Web project managers’ world

Sam Barnes, a web project manager based in Windsor, had the great idea of organizing a series of interviews with some web project managers.

There’s also one with me. In the 30 questions I address many topics, more or less serious, from the tools that help in the web project management discipline to the reasons the site works fine in all browsers except your client’s one.

Learning from one’s mistakes

Some projects fail. Once I received this email from one of our clients:

Good morning [account manager] and Antonio,

we want to express our disappointment regarding your behavior and the work done.

We believe that the many requests and modifications we are asking you are a direct consequence of your work. We refer, in particular, to the fact that we asked you a_b_c while you proposed us d_e_f. You can agree with us that in this way our objectives were not met. We are now in the process of putting online a product that is quite different from the one that we wanted.

Our criticism is based on the lack of suggestions and ideas from your side – experts in this field – and on your attitude of mere executors.

Shocking, isn’t it?

A message with such a tone isn’t a bolt from the blue, but rather a direct consequence of an email sent by us in which, rudely, we ask the client to allow us to close the several activities in progress and to stop adding new ones every couple of days. Obviously this is not the right approach. It’s just the last in a series of errors that, from both parties, characterized the whole project.

Before analyzing what has gone wrong it’s important to put the project in its context:

  • the first meetings with the client were held  a year and a half before this email;
  • the project covered the creation of a web site with features such as booking, searching, non-standard e-commerce procedures, and with a link to an external and proprietary information systems for price lists and address books;
  • the site was meant to substitute the previous version, built by our agency;
  • after the requirements analysis phase and several brainstorming sessions, we presented a working prototype containing the main features of the project.  The client was given the opportunity to experiment with the prototype for some weeks;
  • the total effort estimate was 350 man-hours.

The client, even if it doesn’t seem so by reading the email, has been involved in every step of the project

  • the gathering of useful elements for the project were based on a series of meeting where the client set his expectations;
  • we developed a working prototype of the application, sharing every detail with the client;
  • we chose to split the project in about 5 parts to shorten the deployment and let the client test the various functionalities

These seems to be solid basis for building a valued product. The email we received, however, is not on the same wave lenght: our client is unsatisfied, convinced this is not the product he wanted and expresses doubts regarding our expertise. How can this be possible?

If we take a deeper look at what happened, however, we can easily notice that many mistakes were made, on both parts. Here’s a list with the most important ones:

  • Mistake #1: you need a brand new site – It all started when the client expressed some perplexity regarding the site currently online. The site was fine after all, but there were some bugs (above all there were usability problems, especially of interface coherence). At this point the client is persuaded to redesign the whole site and he is promised a better, more usable, faster one. Maybe it was not necessary a complete redesign.
  • Mistake #2: it will cost you 100. No 300. Let’s make a deal: 200 – Without any analysis a first estimate sent to the client is far from the truth. Having developed the previous version doesn’t necessary mean that estimation for the redesign is easier. The real estimate is three times the first one, the client is astonished and we agree on a price that disappoints both parts.
  • Mistake #3: a phantom, not a client – We did not stress enough that we needed their help and approval throughout the project lifecycle. Approving a prototype meant to the client that the development phase was just a boring activity with no decisions to be taken on their side. We did, to be honest, included an estimation of their effort in the project documentation, but it was not enough. We waited weeks for an answer, sometimes.
  • Mistake #4: client contacts not motivated – To succeed, everyone involved in a project has to master communication skills, especially the project manager and the people on the client side that relate with her. That didn’t happen. The project was assigned to a freelance that didn’t succeed in answering doubts and questions and evaluate proposals. When you are in such a situation raise your hand before it’s too late.
  • Mistake #5: software is intangible so you can change it till the last minute – Even if it’s possibile to evaluate a change in the specifications, this has to be seen as an execption, and not a rule. The project seemed ready to be put online, but not on the client’s mind.
  • Mistake #6: the site doesn’t do what i wantThe site doesn’t have to behave as you want, but as your user want.

The 2008 web project managers’ census

In April the webzine A List Apart published the findings from a survey that – for the second year – tries to highlight patterns and behaviours among web job titles.

Last year I isolated some information regarding web project managers [in Italian] so it’s quite interesting to compare this hypothesis with the new findings.

There are several confirmations. A web project manager:

  • follows an educational path that usually starts in the programming field
  • usually works for small or mid-sized businesses
  • it’s 30 to 40 years old
  • works for a corporate more often than as a freelance

Let’s have a closer look at the findings.  Some questions are different from the 2008 so a direct comparison is only approximate.

Corporate versus freelance

Job title by workplace (2008)

This analysis was not included in the 2007 survey and it represents the percentage of web project managers that work for corporates rather than as freelances. Compared to the other job titles, a web project manager more often works as for a corporate rather than as a freelance.

This is not an unexpected finding and I’ve already answered to a similar question in the FAQ (Does the web project manager work for a company or is he a freelance?): in most cases a web project manager works for the company he manages projects for because the quality of the project depends on reciprocal people acquaintance. This approach is not profitable if the web project manager works as a freelance.

There are, however, situations in which the web project manager is a freelance; it works for one or more periods of time (usually semesters) in order to help the company in improving project management skills.

