Once a Project Manager, always a Project Manager

(This is an edited transcript of a presentation Sally gave at Deliver Conf on 26th January 2017)

I started Project Managing in 1999... when I was just 9 years old… I know – I started young. I’d just moved to London, initially to be a chimney sweep, but my fortunes changed quickly and I learned the ropes fast. It was all offline back then. Emails hadn’t long been the norm. Most digital chatter was around the impending doom of the Y2K bug with the odd banner and skyscraper thrown around of course. I was managing British Airways Exec Club direct mail projects. All the cool kids had Nokia 3210s and Craig David was popular first time round.

Eight years later I left agency life, and London. By then I could manage offline projects end-to-end. I could organise photoshoots and buy print for complex direct mail. I’d worked on pan-European campaigns for Canon, brochures for Harrods and sent sand through the post for Thomas Cook. It wasn’t timely. It was too soon after the attack on the twin towers and weeks after ricin had been intercepted at the White House. It made the news. Fake news?

I left agency life to be a mum. I was ready. I was ready to skip away from the late nights waiting on Cyrillic translations to mount artwork for a campaign that made cigarettes sexy for Russian 20-somethings. I’d had my fill of managing resource around creative teams that wouldn’t work on campaigns for The Army because they were conscientious objectors and teams that wouldn’t work on Winston Cigarettes or Chivas Regal whiskey because of their moral obligation. These aren’t criticisms. I envied them, but selfishly it was a logistical nightmare. It was enough to make me think I was ready for coffee mornings with the mum brigade and that’s saying something. And, with all my experience, I was surely ready to manage a much smaller human being.

NEWSFLASH: I WAS NOT READY.

I was suddenly out of control, in the passenger seat of a fun bus, hurtling towards anarchy with a 1 foot dictator at the wheel.

He said ‘when’, he said ‘how’, he said ‘where’. That was MY job, or it HAD been. Not as a dictator I hasten to add.

I was methodological in everything I did. I tried to apply the critical path in mundane tasks. I tried to be efficient. Timing was everything and then WHAM! This brand new human being turned my (semi) perfectly organised life into chaos.

I apologise if this all seems a little self-indulgent, but the realisation I had at the first DPM:UK conference in 2014 IS relevant, I promise.

When the opportunity to attend the conference presented itself, I was working part time at Corporation Pop and there was a PM role on offer. By now my kids were school age, so arguably, I already had two demanding clients with high expectations, little budget and a long term delivery plan so I was wary to take more on. I had first refusal but I didn’t think I could do it or wanted to do it and so the conference was a good starting point.

WHAT I KNEW BEFORE ATTENDING THE CONFERENCE

I couldn’t be a project manager because:

• I’d certainly forgotten everything I’d ever learnt about Project Management

• I’d obviously winged it first time around but was just never found out

• It couldn’t possibly fit around family life

OK, not a long list, I grant you that but they’re all fairly critical if this was going to be a success.

So I went along to DPM:UK in 2014 to see if I might still have the fire in my belly to help make projects happen, to get a feel for whether I could make the leap to digital projects in an Agile environment as a mum returning to full time work.

WHAT I KNEW AFTER ATTENDING THE CONFERENCE

THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME (true story)

Some more truths...

 • All clients have at least one ridiculous deadline / budget or both 

• No two Project Managers use the same software for the same tasks (note: JIRA, Harvest, Resource Guru, Traffic, Trello, Basecamp, WorkBook…)

• No project has the perfect formula – that’s why we wash-up – to learn and improve

• All Project Managers need support which is why this conference exists

• In the eight years I’d been away from project management NOTHING had actually changed

The dawn of enlightenment for me was this;

The problems that we faced as PMs a decade ago are still present. I was in familiar territory. I was home.

As project managers. we need to solve problems daily, to communicate constantly and ultimately get the best out of everybody we converse with. I COULD DO THIS. I was already doing it. Everything else was just gravy. I realised very quickly that I still had the drive that I had pre kids, when I worked in London agencies, on offline projects back when I had a spring in my step and a NOKIA 3210 in my pocket. The principals were the same. The people were not.

It made me seriously interrogate what it was that I felt I could give to Corporation Pop that wasn't out-dated. It certainly couldn't be my evenings which I so freely gave up in my 20s.

I wasn’t naive. I was under no illusion that I had a million and one things to learn to get to where I am right now, and I still have a million more.

Working at Corporation Pop throws up additional challenges as my colleagues throw themselves into new technologies ALL. THE. TIME. I’ve ditched dpi for pixels, scamps for wireframes and sign off stickers for acceptance certificates.

I’ve realised that regardless of the project or the discipline, there will always be schedules to create, expectations to manage, dramas, highs, lows, frustrations, needy clients, busy clients, resource clashes. The list goes on. But listening to my potential peers back in January 2014 made me feel I could grab the reins again and tackle all of these things head on. I could at least give it a whirl.

Cut to January 2017 and I'm a qualified Agile practitioner in a supportive and forward thinking agency, learning so much every day. I have the inspiration from DPM:UK14 to thank for this.

So, if you’re sat here today wondering whether Project Management is for you, or whether it’s ever going to change, it isn’t. We can only learn, evolve and adapt. Only you know whether you are solutions-driven and whether you get a kick out of helping the team deliver.