Welcome to the home of The Bureau Briefing, our very own podcast. Each episode, we talk to a member of the Bureau of Digital community doing awesome, inspiring things. Check in each week for a new episode with your host Carl Smith. 

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Episode 025

 Elizabeth Michalka 

Elizabeth Michalka 

THE VALUE OF RELATIONSHIPS IN PROJECT MANAGEMENT 

with Elizabeth Michalka 

Scope, schedule and resources, aka the project triangle, are important … but ultimately the difference between success and failure comes down to the relationships we form. Elizabeth Michaka shares how she became a DPM in higher education where budget was never a factor in projects. While she was attending a Digital PM Workshop she realized something. The focus on budget was so strong, it seemed to have overshadowed the importance on relationships.

Join Elizabeth and the Bureau Community 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're going to talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:    
Hey everybody. Welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. It is Carl. With me today, I've got Elizabeth Michalka. Now Elizabeth is a digital project manager who had spent a lot of her time in higher ed, but now she's making a move to the outside. She is working at Caktus, which is located in downtown Durham, and they're doing some really cool stuff around software and app development. How's it going, Elizabeth?

Elizabeth Michalka:    
I'm great. How are you, Carl?

Carl Smith:    
Doing well. Now this is an exciting move. I'm just curious. Have you ever worked in the agency-type space before?

Elizabeth Michalka:    
It is really exciting. I have not worked in an agency setting before. My project management career started in higher ed at Duke's Fuqua School of Business, which I'm really grateful for. I'm now going to try a different environment. Moving to Caktus, which is a software and app development company, it's not a true agency, I guess, in terms of a typical marketing agency, but they focus on producing mainly Django type projects.

Carl Smith:    
I am very familiar. In fact, my shop, nGen Works, through no fault of our own, ended up becoming a Django shop, because that was just what was the easiest to produce in. I think you'll really enjoy it, without a doubt. Looking at your background, you're an award-winning journalist. You're at Duke for 10 years, the last 8 of those in the business school. How did you come into this role?

Elizabeth Michalka:    
I'm really a writer and an editor at heart. I always have been, something that I love, and it just comes naturally. I went to UNC, go Tar Heels, got my journalism degree there, and then went to work for a community newspaper here in North Carolina, The Wake Weekly in Wake Forest, and was their first full-time features reporter. It was a fantastic opportunity. As you said, I was able to win a couple awards there. I really loved being a journalist, but found that the lifestyle was not going to be very sustainable for the long term. I was staying up till 2am, working on getting the paper out, was not something I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

I started looking for other opportunities, and found one at Duke University in their HR communications or internal communications area. I was able to transition to that role as a communications specialist, which still kept me in writing and editing. It was in that role that I first got into any type of project management. We did communications project management and planning for various HR benefits and HR events.

Carl Smith:    
Once you got in there, and I think this happens to a lot of us. I used to manage projects only because there was nobody to manage projects. That was the way that my very short-lived project management career, I was not very good at it, very short-lived career started. That's what happened for you as well? It was just the necessity of somebody had to do this?

Elizabeth Michalka:    
In a way, yeah, actually. When I first started working there, I was meant to just be a writer. The manager who hired me, I ended up taking on some of her roles and some of her duties, which were heavily oriented in the communications project management. Yeah, it was one of those things that I took on, and I really had a knack for it. I'm a naturally organized person, and what we were doing made a lot of sense to me. I always liked having some variety in my work in terms of I can't just sit there and write 24 hours a day. It was really interesting to try something new. It involved a lot more interaction with different people who I may not have interacted with otherwise.

Carl Smith:    
Right. Now you're at a point in a your digital project management career where you're getting up on stage. I know we're going to have you at the Digital PM Summit, which is this October 12 through 15 in San Antonio. I'm curious. Going from being put into that role to now sharing with others how you do it, how did you educate yourself? What was your method of learning to be a digital PM?

