Has project management reached a tipping point? Rachel Gertz, Partner and Digital PM Trainer at Louder Than Ten, believes so. In the not-so-distant past, project managers didn’t have much say in how their companies were run. They shuffled folders, organized to-dos and made small talk with clients.
Today, companies recognize DPMs as the front lines of business, secondary business developers, early-stage strategists and more, well worth attention—and investment. Rachel joins us to talk about a new class of empowered DPMs and how these resilient leaders are shaping the future of the industry.
Tickets are going fast, but there’s still time to join us at this year’s Digital PM Summit.
Carl Smith: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau briefing. Today on the show we have got one of my favorite people. Somebody that I worked with for quite a long time who actually pushed me to be a much better person both at work and at home. And it is Rachel Gertz. How are you Rachel?
Rachel Gertz: I feel good. And I tell you, that's a pretty great intro, Carl.
Carl Smith: You know. It's true. And so you're the co-founder at Louder Than Ten. It was pretty much a web shop, and then you transitioned it to training digital PMs. And I just want to say as part of the intro, I think that's brilliant, because you really are a trainer. That was what I experienced when we were working together, because you were aways looking for ways to make things better.
So, for everybody who's listening, just go ahead and talk a little bit about Louder Than Ten and like how you got your start there.
Rachel Gertz: So, a lot of this comes to you. You're going to love this. When Travis and I started out. So Travis, you know him as my partner, but also just us like getting our kind of feet wet in the freelancing world, we had big ideas about what we wanted for design systems and content systems. And when we started working with nGen back in the day. Gosh! When was that now? Like over five years ago, right?
Carl Smith: Oh my goodness! Yeah.
Rachel Gertz: So we kind of came into this as like learning about ourselves and processes, and I'm probably was a pain in your ass, because I was always asking questions and challenging you. I'm sure you were like, "Oh my God!"
Carl Smith: One day you will have employees and you'll see what it's like, Rachel Gertz.
Rachel Gertz: And we do. And so anyways ... yeah, so I had to say. So a lot of those humble beginning I think I kind of bring back to the relationship that you and I had actually learning a lot about what it was to put processes together and to try to work on things like alignment and kind of support ... I remember you having this really beautiful vision for nGen, and I completely and fully believed in that, and there was an idea that we can run a ton [OS 00:02:10] teams in that, you know, process is a huge part of that.
But I remember you saying, "Don't put people through a meat grinder with your process." I remember that. And I remember too ... I think, was it you that signed me up to speak my first time at the Digital PM Summit?
Carl Smith: I think so.
Rachel Gertz: Yeah. I thought it might have been you.
Carl Smith: Yeah.
Rachel Gertz: So I had to give some kudos there. Because I think in a big way you might have accidentally shaped that path for us without us realizing it. Because I did fall in love with project management and setting up processes. And so Travis and I were looking at that like as we grew and as you grew and then like the natural like ways that we kind of moved in our ... I mean you started like work with Bureau and started all this beautiful stuff. And then we were looking at, how does this need to impact people? What we want for people. And it became not just about project management, but kind of creating like resilient leaders that often don't have a big say in how companies run. They don't often get that chance to shape processes.
Carl Smith: Right. I mean that's amazing because ... so back to what you're saying about the idea of autonomy, and all of those things. I mean, I still love that. And I really feel. You're going to probably appreciate this, and I give you credit for this all the time, but we were trying to figure out how to run nGen. And I was explaining to you what I wanted and then you said jellyfish, right? I was like, "Oh my goodness, Rachel. Seriously get some sleep."
But no, you were so right and you named it the jellyfish model. I think the bureau is kind of what I was trying to get to with companies working together, I think the bureau actually became the kind of my canvas for where I can try to play around with the jellyfish model now. But without taking clients through hell, right?
Rachel Gertz: Totally.
Carl Smith: But wait, who's in charge? Nobody. Isn't that beautiful. So I love what you're saying though about digital PMs and training them and how they may not have had a say, right? They may not have had a say in what they were doing. What do you find when you're talking to the owner of a shop? I imagine that's how you're coming in when you're doing the training, right?
