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Sam Barnes

Sam Barnes

They call them "the basics". Little, innocuous things that don't seem to really matter. But they do. In fact, something as simple as sending an acknowledgment email to an important message can make all the difference in keeping a team engaged and a client confident. This week Carl and Sam Barnes talk about why getting back to the basics is so important and how to get better at them. And when you do, you can enjoy the positive changes in both your work and your relationships with the people on your team.

Learn more and meet Sam at the Digital PM Summit in Vegas this October!

Announcer:
Welcome to The Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're gonna talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hey, everybody and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. With me today, I have the Senior Development Manager at Marks & Spencer. He's an international keynote speaker, author, all the things -- and he's a really, really smart guy when it comes to digital project management. Welcome to the show, Sam Barnes.

Sam Barnes:
Hello, thanks for having me.

Carl Smith:
I'm so glad you're here. Now, you're going to be with us in Vegas at the Digital PM Summit, which is this October 15th-17th, so, it'll be good to see you again.

Sam Barnes:
Absolutely, yeah.

Carl Smith:
When was the last time we saw each other?

Sam Barnes:
I think that would be ... That'd be the last one in Philadelphia.

Carl Smith:
Okay, there you go.

Sam Barnes:
I think I've only missed one Summit -- I've spoken at them all, other than the last one.

Carl Smith:
Yep, there you go. Well, you know, we made a lot of mistakes on the last one, Sam.

Sam Barnes:
That was my choice.

Carl Smith:
Number one, not having you there. We should've really forced that.

Sam Barnes:
It looked great. You probably sent me over the edge, though. I find speaking quite dramatic as most people know, so, it was nice to have one year off, as it were.

Carl Smith:
There you go. I would love to get a year off, not from the Summit but just from life.

Sam Barnes:
Yes, agreed, people.

Carl Smith:
I need a one-year sabbatical. 

Sam Barnes:
Away from people -- I've animals, not a year of animals -- but people, yes.

Carl Smith:
Just walk out of the woods, unshaven, looking horrible and go, "I'm back!" Be amazing.

Sam Barnes:
I couldn't go without wifi for a year.

Carl Smith:
And this is the world's worst transition, but that would be back to the basics, Sam.

Sam Barnes:
It would.

Carl Smith:
If I were to just go off and live in the woods.

So, you're gonna be talking about the basics when it comes to managing projects, and my question for you is, how many digital PMs, at least-- this is interesting. Joe [Renauldi 00:02:19] and I were talking recently about business development, and we talked about how there was this first wave of shops that started right after the bust, right, like in the early 2000's, and then there's a new wave of shops. How many in that first wave of digital PMs actually had any training?

Sam Barnes:
None, I would say. If they had any training, it was in a project management discipline that probably wasn't too appropriate. I mean, that's why I even [inaudible 00:02:45] at the Summit, essentially, all the way back then, that I was working for a digital shop -- the first generation you're talking about -- and I was just looking for advice, because everything I read online about project management, it just wasn't relevant to what I was doing. I worked for a small digital agency at the time -- you know, ten people. You know what it's like, when you're fighting for business, doing the pitches and managing projects, and no-one really knows what they're doing, to be honest.

Carl Smith:
Yeah.

Sam Barnes:
And so I was looking around for just sort of any advice, because, there I was -- I didn't even intend to be a project manager, of course, as very few people do. So, I had no knowledge, really, and I was facing these challenges on a daily basis -- from my team, the clients, the bosses, you name it -- with nothing other than my brain. And sometimes you need some help, right? So, I was just looking around online, anywhere, anything that said project management -- there was tons of project management stuff, loads of it, but it was all, you know, you [inaudible 00:03:38], you enterprise IT -- there were bits you could pull out, and I followed a few blogs at the time, like PM Smart, I think, was one. But generally, there was just nothing. 