Elizabeth Michalka:    
Yup. I've come a long way. There was a lot of research that I did on my own. Starting out in HR communications, I had a great mentor, both in my former manager who left and in the director of that office. Then moving on to my role after that at the business school, again I was hired as a writer. Some of the project management duties didn't arise until later. Then it was about 2-1/2 years ago that I took on an official full-time role as a digital project manager. When that change happened, I knew that I really needed to dig in a little bit more, and figure out what does it really mean to be a project manager. During that first year, I started reaching out and trying to network with people in the area, and was connected with a project manager who also works at Duke, Jillian Warren, who has been immensely helpful. I think if I remember correctly, she's actually the person that recommended the DPM Summit to me.

Carl Smith:    
We like her a lot.

Elizabeth Michalka:    
Yeah. She's fantastic. Jillian's been a huge help. I love being able to have someone to chat with and connect with about all these PM issues and questions. She's really the only one who I've found at Duke who does this kind of job. That first year, we both attended the DPM Summit together in Austin, which was fantastic. That DPM Summit really provided me with almost an overwhelming amount of information, but I say overwhelming in the best way possible. It was just so incredibly informative and useful and practical. I was able to meet so many other people who did the same things, whereas up until that point, I had really, really struggled to network with anyone who did anything remotely similar.

Carl Smith:    
Yeah. It's something we hear again and again. Thinking that this is going to be the fourth Digital PM Summit, and now the community has started to grow on its own and there are more opportunities. There were always opportunities from a project management standpoint, but from a digital project management standpoint, it was a lot more difficult. I am so glad that you found the Digital PM Summit. I'm so glad we've got you coming this year to actually get up on stage and share with everybody your thoughts on how we think outside of the project management triangle. We've got scope, and we've got schedule, and we've got resources, which is kind of what the triangle is. What are you going to be sharing with everybody, in terms of getting outside of that mindset a little bit?

Elizabeth Michalka:    
Mm-hmm (affirmative). First of all, I'm still kind of stunned that I'm actually going to be there as a speaker this time around. Hoping the stage fright doesn't come on too badly. I'm really glad that I get to attend at all, period, but to be a speaker and take it to the next level, I'm just so excited. I just hope that I can offer a presentation that's going to be helpful and useful to people. I really want there to be discussion around it as well.

The idea for my presentation came about during the last DPM Summit in Philadelphia. I attended that, and also attended the workshop right after the summit. It was during the workshop when I was really able to work hands-on with other PMs that the juices started flowing. I was in a team with mainly agency PMs. There was only 1 other internal PM. We were given a prompt, an exercise, to go through together. It was just so fascinating to me how differently we were each looking at it and approaching it. The methodology wasn't very different. The steps, the process, wasn't very different, but it was the way we were thinking about it and the way we were going about strategizing and prioritizing it.
    
That sparked a conversation with Brett Harned. I spoke to him about some of the differences between working in-house versus at an agency, because to me, with no previous agency experience, it really struck out that there was some difference. At that moment, I couldn't really put my finger on it. I came back home, and I talked to my boss at the time, who is also an excellent project manager. Eventually it dawned on me that one of the things I'd heard so much from the agency PMs was about budget, and the budget part of their triangle. Honestly, that was really, really foreign to me, because working in-house, I have no budget. I have zero budget. I have no control over money whatsoever.
    
For me, budget's not in the picture, but what is in the picture, in terms of resources, are the human resources. It seemed like the human resource element was missing in a lot of conversations that it was hearing, and it finally dawned on me that, when it comes to project management and the process, and that includes the project management triangle, there's a lot of focus on the logistics, the time, the money, the scope. They were missing something. It was missing the human component. It was missing the relationships, the people.
    
For me, projects are about people. People are what make projects happen. There was no conversation that I recall during the summit, during these discussions about the triangle and the process, there was no conversation in which there was mentioned anything about relationships. It finally dawned on me that that was what I was trying to put my finger on, because that's what my entire world is about. It's about the people involved. Whenever I have to make an adjustment in a project, or pull on the strings of the triangle, so to speak, it always involves people.
    
