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Episode 018

 Brett Harned

Brett Harned

THE RISE OF THE DIGITAL PM

with Brett Harned

Imagine  having an idea that leads to the birth of a community. That's exactly what Brett Harned did. As a Digital Project Manager, he knew the importance of the role and that nobody was talking about it. So, with the help of Happy Cog, he put on an event for Digital Project Managers, the Digital PM Summit. Would anybody show up? Not only did they show up, they left inspired and started local meetups all over the world. 

Are you a Digital PM? Join us in San Antonio for Digital PM Summit 2016!

  


Transcript

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 are going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:    
Thank you everybody, and welcome back to the bureau briefing. It is Carl, and with me today, I have got Mr. Brett Harned the founder of the Digital PM Summit, and a digital PM consultant everybody looks up to. Brett, how's it going?

Brett Harned:    
Hey Carl, I'm doing well. Thanks for having me on.

Carl Smith:    
We talk each day, and ...

Brett Harned:    
Just a little bit.

Carl Smith:    
... sometimes the coolest stories are right in front of you, and you just don't realize it. I was actually talking to somebody when I was in Austin just a couple of days ago. They were talking about the Digital PM Summit, and what an amazing story it was that it launched a community, and I was like, "Yeah, maybe that would be a good topic for the show, the start of a whole community in our industry."

Brett, if you don't mind, take us back to 2013, and that time period where you had the idea for the Digital PM Summit.

Brett Harned:    
Way back then I was working with Greg Hoy, and Greg Storey at Happy Cog, a great company, a place where learning is very important to employees, and I've been going to a lot of events, and amazing events like Future Insights, and South-by-Southwest. I always came away from those events a little inspired but felt like something was lacking for me specifically as a project manager. It gave me the inspiration to start writing, and talking about what I do because I felt like there wasn't much out there.

I started to do that a little bit, and I started to gain a little traction, and I was actually a little surprised that people were interested in hearing about digital project management, and how people get projects done. That led to a little bit of community building locally, working with some local meet up groups to try to pull together a DPM community in Philly. Started to gain a little bit of traction with that, and then started to do some conferences, more writing, and eventually I went out for a beer with Greg Hoy.

I said ... I don't even remember what we were talking about but I remember saying to him, I think there's something here. I think that there's a community out there, and I would love to be able to reach these people, and I'm sure that they would love to be able to reach each other, and just have a support network. I said, "What if we did a conference?" and this was after Greg, and Greg had started doing the camps. The idea of conferences wasn't far out of reach for us at Happy Cog.

He said, "Sure, let's do it," and I was kind of shocked because at what point in anyone's career in a job does your boss say, "Sure, let's make this major investment in something that could be a complete flop." I was really excited, and I ended up taking a lot of my spare time to create this conference, and organize it, and find speakers, and you know what? The first one we sold out in 30 days, and it was amazing, and I couldn't believe it, and we had a wait list of over 200 people. I thought at that point, wow, the idea is actually a real thing.

There are people out there who are interested in this, and I can't wait to do it. Fast forward, what? Three years later we are going on our fourth event, and I'm still excited about it.

Carl Smith:    
I have to say, I was at the first one, and I was there as a speaker. I'd been to the camps. I'd done some of the things, and it felt like a family reunion for a family that had never met. People were talking and other people were understanding what they were saying, and you just get this sense that they had never had that before. That they would try to have these conversations about the challenges, and the approaches they took to solve them, and people would just look at them funny. Now, they were with a group of people who got it.

This really was the beginning of the Digital PM community. There have been a lot of communities for project managers in other industries but it's such a different flavor. How many people did you meet for the first time at the summit, the first summit?