So, yeah, I started writing not really thinking anything would come of it, you know? But it turns out, the gap that I had spotted really was a gap. That's how it kind of started. Nowadays, I think, you can look around and find tons of advice. I'm just in awe of the people. But, back in the day, there was nothing, there literally was nothing. I think that's when I first started listening to the likes of the [inaudible 00:04:12] Podcast, in it's early days. Think I listened to yourself a few times, I've definitely read some of your articles. But, there was just nothing, literally nothing, and therefore everybody was making it up as they were going along -- and I think a lot of people fell back on to what they knew, which was, at the time, more print-based account management, project management mechanisms. But, while that got you so far, as technology changed, as clients changed, it just became more and more invalid, and there needed to be a more tailored, more specific digital project management element to all this advice.

And it turns out, I think, while the fundamentals of delivering things, I think, remain reasonably static, we've really gone of now into another tangent of whatever it is we do, compared to those IT type project management community and their methods.

Carl Smith:
I would totally agree, and I think the first wave of digital PMs -- and I hate to include myself in that. It was by default: I couldn't code, I couldn't design, so what was left was to try and manage everything. And I read Web Redevelopment, Kelly Goto's book, I read some of these things that were very much on process, but there wasn't much on the management of that process and all of the little nooks and crannies of difference, right?

Sam Barnes:
Yep. There was quite a lot coming out at the time on design and development -- I think Smashing Magazine was a really big, prolific reader back then-

Carl Smith:
Oh, absolutely.

Sam Barnes:
And to be fair, to [inaudible 00:05:40] and the gang, they're amazing, because even then, they were doing a spread of design development, but also some delivery, some process stuff in there. But, as things that tried to go across all the topics, it never really went as in-depth as I needed it, you know? So, yeah, it was a really interesting time. In a way, I think I kind of appreciate it now, because I learned so much. I just had to read so much and learn so much -- it's just from blood, sweat, and tears at times. But I see people coming up now, and I think that you may meet project managers or [inaudible 00:06:20], or even [inaudible 00:06:20] -- whoever it might be -- and they have gone through some kind of course, they have grown up in a generation, or a time when there's enough to read that you don't have to learn the way we have to. And I'm not sure if that's good, bad, or just different, you know? Because [crosstalk 00:06:35]

Carl Smith:
Right. 

You were actually -- you got a degree in some form of computer, I can't remember now -- but I know you started as a front-end developer, right?

Sam Barnes:
Yeah. Yes, I actually left school and went to -- I was in a UK college -- but I left there not knowing what I wanted to do, so I fell into manual labor jobs, for a good two to three years. It was only as I kind of grew up, and I found -- basically, there was this box in my dad's room, and it was the computer. And that was all I knew about it for many, many years. It was a box that just sat there. And I think, one day -- and I'm really not technical in this sense, I don't know what possessed me to do this -- but we didn't have a modem cable, and I spliced a traditional UK phone cable that had two ends -- two duplicate ends, and a duplicate ended modem -- I spliced them. Somehow, I suddenly heard that famous 56k modem awful sound, and my brother exclaimed, quite loudly, "That's the Internet!"

Carl Smith:
Wow.

Sam Barnes:
So I was quite intrigued by this. Then I found out, quite quickly, that you had to pay for it. I genuinely thought it was free. And I'm 21, 22 at this point, I'm not a kid. 

So, yeah, all I remember from it is that, once I got an ISP and got online, I was just absolutely fascinated. It was the first time, I think, in my life I'd found something that I thought, "I love this. I wanna do this as a career." So, I kind of played around in it for awhile, eventually realizing that I wasn't going to get a chance to do this as a career without some kind of evidence, right?

Carl Smith:
Yeah.

Sam Barnes:
So I quit my manual labor jobs, went back to live with my parents -- which was, as anyone who's done that in their mid twenties will know, it's very, very painful -- but I'm lucky, very lucky I could do that, because that meant I could go to the very local, not-such-great university, where I did my computing degree, of [inaudible 00:08:30] business, it was called at the time. I think it's called Information Systems in the UK now. That was it. All of these events that lead me to that point in my life was almost fate, because I wasn't mature enough to study, five years before that. Hence why I didn't, hence why I ended up doing what I was doing. So I kind of hit this university at the right time, really enjoyed so much of it. And it was a range of subjects, it wasn't just coding -- it was meant to give you foundations, everything from business, through to networking, and coding, and so on -- but when I left there, I was absolutely adamant I wanted to be a programmer. I'd seen Richard Prior in Superman, and that was it. That was my inspiration, honestly. I remember that vividly. That was the moment I thought, I'm WarGames-

Carl Smith:
Fractions of a penny, if we can just do fractions of a penny.

