Career woes : digital project manager vs. software project manager
April 8, 2011 5:03 AM   Subscribe

I'm a digital project manager and have been through a few advertising agencies, each lasting about a year. I'm in my mid 30's and am currently in management running the digital department at an advertising agency. I'm truly looking to get out of advertising and into software, where process is more respected and you actually make products that need to last and serve a purpose. When I go through job postings, my skills don't seem to transfer because it's openly acknowledged that true project management is not practiced in advertising. Anybody have any insight on the possibility of moving over or experience with it?
posted by Starsandthings to Technology (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Are you a (working, professional-grade) programmer? If not, please do not become a software project manager.

Nothing is more infuriating and detrimental to morale and productivity than having a manager implement "process" when he doesn't know a closure from a thread. I'm not saying this to be snooty, but software is highly different from many other fields. It's an unholy mix of creative and engineering processes, and it's extremely difficult to estimate about. What's more, you'll find it very hard to determine even if you *are* on schedule: lots of huge progress is totally invisible, mental, or impossible to explain to a non-hacker; and lots of other progress simply doesn't do anything at all until, one day, the hacker finishes the final piece and suddenly the whole subsystem is online and ready for debugging.

Here's an example of what happens when non-programmers directly manage programmers.
posted by Netzapper at 5:20 AM on April 8, 2011

I am not a programmer, but on projects I've run, I generally have a very strong relationship with developers.
posted by Starsandthings at 5:49 AM on April 8, 2011

Your best bet is large or fly-by-night non-software companies, then.

Essentially, you want someplace where software is largely seen as a necessary evil. A marketing firm that does tie-in cellphone games, perhaps. Or a marketing firm that does Flash games. Or, a newspaper that has finally figured out that they need one of those blog things. Maybe a web design firm?

The common thread among these suggestions is that they put such a low priority on software that instead of hiring a competent programmer-manager to run the product life cycle, they're willing to pay less for a generic "manager".

And, I know I sound like an asshole. But, honestly, I have turned down extremely well-paying gigs because I learned the person managing me wasn't a programmer. Every competent programmer I know has pretty much zero respect for their direct managers who aren't programmers. Almost without fail in my experience, non-programming product managers ruin projects. Even when the product comes out okay, it's in spite of the manager, with the programmers essentially taking over all development process responsibilities themselves.

If you really want to switch from marketing to software, I suggest you aim for middle management instead. Whatever is one level higher than product manager. That lets you do the managerial thing at which you have skill, while also insulating you from the whiteboard arguments over whether a composition or an inheritance model is going to make development easier.
posted by Netzapper at 6:28 AM on April 8, 2011

A lot of software companies have development managers (engineers) managing developers, and project managers managing projects with the necessary scheduling input from the dev managers. Find one of those companies.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 6:33 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

You might want to try getting a PMP certification. While a certification does not equal skill, it definitely enhances your CV and shows that you have some training for a PM role.

Further, PMP requires you to show related experience and if they accept your current Project Manager role, then you can use that to show that you indeed have experience.
posted by theobserver at 7:22 AM on April 8, 2011

Wow, it's hard to argue with such strong anecdotal evidence. If I may speak from a slightly different perspective, I'm a PM and I am not a coder. I have managed many dev teams and delivered quality product on time and to spec. My project teams have run smoothly and I haven't offended my devs by offering them nice things instead of money.

I did my job, they did theirs and we actually got along. Granted, I don't know what they were saying behind my back, but I don't really care.

My point is, that if you want to break in to IT project management, you can. You should be able to translate a lot of your PM experience into more role-specific experience. Consider getting a PMP, yes, but also look into Agile methodologies such as scrum. You would be at somewhat of a disadvantage not having direct software development experience, but you can mitigate that somewhat with a strong foundation and understanding of development processes and lifecycle.

Feel free to MeMail me if you'd like to chat about PMing.
posted by bluejayway at 8:26 AM on April 8, 2011 [1 favorite]

Let me tell ya something...'true' project management is not practiced anywhere. Respect for process is something we project managers talk about and then the business people get involved and it goes right out the window.
posted by spicynuts at 8:29 AM on April 8, 2011

I was a creative team lead and manager, small initiatives lead, and on occasion, an acting project manager, an acting QA or Dev or Client Services or Marketing manager in companies that developed software, web apps, web tools, plug-ins, web content, and all sorts of things. While I saw non-developers be excellent managers (those who were able to schedule, structure, and manage a project, who understood the software development processes and life cycles, who understood and respected developers and who could lead them well), I have yet to see a project where "process was more respected".

