Episode Number 109

Project Management for the Web with Rachel Gertz

Mar 15, 2018 @ 11AM MT

Project management isn’t just about tasks, time and budget. Good PM is about better communication, better outcomes and better profits! Digital PM Trainer Rachel Gertz returns to the show to dispel myths about project management and explain how essential it is to the success of a project and, more importantly, a client relationship. She defines PM for today’s digital projects, which is more than organizing and scheduling — it relies on a foundation of communication and empathy. Rachel also shares strategies for helping keep projects on time, managing expectations and dealing with scope creep, as well as advice for budgeting and billing.

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project management
digital project management
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communication
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Episode Transcript

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Preview:  Their jobs are to be the gatekeepers, so that means that they need to be able to have a say in scope of the project.  They need to be involved in the contract creation process, the sales process.  I mean, they are a natural business developer.  Once that contract is in, who do you think is primarily responsible for keeping that relationship during the project, right?  Some folks might call that an account management role, but really, as we progress into the future, the lines are getting blurred, so the person that owns that relationship is also the person managing all the pieces in that project. 

[Music]

Lea Alcantara: From Bright Umbrella, this is CTRL+CLICK CAST!  We inspect the web for you!  Today we have Rachel Gertz to explain what project management for web and digital agencies entails.  I’m your host, Lea Alcantara, and I’m joined by my fab co-host:

Emily Lewis: Emily Lewis! 

Lea Alcantara:  Today’s episode is sponsored by Foster Made, a versatile web development agency specializing in custom application development, content management systems and user experience design.  Through partnerships with designers, agencies and organizations, Foster Made is committed to building better digital experiences.  Visit fostermade.co to learn more. 

This episode is also sponsored by the Peers Conference.  Peers Conference heads to Austin for its 6th year of web, business, software, food and fun.  Whether you’re a pixel pusher, an artisan or a maker, Peers is for you.  Find out more at peersconf.com and register today.

Emily Lewis: We’re so excited to have Rachel Gertz back on the show today.  This time we’re going to talk about project management for the web.  Rachel is a co-founder at Louder Than Ten and a digital PM trainer.  She trains apprentices in digital product management so they can keep their companies happy, healthy and ready for the future.  Welcome to the show, Rachel! 

Rachel Gertz:  Hi, thanks for having me. 

Lea Alcantara: Absolutely, can you tell our listeners a bit more about yourself?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, absolutely.  So I started in the web world years ago, probably a good decade ago back when we talked, what was it, seven years ago?

Emily Lewis: Something like that. 

Lea Alcantara: Yeah. 

Rachel Gertz:  Isn’t that amazing? 

Lea Alcantara: Yeah. 

Rachel Gertz:  So at that time, my partner, Travis [Gertz], and I, we were a little digital studio and we actually evolved into an apprenticeship for project management because I have a teaching background and I think I love to geek out so much on the web and just learn everything I can about how to support a community of people who are getting things done.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: So that’s actually a really big change to go from client services work and you’re not a 100% focused on this apprenticeship program.  Is that correct?

Rachel Gertz:  That’s correct. 

Emily Lewis: So you mentioned the change was something to appeal to your kind of love of education and sharing, but was that something that was also up Travis’s alley like that’s a big change for both of you. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  I mean, we would always talk about wanting to do something that was involved in education world and we both felt a lot of pain points in our own industry.  I mean, we know the web is very young and it still has a lot of things to learn about itself in terms of accountability and how to break down silos.  So I had sit on both sides as being a PM and also an owner and now Travis having been the designer/front-end dev and operations, right, we kind of had this really neat mix where we could see things from all sides now.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And so we started realizing that, holy smokes, there are a lot of folks out that. A, they need good PMs or if they have a PM, their PM needs a community.  They need to feel like they’re not siloed.

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  They need to know what our standard is for project management in digital, and I think all of this is forming and getting refined as we go in terms of the industry.  I think we’re still just learning as an industry what that means.

Emily Lewis: So can you describe this program just a little bit more?  How long is it?  What do the students go through?  What do they learn?  How do they learn?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, absolutely.  So the program is a one-year apprenticeship.  That means basically that we can train your PMs while they work with you full time.  So a typical week would be a 3-hour class where we get into Zoom Recording and we will walk you through the end-to-end of what does it take to like bring that project in, that handover process, what are the top conversations you need to have and how do you vet the red flags, all the way to the standard scheduling, resourcing, you name it, right?  So from end to end, what does it take to run a digital project, and then on the middle of the week, we have our 2-hour lab sessions so students can work with each other.  They can ask their trainer for help.  They can work on assignments and we have a simulation assignment.  It’s a secret, but it’s about nanobots.

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  And so they get to practice because in real life, PMs don’t get that practice time, right?  They are on the front lines all the time. 

Emily Lewis: I’m curious, Rachel, this is all remote or do you have students like in a classroom environment?

Rachel Gertz:  So it’s a classroom, but it’s remote classroom.  Everything we do is completely independent of their surroundings.  We just ask that they have the ability to work at their company so that they can get the hands-on experience that they need while they’re working, but we support end to end all the training that they need to do to learn the craft. 

Emily Lewis: Hmm, interesting. 

Lea Alcantara: So speaking of learning the craft, let’s take a step back and actually define what project management really is.  I feel like our industry doesn’t actually quite know what it means.  So what does project management mean when it comes to web/digital projects? 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, I mean, there’s an old definition, and I think a lot of it has to do with following a lot of the rules, but I think when we look at project management for the web, what we’re seeing is it’s a leadership quality that allows you to take barriers out of the way for your team so that they can do their best work and make sure that the things that they’re building align with the goals of not only your organization, but your stakeholders and their audience as well.

Emily Lewis: What does that mean in practice?

Rachel Gertz:  So in practice, that means that a PM or a project lead can come in and they will be able to own that project.  They are the gatekeepers. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So they’ll be doing the documentation.  They’ll be organizing and facilitating the meetings.  Mostly they’re championing their teammates.  They’re supporting and saying, “What do you need to get this work done?  How can I support you?  How do we make sure that we’re focused on building the right thing?”  I love this.  I don’t know and I can’t remember where the original statement came from, but it is two things.  It’s like make sure we’re building the right thing and make sure we’re building that thing right.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And that is exactly what a PM is there to help you, and I wish more people will do that.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: And when it comes to what you wish more people knew, are there any assumptions or misconceptions about project management for the web that need to be dispelled, especially I’ll just take a step back and offer – this was quite a long time ago, it may be 15 years ago, maybe 20, that’s been a while, but I was doing project management for a software and the one thing I lacked was kind of that ownership of the project, like being the gatekeeper, like I had to make sure all the developers had what they needed.  I had to make sure the client understood what was happening, but I had no power whatsoever.  So if there was a problem with the client or a problem with one of my developers, there isn’t anything I could do other than advise them of what to do, but I couldn’t make them do it.  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: So that would be something that I felt like there’s a misconception that project managers have no ownership, they’re not – and I hate to use the word “in charge – but they need to have that kind of control to ensure that the project runs smoothly. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, I completely agree with you.  One of the biggest things that break my heart is when I see PMs who can’t be empowered to do their jobs.  Their jobs are to be the gatekeepers, so that means that they need to be able to have a say in scope of the project.  They need to be involved in the contract creation process, the sales process. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  I mean, they are natural business developers.  Once that contract is in, who do you think is primarily responsible for keeping that relationship during the project, right? 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Some folks might call that an account management role, but really, as we progress into the future, the lines are getting blurred, so the person that owns that relationship is also the person managing all the pieces in that project.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And I think you’re right, Emily, you really hit the nail on the head with that one. 