Rachel Gertz: Yeah, we definitely speak with a lot of owners and a lot of operations folks when they first reached out. You know what's really interesting is a lot of the times they come to us because it's either, we need a PM, or we have a PM but we need for them to learn better processes or just how to push back. And I think what is interesting is that depending on how experienced the on PM processes and how developed those processes are, we had a reckoning point where they start to see that when a project management is empowered to be able to work alongside business development to work with the team and have a say in estimating and scoping. They actually kind of become that secondary business developer and I think that that changes things. That makes them like, "Oh wait?" This is actually a really good idea. I should really be investing more into my project managers.
Carl Smith: Yeah, so what are you finding is kind of the ... I mean, maybe it's different all over, but what are the common things that you're finding when you go in to start talking to somebody who's kind of just been doing it on their own?
Rachel Gertz: Well, usually they're adding a PM a little too late like just when the cracks are already forming. And we're kind of hoping that they're thinking ahead, but every five to seven, up to 10 people that you have on your team, you're looking to add a project manager who can be accountable for that work. So that's one of the things.
And then I'd say the other thing is probably just them not realizing the sheer power of having those PMs involved in the conversations early on. I mean we had a really traditional idea what project management was, right? And I think Bret would agree with us too on it. But he would say, "We have to look at them and their operational role outside of the triangle of time, budget and scope." Like they do more than that and we can actually empower them to do that.
So I think those are some of the biggest conversations that I have to have. And once we get alignment on that, then it's like a beautiful kind of process that unfolds over the next year.
Carl Smith: So most of the shops that you talk to, do they have that ratio of like one to 10?
Rachel Gertz: Yes. We're working with most shops I would say are usually between seven and 30. They usually will either be looking for the very first PM on one site, or they might actually have like two or three or four PMs, but they're just looking at trying to strengthen. A lot of it comes back to people management, conflict resolution and some of the software skills. But in addition to that there is always those ... I mean those hard skills you can't beat them once you've got those under your belt.
Carl Smith: So when you're going to do the training, is it a customize based on where they are and what they need?
Rachel Gertz: Yeah, so the training the way it's set up, it's completely remote. So I don't have to go in to any offices.
Carl Smith: Oh! Okay, cool.
Rachel Gertz: Yeah. So all of the students ... we have like a class of students that up to six, and each of those students will be working full time in their organizations. And then we do classes each week. So the trainer will do a three hour remote session, and may learn end-to-end what it is to have a project come in, so right from either sales or intake when ... you know, if it's a product shop, all the way through till launch and like future phases.
And it's paired with a lab session. So there will be active curriculum learning and development, and then also a lab session where you get practice on a simulation project with their team mates and also applying those concepts to their real organizations. They can build templates and refine practices and stuff.
Carl Smith: And so, they go through ... And how many trainers do you have right now?
Rachel Gertz: So we added our first trainer in January. We're going to be looking to add another trainer very soon I think in the fall here, so ... yeah, we're still early in that process, but we're ... Yeah, it's going great. We're really happy with it.
Carl Smith: Digital project management is getting such a ... I want to say a boost, in that even in some of the silicon valley shops that we've talked to, some of the big product shops. Like digital project management might not have been thing for a while 'cause they were so engineering driven, but now they're starting to realize like this is the front lines. The reason we're getting beat up is we don't have anybody on the front lines trying to help us understand how things get done.
Rachel Gertz: Yeah.
Carl Smith: So are you seeing some of that when you're bringing in ... if it's a shop that didn't have a digital project manager and you're helping train that first one. What's the response from the rest of the company?
Rachel Gertz: Oh yeah. That's a great question. So the first part of your question, we're definitely seeing like, we have development shops approaches, we have agencies that do design, and sometimes more on the traditional side of advertising, but mostly marketing.