Percentage of web project managers

Job title (2007)

Job title (2008)

Looking at the 2 years there are not significant differences compared to the other job titles.

Quite impressive the “other” category, more than 1/4 of the total.

Job title distribution by organization type

Job title distribution by organization type (2007)

Job title distribution by organization type (2008)

The table shows the percentage of web project managers employed in different organizations (note that some categories have been merged with respect to last year).

The majority of web project managers (8.4%) work in small organizations.  This confirms a trend:  a web project manager most of the time works for a startup, an organization where frequent deployments and strict timing require a professional in charge for the achivement of the objectives.

Job title distribution by age group

Job title distribution by age group (2007)

Job title distribution by age group (2008)

There are not many differences between the two years. One is not born web project manager, but becomes a web project manager after some years of experience (usually when she is 30/35 years old).

Gender distribution by job title

Gender distribution by job title (2007)

Gender distribution by job title (2008)
There is a small increment regarding the role of females in web project management, and the same increment is shared by all the job titles, maybe an indication of the improved visibility given this year to the survey.

Percentage of job-title holders who earn salaries of $100k+

Percentage of job title holders who earns salary of 1000k (2007)

Percentage of job title holders who earns salary of 1000k (2008)

The trend of last year is somehow confirmed.

Perceived relevance of education by job title

Perceived relevance of education by job title (2007)

Perceived relevance of education by job title (2008)

There are some changes regarding the perceived relevance of education.

The fact that all job titles experienced an increase in satisfaction can be considered a sign that the question was better understood by participants than last year. In general, however, a bit more than 50% indicated as relevant their education, suggesting that there is room for improvement.

Job satisfaction by job title

Job satisfaction by job title (2007)

Job satisfaction by job title (2008)

The percentages increase a lot with respect of last year: maybe this is another case where the question was better understood.

Compared to other job titles, however, web project managers’ satisfaction increase in less proportion, leaving the top of the list.

It’s quite difficult to explain the reasons considering that the variation happened in just a year. Maybe the web project manager’s role, in some context, can’t find the room that it deserves.

But, on the other hand, it’s high time for the web project management to grow from a discipline that confine all the responsibilities to the project manager towards a source of leadership and vision.

Prelevance of blogging by job title

Prelevance of blogging by job title (2007)

Prelevance of blogging by job title (2008)

The web project manager is the tail-end when it comes to writing for a blog.

As suggested last year, the reason can be that it’s difficult to write regarding a job strictly related to human interactions and with many facets. Difficult, but not impossible. A pity.

Participation in formal training by job title

Perceived relevance of education by job title (2007)

Perceived relevance of education by job title (2008)

The web project manager is one of the job title holders that more take part in formal training. The percentage is close to the ones of professionals that are used to a constant training, such us usability and accessibility consultants.

This result can be explained by the heterogeneity of skills (managerial and technical) required for a web project manager.

Perceived skill gaps

Perceived back end skill gaps by job title (2007)

Perceived back end skill gaps by job title (2008)

Concerning back-end programming, less that 17% states to have some skill gaps. This result, compared to the other skill gaps graphs, confirms a trend: one becomes web project manager usually starting to work in areas close to programming, rather then design or marketing.

PMBOK and agile development

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) is considered the bible of project management. Bible in that it deals with every facet of project management by means of 5 process groups (initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, closing). Bible also for its size, more than 400 pages packed with concepts that often scare who is studying to become a Project Management Professional.

Thanks to this reputation, concepts expressed in the PMBOK could seem far from the agile development methodology and some weeks ago I expressed my opinions regarding this topic in the Web Project Management FAQ.

And now Forrester publishes on its site an interesting (but not free) report, The PMBOK and agile: friends or foes?, that deepens these arguments.

Starting from the differences between PMBOK and agile development, the authors soon highlight several points of contact between these 2 approaches. But it’s the last part of the report, where they state that it’s possible to combine the strengths of both to optimize outcomes, the more interesting.

In particular, an agile developer can find in the PMBOK:

  • a help to clearly define project initiation and closeure;
  • a guide to effectively communicate with all the stakeholders;
  • clear directives for risk management.

Conversely, an agile methology can help traditional project managers in:

  • defining roles and responsibilities across teams, giving individuals the opportunity to learn from each others and to plan collectively;
  • encouraging teams to focus on detailed planning of smaller blocks and using that knowlegde to influence future planning;
  • building stronger relationships with customers;
  • writing the “right” amount of documentation.

Web Project Management FAQ

This article contains answers to several questions I receive regarding web project management and can be considered a sequel to what I wrote in Introduction to web project management.

It’s a starting point. If you think that there are some aspects that deserve to be deepened you can use comments or the contact page.

What is web project management?

Web project management is a discipline that helps building web projects (sites and applications) that are delivered complying with the deadlines, planning the best compromise between quality and cost and satisfying initial requirements. Web project managements is the expression of the web project manager’s skills in organizing and managing resources towards a shared goal.

What is the role of a web project manager?