Emily Lewis: Are there other kind of assumptions that people make about project management, like something that occurs to me, do project managers, are they not techie?  Are they just organizational people? 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  So there’s a few, so to address that first one, I would say that our belief is that if you are going to be involved in technical projects, learn the heck out of whatever you need to know to do that.

Emily Lewis: Right. 

Rachel Gertz:  Support and get your hands dirty and understand the medium that you’re working in because that makes you a better PM.  So that’s one thing I think that people might have a misconception about, “Oh, they organize us and tell us what to do.”

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And it’s not like that at all.  I’d say other things that I see happening are shops that will say, “Oh, well, we’re just going to give you a standard percentage of the overall project budget for PM and that’s yours, and if you need to take up any more or less, then that’s on you.”  And I think what it sort of undermines is this idea that if every client is going to be the same, are you going to walk into a new relationship with multiple stakeholders and expect that you’re going to spend the same amount of PM time managing expectations and getting folks aligned as you would with if they’re just a smaller shop.  If let’s say, they’re a mom and pop shop, there are only two of them.  You’re going to have a different percentage of your budget allocated to PM and I think folks don’t realize that.

Timestamp:  00:10:05

Lea Alcantara: Man, I feel like that is an industry-wide problem for sure, especially when we’re talking about budgets and even value-based pricing. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: I know Emily and I are like, “How do you value base something if it’s a brand new client and you don’t know how much handholding they actually need.”  Right?

Emily Lewis: Right. 

Lea Alcantara: And if you kind of silo project management and it’s just you’re just going to take this much, but then that’s, again, like you said, making an assumption that every client is the same. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  So there’s a part of that, that actually comes back to this idea that traditionally speaking, project managers were responsible for what we call “The Iron Triangle,” so time, scope, budget.  That is your thing, do that thing.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  But what that does actually leave out is that bigger picture, how does a company make and lose money?  If a PM knows how that happens and what those pieces look like, they have a really powerful role in actually mitigating the risks involved and also supporting like, “Let’s not focus our time and energy on these things.  They take us further away from our goals of the business.”  Right? 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So I mean, you can really, if you look at very strategic operational thinkers, those project leads can get in there and they can make incredible differences in a company’s revenue and I think that is probably the biggest reason we’re here. 

Emily Lewis: Yeah, that’s interesting.  I don’t think that’s ever kind of put as one of the values, the benefits of having an invested and very good project manager involved.  I also think in my perception, even at Bright Umbrella where we do project management for our agency, I do think that there’s a perception that it’s not as important.  Even recently, Lea just mentioned to me like, “Oh wow, I had no idea how long it took you to schedule stuff.” 

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: I’m like, “Yeah, that stuff is a big deal to figure out how to make sure things happen on time without us missing key deadlines when you have multiple clients plus your own business going on.”  And that’s just one small aspect, but there’s a perception that, “Oh, you just scheduled some stuff and you’ve got some to-do’s created for some people and that there isn’t a lot of almost like experience and thought process that goes in to making that stuff happen in the first place.” 

Lea Alcantara: Right. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, a lot of it is invisible, right?

Emily Lewis: Yeah. 

Rachel Gertz:  And when we don’t see it, when we don’t see tangible outcomes and deliverables and things like that, we tend to undervalue the processes that go into that, but I think Nancy Lyons said it best.  She was saying that the great project management is invisible.

Emily Lewis: Yeah.

Rachel Gertz:  And that’s how you know your PM is doing a great job. 

Emily Lewis: So how do you make that invisible so valuable, especially where it comes into what you mentioned about these people being uniquely positioned to help a business become more efficient and make more money?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  So I mean, the thing is it’s like if we wanted to just be training project managers, we could stop at that Iron Triangle.  We would say, “You know, this is good enough.”  But what we want to do is we want to share all the resources that we create with the organizations as well because what we look at it as is you have an opportunity as a project manager to champion the team that builds the thing that lives in the house that Jack built.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  So it’s this idea that it’s like pulling out the pieces and realigning those so that you can actually get more work done in a smoother way, which really translates to, “Okay, how do we tweak our workflows?  How do we build allies on our teams to start actually helping us to manage and inform sometimes the management level because maybe they’re not dialed into what makes a really good, cohesive team?”

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And when you have a team that can just flow together and get that work done, then half the battle of like, “Did you do the thing,” it’s like we don’t have to talk about that because we did do the thing. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  We took ownership together.  It’s a skill set as much as a role when we’re talking about PM.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And it’s just nice when you have someone who can actually take the core ownership of that project and say, “I love to get your support, but don’t worry, I’m ultimately responsible for the success or failure of this thing, so help me help you.”  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: But I want to talk about the details of project management, but I’m curious, is this part of the reason why you and Travis made this shift of focus?  Are agencies and other digital businesses starting to really embrace project management more so than ever before?

Rachel Gertz:  They have to.  We’re hitting a really strange time, so I mean, as you can imagine, we’ve got a lot of talented shops popping up.  They’re becoming more complex in the types of technologies that they can do.  You can pick up a React Native project one day, the next you’re building VR, like it’s getting faster and faster, and if you look at the outpacing of technology, what’s happening is margins are going down. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So in order to combat that, you have two choices; you raise your prices or you dial your processes. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  In the future, and this is something that I’ve been doing a lot of research on this, this is like globally, we’re going to be seeing an increase in project management roles and skill sets, and in terms of the skill sets, they are basically critical thinking, emotional intelligence like leadership qualities where those folks can become almost like miniature – I don’t want to say miniature CEOs, they’re almost more than that because they have to step out of the way of that work, and a CEO kind of has to own that leadership role.  So we’re going to see a rapid shift where shops, in order to preserve those margins, are going to have to be very lean.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And they’re going to start seeing the value if they can let go of some of the other more restrictive like, “But we always do it this way, so this is how…”

Emily Lewis: Right.

Rachel Gertz:  Right?

Lea Alcantara: Right. 

Rachel Gertz:  Like yeah, including PM, they think of it as an additional cost instead of just an investment into like greasing the wheels of your processes.

Emily Lewis: Interesting.  So can we talk a little bit about what the practicality that project management looks like?  One of my questions that occurred to me is I was just curious what the process of it looks like when you’re dealing with different types of projects.  For example, just in the context of Bright Umbrella, sometimes we do just design.

