When I used to get home from work in the evening my young daughter would often ask me, in her sweetest voice, “So what did you do today, Daddy?” Now she’s a teenager she's more likely to shorten that to “So what?”, in a slightly less sweeter voice – and that’s usually two seconds after I’ve started to try and tell her. Well, I can hardly blame her, I sometimes wonder myself what I've actually done, as another day closes; but it might go something like this...
First task of the day probably involves working through the batch of emails that have squeezed themselves into the inbox since the previous day. If there’s nothing urgent and important then replies to clients are the first priority, and the golden rule here is: pick up the phone in favour of hammering the keyboard. Emails may have been a fine invention for business and, along with the marvel of attaching documents, have accelerated efficiency in some cases to previously unknown speeds, but a slightly more personal approach often has the advantage. Clients in the software development business understandably tend to raise a lot of questions and requests, and playing the game of email tennis is rarely helpful when a quick chat on the phone could save a lot of typing and frustration – on both sides.
If you’re a table football player, now could be the time for a quick match with your colleagues in the social room. And, if it’s Friday, don’t forget to make a rapid dash to the kitchen (to burn off two of those dreaded calories) and help yourself to a generous portion of homemade lemon drizzle cake or double chocolate gateau (at around 300 calories a hit). So, if you sprinted back from the kitchen as well (without dropping any cake on the way), you’re only 296 calories up.
Or maybe you missed the cake completely because you embarked upon a rather romantically titled ‘Discovery Day’. Sadly, it’s not quite as romantic as it sounds: there’s no sailing to distant shores involved, and it doesn’t even take a whole day. The sailing is replaced by a train trip to visit the client, who will probably be based in London; or the client may be kind (or curious) enough to visit us at our offices in Brighton. In either case a lot of preparation will have gone into this meeting, the purpose of which is to kick off a new project with the client, form a good working relationship with that client for the duration of the project, and ensure that we understand exactly what is required – which hopefully matches exactly what we can deliver – and when we can deliver it. Project scopes are negotiated and agreed, technical solutions discussed, and project plans pored over.
Whatever you've been up to in the morning, the time for a well-earned lunch soon comes around. One of the perks of working in central Brighton is that you not only have swift access to almost any type of cuisine you may fancy, you’re also in walking distance of a swathe of retail emporia, where it’s alarmingly easy to spend twice what you’ve earned that morning. But even if you manage to keep your wallet securely in your pocket, it’s important to at least get out of the office for a brisk swirl around the shops, The Lanes or the seafront.
Despite having just eaten vine leaves stuffed with avocado hummus, with a gorgonzola and pear side salad, it’s probably now time to Eat the Frog. It sounds unpleasant (unless you’re a regular frog-eater) but it’s normally not so bad. It’s about facing up to the most important, but least palatable, task of the day and... doing it. This could be checking through all 58 rows of that spreadsheet of error reports; or maybe it’s testing a website to see if those 14 changes you asked for have been implemented correctly by the developers and designers. Whatever it is, if you've taken a good bite of it, you'll feel better once it's gone.
As well as putting your notes in order from a previous client meeting, and ensuring all actions coming out of that meeting are detailed back to the client, there’s a new site launching tomorrow morning, so that client will probably need some reminders about using their site administration system to set things up before the big switch-on. So, book a quick conference call and talk them through it: clearly, step by step.
Then, following your absence from the tyranny of the inbox for more than 30 minutes, there's the inevitable catch up on emails that are once again into double figures.
You probably get the idea by now that there’s not a lot of time for nail-filing or Facebook-surfing. A couple of years back, my partner used to tell me that men in general, and myself in particular, were no good at multi-tasking. Having since outlined to her a few of my working days, and explained about the five or six projects that we concurrently juggle with, she’s become noticeably silent on this topic.
But there’s one more meeting to shoehorn into the afternoon: it’s with your colleagues this time, focusing on how to improve delivery of our projects to clients, with the objective to increase quality but reduce delivery times. You’ll need to bring a bit of creative thinking along to help you with this one.
And the last task? Always make sure there’s a little time set aside to plan the following working day: it pays off to lay a few foundations for your return. Clear your desk and tidy up the inbox; check your diary and make a few, quick notes of what’s to be achieved tomorrow.
So, why would anyone do all of this hard work, when even successful projects can attract the assumption that it must have been easy – and less successful ones may mean you're going to take a bit of a kicking?
And are project managers pedantic, untalented individuals who simply ask others to do stuff they can’t do themselves?
You could be forgiven for thinking that. Surely, in software development projects, if the developers and designers are doing their thing (and clients are cooperative and keen to benefit from the thing that’s being done) then what would you need a project manager for? Well, it’s a good question, and in a perfect world you probably wouldn’t. But the world of software development is – although edge-of-the-seat exciting on occasion – not perfect by any means, and it can be handy to have someone around to smooth the process, not to mention guiding, negotiating and advising the client.
Of course, it goes a lot beyond that. I see project managers as diplomats: their primary purpose being to build relationships and communicate clearly the process of a project from initiation to completion, with clients and colleagues alike. Better still, they should leave the client with the warm feeling that they got what they expected (or better) on time (or quicker) at the cost agreed (or less). Tick all of those boxes, and your career is assured.
If you had to narrow down the whole PM role to just one crucial ingredient, I’m convinced that would be Communication, with a generous garnish of Organisation. Good communication is the lifeblood of a project, and working closely with colleagues and clients is a crucial part of the job: in fact, it's the main part.
And there’s one further benefit of learning to be a clear, efficient communicator: you can go home to your teenage daughter in the evening and communicate clearly and efficiently with her. She’ll still respond with “So what?”, but at least you might feel better about yourself, your day, and what you did with it.