And then recently it has been a lot more on the product side. They are approaching us I think because it is that realization like, how you summarize it, like we can't just run projects. We have to look at the environment around those projects and we have to look at the air quality as Nancy [inaudible 00:09:31] would call it, right? And-
Carl Smith: Absolutely.
Rachel Gertz: ... get into that part. So I think the second ... sorry, what was the second part of your question?
Carl Smith: I was wondering how the rest of the company reacts, like what is their ... I almost want to say, emotional response, right?. When suddenly there's somebody who's there to kind of help.
Rachel Gertz: Yeah. So there's probably a mixed reaction. And we talk about something called the Kübler-Ross grief curve. And it's the same idea that when change happens in an organization, you're going to react in a similar way where you would if you lost somebody. Initially you're kind of in denial, there's some anger, frustration, you're bargaining a lot, but then you get into this exploratory sort of more open phase where you can try new things and practice.
So we go into that very honestly when we talk with shops. And we'll say things like, "In order to get alignment and buy in, what we suggest is that you sit down with this apprentice, and each week have that apprentice openly teach something back to the team. Share all the resources, share all the curriculum with the entire team so that we can make sure everyone is buttoned up." 'cause it's hard to learn what is it to have someone there as a manager of projects, and hopefully to support the people on the team. It takes practice to learn what that feels like.
Carl Smith: Now I want to shift a little bit. Over the past few years. One thing that I've seen a lot of, and tie a lot of conversations around, at digital shops specifically is that role of account manager. And I'm seeing more and more people hire account manager. And you know, an account manager and a digital project manager, just in terms of their mental makeup I think they're very different. An account manager is incented very differently to maximize an account and they're relationship-based. Whereas a DPM may have a great relationship with the client, but they're definitely project-based, right? So have you come against that yet? Have you found account managers in any of these shops or?
Rachel Gertz: Most of them tend to actually not have account managers interestingly, but I know that anyone who has reached out, if they have account managers they're actually interested in learning more of the people management, client management skills. So we might be more focusing on, you know how folks are now calling like the producer role, right? It's that strategic, like whatever you call it, what it is, is you're a manager of your team, and you're a manager of your projects, but you also support relationships with your client. So really that's all we're talking about. Potato, potato I guess.
Carl Smith: Or [tater 00:12:07] in the south.
Rachel Gertz: Peter.
Carl Smith: So when you get in your training, do you have a specific project management philosophy. I mean is this ...? Are you going purely Agile? Is it an adapted type of system for the company or how does that work?
Rachel Gertz: Yeah, it's really agnostic. We try to focus on just building a process and adapting a fit that works for you, your team and your projects. So we'll teach Agile, we'll teach waterfall, we'll teach Hybrid, but it's like what works for you, and how do you know when you should use which model or adapt them.
Carl Smith: Got you. And how many ... I'm just fascinated with this because it almost feels like a new industry, right? I mean, it was project management and PMI and all that, but for digital PMs it was very little. And that's why when Bret launched the Digital PM Summit it became this big thing really quick. It was 'cause it was this connection point. So now, as far as I know, and I haven't been doing a lot of research, so I could be wrong. It feels like you've kind of got the first education system for digital PMs that's coming out. Have you seen others out there doing this?
Rachel Gertz: So interestingly, I think so. The timing is definitely right. And I was so so glad with like Bret building this entire framework and community around DPMs and so I'm actually starting to see more folks crop up. So there's like [operation 00:13:30], I see it like a little bit on the operation side and like campaign. And there's another program, I think it's all kind of video based and it's like lessons on digital project management that just went live actually, in our home town here in Vancouver, so I think that's actually reassuring, right? That shows that this thing it's got some heels, it's definitely dancing. So it's really cool.
Carl Smith: I mean, it used to be, you could find no event that used to word camp. And I remember we used to get emails, "Hey, someone says calling their thing a camp." "Hey, there's a camp over there." "Hey, did you hear about the new camp? Just like going, it's just a word, it's totally fine. Everybody can have a camp.