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: And then sometimes we do design and front end and accessibility auditing and CMS and all this other stuff, so is PM essentially the same regardless of what kind of project you’re working with, or does it change depending on the type of project, and what does that look like?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  So it is more of like a mindset and approach.  You can kind of create project management frameworks.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So you will definitely see different approaches for different projects.  We always say like, “Make sure that the way you put your project fits the clients, it fits your team.”  So for example, if you’re going to be doing a simpler, let’s say more of an identity project versus a full CMS or app build, you’re definitely going to see a smaller amount of time going into the PM managing research and managing.  Even the contract and project plan will probably be smaller and leaner.  Maybe just have one page of scope that’s like, “This is what we’re building.  This is how we know what we’re building because we’ve done this before.” 

So you can be very adaptive and the whole thing is traditionally speaking, so the PMI, which is the traditional body f project management, and they’ve been around since, oh my goodness, the 80’s, they’re very much like, “Follow these guidelines.  Make 47 documents and then when you’re done, that’s how you know that you’ve done all of the things you need for quality control, and lean PM is like, “Okay, what can you get rid of?  What can you throw out?  What do you not need to incorporate?  How do you do more planning than just writing of the plans?”  So that part is very much, I’d say, an adaptable piece, so you could just lighten up a lot of the PM time and again make it focused on what are we trying to accomplish.

Emily Lewis: So in terms of some specifics, can we talk a little bit about how you keep a project on track, on task and on time?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  So let’s start with resourcing because that’s one of the things I think that many shops have challenges with.  There are usually too many projects running at once. 

Emily Lewis:  [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  What tends to happen is that these projects might be smaller in value, which actually forces you to take more of them on at the same time, which causes you to have a resourcing crunch, which then causes you to have further gaps because those project deadlines get pushed out, but you can’t collect on them, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So we were talking about how to resource effectively.  What we would say is that great PMs can help you and help the team with things called time blocking, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So focus on Project A, maybe you’re going to do that for mornings or the afternoons or maybe you’re going to just focus on blocks of time on the first half of the week or maybe a full dedicated week per project. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So you’re going to be able to minimize the number of projects that you’re working on actively, but still prioritize your focus because I think that – I can’t remember where I read this – 40% of your time is lost at task switching now, right?

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So it’s so wasteful if you have five or seven or ten projects actively running.  What we really look at is try to reduce that to no more than three active projects at any given time.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be running more, but you’re not putting your focus and attention on more than three, and that’s a really effective way to block out your time in thirds, if you can, and leave time in for planning and reviewing, doing like retrospectives and things like that.

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: And so when you described that sort of time blocking, can you give me an example of what that would look like?  Let’s say you blocked off the first half of your week.  Is that for the entire team or is it just like one person?  Like are you managing it on a team level with this time blocking or is it on individual scheduling blocking if that make sense? 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  So it’s fairly flexible.  I mean, if you’re trying to maximize your processes on your team, it does make sense, if you can, to do a dedicated team where again you would say like instead of selling a project value, you would even consider selling like, “This is the team you get for this duration of time.”  Right?

Timestamp:  00:20:05

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So this, they become very good at working well together.  This is more of like Agile principles to get to know each other how they work together, so you might say that entire team can block off similar times.  Maybe they have a very focused productive Wednesday where they don’t have any client meetings that day.  You can kind of layer this up in terms of are we just talking about workflow, are we talking about a particular project focus, or are we going to build in a standard, let’s say, like once ever quarter we just do a full sprint or a half sprint for internal projects. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So what can we move forward on our own team that often gets neglected, dedicated focus can realty support that. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: So I have a question regarding this because I feel like it makes great sense, especially when you silo specific people as in like, “That developer can do this particular task on this particular time.”  But what if it’s a smaller team where there’s overlapping responsibilities like, “This dev also does both front end and back end.  This designer does also front end, et cetera and so forth.”  And at least for us when it’s Bright Umbrella, there are two of us, like I do a lot of sales, okay?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, yeah.

Lea Alcantara: And I’m the designer. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah. 

Lea Alcantara: So let’s say I did do time block and say, “I’m going to spend this morning on design for this particular client,” then I get a lead for sales, and we all know that sales is all about timing. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: So at some point, like how do you manage time blocking and focus when there are pressing issues like, “Oh, there is this important sales call and I need to take it”? 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah. 

Lea Alcantara: Like how do you adjust priorities and scheduling when things like that happen?

Rachel Gertz:  Sure.

Lea Alcantara: Or an emergency dev issue, right?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, for sure.  So this might actually open up like a bigger conversation because there’s this age-old battle of do we bill in hours or do we bill in other units of time or what does that even look like, and so just to tie it back, what I would say is if you’re looking at, let’s say you have a project duration and it was a short project, two weeks long, and you know you wear many hats and you might be doing PM work, you might be doing business development work, you might also be doing design and front-end work, if you know that your deadline is in two weeks, it does not matter when you move those blocks around within that two-week frame as long as you are prioritizing the things that are not just urgent but important, right?

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So those things that give the most impact.  If it’s that business development, like closing that sale, you can bump your blocks around so long as everyone else is aware of how that will impact them, so don’t leave any dependencies where you’re going to block somebody else. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: It’s like my favorite thing I’ve heard so far.  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: It’s discerning between something, not discerning, but understanding that there are urgent things, but there are also important things, and both are priorities. 

Rachel Gertz:  [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: Because sometimes you can get really caught up in the, “Someone did this, I’ve got to respond right away.  Someone did this, I’ve got to respond right away.”

Lea Alcantara: Guilty.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: Yeah.  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: But it’s perceived as urgent, but there’s another thing that’s important but not as urgent, and I do think it makes sense if you could do what you described, Rachel, it’s like as long as they’re both prioritized, you can move it around within that chunk of time.  I think that’s something that is hard to sort of embrace, but like realize you really can do. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, like you can be fairly ruthless in your prioritization.  I mean, you folks have probably tried something like this, but at the beginning or the end of the day, pick the three things that you want to accomplish tomorrow and you know that regardless you have to do them so even if you have other things that sneak in, you can always look at them and be like, “But really?  Like how important is this going to be for me in the long run?”  And that really helps set parameters and boundaries.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: Right.

Rachel Gertz:  And it helps you communicated those boundaries to stakeholders when you’re like, “You know what, Fridays are internal, we don’t do client work on Fridays, and so if you need me for emergencies only, you can get in touch.  Otherwise, I’ll reach back out on Monday.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  You know what, it’s just like carving out and protecting that time, because it’s kind of sacred, right?

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: And is that something you feel like you’re teaching this to the project managers?  Are they in turn trying to teach that to the team?  Because I almost feel like everyone needs to look at it that way. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, so that’s actually a big part of what we prioritize, but what’s really important to us is that we know that when folks are learners, when they teach information back to their teams, it actually strengthens their own application of that learning.  So they in turn teach their teams.  Their teams go, “Oh, this is interesting.  We can try something different,” and then it just goes on and it continues like, “Well, this stuff, it just makes the work flow better.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  It’s not just the PM we’re talking about, but it’s like the entire dynamic of your organization. 

Emily Lewis: So kind of following up on that discussion about carving the time that’s sacred to support the priorities that you’ve identified, like how do you ensure accountability to that, whether it’s the individuals on the team or the project management?  And even with like the clients, how do you keep the client stakeholders accountable for their parts?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, a lot of this has to do with having really good conversations upfront.  So I remember reading a book, it was like by Chip and Dan Heath brothers and they talked about what you perceive as a people problem is often a process problem. 

