Brett Harned, Founder, Digital PM Summit

Brett Harned, Founder, Digital PM Summit

In 2013, about 150 project managers came together in Philadelphia for the inaugural Digital PM Summit. That year, it was all about finding your people, running web projects and keeping clients happy. This year, the Summit agenda runs the full gamut of topics and speakers: Agile, IoT products, PM self-care, what’s next in our careers and more.

Brett Harned, Founder of the Digital PM Summit, joins us to talk about the evolution and growth of the community as well as subsequent shifts in programming. As the community swells with more DPMs from in-house teams, nonprofits, higher ed, traditional backgrounds, etc., there is more we can all learn together. Tune in to hear about the 2018 Digital PM Summit in Memphis, and how the community can lift itself up by doing better.


Carl Smith: Thanks for checking out this episode of The Bureau Briefing. Before we get to the show, there are a couple of companies we really want to thank, our sponsors. 10,000ft. If you haven't checked them out lately, you need to check them out. They make this simple but powerful software, and it just helps you make confident decisions about what's going on with your projects and your teams. Also, MailChimp. MailChimp has been an amazing supporter of the Bureau community since day one. They are everywhere we go, and they just love digital agencies.

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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 going to 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. It is Carl. Today, we have a special guest swinging by. It's Mr. Brett Harned, the founder of the Digital PM Summit. How's it going, Brett?

Brett Harned: Good. How are you doing, Carl?

Carl Smith: I'm good. You know that because we work together every day. I wanted to get you on the show because we're coming up to the Digital PM Summit, which is going to be next September, in Memphis. It's coming up fast. I'm always impressed with the way that the agenda comes together and the programming, and I just wanted to talk about, like how do you make those decisions on what the event is going to be like?

Brett Harned: Wow. Really difficult decisions. It's always tough. I think this year we had just around 60 submissions for topics or sessions at the summit. So, it was really tough to come up with something, and that's the case every year, because this is really a community event. So I really try to do everything that I can to get the best topics and speakers in. I always have to turn away people and topics that I think would be awesome, and that's really tough. I think, for me, it's really just a matter of trying to listen to what's happening in the community, what kinds of topics people are talking about, what kind of buzz is happening.

I think, this year, I also was thinking about previous events and what topics did well, but maybe we could do a little bit better on for our audience. So it's really kind of like a combination of things.

Carl Smith: And you've seen a lot of change from that first event, where people were just realizing, "Oh wow. We're part of the industry. I thought I was this person in my room by myself, and now, I realize there're hundreds of me."

Brett Harned: Yeah, exactly.

Carl Smith: Today. So, what is that evolution of topics been like that's gotten us here?

Brett Harned: Yeah, it's kind of interesting when I think about it. So the first year when we did the first event, I guess about six years ago, in Philadelphia, I would say we were a really agency-digital-project-manager focused. We only had 150 people at that first event and most of them were coming from agencies. I would say after a couple of years, I think the event started to pick up a little bit of steam, got more recognition, and we're now seeing a lot more folks from internal teams, at major companies, at nonprofits. Those folks are coming in as well. So I think that weighs on my mind pretty heavily. 

I remember a couple of years ago having a conversation with someone where they said, "Oh it would be really great if we didn't talk about clients as much, because there are a lot of us who work with just internal stakeholders."

Carl Smith: Higher ed was one of those big groups as well that came in.

Brett Harned: Yeah, exactly. I think once you change the word client to stakeholder, it opens things up a little bit because the client really is a stakeholder, and it doesn't put anyone in that position to think, "Oh well they're just talking about agency relationships." Project management is all about relationships whether you're working with a client at an agency or an internal stakeholder or a boss or even team members. So, this year, I think the way that that's played out is, we have a couple of agency-specific sessions that are in the breakouts. 

But the breakouts are diverse enough that someone who's coming from a different type of organization or an agency, an internal team, or even just is not a project manager but ends up leaving projects, I think there's going to be something for each of those types of people, and that's pretty exciting to me. And honestly, a lot of times, we hear about the breakups that ... not the breakups, the breakouts that-

Carl Smith: The breakups. Brett, not the breakups.