But what you realize was people are understanding these smaller groups connecting is important. And so it is. Just like you said, it's kind of reassuring that, "Oh, this is accepted. Like people like it." So the same thing with training, and education and digital PMs, so congratulations on that. I mean it feels like you really did get started right at the right time. And so what role does Travis play?
Rachel Gertz: Oh! He doesn't do anything. Just kidding!
Carl Smith: He's right there. Isn't he? Is he right there?
Rachel Gertz: He's glaring at me right now.
Carl Smith: Awesome.
Rachel Gertz: No Travis he wears the operations hat. He's making like some fantastic dashboards for like our financials, he helps with a lot of the admin stuff and we're also like, the fun part is he's building some tools right now that we haven't released yet. We're just using them with apprentices, but we're doing things like setting ... like we've got rate cards based on your target revenue, and then like an estimating tool built into that that allows you to measure project length and duration based on risk assessment. So an algorithm that monitors that. So he's doing stuff. He's doing a few things.
Carl Smith: I'm excited to see that, and when it's ready if you want to share it with the community, let me know and we'll definitely do that.
So you're going to be joining us at the Digital PM summit, right? This September in Memphis. It's going to be pretty exciting.
Rachel Gertz: I'm so excited.
Carl Smith: And you're going to get back on the stage. Now remember you told me after the first DPM summit, "I don't know if I'm ever going to do that again." And I was like, "You were really good." Like, you were so prepared. I remember, I looked away and I went, "Now, I got to go work on my talk." Seriously. It was a performance and it was great. So there you go. We're just going to build each other up. If people want to hang up now, get off the podcast, that's fine. But now you're going to come back. You're going to take the stage again. It's going to be a little bit bigger, right? There's more people out there now. Don't get nervous. You're going to be fine. What are you going to share with everybody?
Rachel Gertz: Sorry, I'm dying over here. I just wanted to tell you that very first time. I probably threw up a little. Like I was like that nervous.
Carl Smith: Just a little.
Rachel Gertz: Yeah.
Carl Smith: Oh yeah.
Rachel Gertz: But five years does a lot, right? Like you learn a lot. So this year I'm really excited. I actually just shared my talk description with Bret. So what I'm going to be talking about is alignment, because I think this could be one of those secret keys where instead of just looking at it like, "Okay, we need to build a product together. We have our stakeholders, let's do this thing."
We have to start looking at shaping the organizations that we're working with and looking at our power in that dynamic to get the work done. Resiliency, right? Like just really focusing on what does that mean for the future in this role?
Carl Smith: That's going to be great. I mean, I don't know if you've seen the lineup that Bret's put together. He has outdone himself this year. It is looking phenomenal. Have you taken a look?
Rachel Gertz: Yeah, he did great. This is going to be a fun one.
Carl Smith: Yeah. It's going to be a truly great one. So Rachel how can people find you and find Louder Than Ten and get more information on the digital PM training?
Rachel Gertz: Yes, so you can find us on the web, louderthanten.com. We have a twitter account under the same name, and we are actually starting our next class in May, so there's a few more weeks and a couple of slots left. And then the next will be September. So we'd love to just talk to you about, you know, what are some of the common challenges or barriers when you are setting up PM process and what are some of those things that you think more folks need to understand about the PM role in your organization? That would be something I think more people need to know about.
Carl Smith: Well, I'll tell you that when people are asking me about it, we're definitely sending people over. And I just can't wait to see how this grows. And just watch you and Travis succeed. It's just fun for me having worked with you for all those years, and now seeing you swing your own bat there, it's awesome.
Rachel Gertz: You know, it's like ... I am really, really grateful. Like okay, people are going to totally want to leave now, but I am really grateful. I'm grateful that, Carl, that we got to work together, because I think that it honestly, it shaped a lot of who we've become. And I think that that's a huge testament to the vision that you had, and also the fact that you gave us a chance and we worked together and we did like something that I think we really both believe in, so ...
Carl Smith: Yeah. Well, thank you so much. I'll see you in Memphis. And for everybody who didn't get tired of the love fest. Thank you for listening, and we'll be back next week. All the best.
Rachel Gertz: Bye!