Emily Lewis: Hmm.

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So laziness is often exhaustion in disguise. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So when people aren’t performing the way that you think they need to be or ought to be, it actually usually comes back to, “What did we not talk about?  What did we not cover, and what did we not clarify together upfront?”

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And so you can go back and it’s like looking at steadying those regular touch points where, again, you’re not checking in on someone and going like, “Did you do the thing?” 

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  It’s like, “How are you?  What do you need in order for you to have a really good week this week?  What can I do to help close some of these things out of the way?”  So you might communicate upfront with your stakeholders, your clients and say things like, “Okay, so here’s our communication plan,” and you actually have this documented with all the folks’ names on your project and when you’re available, walk them through it together so that they can see upfront like if something is urgent, what do you feel is urgent to you, like how do we define this together. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Because when you don’t have a common definition for the urgency or importance, that can be very problematic. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  It’s also like exploratory conversations where you’re just almost treating your stakeholders, your clients, like you’re on the same team.  You’re just trying to figure this out together and it allows you a lot more buffer to make mistakes and not always have the right answer at the tip of your tongue.  They just see you as a human being trying to do good work with them. 

Emily Lewis: So you mentioned talking with the client and managing the client’s role in this with good conversations, but that gets challenging when you’re dealing with a client with multiple departments or there are stakeholders who, while they’re stakeholders, you never talk with them, like they have a go-between who’s kind of reporting to that stakeholder. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: So how do you manage that situation where lots of people at different departments with competing priorities of their own and then maybe like stakeholders who aren’t as engaged in not necessarily day to day, but the small stuff of the project versus just getting high-level reports?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, so if we think about this, so every client that we work with, they are like us and put in a mirror, they have things that they need to prioritize.  They have multiple moving parts.  They’re all doing full time work, so any additional projects that they are working on with us is actually work outside of their 9 to 5 really when you think about it, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So first of all, we come at it from a very compassionate like, “Oh, they’re doing a lot of stuff.  They have a lot of things on their plate.”  So the other thing is that when we look at our point of contact, we can say we do want one because that one person needs to own the relationship on the client side, just like I, as the project manager, owned the relationship on this side.  It doesn’t mean that I can’t speak to other folks on your side and it doesn’t mean you can’t chat and have great discovery workshops, but what you do is then you empower your point of contact and say, “What do you need to be successful because I have your back here.  If you sense that you’re going to have any alignment issues with, say, the department heads or you have an executive that’s really challenging, like what kind of information do they need in order to make sure that you can all get your priorities aligned?” 

Because you can say to them, like this is actually a risk conversation, “If we can reduce the risk that folks will be pulling us in different directions, then we’re going to have a better chance where we can even look at you, point of contact, say getting what you need out of it, like are you looking to get a promotion?  Would you like to be able to show and demonstrate the learning that you’ve done?”  A lot of the times, the points of contact that we have in larger orgs, they tend to be kind of that in middle management place where they have a lot to protect.

Emily Lewis: Right.

Rachel Gertz:  Like they’re scared of losing the position or not getting outside of that.  So if we can take the fear away by just having really open conversations and saying, “Here’s what we need for this to work.”  Like 71% I think of projects are failing right now across the board. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Like I don’t know if you folks knew this, but 71% are failing.

Lea Alcantara: Wow!

Rachel Gertz:  And it’s usually because of a lack of communication and poor project management, so if that’s not like evidence for why these conversations are so valuable, I don’t know what is. 

Emily Lewis: So are these conversations that you’re having, I imagine are great for discovery and getting things started, but does it continue?  Do you continue to have this sort of very compassionate thinking about your point of contact as your partner to get this thing done and trying to keep their goals, not just their business goals, but their personal and professional goals in mind?  Is that something that’s throughout the whole thing or is that really just setting the stage at the beginning and delivering on that? 

Timestamp:  00:30:01

Rachel Gertz:  I mean, empathy is not a phase, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  It has to exist from one end of a project to the other end, and I think that the biggest thing that maybe not a mistake but just maybe something where we don’t consider the impact is that this actually is about relationships.  They’re hiring us.  Yeah, they could hire any shop, any shop could do the work, but what they stay for is the relationship that you’re creating, and so again, it comes back to project management as business development, but supporting the outcomes by saying, “Listen, the more alignment we have, the better chance you’re going to have of being successful.”  It actually comes back to a lot around recognizing red flags and doing like a really solid risk assessment ongoing.  If you can detect like, “Okay, so I just sat in a meeting with my point of contact and their head manager.  They were starting to disagree on a topic that’s related back to our project budget, what do I need to do?”  We will actually model behaviors so that the apprentices can practice those simulations and know how to respond. 

Emily Lewis: Be on the lookout for them even. 

Rachel Gertz:  Exactly, exactly. 

Emily Lewis: I think that’s really good.  Yeah, I can think of a recent project where we had two different departments and you could tell there was something going on. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah. 

Emily Lewis: But that was not something that we dug any deeper into trying to have an empathetic perspective on. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah. 

Emily Lewis: In retrospect, that probably would have been useful. 

Rachel Gertz:  If you think about it, like if you ignore that, then it becomes a direct risk to your project’s success.  So if you’re a champion of your project, it’s like you call it out and you say not like out publicly, but you’ll pull your point of contact aside and say, “Hey, this is what I’m seeing, like if you want to reduce the risks, these are some steps that we have to take.  Otherwise, I need for you to go back to your team and get alignment and we have to put this thing on pause while you do that.”

Emily Lewis: Yeah.  Uh, I love this. 

Lea Alcantara: Yeah.  I just wanted to say that what I love about this conversation, the entire point, is the practical use of empathy. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: I think what our industry has been having conversations about empathy, but I feel like it gets easily dismissed as something, “Oh, that’s just a soft skill even though we all pay lip service, let’s say, about enhancing soft skills, but there’s a real practical necessary business case for empathy, and then we stop and think about it, it’s the same as vendors and developers.

Emily Lewis: Yeah. 

Lea Alcantara: That we want to be appreciated ourselves for the work that we do and investment that we put in and we have our own items at stake, and I’m thinking about like one of our own particular projects, their lead director was so clearly on our side that it just strengthened our perception of their team and our trust with their team as well, not just the other way around. 

Emily Lewis: Yeah. 

Lea Alcantara: So when people feel heard, they do their best work. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yes. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Yes. 

Emily Lewis: So Rachel, I have a question.  You’ve mentioned a couple of times and it wasn’t something we really had planned to dive into, but I think it’s really interesting how you phrased some of the ways you have these conversations from a risk perspective. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: And you mentioned a risk assessment.  Can you talk a little bit about what that is, how risk plays into the project manager’s toolbox in terms of assessing as well as using as a point of focus for conversation?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  Part of the thing that we do is in our modules with our program is that we’ll train apprentices to recognize red flags.  So the way that we define a red flag is a little different than the traditional PMI industry.  So we would say a red flag is something where you get a clue that a risk is probable, so that means that if something is going to happen to the project you’re seeing behaviors, actions, attitudes, changes that are indicating almost like a color change or a litmus test, that, “Hey, this is happening and it’s probably going to impact your project.” 