Brett Harned: The breakouts. People have a hard time deciding which one to go to, and I always feel bad about that, but I also feel good about it at the same time, because it means we have an awesome lineup. I feel like, this year, more than any other year, it's going to be really tough to choose a session.

Carl Smith: So what are some of the decisions that you've made based on the early input you got? I know that with Early Bird tickets, we had a survey asking people what they were looking for. You had the 60 submissions that came in. What else influenced you and ended up on stage?

Brett Harned: Yeah, so, I think the survey that we did that went out to the people who bought the Super Early Bird tickets was helpful in that it confirmed some ideas that I had. We asked like, "What kinds of sessions do you want?" Just thinking, like we can always transform our agenda. But I think we've got it down to a point where a mixture of presentations, discussions and interactive sessions is what people want. I think that that survey helped us to decide who our closing keynote was going to be. Overwhelmingly, people loved Megan McInerney last year. So she's coming back to do our keynote, which is awesome. 

It also helped us to figure out what types of topics or a variety of topics are going to be helpful for people. So, a common theme over the past couple of years has been agile and how that's playing out in the digital space. So Sue Howarth is going to be doing an adapting agile interactive session that I think will be great. And then, Dave Pryor, who is a friend of the summit, is coming back and doing a session with Mika Trottier about ... It's called The Agile Human: Learn to Lead Yourself. What I love about that is that we did a panel last year that ended up being more about ... It was called the DPM's career path and it was a panel.

Carl Smith: Right.

Brett Harned: That one turned out being more about, like personal kind of journeys and into project management. So I think that really resonated for me. I think a lot of people were hoping that they would get more about like, "What's the next step in my career?" Which we're going to cover this year as well, with Tara's talk. But I think this session's going to be really helpful for people, because being in a PM, it can get tough juggling all of the things and remembering to take care of yourself. So I think this idea of applying some sort of level of agile practices to how you cultivate yourself and in your career is going to be interesting as well.

Carl Smith: I think you just hit on something that I've noticed, which is, when we were at the first summit, it was very general, right? You were talking about general concepts of project management, and then you come into the second one and the third one. You start to get a little more specific. At first, it was, what is digital project management? And then it becomes, "Okay, I'm a digital project manager. What does that mean?" And then you look at last year, and it's, "I'm a digital project manager. What do I do next?"

Brett Harned: What's next? Yeah.

Carl Smith: Yeah, so, you're getting to this specialized kind of content that's very actionable. Is that carrying on into this year?

Brett Harned: Absolutely. I think what I see this year is it's very tactical. Every session, as I go through the agenda, every session has really great takeaways for people who are new to digital project management, or for people who are seasoned. I think that there's a good variety there. I think the other thing that you mentioned that struck a chord for me is, like yes, the first year was all about finding our people, right? Figuring out if this event could be a real thing, if the community can grow larger. Since that first event, we've seen other events and meetups pop up across the globe, which is amazing.

Carl Smith: Yeah, that's great.

Brett Harned: And that's allowed us to find more people. So, more people with ideas who turn out to speak at the event and submit proposals. I think it's helping to advance some of the topics to get to in a more kind of like specialized place, so we can talk about project management in a deeper, more meaningful way, not just say, "Hey what is this thing?" Because nobody needs that at this point. We're far beyond that. We're on a path where we're talking about things that are more meaningful and talking about how people in the community can sort of help to lift the community up by doing things better. And to me, that's pretty exciting.

Carl Smith: Yeah, for sure, and you had mentioned some of the previous speakers coming back, with Megan and Tara and Dave. Who were some of the new speakers that are going to be there this year?

Brett Harned: Yeah. So, I'm really excited. Crystal Richards is a consultant. She's coming to do a session called How to Deal with Social Politics. I've had some really great conversations with her. I've watched some of her sessions online. I think she's going to be really good. Eileen Webb is a content strategist.

Carl Smith: Yeah, I know Eileen. She's awesome.