Brett Harned:    
The first summit. We only had 150 people. It was small. It felt like a little community gathering, and I got the opportunity to meet a lot of those people. The unfortunate thing for me about the Digital PM Summit is that I don't get to experience it as an attendee. I'm running around like crazy the entire time, and I wish that I had more time just to sit down, and talk to people. It was exciting still to meet speakers who were interested in the topic, talk to some attendees, and I would say that I have a pretty tight group of friends that are digital project managers so I talk to on a really regular basis now, and a good number of them were at the first event.

Carl Smith:    
That's what happens, right. The relationships get formed, and those circles get formed, and now you've got that support network. That's a huge part off the bureau overall is helping people ...

Brett Harned:    
Yeah, definitely

Carl Smith:    
... find that support network, and I'm just so glad that you were paying attention and realized that people cared because now, there are local meet ups all over the country. You and I have had calls with some of the people organizing them. How many local meet ups do you think there are right now that we know about anyway?

Brett Harned:    
The local meet up seminar, let's say that there are 10 to 20 of them but they are worldwide now too. That's the other amazing this is they are in Europe. They are in the US. They in Canada. I would love to hear about where else they are, and I'm always stunned when I get an email from someone from another country who has heard about what we are doing, and wants to be a part of it, and wants us to bring our event to them. Obviously, it's not something we can do now but long-term, wouldn't that be cool?

Carl Smith:    
It would be, and again, just amazing to see where something originates, and then spreads out, and now, it's got a life of its own all over the place.

Brett Harned:    
Yep.

Carl Smith:    
You were mentioning earlier that you started speaking, and you started writing, and I know that you worked with TeamGantt, and wrote the Guide to Project Management, and I didn't realize this until earlier today that over 60,000 people have read that.

Brett Harned:    
Yeah, it's amazing, isn't it?

Carl Smith:    
It's out of control. It shows that people are looking for guidance, right?

Brett Harned:    
Right.

Carl Smith:    
I was also excited to find out that you are now writing a book. Talk about that.

Brett Harned:    
Yes I am. I'm writing a book tentatively titled Project Management for Humans, and I'm writing it for ... It actually goes back to my very first talk at South-by-Southwest. That was the title of it. I always felt the reason I picked that title is because I always felt like people thought PMs were very robotic, right. Like everything is about budgets, and timelines, and very rigid things, and that's not my approach at all. I don't think that's the approach a lot of PMs in the digital space take. I think people are actually more tuned into the soft skills side of things, and communications, and making sure that teams are cared for, and happy rather than just saying, "Hey, are you on budget? Where are you with your hours?" and that kind of stuff.

Yeah, that's where the title came from. I'm writing the book with Rosenfeld Media. I have one chapter left on this day July 13, 2016, and I cannot wait to get it done. I saved the most difficult chapter for last, and I'm working through it. It's been really awesome to devote myself to this. Writing the guide for TeamGantt was also a really big task for me. I think that was eight or nine chapters, and writing that I think allowed me to get into the book.

In some ways, it gave me the confidence to know I could do it. It made me feel like I could write content that people would be interested in, or would help them. Yeah, I'm excited to get that done. We've just started talking about the reviews that the book needs to go through. I got an email last night from Lou Rosenfeld about the book cover design. It's exciting. I'm getting to a point where a lot of the really hard work is out of the way, and I get to watch it become a real thing.

Carl Smith:    
I have to tell you, I have so much respect for you not only saying that you would write a book but from what I can tell working with you, I've never seen you have it impact anything else. You are probably the project manager, right. You’ve figured out how to get it done, and from I can tell you've stayed on schedule with the book. The process, I've had friends that have written them. I've had offers. I don't know how serious they were but I was always terrified I couldn't pull it off.

How did you go about structuring your day or your week so that you could focus on the book, and manage all your other responsibilities?

Brett Harned:    
Huge thanks to my wife who is understanding, and wants me to do this thing. She gets it. She understands that it's not easy to write. I can't just ... I can't do this, and then hop on a call with a client, and then have four other meetings, and then just start writing a book. It just doesn't work. I need space and time. I've been taking a lot of weekend days where Emily and the girls will go out for a few hours, and do their thing, and just give me the space and time that I need to write. When they come home, I'm so energized because I've gotten all of this work done, and I feel like I've done something good.