So when we go through something, so an example might be, again, like you witnessed folks discussing project details on a call, but then it’s your point of contact and they start arguing or shutting down, not having conversations, maybe you noticed on your internal team you’ve never actually done a project like this before, you never used a technology like this, like that’s something that you’re witnessing that is indicating there’s a probable risk. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And if you can start to identify those probably risks, then you can actually assign some sort of like loose quantitative metric.  Because you translate that no matter how it shakes out, risk always means it’s going to affect time, budget or scope, really. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And really, at the end of the day, it looks like it’s going to affect your budget.  You’re going to have a range and you can go back to your stakeholders, this is a really neat thing where if you assign this risk, you can go back to your stakeholders and say, “Hey, if we address this risk, this risk and this risk, we can reduce your budget by X amount.  If we don’t, this is our contingency plan because here’s how we see these things playing out.  What can we do to make sure that this project goes on hitch free?  What are some things that you are able to do, and how can we help support that?”  And it just really has a strong positioning.  It’s not like, “Hey, we just think your project is going to take this long.”

Lea Alcantara: Right.

Rachel Gertz:  It’s based in a foundation of risk assessment and management.

Emily Lewis: And does that risk assessment carry through, especially maybe not like a two-week project, but something that spans several months where a project manager needs to kind of – I don’t know – do a risk check-in every month or something. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, it’s actually a regular process.  it’s almost kind of built in to your weekly or biweekly check-ins.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Because I almost think of like an apprentice’s, they’re kind of like a beagle and their noses are picking up all of these things constantly around.  It’s like a situational awareness.  They’re constantly aware of their surroundings, “Is something happening?  Will something happen?”  And so they can pick this up and have regular conversations about risks, about scope, about the contract, all those things are not like danger topics. 

Lea Alcantara: Right.

Rachel Gertz:  It’s like it’s part of the process.  We’re just talking about how the work is going. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And it, again, takes that fear out of having those tough conversations.  It’s like the money conversations and just takes it as like, “Yeah, we are doing a thing.  We’re serving you and we’re building this thing and you’re paying us money for it, so let’s talk about that.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  It can really shift the power dynamic and just make it about a partnership instead of that, yeah, uncomfortable thing that happens often in project relationships. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: So all of that seems really, really focused on client expectations and scope creep on that end.  How about managing that with development and design?  Because I think as designers and developers, we get so geeky and passionate about what we do, sometimes you get dive into the weeds and start over-developing or over-architecting something and then there goes the budget.  How do you manage that?

Rachel Gertz:  This is like my favorite topic. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  So it’s around scope creep, right?

Lea Alcantara: Right.

Rachel Gertz:  So there are different kinds of creep.  You can have effort creep where you’re just going to keep on working hard on something, even though you’ve may be gone past what the expectations are or you’ve maybe underestimated the amount of effort that it’s going to take you to get to that finish line.  You have hope creep, so hope creep is like, “I know we can do this.  We can do this.” 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  So you get stalled out at that 90% where you’re just like slogging the last 10%.  You can have like gold-plating or feature creep where you just keep adding unnecessary features, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: Right.

Rachel Gertz:  And there’s also like business creep, so that usually tends to happen a little bit more on the client side, but they might come back to you and say, “Oh, we hired investors and they want to change the entire project,” and you’re like, “Oh.”

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So goals are changing, outcomes are changing.  We are not building the same project.  So all these types of scope creep, you can actually start looking at, okay, internally if you know that your team is like, “We’ve never done this thing before or we’d like to try this thing or we underestimated this thing,” at some point, yes, there is going to be a little bit of a tradeoff.  You might have to absorb some of those risks, but what we forget is that there are also positive risks. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So if you’re taking on a project and you’re like, “I’ve never done this,” like maybe you’ve never developed in React Native or something or maybe you’d actually take a certain portion of that budget, put it aside and say, “This is our contingency or our plan for building up our knowledge internally as a company.”  Right?

Emily Lewis: I like that.

Lea Alcantara: I [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Because we know that that’s going to affect future projects and benefit us.  You can also share that risk with your client and say, “Okay, so internally as a team, we’d really want to dive deep into…”  I use like whatever, “AR/VR, so we really want to get to know how this works.  If we are able to…” let’s say they have resources on their team, “use a developer of yours to help work with us alongside this project, we’ll cut you a deal on this project because it is going to be a first time thing, but we want the freedom to be able to use this and white label this however we want in the future.”  So you share that risk and you can actually create like a really neat new partnership without always taking on the cost side. 

Emily Lewis: So in terms of like the scope creep that you don’t have to absorb, but you can get a deal, I mean, is that when you have another difficult conversation with the client or even with your own team about dialing back what they’re doing?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, we always look at it; you have like a scope scale.  We call it like the scope spectrum.  So you can have the platinum version of something.  If you’re going to build a feature out, you can do the platinum version or you can bring it down to the bronze version, and your job with your team is actually identify what are the various ways we could approach this project and what would that translate to in terms of like fidelity and complexity, simple but not necessarily plain.  You can do a lot with little.  So if you can define that as a team together, you’re actually able to prioritize like, “Let’s pull back on the scope, pull back on the complexity.” 

Timestamp:  00:40:06

On this thing, I can’t even take credit for this.  Again, I have to find out.  It was our student who suggested this or someone who had tried this on a project.  They were like, “We actually just allocate like 10% of the project budget to gold-plating.”  And we’d say to the client like, “You have 10% of room, 10% of our budget for us to have fun and develop really neat things on this to make it better.”  And when that’s out, you can monetize that, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  You can say, “Okay, we’ve hit the end, no more revisions.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  It can be really handy. 

Emily Lewis: That’s nice.

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah. 

Emily Lewis: You know, so the whole… not the whole reason for this episode, but this was a listener-requested topic.

Rachel Gertz:  Oh.

Emily Lewis: And one of the things that he had particularly wanted to know about was how to manage the client’s workload in a positive way, and this is something Lea and I actually talked about in our last episode with a large accessibility project where the client needed to do a lot of their own content cleanup in order to support accessibility. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: And it was what we learned after the fact in our retrospective was that it was a lot for them to manage and they weren’t prepared for it.  So what are the tools that a project manager can use to kind of not just set the client’s expectations for the project and deadlines and the deliverables, but for what they’re going to have to do?

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, so you’re sort of acting as a consultant in that regard when you come into a project scenario with a new client and you’re helping them understand their own workload.  I think Nancy talked about this in terms of like digital transformation, like you’re not just doing an app or a website project or whatever, you are basically helping them transform their business so you’ve got to be able to assess what kind of workload they have and then so like the content question and accessibility is constantly like, “Oh, if you leave that to the end, it’s going to come back and bite you.”  But in order for you to help them quantify that, that may mean a delay on your side to be able to even start the project because they have a lot of work to do.  So if you, again, have a conversation around, “Okay, so we can do it, you can do it or we can both do it, like we can teach you how to do it.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  If you have that conversation upfront and you frame your budget and your timeline around that, you can set what we call like dependencies on and you can say, “When they finish that content audit, let’s check in.”  You need to find out things like, “Do you take your son to soccer practice?  How often?  Do you have any time off coming up?  Will you be out of country?” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  All of those questions will help you understand like, “Is that timeline actually realistic or should we be building in double the amount of time because you can break it down for them and be like, “You know what, when we approach projects like this, here are the patterns that we see, and if we don’t talk about these things upfront, then this is the result.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So you’re just reframing it, I think, the conversation.

