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Digital project management trainer and consultant Abby Fretz is our resident advice columnist for our second round of Ask a Project Manager, where she and her fellow PMs will to continue get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. In this first column, Abby shares advice on how to go about transitioning into a digital project management role without any direct PM experience.
I have worked in print design and project management (at a small scale) for more than 10 years. In order to improve my career path and opportunities, I started to learn front-end web development, and went in that direction learning many new skills, but as I kept learning, I wasn't sure I actually wanted to become a front-end developer. It wasn't until the end of my long learning journey that I discovered that digital project management existed as a path (eternally grateful to SuperHi), and that it'd be a perfect way to blend my past, present, and future in a satisfying professional journey.
Now, I have print-based PM experience, and I have learned coding languages, and with those I've built a few projects, and have a digital portfolio, and along the way I learned about accessibility, UI/UX, content strategy, digital project management (I'm still going over all the info provided in the SuperHi course), among other elements of the digital era, and my question is: What would be the key to find a job in digital project management or digital producer without actual experience as such?
Aspiring Digital PM
Hi Aspiring Digital PM,
First off, congratulations on discovering the exciting world of digital project management. It sounds like you have been building up to this moment for a long time. And to let you in on a secret, this is the familiar journey of many accomplished PMs. I started my journey to digital project management as an event planner!
As an event planner I learned how to get all the information I needed from my initial sales call with a client, understand what their goals and constraints were and begin to build an event plan that fulfilled their vision within their budget and timeline constraints. I learned how to identify possible risk (beware weddings on a windy beach with lots of candles!), and have tough conversations with clients who tried to stretch their budgets to cover their most grandiose vision (live flamingos at a Miami-themed pool party in Delaware?!). I didn’t know it then but I was getting very real and valuable practice on some of the fundamentals of project management.
Some of us may start our careers in entirely different industries, but along the way find ourselves drawn to the idea of building digital projects. We aren’t sure exactly how we will do that. Over time, as you take classes or dabble in each practice, you may find that while you enjoy aspects of development, design and content, what you really excel at is working with your team to plan the project strategy, structure optimal pathways to doing the work, and facilitate the building of a strong team practice. You thrive on communicating new ideas to your stakeholders, building consensus with your teammates, and evaluating how to build the right thing in the best way possible.
Aspiring Digital PM, you say you’ve been a print designer and project manager for years, during which you have likely built some very real hard and essential (‘soft’) project management skills by gathering requirements for a project, setting budgets and timelines, and navigating complex client and team communication.
Rachel Gertz, CEO of Louder Than Ten and trainer for the SuperHi Digital PM course, wrote an excellent article about finding your first role in digital project management and lists the hard skills and essential skills that employers are looking for in a PM with “1-3 years of experience”.
To further understand what employers are looking for when hiring a digital project manager read this digital project manager hiring guide.
As with any digital role, project management looks very different depending on the type of digital products or services a company offers, what size team they have, how they have structured their client sales and management teams, and what project methodologies they are following.
As a new digital project manager there will be several questions you can ask yourself to help you narrow your search.
Are you interested in being a part of team that builds beautiful, heavily branded marketing websites, or are you more interested in working on complex app development projects? (Maybe it's a little bit of both!)
For example, you might ask yourself, “Do I want to work primarily with large corporate brands, or am I interested in building tools for non-profits, independents, or government agencies?”
The digital space is for everyone and narrowing your job search by the types of organizations you’d like to have as clients will help you quickly hone in on jobs that better match what you’re seeking.
Are you interested in working with highly collaborative, cross-functional teams who thrive in a more open, self-led environment or are you more interested in working with teams who follow a highly structured process in which everyone plays a very specific, well-defined role?
Do you definitely want to interface directly with clients as their primary point of contact (avoid companies that have a split Account Manager / Project Manager role), or are you more interested in building best practices with your team, and managing and supporting the team to do good work?
As you answer these questions, you will begin to narrow your digital PM job search. For example, researching “Mid-size companies who build digital publishing platforms for non-profits” will give you a far more focused starting point in your search than simply searching for “digital project manager jobs.”
You won’t want to limit your search to job titles that start with ‘entry-level’ or ‘junior’! As an entry level or ‘junior’ project manager with 1-3 years of experience, you will likely find supporting roles with titles like:
Project Support Coordinator
Similarly, you aren't limited in your search to only those posts that describe a very generic set of junior PM responsibilities.
For example, as someone with extensive print design and coordination experience, you might first consider one of these roles in an organization that does both print and web design. That way you can support print-focused projects with which you are already familiar, while you get trained in and practice sound project management on increasingly more complex and varied projects.
It may not be immediately clear why an employer is seeking an entry-level PM, though in many cases employers seek candidates who they can train in the project methodologies and processes they use as a company.
They may have also identified that while they have the experienced PMs they need, they actually need a dedicated team member to support the PMs or run some of their less complex, simpler projects.
One of the primary goals in your interview for an entry-level position should be to make sure you will be given ample opportunity and support to learn and can set clear, realistic expectations for what that growth path looks like.
Here are some questions you might start with:
What does the PM growth path look like at this company? What will I be expected to be able to do at three months, six months, a year?
Are you willing to put me through professional digital pm training?
Will I be paired with a more experienced PM with whom I will work with on training and setting goals?
Will I be working at full project capacity right away? Will I be able to shadow or support a more senior PM (or take on simpler, less complex projects to start?)
What is the culture of learning here? Will I have access to designers, developers, strategists etc who will be open and willing to answer questions I may have?
As an aspiring PM you will likely already have a built-in knack for identifying red flags and possible risk in any situation! As you conduct your job search, poring over posts and talking to potential employers, what does your spidey-sense tell you you should be avoiding as a new PM?
If your gut instinct needs a little backup, consider keeping an eye out for the following red flags:
Employer doesn’t show interest in your related digital experience and quickly glosses over your portfolio. This indicates a lack of understanding of how your experience contributes to your starting knowledgebase.
Job description uses phrases like, “we need someone to hit the ground running”, indicating they may not actually be all that interested in training or providing you with a reduced workload to start.
People in your interview with the team give you indicators that they are dealing with high stress levels and are urgently seeking support via this role. You will not be able to bring them immediate relief and may actually represent the requirement of them to invest MORE time into your onboarding and training.
Congratulations on your bold journey into a new digital arena. Now start your job search with confidence, knowing there is a company out there thrilled to be on the journey with you!
Abby is a digital project management trainer and consultant at Louder Than Ten and is passionate about connecting people interested in digital project management to access to the right set of tools and resources. She has taught Digital Project Management classes for Girl Develop It, guest lectured at University of the Arts’ continuing education program, co-chairs DPM Philly, and mentors people in the field of digital project management.