Sam Barnes:
Absolutely, yeah. I've admitted this publicly before. After I saw Richard Prior in Superman, doing what he did, I went upstairs to my ZX Spectrum, non-connected computer, and of course tried to control the weather. And I was probably too old to be doing that, at that point, but I was living the fantasy, what can I say?

Yeah, so I wanted to be a programmer. I didn't know which kind. I'd enjoyed just coding, generally, during the course, and I finally got a chance at a digital agency, and I was content entry, you know, using a CMS, but I was loving it. I've still got my very first Photoshop banner I made. I've still got it saved, because I remember doing that -- pressing save, sending off and thinking, "I cannot believe I just got paid for that." Considering that for those previous five years I'd been working six days a week, all hours, fixing power tools. It was a very different world, right? For a lot less money I might've said as well. 

So, yeah, I was content entry, and then I taught myself front-end development because I needed to get out of it, and then it happened, Carl. Then I opened my big mouth, and thought I could organize things a little bit better. So, what was happening at the time was -- again, I talked about the period of time that that was, and you had a lot of account managers that were born in the print world, and a lot of the agencies still were doing print as their core business -- so I was receiving, essentially, Photoshop files, to build the front-end templates for integrating with the CMS, and they were just the worst possible files to build from. They were designed in -- they weren't in pixels, they weren't even -- it was every possible thing that you could do wrong, it was like that. So I thought to myself, with a bit of training to the designers, who were predominantly print designers, we can probably speed things up, which will actually make things better for me, better for everyone else. That was it. I've identified that as the moment, Carl, where without knowing it, I'd made that transition from not just coding. So, if anyone's out there coding and enjoying it, just keep quiet, is my advice.

Carl Smith:
It's funny that you mention, "I can't believe I just got paid for that." I remember, we finished the first engine website, we got a check for $5000, and I remember walking to the bank going, "Sucker!"

Later, I found out, we should've charged probably $15,000. Once I started understanding who the sucker was.

Sam Barnes:
You know, you could've charged more, but, how happy were you? 

Carl Smith:
I was so happy.

Sam Barnes:
That's the key thing, right? It doesn't matter. My banner is terrible -- not only was it a banner on Photoshop, but I think it was for Call of Duty, on the Nokia N-Gage-

Carl Smith:
Oh, shut up.

Sam Barnes: It was just like a gaming banner, and I was just, "This is unbelievable."

Still got it. I should post that up somewhere, it's terrible. I used all the Photoshop defaults. All the bevels and everything. Nasty.

Carl Smith:
That's still amazing, though. 

So, when you're thinking about the basics of digital project management, how do you go about sharing that? Because I know you also do some digital PM training -- obviously you do workshops, things like that -- how do you determine what it is you should be sharing with people who may not have been trained?

Sam Barnes:
Well, the talk I'm going to do, it really comes back a level then even projects, I think. I didn't know what it was going to be when I started putting it together, but, what it's turned out to be is really basics for just working. Working with other people, and leading teams, I think. And I think project management actually sits one level above that, really, because to be a good project manager, I think you have to know the basics of working with people. I think that's probably one of the mistakes people make. But, what I've tried to do, with this talk, is really [inaudible 00:13:05] it back so it's agnostic from how you work. It doesn't matter how you work, it doesn't matter what size company you're in. These really are basics, I mean, a lot of the tips that I give, they can be used in businesses that have nothing to do with digital, nothing at all. Pizza delivery companies, you name it, you know?

Carl Smith:
Right.