I had to figure out, given that I don't have any money to throw at this, given that I can't hire anybody else to help make it happen, how am I going to negotiate with the internal client? That came down to my relationship with them. That came down to my institutional knowledge. That came down to finding a way to really get at what their goal was, what they wanted, and talking through that, figuring out priority. In my world, I had to prioritize on a micro level and a macro level, so micro level, in terms of within the projects, and then macro, in terms of all the projects going on at the same time. There was constantly prioritization or re-prioritization.

Carl Smith:    
It's an easy word, re-prioritization.

Elizabeth Michalka:    
Yeah. Mm-hmm (affirmative). There's constantly re-prioritization. In the DPM Summit workshop last year, that concept of re-prioritizing projects seemed almost shocking to the agency DPMs who were in the room with me.

Carl Smith:    
I will say, first of all, I think Caktus is very lucky. They are going to really appreciate your mindset, because I think a lot of this, there are definitely differences between being on an internal team and being on an agency team. The difference though, I think, is around those criteria. It is around those constraints. The right mindset can make everything easier. What you're saying and what you're bringing, it gets me excited, because it reminds me of my days when I was managing clients. They really want to know that everything's going to be okay, and that they can help.

They don't want to feel like something's going on and they don't understand it, which I think is what happens in a lot of agencies, because there's this fear around time and there's this fear around money. People actually treat them like they're real things, right? I used to be in meetings. I'd be like, "Look, I can tell you right now the 1 thing that's not going to happen. Schedule is not going to walk through the door and get mad at us. Budget is not going to call you on the weekend." We need to realize these are concepts that are important, but they're not what matters. What matters is people. We used to say people over pixels.

Elizabeth Michalka:    
Yeah.

Carl Smith:    
Right? It's like this is a mantra we need to remember. I cannot wait to see your talk. You say you're hoping that it's going to be valuable. I think it's going to be amazing.

Elizabeth Michalka:    
No pressure. No pressure.

Carl Smith:    
No pressure at all. You're totally fine. This concept, and to your point, the DPM Summit last year, maybe there wasn't enough emphasis on the people side of managing projects. Some people call it soft skills, some people, all these types of things, but these are skills. I think some of the best digital PMs I've ever met were great because people didn't want to let them down, because they had invested themselves in those individuals. When those individuals realized that that digital PM needed something, they almost wanted to pay it back. I think there's a tremendous amount there. What are you thinking are going to be some of the changes you do have to make, in terms of how you do your job?

Elizabeth Michalka:    
There will be some learning curve, of course, moving from higher ed into a totally new environment. At Caktus, they are an agile shop. They specifically use Scrum. At Duke, we didn't have any specific project management process, such as agile or Scrum, that we always used. For example, we might use aspects of these different concepts or theories or processes, but it was always more flexible than that. It was like, "Okay, we just have to use what's going to work in this case for this project with these people involved." At Fuqua, I was the first official digital project manager within our marketing team, from a marketing perspective within the whole school. It was very new.

I had to be very flexible. It would have been extremely difficult to put down 1 strict process and try to get people to form to that. I had to work the other way around. I had to form to them, if that makes sense. At Caktus, they specifically use the Scrum process, and I'm really looking forward to learning more about that and exercising that. There will also be some technology that I'll have to get up to speed on. Previously at Fuqua, I worked on marketing projects, such as website redesigns or online ad campaigns or social media campaigns, that kind of thing, whereas at Caktus, the projects will be much more technically focused or digitally focused. One thing that I'll have to get up to speed on is the software and the apps that they produce.

Carl Smith:    
You'll definitely have a learning curve there, but I'll tell you, change is the only way forward. For you to make this change now, after you've had a couple of years under your belt, I bet you're going to learn a tremendous amount. I'm excited this October to connect with you and find out how it's going in the transition. Elizabeth, thank you so much for being with us today. We truly appreciate it.

Elizabeth Michalka:    
It was fantastic to speak with you, Carl. Thank you for having me.

Carl Smith:    
You're welcome. Everybody listening, check back in next week. We'll see you then.