Emily Lewis: Yeah.  I like that because we often, for Bright Umbrella’s clients, we put together a schedule and present it to them and ask them to let us know how things will fit in, but we don’t get into some of those really detailed conversations to maybe adjust the schedule we present in the first place because I feel like they just say, “Yeah, okay, we’ll go with that,” because that fits in with the deliverable deadline as opposed to thinking about their own schedules and so forcing them to have that conversation. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  It kind of actually gives them a little bit of freedom because then they start to have a bit of a new relationship with that work and instead of it being like just another thing on my plate, they’re like excited to put aside times. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So you can help them with things like time blocking like, “Hey, client, consider taking your Mondays or your Tuesdays and let’s focus all your energy or the things you can take off your plate while you’re doing this project.  We anticipate needing approximately X amount of hours of time a week from you and we want to make that doable.”

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: What I also like is that when you’re setting these expectations with the schedules and asking them these questions, you’re also reiterating the experience that you’ve had in the past saying, “In our experience, when we have this done, these would create delays or not delays or we would need to adjust this, so that you’re not just saying, “I need to know this,” and then there’s no context. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah. 

Lea Alcantara: People need to have context to their questions.  Otherwise, they don’t actually understand why these dates were even suggested, you know?

Rachel Gertz:  [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: Like I think that’s where there’s kind of a disconnect sometimes. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, clients may be like, “Why do you need to know our business goals?  What is that has got to do with you?”  Right?

Lea Alcantara: Yeah. 

Rachel Gertz:  It’s like, “Oh, well, they don’t have the connection.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: Right. 

Rachel Gertz:  So totally. 

Emily Lewis: So how do agencies, even small ones like Bright Umbrella, how do we bill and plan for project management?  When is it a time to actually bring a PM into the business?

Rachel Gertz:  That’s a great question.  On average, folks are usually looking at adding like a designated fulltime role for every five to seven people they add to their team. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So you can kind of look at it like if you’re going to break it out and you run like a dedicated team, then for every designer/developer, maybe of a QA or content person or UX person, that’s sort of like your little pod and you can assign a PM to that.  But the thing is, because PM is just as much a skill set as a rule, then you can also look at like, “What are the things that I can do if I have a smaller team in order to build up my knowledge and understanding of how to improve that flow?” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Because once you have the PM hat on, it’s kind of hard to take it off, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So then you’ve got to start looking at, “All right, if we were going to bring someone else in, can we start with a freelancer?”  So a PM, a dedicated PM freelancer, maybe they only work ten hours a week or maybe they only come in for one type of project, but it’s actually a great conversation to start having early on because there are some super talented folks out there who specialize in PM.  They know all the tools.  They’ve done all the kinds of projects and worked on different methodologies.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  It’s really neat to be able to bring outside a help in at first if you’re just getting started.

Emily Lewis: How about the budgeting aspects for projects?  Like when you are scoping out a project maybe early in the sales force, do you have any rules of thumb to follow for determining how much project management should be set aside?  How much that should, you know, especially if it’s like a new client and you don’t really know how much they’re going to need?

Rachel Gertz:  So okay, so I have to start by saying Louder Than Ten has a really kind of contrarian way of looking at pricing.  We look at it from a top down first.  So first of all, we’ll say, “Okay, if you have a three-month project, we need to look at your revenue and what you’re target is for the size of your company so that we can say you’re running a three-month project with X number of people.  This is the minimum amount you should be charging for this project.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So we have to start there, because that gives us like we have a clear reason why we need to make this amount on this project with the size of team that we have.  From there, we have to remember that every single project takes a minimum amount of work to set up and manage. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So then you’d start looking at what is that minimum that makes this thing, A, worth it, or B, not worth it. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  We’re actually just trying to put together a bit of data by talking to a few sort of veterans in the industry and just saying like, “What is the minimum amount of time spent on project management-related tasks on certain types of projects?”  So I’ll report back once I get a little bit more in terms of the data, but it’s amazing because it’s a lot more than you’d think it is in terms of set up. 

Emily Lewis: Yeah.

Rachel Gertz:  So if you’re going to look at that, like I know, so for example, like Rob Harr at Sparkbox, they say that their project spend for a project management is 15% on projects under a mil [$1M], and I think over a mil, he said like 10%.  I think that absolutely works.  I just think that we need to also consider that additional like how many stakeholders are there, if it’s more complex, if it’s a brand new type of project.  All of this has to include the risk factors, so we can buffer an additional project management time and not eat it on our margins. 

Emily Lewis: Well, we’ve gotten better at our estimating I think in the past few years.  Project management still remains an area where I think we undercut it when we start our estimating because it seems like the one that’s easiest, we’ll say, “Oh, we’ll just put just an hour there or just a little bit here,” and it’s never just.  It’s always, always more. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah. 

Emily Lewis: And so we’ve had to start building into our estimating tools reminders of like, “This is absolutely required, you cannot skip this.” 

Rachel Gertz:  [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: Or if it’s a brand new client, add 20% to this line item, from our experiences and what we’ve learned just trying to help ourselves not screw ourselves.  [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah.  And it sucks to look at your own schedule and be like, “Well, I can’t send that email because that’s going to put us over on PM time.”  And yet, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: It’s the worst.

Rachel Gertz:  Like that’s core.  That is core to the relationship and the success of your project.

Lea Alcantara: Yeah.

Rachel Gertz:  So you shouldn’t have to like think about it as, “Oh, should I be communicating less?”  So we really look at it as absolutely start at the base of 15% if you’re going to go with the percentage, but then look at like, “What do you want out of this relationship?  Is it worth it to put in a little bit more time if you know that that time is going to be returned in there like, say, a five- or six-year relationship?”  It is absolutely worth it.

Lea Alcantara: So I’m curious about the entire point of billing in project management because I feel like there’s a lot of people that don’t even charge for project management, like for example, like every time I have this conversation with, say, fellow devs or whatever, and Emily and I definitely have always charged for PM, although we’ve estimated poorly in the past, we’re getting better now, but we’ve always just baseline use estimated project management alongside development in the same amount of value for us, but I’ve seen other agencies where the hourly for the PM is like way low or not even considered, like how do we move from that to really truly understanding and incorporating PM in our billings?

Timestamp:  00:50:05

Rachel Gertz:  Oh, I could go in such a rant on that. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  I get so, so passionate about that. 

Lea Alcantara: Yeah. 

