The Swiss Army knife of digital projects

By Ed Francis, Project Director

What does a Digital Project Manager do? You may well ask. An interesting point came up during a panel discussion recently. Ben Aston mentioned people argue that ‘Digital Project Management’ isn’t a thing. My brow furrowed in confusion – how do I have a career in something that doesn’t exist? He explained the role of a digital project manager is so far removed from traditional project management, it can no longer be termed ‘project manager’.

When it comes to project management, the go-to is always the big budget jobs – construction or traditional critical software jobs (I’m looking at you TSB and NHS).  Having a background in BIM, and document management in construction, with Viewpoint (formerly 4Projects), I’d dipped into the processes involved in projects like constructing the Emirates Stadium with Sir Robert McAlpine, or the Ministry of Justice’s new headquarters. These projects garner ideas of strict, defined processes, tried and tested over the years, involving architects, engineers, foremen, suppliers and of course, project managers. These roles have existed for thousands of years, and the techniques have been established for just as long.

Then we look at the digital world. It’s something that’s still very much in its infancy with digitised business systems only coming into play in the mid-60s, and the advent of the internet in the public domain in the 90s (I was around ten-years-old at the time and the vivid memory of going to a library and using an encyclopedia for homework still haunts me).  The nature of worldwide collaboration via the internet and the power of programming has created, in my opinion, the perfect storm to encourage fast, new ideas that don’t have time to develop.

We still see it today in the insane number of crude JavaScript libraries being produced (160 first time developer pushes in the npm package service a week) which only causes dependency issues and chaos – let alone creating barriers for the industry in education and recruitment, where students don’t know where to go and ‘best practice’ is a free for all.  This is a very real issue that’s discussed annually by our local digital collective Digital Union.

It’s no wonder with new technologies and techniques, and the sheer speed at which things move, that managing the process at any level is viewed as being a long step away from traditional project management.

That’s why digital project managers are considered a new breed.  With the nature of the agile methodology being introduced to deal with the ever-changing nature of digital, digital project managers need to react speedily and concisely with any tool we can grab (which seem to evolve on a monthly basis).  During the panel talk, we were described as “scrappy” – dipping in and filling roles that might not be at our disposal.

Here’s a list of the typical tasks and themes I currently cover in this role.  I’ve emboldened those I perceive as being traditional ‘project management’:

  • Budget allocation
  • Resource and scope allocation
  • Staff management
  • Client liaison
  • QA
  • Business analysis
  • Salesman (pitch process, consultancy)
  • SEO analysis and strategy
  • Social strategy
  • Conversion strategy and implementation
  • Google Analytics analysis and Tag Manager implementer
  • UX and UI designer
  • PPC analyst
  • Software tester
  • Persona and experience submersion workshop host and designer
  • Email campaign design
  • Asset production (Adobe Illustrator, InDesign, Photoshop)
  • Developer (HTML, CSS at a top level, sometimes c# and SQL from my developer days)
  • Blogger
  • 1st line support member

Some of you might be thinking, “That’s not your job. Why are you doing it?”. Simply put, in the nature of the digital world, particularly in an agency environment, there’s a decision to be made between what’s going to cause the most disruption when it comes to budget, timescales, outsourcing and so on.  Sometimes, adding a tool to your toolbox will give you an insight you may not have had in the long run. When people discuss SEO, UX and design, I have a solid foundation to not only give my thoughts on their side of the desk but also how this translates to budget, timescales, resources and milestones. I thought it was perhaps just me – but talking to more and more DPMs in the industry, it’s become clear – with the pace that digital moves, DPMs need to be scrappy to get shit done.  As long as you’re aware of not overreaching yourself and damaging your core duties, DPMs can be the invaluable Swiss Army knife of modern digital projects.

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