily standup meetings help us to identify risks or uncertainties early in the process and sort them out so they don’t pile up on us at the end of a project and frustrate everyone involved.

Karina De Alwis: Tough question! I guess it depends on how we define project success. I have worked on projects where we had terrible burn rates, but won awards. Or projects where we delivered on time and the client was happy, but the internal team was pretty burnt out and felt the quality of work was less than what we expect from ourselves.

I think a big part of keeping things running smoothly is the scoping process.

If there is appropriate time for technical discovery, the team can build up a solid scope, and cover any risk by including all requirements, assumptions and contingency.

I’m also a big fan of revising these requirements and assumptions at the end of each project phase – to catch any scope creep, and reset tasks and milestones for the team. This can help alleviate any confusion (for both us and the client), and that dreaded pre-launch stress!

What are some tips to help contract and time technology deliverables to both deliver on clients’ expectations and manage agency time/profit?

Danielle McNamara: When developing a project plan, we should document everything we know and everything we don’t know about what’s required to complete the project.

For the things we don’t know, we can make some reasonable assumptions and document those, too. Making those assumptions and building in some contingency time and budget around them helps us protect ourselves and gives our client a jumping off point to make decisions or to provide clarifications.

As a project progresses, it’s important to revisit those assumptions to ensure that they were correct, and if they weren’t, to clarify them and assess the impact on the timeline and budget if they change.

When there are grey areas up front or our contracts are too vague, we open ourselves up to situations where our client expects things that we may not have intended to deliver and sometimes we don’t have a leg to stand on to push back.

If we end up having to deliver on those things, it eats into our profitability and the misunderstandings can weaken our relationship with our client. It definitely pays to do the work up front rather than to figure it out as we go!

What can you look out for when a technical production timeline begins to go awry and what can you do to help fix the situation?

Karina De Alwis: I have PTSD from a few disastrous projects, so I’m a big believer in trying to catch a slipping timeline early, by breaking the schedule into much smaller tasks. I then work with the team to track progress on each task, so we don’t have week-on-week minor slipping, resulting in a chaotic launch.

If it looks like we’re going to miss a milestone for a task, my first instinct is to reprioritise and descope as needed – keeping the team focussed on non-negotiable “must have” features.