Rachel Gertz:  Because, again, part of it is flipping it from looking at PM as a cost to PM as an investment in a relationship. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So you could call it a cost of sale, whatever you want to do to make you feel like this is a worthwhile amount of time.  So there are a couple of things you can do.  Don’t like stay anywhere in your budget that you’re like 15% is allocated to PM.  Just buffer it out through the entire project, whether that just means your design budget goes up slightly or your development budget, like just absorb it like a spend around your project.

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  If you need internally to know that it’s worth 15% so you can track it internally, that’s fine, but if you’re going to come up against clients who are like, “I don’t want PM,” then what they’re saying effectively is, “We don’t necessarily need this project to succeed.”

Lea Alcantara: Right.

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  Because then you come back and quote, “Did you know that 71% of projects fail and here’s the reason?  Do you want your project to succeed?  Then we need to absolutely make sure we have that buffer built in.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So that’s one thing.  Don’t put it as a line item if you can, like don’t break it out on that invoice level because that’s where they want to nitpick and pull things out unnecessarily.

Lea Alcantara: Right. 

Rachel Gertz:  But then in terms of like development shops, like I actually find it really interesting, a lot of our clients are development shops.  They’re wanting to train PMs because they’re like, “We’ve been running a certain way for a while and it was working, but…” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And so what we are finding is that the complexity level of projects is going up and so is the expectation for the quality of the work that you deliver.  You can hand over code, but you’re not being billed to just do the code, you’re being billed to understand the problem and to communicate about a problem.

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  And I think that the biggest misconception is that when we say like, “Well, your developer should be at 86% capacity,” what we’re effectively saying is we’re changing the conversation to be from about like outcomes and goals to just busy work. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Like are you staying busy and are you coding, when really thinking about this, leaders and great developers are able to effectively communicate about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it so that when that legacy code builds to this technical debt, they’re actually going to be able to say, “We’ve addressed this upfront.  We have a scalable solution to keep building this thing and keeping on point.” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So yeah, it’s just changing.  Things are changing really fast on it.  I really want to say that I think the shops who understand the value of PM are the ones who won’t get left behind because it’s going to happen so fast, they won’t even see it.

Emily Lewis: Yeah, I mean, Lea and I were talking, especially after Owner Summit, that communication is a big part of our good client relationships, and part of that communication is tied to our project management, so I feel like we’ve always done better than most if you’re just comparing like other small digital agencies. 

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: But we both felt like we could do better, there could be more.  This could be a better part of it because it really is kind of the key to why our clients keep coming back to us. 

Lea Alcantara: Right.

Emily Lewis: In fact, the project that we talked about where the client kind of felt overloaded by their responsibilities, that same client, and we just got some testimonials for our case studies from the CIO, and he literally said that our project management communication skills are better than he’s ever seen from any other vendor he’s worked with.  I mean, you can’t…

Rachel Gertz:  Lean on…

Emily Lewis: You can’t get better than that from…

Lea Alcantara: I know.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: And that’s not to say our design and dev isn’t good, it’s just that that really stands out to the client. 

Lea Alcantara: Yeah. 

Emily Lewis: That’s what they’re feeling through the whole process.  No matter what the end product ends up being, if it does the job, it does the job, but are they feeling good about this afterwards?

Rachel Gertz:  Yes.  Yes, absolutely. 

Emily Lewis: So actually, I want to ask you this question about when you have small or large team, but the PM, how does the PM stay informed about what all the different team members are doing?  What do you wish that more of those team members would share with the PM to keep the thing moving smoothly?

Rachel Gertz:  I think a lot of it comes down to being okay to be vulnerable and asking for help when you need it. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So if you’re a designer or developer and you’re like I may be starting to pick up on some technical data or design data and I’m not really sure if I can solve this problem, to just feel like let’s have a conversation, like there’s no reason that we need to silo it and focus so much on did we need it within the hour is a lot. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  It’s like if we can solve this problem and we can solve it for future projects, then we are looking at a long-term gain here. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So just reaching out and being like, “Your PM is there to help you, not to like task manage you and get in your way.”  If we could just change the way we think about PM, I think that we could have such better conversations and do such great work together.

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: What are you teaching your apprentices on how to do that?  I imagine that they have to set the stage, but that’s going to have to come from them versus the other direction. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, I mean, everyone shines in their own respective role.  So if you look at what the PM role is, they’re kind of like the actor that gets to be setting up the entire pace and tone of the project.  They get to be the person that makes the client point of contact feel like they picked the right shop, so that’s a big deal, right?

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Because you have your salesperson and they have a very specific role, but that needs to be a continuum.  So when we are teaching our apprentices, we are saying, “Okay, so your designers will shine when they’re doing design presentations and developers are going to be excellent at having these technical conversations around features and prioritizing. So you can come in and say, ‘You can deal with the hard people’s stuff.’  So if it is questions around alignment, you can focus on goals.”  I can’t get over how many times we forget.  We’re like, “Write them down at the beginning.”

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  And we just never come back to this.  It’s like, “Did we actually meet the goals?  And did the goals changed?  Are we now making Project A when we should be building Project B?”  So I think what we’re trying to teach our apprentices is the product is the thing you make, but the project is the environment that goes around the product. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  It’s all of the invisible things and all of those like nuanced C-people, management stuff, that if we just stop and stop calling it soft skills, because they’re actually quite hard, quite difficult.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: Yeah.  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  It’s a difficult thing.  We could actually…

Lea Alcantara: I love it. 

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, we could fix a lot of those problems upfront, so you’re studying the stage and you get to be like an improv actor, it’s kind of amazing. 

Emily Lewis: So what tools are you, your apprentices, using to help them do this job?

Rachel Gertz:  All right, so Agency Agile, there is a really lovely guy named Jack Skeels, and he has an amazing way of putting this.  So he’s just like, “They’re actually the last pieces of the puzzle that you address.  First, you have to identify your people, your culture and your process and know what problem you’re trying to solve.”  So for us and our apprentices, all of them are dealing with very different contexts.  Some of them actually have like visual effects shops.  Some of them are doing web.  Some of them are doing or got like news direction production.  So everyone is going to need a different tool set, so what we teach is probably something different in terms of what they would ultimately use.  So we’ll use like, for example, we’ve got Trello, because it’s a basic Kanban workflow. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  They can understand how to move and work through the system.  We use TeamGantt, lovely folks who help us with our like sharing Gantt charts.  So really cool foundational tools where they can learn the processes, and what we encourage them to do is say, “Does this work for you and your team?  Does it work for your projects?  What problem are you trying to solve?”

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  So then we might recommend like something like Pipefy or Airtable where those are more like process management tools or Notion, which is like a wiki tool, or things like that, but we really do start with the basics. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  Because you can solve any problem with paper and pencil at first. 

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: I love that. 

Rachel Gertz:  And then you build the complexity in.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: Just a personal question, is there a project management tool that you personally, Rachel, can live without?

Rachel Gertz:  Oh, that’s a good one.  I actually really to do, it’s Teux…

Emily Lewis: I remember that.

Rachel Gertz:  Yeah, Teux[Deux].  It’s awesome because it’s kind of like your weekly desktop calendar, and so that’s where I set my three to five daily goals.  I have a whole bunch of other things. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  But those are the ones I absolutely need to do, even if it’s like call mom, like absolutely label in to that. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  And then we’re really in love with Pipefy.  It’s kind of cool.  It allows you to do things where you can, as you move a card into any problem, it will actually adopt a full new checklist or a whole new set of criteria.