Sam Barnes:
The way I work is that, I always make notes. Throughout my working week, if there's something that happens that annoyed me, or that I thought was good, or I had no idea about, or I would've done different, or someone taught me something, whatever it might be. I kind of just make a note of it, in a little note file. And when I come to put talks together, I would always look at this, because it's where my whole life is, as such. And often, I'll have an idea that I want to talk about. So, I've done one on introverts before, and it has a very core topic, and I'm going to pull out bits of that. 

But what I found was, over the years, I'd picked away at these notes, that I was obviously still adding to, and what was seeming to be left out were things that obviously weren't targeted to digital project management, obviously because that's where I predominantly speak. But then I thought, well, actually, why? Because these are the things that -- I'm now basically running a team of engineers, so it's a bit different to project management -- but these basics, they remain. Like, getting back to people on time. It sounds like such an obvious thing to say, right? But it's so often missed, and I think I say in the talk, it's probably one of the biggest mistakes I see busy leaders making. And yet while -- it's because they're busy, and they're leading, and they're doing a hundred different things -- I think what you forget sometimes when you climb the ladder, as such, is what it feels like to be on the other side of that. 

And I've noticed a lot of people ... I've been on both sides of that, now, so I can both talk about what it's like to not get that quick feedback from a leader. I can also talk about how it's so easy to miss that kind of stuff when you're that busy, you know? But at the same time how a core part of your leadership is not neglecting that sort of thing because it's just as important as the next sale. Maybe not as tangible on paper, but it's valuable nonetheless.

Carl Smith:
Yeah, you know, that is so insightful. I mean, it's basic communication, and whenever you have a problem on a project, or in life, even, it seems like it always comes back to communication.

Sam Barnes:
Always. Every single [inaudible 00:15:30] communication in people. Technologies and tools will come and go, but it's always the same. And I think that's where I wanted ... There was a part of me putting this together that thought, is this going to be really -- not so much relevant for the audience -- but are they going to listen to it and think, well, it's kind of obvious, it's kind of common sense? Because, when you're being told something, it sounds common sense, but if you actually then lay that over your last month, and how many things you did do or didn't do, you kind of see -- while I'm sealing this very expensive deal or launching this exciting project -- in the process of doing that, there are these five to ten basic things I didn't do, that some people just see as sort of common courtesy, other people see as professional. That actually, while we got everything launched, or we got the sale, my team or my client have been affected in some way, and I might not be able to see that yet. 

It's never quite enough to cause a reaction at the time. These are things that, if you don't do them, or if you do them mildly, they build up over time. I'm sure you've had this yourself, when people leave a company or a team that you're managing, and when they explain why, sometimes they read off things that you didn't even remember, or weren't even aware that you've done, and yet you can hear their experience of that and you can't really argue with it. And you may have even experienced it yourself before and felt down about it, and it's kind of quite humbling and disappointing at the same time.

And I'm not perfect, I make mistakes in all the points that I'm making. But, it's just my little angle on what we can do differently. Because we can talk about methodologies for eternity. But, get these things right, and I think everything else seems to go okay, because people tend to enjoy working with you that little bit more. And that kind of underpins whatever it is you're doing with other people.

Carl Smith: And the thing about common sense is, often you have to be beaten ahead or have it shoved down your throat, because you know it once you've heard it, but you forget to do it. I remember reading a study on doctors in the States because, when you start thinking about those that were getting sued for malpractice -- they were doing all this research -- and what they found is that the doctors that got sued for malpractice weren't the ones that made the most mistakes. They were the ones with the worst bedside manor.

Sam Barnes:
There you go then. I didn't know that, that's amazing. That's a really good way to explain it, yeah.

Carl Smith:
Yeah. And I remember at nGen, once every quarter we'd send out a survey to clients, ask how it was working with their team, and we got feedback -- and at the time designers, developers, everybody was working directly with the client -- we got feedback on one developer, and the client said they absolutely loved working with him. And we got feedback on another developer, that was a different client, and she didn't get as high marks. And when we started boiling it down, she was actually a much better developer. Her work was better, all these types of things, but, when we started really drilling into it, he would always send a thank-you email after the client had sent some information. He would say, "Hey, got your message, just wanted to say thank you, I'm on it." She never would. And so, her response was, "Well, that's because I'm gonna jump in and start doing the work." And it's just like any critical communication: somebody has to know that you received it.