Brett Harned: She's amazing, and she's got ... I love the topic. The title of her session is called How to Win Friends and Influence Projects, which I think is going to be great. It's going to move people from being a little bit more strategic about relationships and how to manage projects, like move people away from that kind of box checker type of project management that everyone hates. And then, of course, we have Gabe Levine and Josh Barrett coming to talk about the bureau standard form of agreement, which is a great topic for PMs, because we're constantly dealing with contracts, so a session on that, I think, is really useful and needed for this community. So I'm excited about that too.

Carl Smith: Yeah, the session they did at Owner Summit was just eye-opening for so many people, and they've continued to work on that agreement. So, there'll probably be some new stuff in it for everybody at the Digital PM Summit. I think that's going to be really great, and that's what gets me excited, is that, through the summits and the camps and everything, we're starting to form this understanding of what should be the standard and creating it.

Brett Harned: Right, right.

Carl Smith: So I think some of that come out of Digital PM Summit as well.

Brett Harned: Yeah, absolutely. I would also say, in terms of new speakers, like I always try to get some folks who are a part of the project management community, maybe not within digital. So Colin Ellis is one of those people. He's going to be our opening keynote. Colin's great, and he's really excited about the Digital PM Summit. He and I have been emailing back and forth since he accepted and have been on the phone a couple of times. And to me, it's just really exciting to get somebody who is from the more traditional project management space to come and see what we're doing with Digital PM, because that's going to just increase our visibility longer term and get people excited about the community that we have.

I think if there's one thing that that happens every year, it's that somebody will inevitably come up to me, and first of all, thank me for the event. I'm always like, "No. Thank you for coming," because obviously, it wouldn't happen if you aren't here. But they say, "I never realized that I would able be able to meet people or find my people," and it's such an amazing experience. I think that's always going to happen no matter what. I think there's always going to be someone new who comes and recognizes like, "Wow. There's actually a great conference for me where I can find relatable content and also relatable people."

So bringing those people from outside, maybe outside of the digital PM realm in to not only teach and give us a fresh perspective, but to experience it, I think is kind of cool too.

Carl Smith: Yeah, I think so, and correct me, because you live in that world and I don't. If I'm mistaken, but it felt like early on, digital PMs and PMs, there was a big old wall in between the two. We're PMs, we're PMPs, and they had gone through this formal education, and they came out of the history of project management. Digital PMs were like, "Well we had to figure it out on our own. Nobody told us." And now, it feels like there's this mutual respect or at least this acceptance that's starting to form. That's what's exciting to me when I see that Colin's going to be opening up the show.

Brett Harned: Yeah, I think you're right. I think ... I don't know if there's a wall as much as like, "What is digital PM? Why are you guys trying to do something different within project management?" I don't think it was that we were trying to do something different. It was just that there was a new need within project management that they didn't know about. And for me, now, it's more of a matter of learning from those people, because they've got the years of experience, and documented processes and practices that we can learn from. I mean, I think the difference is just that digital PM tends to take a more flexible approach to those documented processes.

So I think there's a lot that we can learn from them. I think bringing them into the mix, and I'm saying to them, like it's us versus them. It's not at all. But bringing people with that kind of practical experience and point of view into digital PM, I think isn't pretty important, because there's always room to learn, for us, from other industries and other people outside of the community.

Carl Smith: Yeah, I totally agree. And last year, at the summit, I remember I was speaking with an attendee who was a traditional PM, who would come over, and they were just like, "I can't believe that nobody's doing this, this or this." And then they said, "I can't believe I wasn't doing this or this." So it was like this understanding that there is great, great value in these communities helping each other. And to me, it's just fun to see that that's starting to happen at the summit.

Brett Harned: I totally agree. I think the other thing that I see is people who come from the more traditional background are so amazed at how much digital PMs are willing to share, and how much they want to talk through challenges that they're facing, and how they might approach those challenges. I think the experience in the more traditional PM world is that people are a little bit more closed off. Maybe a little bit more scholarly, if that makes sense when it comes to conferences. 

But this event is really just as much about networking and meeting new people and talking about real world challenges within your job or your role and getting to know people, whereas I think some other conferences are just you go, you sit down, you listen, you go home. We try to make the conference experience a little more exciting than that.