I'm doing that, and then on top of that there are a lot of little ... I have to project manage myself in some ways because I have to meet the deadlines. I have to have meetings with my editor who is amazing, and very supportive, and has been great but that's the only stuff that's taking place during the workday because obviously, I need to respect her schedule. Everything else is nights and weekends getting it done.

Carl Smith:    
Congrats on having the one chapter left and the most ... What is the most difficult chapter? What was the chapter you waited on?

Brett Harned:    
I waited on a chapter that is called Principles over Process, and it actually is kind of mirroring what I'm going to speak about at the Digital PM summit, and it's really around this idea where I'm going to present this is process. These are the types of methodologies that you can use but really, when it comes down to it, as a digital project manager, what's more important are the principles for how you operate as a DPM. This really came out of this idea that we have no standards for what we do.

If you think about obviously, the easy example here is Jeffrey Zeldman and coding, right, and browser [like 00:12:47] if there's no standards there then there's no way of kind of knowing what's right and what's wrong. We don't have that for project management in any way. There are all these methodologies. There are processes that people use but I think ... And that's fine. I'm not saying that you shouldn't use different methodologies but what I want to do is tie it back to some standards for the role, and I would love to see those standards be adopted by companies who are employing digital project managers to say these are the things that we think that you should do.

Maybe the principle is something high level about the way that you communicate as a person. We are open communicators who are honest. Something really simple like that can kind of allow the flexibility to use whatever process you want but if you bring it back to [your 00:13:44] principle, it's kind of like you know somebody is doing the right thing. Does that make sense?

Carl Smith:    
That makes so much sense, and it's one of the things that resonates with me because when nGen was in full swing, one of the things we would always talk about is people over process. Principles over process feels exactly the same. Maybe even more targeted in the sense that it's about the way you work as well as the individuals you work with because we actually get to a point of process where we would lose some project because the prospects would look at it, and say, "Well, we are worried you are too process centric." That we are going to get on a conveyor belt, and we are not going to be able to have any flexibility, when the reality was we saw process as something that was flexible based on the project to make sure that you got to the end as fast and as effectively as possible.

When you are talking about this with principles over process it actually reminds me of Jessie Hall who we worked with at nGen, and she was one of the best project managers I ever worked with. The reason was people cared about her, and they didn't want to let her down. It wasn't anything of telling people this has to be done by now. She was always the person who was saying, "How can I help you get this done?" Little things like that. 

I'm not sure that's exactly where you are going with the talk but that's why it resonated with me because to your point, people think that it's a robotic strict, if A then B kind of a role, when the reality is it's the glue.

Brett Harned:    
Exactly, yes, yeah. It's about adapting to the people you are working with in some ways as a PM but also walking the line between being the friend and the manager, and walking the line between being friendly and analytical, caring for the business as well as the people that as an owner yourself. It's not easy but I think with some simple guide posts through the community I think we can get people aligned, and I think it would help to elevate the role a little bit.

I've been seeing ... I think I mentioned this to you last week. I've been seeing articles here and there that are about you know, overcoming bias against project management, and to me that sucks. There's nobody on the team who's better than anyone else. PMs are the people who are there to help get things done. Maybe some people don't do it the best way but I think again, if we were to bring it back and set some kind of standards, it might help the role.

That's what I'm hoping to do, and I'm going to be doing that through the book so that there's a chapter in the book, and then the talk. I gave a talk earlier this year at DPM:UK in Manchester that was kind of the beginnings of this idea, and I presented a set of principles, and asked the audience to provide their input as well. I got some really good feedback and input on that. I'm working that into it as well.

Carl Smith:    
You're preaching to the choir. I was not a digital project manager. Actually, I guess I was in the early days when there was nobody else to do it but to me, that role is the role of a conductor in a symphony. You have all these people who are amazing at what they do but if it doesn't come together you just have a lot of noise.

