Digital Project Management UK Conference

I had the pleasure of attending the DPM:UK conference in Manchester on Wednesday, the UK's first dedicated conference on the field of digital project management.

While there are a lot of web conferences aimed at the design or tech community, project management and business topics rarely gets a look in so it was refreshing to go to a conference that focussed on this. The DPM:UK conference was organised by Manchester Digital and was held at the Comedy Club. The day was organised really well, with great lunchtime food. The venue was superb, it felt intimate enough with 250 or so attendees and there was plenty of opportunity to chat and network with everyone.

The day brought together loads of great ideas and things to think about with my team, some of the key takeaways I took from the day were:

  • Agile: Agile was talked about a lot and it's challenging to be pure agile on web projects. You can be agile without using a strict "Agile" methodology. Use the agile techniques that work for you.
  • Relationships: To be a Project Manager is a primarily a people role and is about managing relationships.
  • Honesty: Be honest and transparent with both clients and your team.
  • Education: Educate your clients. They're not experts on the web and we need to teach how digital can affect and improve business to our clients.

Below is a summary of each of the talks throughout the day. You can also read my full talk notes on my personal blog.

Brett Harned, Be a Better PM

Brett Harned from US agency Happy Cog started the day with his excellent and humorous talk on how to be a better PM. There were lots of useful practical tips from his talk, including:

  • Good communication and people skills are crucial to becoming a great PM
  • Ask lots of questions, know everything and keep everyone informed of changes
  • Set clear expectations with clients on scope and timeline
  • Regular weekly status reports to both clients and your team are a good way to keep everyone in the loop 

Brett has compiled a list of useful PM resources and tools on his blog.

Sam Barnes - Vice Versa Client Management

Sam's talk was on client relationships, he presented a bunch of fascinating learnings from his experience as the client - when he commissioned a redesign on his company website. 

His core message was to empathise with clients. Remember they often don't know how to do digital projects, they may have competing demands for their time at work so we need to help them. Educating the client, being honest, and helping them along each step of the way are all good ways to ensure success. 

Sam also echoed the value of regular status reports.

Rob Borley - Change your Business, Change the World

Rob's talk was the first to extol the virtues of agile, a topic that kept coming back throughout the day. Rob's company is a software development house, so slightly different to the web agency model. For him, agile works really well and they essentially charge clients on a time and materials model which as I discussed with him in the break, is more difficult in the web industry.

Rob had some good tips on building a good company culture and how they tackle agile. As he said "a disciplined process is key to delivering good products." He highlighted the value of peer review, not just on code but on everything the company produces (i.e. blog articles and presentations). He also highlighted the value of automating as much as possible, a theme that has been very popular at most of the tech conferences I've attended of late.

Q&A Discussion panel

The Q&A panel was hosted by the ever amusing Paul Boag and featured the talents of Helen Holmes, Senior Project Manager at Code ComputerLove, Lisa Vigar, Senior Product Manager at BBC North and Ian May, Programme Director at Creative Jar.

The discussion panel was a fascinating part of the day and a lot of really juicy topics were discussed. A few highlights were:

  • Take what you can from agile to help the project process, though pure agile doesn't really work for most web agencies
  • If you have flexible scope (common approach in agile) make sure this is clearly communicated to the client
  • Some interesting perspectives on how responsive design affects projects. Challenges include understanding the most efficient way to work, how to manage content across devices, getting client buy-in, changing how the internal design team think, QA costs can be astronomical.
  • Estimating is one of the most difficult parts of the job; get the people who are going to do the work to do the estimates
  • Managing remote teams is very hard, it's all about good communication. Tools like Skype and shared documents help.

Mark Coster - Agile Kaliedoscope

Agile was a recurring theme of the day and Mark Coster from Thoughtworks focused entirely on it. He talked about how Thoughtworks uses agile to run their projects and the lessons they have learned through a decade of working with agile.
 
His main point is start somewhere, don't be religious about agile and see how it can help. Key benefits and practices Thoughtworks use include:

  • Main aim is to shorten the feedback loop
  • Automate operations so you can deploy quickly
  • Moving from sprints to on demand work
  • Having a mix of extreme programming skills (i.e. automated testing, pair programming) and a methodology (Scrum, Kaban, etc) to succeed
  • Agile embraces change
  • All about using own tools to paint a clear picture of what's going on

In the Q&A Mark detailed how while most of their work is time and materials they still have their fair share of fixed cost projects. For these Thoughtworks put a lot of effort in to deal with change (for example if a new feature is added, something else has to go).

He also talked about how Q&A time is a hard sell for clients. They always want it, but on paper are less happy to pay for it. To help, they explain the benefits that exist for the client.

DPM:UK Lightning Talks

Suze Haworth talked about Surviving Project Fatigue. Her tips included keeping everyone informed, keeping up regular communication even in quiet periods, and sometimes breaking down large projects into smaller chunks to help create manageable goals. And celebrate and reward on site/project launches!

Ian Fenn talked about Taming the UX unicorn. Unfortunately Ian's laptop decided to bork out and he lost his presentation literally as he came to the stage. To his credit, Ian stood up and gave a short talk without any slides to help on how to manage UX designers on projects. 

His main point was to include UX throughout planning and not treat the role as just designing a pretty UI. UX is a problem solving skill. He also highlighted the importance of accessibility, adding that it usually benefits usability. 

Paul Boag - Digital Adaptions - Time to Unite your Hands

Paul Boag from Headscape finished things off in fine form, he entertainingly took us through a whirlwind tour of how the web has changed stuff, how senior management don't get it, how they think of digital as the web in a box, and why the web isn't just about marketing - it's about the whole business.

The rest of the talk was almost a call to arms, about why and how we need to help our clients adapt to the digital age, and how we can help improve their digital strategy, management and company culture. 

Some of the points Paul made seem a rather steep step to be able to influence with some clients, but the general thrust that we are business consultants as well as digital consultants certainly rang true. For most businesses digital strategy should encompass most of their business, but most management can't see it. It is up to us as web agencies and professionals in the field to educate our clients on how to best use digital. I only hope they'll listen. 

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