Carl Smith: And continue on past the event, with people staying in touch.

Brett Harned: Absolutely.

Carl Smith: When you talk about the community ... I mean, when we talk about the event, you really can't forget the lightning talks, because there's so many people who have attended the event so many years, and then they're just like, "You know what? I want to get on stage. I want to share something." So what's going on with lightning talks this year?

Brett Harned: Yeah, I love the lightning talks. We've been doing those since the first year, and they've always been sourced from people who are part of the community or people who have new ideas that they want to present. So, this year, we've got a few people. We've got three speakers, and we're basically highlighting some people who have been a part of the community for a while, which I think is great. It's like you come to these events. I always hope that these events inspire people to write a blog post or get up on stage at some point. So when they want to apply for a lightning talk, and that might be their first step into speaking at events like ours, like that's a huge win.

So, this year, we've got Patrice Embry who's actually local to Philadelphia. So, she's in the meetup that I'm in, and I've seen her on a panel or two. So I'm excited that she's coming to take the stage. Then Lynn Winter, from Minneapolis, she just put on a new digital project management one-day conference called Managed Digital.

Carl Smith: That was great to see. I just want to say real quick, that was great to see, and it seemed like that event went really well.

Brett Harned: It did. It was awesome. I was so happy for her because it's a little nerve-wracking when you start something new like this. You're not sure if people are going to show up, and she had 140 people in the room for a local event.

Carl Smith: Really? Is that a concern? 

Brett Harned: Yeah, right. The other thing that I like about the lightning talks is it's also a place to talk about a new kind of topic that might be something that we see next year. So, Ian Cox is going to come and talk about connected product projects, which is something that, I think, probably something that people are doing, but nothing that I've seen people talking about. So I think that's going to be good.

Carl Smith: What does that mean?

Brett Harned: So he's working on the Internet of Things kind of projects.

Carl Smith: Oh got you, got you, got you.

Brett Harned: [crosstalk 00:19:00] connected to one another, that kind of stuff, yeah. Then the last I would have mentioned about the lightning talks is that ... I kind of mentioned this before. It's an opportunity for somebody to start kind of dip a toe in public speaking. And, last year, Abby Fretz gave a lightning talk about ... I think it was like, how we learned from bees. It's like the-

Carl Smith: That was so good.

Brett Harned: ... [crosstalk 00:19:25], that kind of thing. So she's actually coming back to do a full session this year, about how to build an effective client education.

Carl Smith: That's great.

Brett Harned: So it's just awesome to see somebody do really well, and then they want to come back and do it again. So, it's all about building that community.

Carl Smith: What are you personally looking forward to the most this year?

Brett Harned: Graceland.

Carl Smith: Graceland. Have you [crosstalk 00:19:52] before?

Brett Harned: I did when I was in college, so it's been a very long time.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Brett Harned: But no, seriously, I think it's ... like I said before, it's really hard for me to pick because I think so many of the sessions are really great. I'm glad that we've got Rachel Gertz coming back. I think it's her third time speaking at the event. She hasn't been since the second year. But she's going to be our closing keynote on the first day, and she's going to talk about alignment, which I think is a really important topic. That's a challenging one for a lot of people in project management. She's just great on stage, so I know that's going to be good. And of course, Megan's coming back, and that's going to be awesome too. It's hard for me to say, Carl. I'm really happy with this agenda this year.

Carl Smith: I know. You should be. You know what? I think seeing the venue is a good answer too, because it's a pretty cool spot.

Brett Harned: It is.

Carl Smith: I'm excited to go see it. This may cause some people to ask for refunds, but I've heard there's karaoke somewhere in this building. So I get the feeling that's going to happen at some point. Brett, thank you so much for the time you give to the digital PM community, and to the summit, and to the Bureau. It's so appreciated. In every year, at the end of the Digital PM Summit, there's just so much energy, and I hope that you feel that come back to you because I know how much you put into it.

Brett Harned: Thank you. I appreciate that, and I really wouldn't trade it for anything. I love it. I love the fact that I get to continue to be a part of this, and it's fun and rewarding and all the good things. So, thank you.

Carl Smith: Oh you're welcome.