Process, in my experience, is one of the first things to go in order to get the job done in the right timeframe or for the right money or because your bosses don't understand or like the process. In other words, in almost every single project I've ever been on. Steps are combined or elided or skipped altogether. Processes are truncated or run around: It's going to take 2 weeks to get this approved by the review board? Let's get a VP to OK today it based on a 1 minute rundown. Development took 2 extra weeks? We can borrow that from QA. We'll combine usability and acceptance tests, and data verification with UI verification. There's no time to do a full requirements document. Just make sure it does A, D, and J. We need to add this new feature before release next Friday... let's fast track it in this week. Just get it done - we can fix any problems after the release.

That said, I would look towards more media-centric software companies (who produce content or content-centric apps or tools for the web or hand-held devices) if I were you, than traditional software applications. Bring your creative content background as an asset. It will help you communicate upwards, provide a base for you to get your feet under you, and allow you to immediately demonstrate value to your team (composed of at least Product/Requirements, Design, Development, and QA resources) -- assuming you can translate back and forth.
posted by julen at 8:57 AM on April 8, 2011 [3 favorites]

Triggered by what julen said - instead of trying for a PM role directly, see if you can go for a Business Analyst role in IT companies that server the media industry. This can be an excellent way to earn credibility and experience in software companies.

Such companies are always on the lookout for SMEs to bridge the gap between business and IT.
posted by theobserver at 10:28 AM on April 8, 2011

I have been a project manager in software dev and advertising agency environments for about 20 years. I disagree that "it's openly acknowledged that true project management is not practiced in advertising." - it's different, sure, but there's all kinds of project management. I also disagree you need to be a developer to manage development projects. To answer your specific question on how to transition from ad agency to software development, I suggest you look for web dev companies that are more blended - usually smaller places, but some big name companies that come to mind are accenture, sapient... they are huge and frequently have openings, and most of their projects are more technical - not always straight software development, but more disciplined than the typical ad agency. What city are you in? Another suggestion is to beef up your technical expertise. Start by reading techy stuff like wired magazine, start your own blog, maybe take some classes. Also, learn more about project management - google PMI - and you can get a better idea of the different 'schools' of project management (waterfall, agile, etc.).
posted by j810c at 10:59 AM on April 8, 2011

Answering this question requires a frame around what you mean by getting "into software".

There are many different types of projects in I.T. / Software. Not every project requires hard-core code that only the brightest can grok. A lot of COTS ( commercial off-the-shelf ) software implementations don't even touch the underlying code. It is all business rule configuration. Other I.T. projects that don't require knowledge of skip lists and memory addressing: Telephony, Infrastructure, Physical / Logical Security, Desktop Rollouts, etc.

Furthermore, a lot of projects requiring code don't require knowledge of Big-O notation and Fibonacci heaps. A lot of code is simple algebra with some recursive functions and arrays. Not all projects need to scale up to 100 million users or crunch meteorological data.

I do agree that in hard core programming projects, non-hard-core programmer PM's are ineffective......especially if they begin to believe they are smarter than the engineers. But that applies to every project. PM's do not do the work, and shouldn't be making design decisions. PM's are there to bubble up expertise, bring the right people to the table, serve as an escalation point, run interference, report to executives, and fetch coffee for the engineers.

Ultimately your skills are transferable. There is always room in I.T. for savvy people who know how to get things done.
posted by Jason Wilmot at 1:01 PM on April 8, 2011

I was in a similar situation (Strategic Planner for Digital at an agency) and made the switch to marketing within a SaaS development company.

First off, use your marketing skills to market yourself. No boring resumes, you can do better than that.

Tech companies need marketing too. Look for companies that just received their first round of outside financing. Part of this financing is probably earmarked for marketing and there's no one to do it. We've gone from 0 marketing department to 4 full time people in under 4 months.

Don't use "project management", tech people think that means being useless. Developers like getting things done. So market your skills at getting diverse groups of people to accomplish tasks that move the company/brand forward. As a digital marketing guy, you've worked with the Design Department, the developers, accounting and everyone else to get programs done. That's a huge skill.

I put together a little resume website using the CMS platform of the company I was applying for. The fact that I knew their software and could get a site put together in a week impressed the hell out of them. They created a position within marketing for me.

My company is engineer focussed so the above worked. It might be different for a more sales oriented tech company.
posted by dripdripdrop at 2:22 PM on April 8, 2011

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