Brett Harned:    
Yep.

Carl Smith:    
I can't wait to see the talk, and I'm definitely eager to read the book as well when it comes out.

Brett Harned:    
Thanks.

Carl Smith:    
We've got the Digital PM summit 2016 edition in San Antonio, and that's October 12 through 14th, and then there's the optional workshop on the 15th. How do you keep it fresh every year? There's a lot of events that you go to, and it feels like it's the same speakers being recycled, the same information. I know I was one of those recycled speakers for many years at certain events. What do you Brett when you are basically curating the event? How do you make sure that it's going to be fresh for the people who are coming back?

Brett Harned:    
The first this is that we always do a follow up survey, right, with our attendees to see what they thought about the event, what kinds of content they are looking for. I think that helps us to get better every year. It also helps us to mix up the agenda. This year specifically, I started to feel like okay, it's time to really mix it up. We've had a lot of the same speakers over the past few years, myself included. I think I skipped last year. I didn't speak, and I'm going to come back this year. It felt like I needed to give everyone a break for some reason.

Carl Smith:    
Everyone was going, "Man, that Brett Harned. He just keeps talking and talking."

Brett Harned:    
You know what? It's not all about him but I think a lot of the other speakers are feeling the same way. It's like let's take a break, and honestly, the reason that I'd asked people back a lot is because there's a lack of speakers and people who that we knew could get on stage and not only inform but also keep people engaged and entertain them in some way.

This year, we did our call for papers. We got a lot of great submissions. I think we got over 45 to 50. Last year, we got 60, and it's really tough to pick from that large pool but we got some new topics. We've got some new presenters. I think it's going to be good. I think we are also tweaking our agenda a little bit this year. We are giving more space and time to the breakout sessions. They're are going to be longer, and they'll be fewer of them. We are bringing the camp sessions back to the breakouts, which I think are a great addition to the agenda.

What I found is people really just want to talk. They want to hear from each other. They want to share ideas. They don't necessarily want to be sitting in front of a key note presentation for two full days, which I totally get. We are also going to do something this year with one of our breakout sessions where I kind of just tease at it a little bit. Since we are going to do breakout sessions that are a little more free form, and they are going to be based on geography so that we can start to push the meet up communities a little bit more, which I'm really excited about.
    
I think it's just a matter of listening to the audience, finding the right mix of content and speakers with that content, and then just tweaking the agenda to make it feel like it's new and fresh because it is, really.

Carl Smith:    
I think one of the tricky parts is making sure it's new and fresh for your repeat attendees but also making sure it's still got the same relevant content for your first time attendees. That to me is kind of the balancing act of trying to figure it out, and I have to second, I am excited to see how the breakout around geography works because one of the things we talked about when we were talking about the very first one was you found your tight knit circle, right. A lot of people may not have a clue, and when you've got over 300 people in a location, to give them a little bit of a hint as to who is in their area.

Brett Harned:    
Yeah.

Carl Smith:    
That's really, really valuable.

Brett Harned:    Absolutely, and I see that happen with the workshops too. It's really cool. The last workshop I did was in Raleigh, and there were people there who knew each other. There were people from out of town, far away but then there were these people who had just met each, and had no idea they were there, and they wanted to form a meet up group, which to me is like that's what we need to do. The workshops are great for that, and the next one is in Portland September 24th. I'm excited for that one.

Carl Smith:    
Brett, thank you for being on the show today, and I know I've said it to you personally but just to say it to everybody, Brett Harned does an amazing amount of work not only in the Digital PM community but also for the bureau with the camps, and everything else that we do. Brett from everybody that's working at the bureau, and everybody that's attended the events thank you so much for everything that you do.

Brett Harned:    
Thank you. I appreciate that.

Carl Smith:    
Everybody else, we will talk to you next week. Have a good one.