Sam Barnes:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

That's, again, two really good examples that are exactly the kind of things that I'll be talking about. It's amazing, the difference that they make. That's kind of the whole point of the talk, is that, while they seem like little innocuous things that either most people assume you just do anyway ... There's a couple of things in the talk that, actually, I start out talking about, and I preempt the fact that people are going to listen to what I'm saying and think, "Come on Sam, this is a bit over the top." You know, a bit too detailed, and organized, in what should be an organic social interaction. But it's because of the reasons you just said. It's the result ...

So, I'll give one thing away. One thing is that, I will always add a reminder when one of my team is off ill. I'll add a reminder to check they're okay when they're back in work. And most people hear that, and while you put the admin and all the paperwork aside, most people hear that and think actually adding that to your to-do list is weird. That's over the top. And I can understand that perspective. The words that I'm saying sound like that, but, very much like you just said. What I've found overtime is that, it's such a little thing to do and so obvious, that actually no-one logs it. Which is fine, if you remember to do it, because you genuinely care about these people, but do you know what? There's times when your busyness coincides with someone coming back to work, and you may just forget to ask. And you don't mean anything by it, and they might not even realize you haven't asked, but when you do ask, when you constantly clearly care about your team and the people that work around you, it just makes a huge difference. Not even at that time, but for over the course of however long you work together, if you maintain it.

So, my justification is, yes, it is a bit weird, it is a bit over the top. But, the result is too valuable for me to forget to do. So, it's really making the point that these little things that you just talked about, and that I'm talking about, the value that they have to other people, and the business results, the commercial results -- it's surprising, is what I'm saying, it's very surprising how many of these little things actually make a big, big difference to people.

Carl Smith:
Yeah, and I'm thinking about a time ... I worked at a traditional advertising agency for fourteen years before starting my shop, and I ended up in charge of account service for a while, and the people in account service didn't like me -- mainly because I was their boss -- but also, because when their team, like, if the team had to stay late to work on something, I would make them stay late. And I would say, "Look, you're part of this team. And if they have to be here, then you need to go get pizza and beer or soda or whatever, and they need to know that you're here too." Because as soon as they're there working, and you're not there, we get this us and them thing.

Sam Barnes:
Yep, I completely agree with that one. 

Carl Smith:
And that is just huge. So, yeah. I'm excited to see you again.

Sam Barnes:
Yeah, same Carl, same. It's been too long.

Carl Smith:
Yeah. And definitely excited to listen in on the talk, and just find out more about what you've been up to.

Sam Barnes:
Yeah. We'll catch up, as we always do, but I'm looking forward to just -- coming to the Summit again is just very exciting for me. So, as I say, I've been at them all, other than last year, and there's that thing where ... I still stand by my decision, because I just needed that time for myself, but, reading tweets from afar, having been so involved -- don't forget, we were there in the first one, you know, it was all very small and unknown -- and to see it what it is now, it's incredibly ... I feel, as I said to you, humbled and proud to have been a part of that. So to be there again in Vegas, with, no doubt, an even bigger crowd, and with the speaker line-up you've got, it just ... I keep looking at Brett and yourself and looking at you, waiting for you to sort of catch me -- you know, hang on a minute, you helped us get it started, but we'll get the professionals in now.

Carl Smith:
Aww. 

Sam Barnes:
That's how it feels, you know, the impostor syndrome kicks in and all that.

Carl Smith:
Impostor syndrome is such a human condition that, don't worry, we'll all have-

Sam Barnes:
Yes. I saw some stuff from you recently on that, yes. I think you're right.

Carl Smith:
We'll all show up in Vegas and just sit there looking at each other going, "I don't know."

Sam Barnes:
Yeah, exactly. Same as every year, then, yeah?

Carl Smith:
Pretty much. Well, everybody listening, thanks so much. Sam, thank you again, and we will talk to you soon.

Sam Barnes:
Thank you, bye-bye.

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