Emily Lewis: Oh. 

Rachel Gertz:  So you can have like states and events built into your workflow, which is pretty handy. 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: Oh, very cool.  So I’m curious when a designer or a dev on the web, they need to learn a new technique, we search for an article.  We go to all these different blogs to teach ourselves.  Are there any particular resources you can share with our listeners about project management, how to manage their projects better?

Rachel Gertz:  Holy smokes.  Okay, this is the really cool thing, there is so much out there, it will probably knock your head off. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  So where do I start?  So the first thing that you probably want to do is you can get into like a Slack group.  There is the Digital Project Manager has international modern digital project manager so you can get in there, and there are tons of resources.  I mean, go to like the Bureau [of Digital] events, the PM Summit or any of the other related summits.  There’s lots of information and then those create almost like cyber communities that formatted.  I would say also Active Collab and Atlassian, they both have really handy PM guides and resources. 

Lea Alcantara: Oh.

Rachel Gertz:  I can send all of this too with URLs so that folks can find them. 

Lea Alcantara: Awesome. 

Timestamp:  00:59:55

Rachel Gertz:  But there are two newsletters that you should absolutely sign up for.  One is called DPM(ish) by Natalie Semczuk and it’s got so many things, like career trajectory, dealing with difficult conversations, what to put in your portfolio, and then the other is called Deeson Delivery, and Holly Davis is the Delivery manager at Deeson in the UK, and they release some really cool content that’s more on like the Lean Agile side, but there are also tons of like essential skills, soft stuff, all of that.  So I could go on.

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  But there is a lot out there.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: Before we wrap up, do you have any final advice about project management for the web digital?

Rachel Gertz:  So two things, you’re not alone. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  No matter if you wear the hat or you are in the role of a project manager, there is a ton of people that are here for you.  I think when we look at the web and we see that it is kind of like a young adult, may be you just got out of college and you’re still trying to get a job, we have to look at that like we’re still developing a shared system, right?

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  A shared understanding of what it takes to not just build an app or release a site or create a film, but we’re talking about work that helps us as humans and humanity live a meaningful life, and I think like the more we recognize that, it’s the idea that we don’t matter, but we do, and that you have much more power than you think you do in those client relationships, with your teams, and if you have this gut sense that something is off on your team, it probably is and others are probably thinking about it too.  So what could it look like just this one time if you spoke up and said, “Team, what do we need to do differently?  How can I help?” 

Emily Lewis: [Agrees]

Lea Alcantara: [Agrees]

Rachel Gertz:  That’s what I would say. 

Emily Lewis: I think that’s an excellent point to end.  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: Oh Rachel, this is amazing.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  I love you guys.

Lea Alcantara: But that is all the time we have for today. 

Rachel Gertz:  Oh.

Lea Alcantara: But before we finish up, we do have our rapid fire ten questions so our listeners can get to know you a bit better.

Rachel Gertz:  All right, I’ll do my best.

Lea Alcantara: All right, first question, what’s your go-to karaoke song?

Rachel Gertz:  Oh, it’s got to be that Tiffany song, I Think We’re Alone Now, or Madonna.

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  Like a Virgin.  I don’t know why.  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: I love it. 

Emily Lewis: Oh my god, I think I have an earworm.  It just started triggering in my ear.  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: Yeah, I know.  [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  [Sings] There doesn’t seem to be anyone around. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: What advice would you give your younger self? 

Rachel Gertz:  You’re doing okay, you know?  You’ve gotten most of this stuff kind of figured out. Even if you don’t, it doesn’t matter because life is big and you’re little.

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: What’s your favorite PG-rated curse word?

Rachel Gertz:  Oh, come on.  I don’t have any PG.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  “Oh, geez.”  Is that too Canadian? 

Lea Alcantara: Yes.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: All right, who’s your favorite superhero?

Rachel Gertz:  Oh, I’m going to go with I think Wonder Woman.  Yeah, Wonder Woman was pretty badass.  That was a pretty amazing rendition, so I agree. 

Lea Alcantara: What is your favorite time of the year?

Rachel Gertz:  Hot summer.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: If you could change one thing about the web, what would it be?

Rachel Gertz:  Oh man, one thing?  Are you kidding me?  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  We would be making things that mattered and actually help humanity not die.

Lea Alcantara: Yes. 

Emily Lewis: Yeah. 

Lea Alcantara: What are three words that describe you?

Rachel Gertz:  Quirky, controversial and fun.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: What are three words that describe your work?

Rachel Gertz:  Oh, resilient, community and love. 

Lea Alcantara: What’s your favorite meal of the day?

Rachel Gertz:  Eating.  Oh, I’m just kidding, that’s not a meal. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  Definitely, dinnertime because Travis learned to cook and with guys, it’s so amazing. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: Awesome. 

Emily Lewis: All right, last question, Rachel, coffee or tea?

Rachel Gertz:  I’m drinking coffee right now.

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: Awesome.  So that’s all the time we have for today.  Thanks for joining the show. 

Rachel Gertz:  Thank you so much.  You are lovely, I heart you both. 

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: In case our listeners want to follow up with you, where can they find you online?

Rachel Gertz:  So they can find me on Twitter @TheStrayMuse or you can also track me on LinkedIn where all the project managers are hanging out or ranting or come find us at louderthanten.com.

Emily Lewis: Thanks again, Rachel.  This was great.  It makes me want to do your apprenticeship.  [Laughs]

Rachel Gertz:  [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: [Laughs]

[Music starts]

Rachel Gertz:  Well, there’s always room.  Come and find me and we’ll do some cool stuff.  [Laughs]

Emily Lewis: [Laughs]

Lea Alcantara: Awesome. 

Emily Lewis: It’s great to have you.  Thanks a lot. 

Rachel Gertz:  Thank you so much, ladies.  Bye.

Lea Alcantara:  CTRL+CLICK is produced by Bright Umbrella, a web services agency invested in education and social good.  Today’s podcast would not be possible without the support of this episode’s sponsors!  Many thanks to Foster Made and Peers Conference!

Emily Lewis:  We’d also like to thank our hosting partner, Arcustech.

Lea Alcantara: And thanks to our listeners for tuning in!  If you want to know more about CTRL+CLICK, make sure you follow us on Twitter @ctrlclickcast or visit our website, ctrlclickcast.com.  And if you liked this episode, please give us a review on iTunes, Stitcher or both!  Links are in our show notes and on our site.

Emily Lewis: Don’t forget to tune in to our next episode when we’ll revisit localization and discuss best practices with Ira Frimere and Michael Harris.  Be sure to check out our schedule on ctrlclickcast.com/schedule for more upcoming topics.

Lea Alcantara: This is Lea Alcantara …

Emily Lewis: And Emily Lewis …

Lea Alcantara: Signing off for CTRL+CLICK CAST.  See you next time!

Emily Lewis: Cheers! 

[Music stops]

Timestamp: 01:05:27