Who is managing your project?

I’ve had some pretty awesome co-workers in my time, so no doubt I keep in touch (or at least stalk them a little on Facebook and be glad when they are doing well). One of those folks is a very awesome lady named Polly Searles. To be honest, I don’t recall working with her THAT much at my past job, but I do remember her to be crazy good at managing whatever project I was on.

The flashbacks are coming because she was recently profiled in her current company’s bio section. Fablevision is certainly lucky to have her (as well as several other really awesome past co-workers). I gave her bio a quick read, and while it does great to reflect her achievements and personality, it did something else for me – it caused me to reflect on how weird it was that for 8 years of my professional career I was not working with Project Managers, Agile Leaders, Scrum Masters, or any of that….

I was working with Producers.

In 2008, when I left what I described as “Agency” work to a startup, and I was just getting agile methodology tossed at me, I really didn’t think it was strange to describe that I worked with “producers”. I thought it was just another type of project manager that people would be familiar with. Now that I’m reflecting, I’m realizing how strange this might be to some folks. In fact, I’m reconsidering categorizing my past jobs as “Agencies”, but rather they were Television Production jobs, despite the fact that I was a developer/designer.

From 2000-2008, my career was spent working on software and games and websites. The common thread behind all of this, were that we were working with TV properties. Reading Rainbow, Mr Rogers, Sesame Street, Nickelodeon, etc. For 8 years, I was working with “producers”. As internet experiences became more and more capable, TV was spilling over and asking for more and more companion websites, animations, and games.

Rather than break from tradition, it would seem, TV producers would now be asked to help manage the new medium. It seems that video games follow a similar path. Generally speaking, it seems like if there’s animated, scripted content – you’re working with a producer.

What did a producer do? Well, from my experience as a developer, they were project managers. At least that’s how they appeared at the time. I’ve since gone on to work with very capable product managers, and normal PM’s just didn’t take on as much as a Producer does.

The Producers I’ve worked with managed projects, but also were the face of the project when interacting with clients. They responded to RFPs (request for proposals), even planning and scoping mini prototypes ahead of the work to impress potential clients. The producer made creative decisions for projects with input from art directors, designers, and developers. They single handedly brought people together around a project, doing whatever grunt work it took to pull things together. My best times working with producers were when they utilized the entire team for input and we made decisions together. It led to some awesome work.

After leaving TV behind, I joined a startup. We did TV! Its funny, but even though it was still television, we were approaching from a very technical angle – which was around video search, publishing, and metadata. No longer did I work with Producers. We weren’t creating scripted content, just working the playback and discovery angle. For project organizations, I worked with a few Project Managers (PMs).

I worked with some great PMs, but I didn’t really enjoy the relationship. It was a very segmented one.

YOU DEVELOPER: YOU CRANK OUT CODE

I PM WILL TELL YOU WHEN THINGS ARE DUE, AND YOU DO THEM.

It’s not a relationship that fosters creativity. I certainly liked having someone on point to figure out budgets and work with the client all day so I didn’t have to. However, when you the developer hears about client requests second hand, there’s no room for you to have much input or creativity. Instead, you’re just doing the job – kinda like a robot. It’s hard to go above and beyond.

As the company got a little leaner and our products got more formulated with some great product managers – I got left outside of the product team and on the professional services team. Here, the best thing ever happened to me – I started working with a PM (also the VP of Engineering) and a couple Account Service folks that were way too busy. They knew they were too busy, so I’m not badmouthing them – in fact, if you’d ask me who were my favorite people helping me to manage my products, I’d instantly point to them and a couple of Producers I’d worked with.

Anyway, because they were too busy, I was put into the position to interact with our clients a lot. I got to hear the project needs, putting me in a great position to make suggestions, get the clients to back down on stuff that didn’t help them or make sense, and overall put my knowledge to good use rather than being isolated where a PM tells you: DEVELOPER, DO THIS WORK NOW BY MONTH’S END.

The overworked PM/VP of Engineering ended up adopting some Agile practices. Everyone hates on agile these days, but at this job it was a great deal. We’d all help write user stories and tasks. Everyone would agree on them and help to elaborate them better when we could. QA was involved from the beginning. Design was involved from the beginning. It was a freaking awesome team effort. Sprints were 2 weeks, we all realized it was somewhat arbitrary, but we didn’t care. Real deadlines were met as we occasionally mocked our 2 week sprints when they didn’t make sense.

We made Agile work for us in our unique projects and deadlines.

After this job, I got a rather large corporate job. I’m still there, so I shouldn’t cover any of the missteps which have since been corrected – but suffice to say project management should not be one size fits all. It should also be more of a team effort with a designated leader to make decisions and move things along.

One very recent project involved me working with a Design Researcher on a very quick UX prototype. She was/is awesome – but it was very reminiscent of my best times working with a producer. She took on the roles of researching what we should actually build, interacting with our clients, and being very inclusive of our small team every step of the way. There was tons of freedom here to be creative and listen to the unique needs of the project. You can probably guess it was a huge success.

Anyway, point here is that my time with Polly and other great Producers have really made me think about what a successful mechanism is for project organization. I’d emphasize the following:

  • Be inclusive! If your team isn’t involved in the decision making, and it’s one point person that handles everything, the best you can possible do is meet requirements. You’ll never excel
  • One size project management doesn’t fit all. Agile is great, but if you aren’t adapting it to meet your project needs, it won’t work. Example: you just started a 2 week sprint, but your project is due in 1 week. You need to adapt and ignore the process a little. Make it work for you. Don’t blindly follow.
  • Have a decision maker. This could be the client that’s paying your bills, it could be your manager, it could be a product manager. If there’s no decision maker, you can go around in circles!
  • Continuously show improvement. I’m a big fan of CI systems that automatically build your project whenever you check some code in. Agile was invented to solve Waterfall. But even Agile with 2 week sprints can be a bit slow. I like to get a hollow shell of a project up and running in a week or less. Whenever anyone (QA, design, a client) wants to see progress you can ALWAYS show it. Sometimes you interpret requests wrong. Sometimes the client is wrong and doesn’t know until they see it. No spreadsheet,  Gantt chart, or the like can illustrate progress better than an early stage work that someone can use.

I’m sure I’ll have my mind blown in the future with some other awesome way of managing  a project. But I’m also sure I’ll just say: “Hey this reminds me of the awesome times I had working with a Producer!”

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