The web project manager is the professional in charge of the management and coordination of a web project from its inception to the delivery, dealing with every person involved in the project. For a detailed explanation of the web project manager skills, you can take a look at Introduction to Web Project Management.

What is a web project?

A web project is the set of activities required to build sites or applications that satisfy user requirements. It spans between specific start and completion (delivery) dates and its goal is to create a unique product or service which brings beneficial change or added value. A project is different from a process in that the latter is made by a repetitive series of steps to produce the same product or service (see the definition of project management in Wikipedia).

Is web project management a methodology?

No. Attending some courses you have the feeling that project management is just a series of rules to adhere to using Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Project, all surrounded by acronyms like Prince2, PMBOK, PERT, Scrum. Methodologies are important because they set guidelines that facilitate many web project manager’s tasks, but web project management is a job made of relations with clients, developers, designers and freelancers. A project manager is first and foremost a  leader, not a tracker.

Are there courses that help in mastering web project management?

No one, except some rare case starts his career as a web project manager. A more common situation is to work for the IT department of a software house or web agency  and develop management skills that can eventually lead to become a web project manager. A web project management course can help the project manager in improving her skills and competences, especially in terms of analysys and risk management. But a course is not enough to help a student, a designer or a developer master this discipline.

What is the difference between web project management and software project management?

Web project management has its own peculiarities that make it different from the “classical” definition of software project management in terms of innovation and communication.  The web project manager’s skills span multiple disciplines, such as publishing, design and television. These characteristics are well expressed in Web Project Management, a book by Ashley Friedlein:

  • development schedules shorter and more aggressive;
  • multiple projects to be managed simultaneously;
  • “cutting edge” technology;
  • no standard pricing models;
  • clients understand the medium and its parameters less well;
  • team members often perform multiple tasks and roles;
  • project manager is not always the main point of clients contact;
  • innovation is key objective for many web projects;
  • change is endemic.

Is web project manager synonymous of webmaster?

No. The web project manager is the professional responsible for the right execution (design, development, release) of a web project. Once a project is delivered the web project manager is no longer responsible. At this point the webmaster is in charge of the ordinary management of the site or application. Usually a web project manager works for a consulting company while the webmaster works for the same company that commissioned the project.

Does a web project manager work for the marketing or IT department?

The web project manager usually belongs to the IT or creative department. Reading some resumes or job proposal it happens that one can find the term “web marketing manager”. This label doesn’t identify the professional responsible of the project, but the one in charge of the marketing part of the site, the set of activities aimed to bring traffics toward the web site or web application. Sometimes the term “web project manager” is erroneously used to mean “web marketing project manager”.

Does a web project manager work only for mid-size or big companies?

No. A web project manager can work both for big and small companies. What can differ is the role of the web project manager in these different kind of companies.

In mid-sized or big companies the web project manager can work for project that last several months. In this specific case the web project manager has to possess a strong understanding of project planning and risk management because even the smallest problem can have a huge impact on costs.

In small companies the web project manager usually manages various projects at the same time, many of which can last for few weeks. In this case it’s important for the web project manager to be able to define roles and schedule team members ensuring that project resources are used effectively.

For these reasons a web project manager should underline his skills while writing a resume, specifying in detail roles and responsibilities.

Can a startup be interested in hiring a web project manager?

Yes and it’s self evident reading the findings from the web design survey held by the ezine A List Apart in 2007. Job title distribution by organization type, in particular, highlight that the greatest percentage of web project managers work for startups, followed by web and software agencies. A possible reason is that in working environments that require strong innovation skills, frequent releases and fast changing roadmaps, a management role is paramount.

How does web project management fit in an agile development environment?

Web project management finds its expression with different methodologies and development tecniques. It’s a project manager’s task to define, together with his team, the right method to follow and, when needed, its learning and widening.

Can a web project manager be responsible only for a part of the project, such as web design?

It depends. Usually a web project manager is responsible for the entire project’s life cycle, from its inception to the delivery. However, if his firm works only in the web design field, the web project manager obviously will be responible only for this part, that eventually will converge in a broaden project. This activity has however its own life cycle, that could end when templates are developed.

In well structured situations a web project manager can be in charge of a part of the entire project, while other colleagues can be in charge of other sections. In this case it can be that a gerarchic structure exists, with junior web project managers that report to senior web project managers.

What are the roles involved in building a web project?

It depends on the project, but usually the main roles, apart from the web project manager, are:

  • account manager – responsible for winning new business, he’s usually the first person the client meet;
  • webmaster – manages the site once it’s live;
  • information architect – build and organize the site’s architecture so that information is easily searchable and findable;
  • art director / web designer – responsible of the creative concept of the entire product;
  • analyst / developer – the professional that, together with the web project manager defines the technical standards to adopt and is responsible of the programming part;
  • editor / copywriter – chooses and writes the site contents;
  • consultants (marketing, usability, user experience, strategy, etc.) – professionals with particular expertise not found in the agency.

Other experts can help with the project delivery, such as testers, illustrators, database administrators, audio/video professionals, journalists, search engine optimizators, community professionals.

How much a web project manager has to master his team’s skills?

A lot. The ideal situation would be that the web project manager is able to build on his own some parts of the project and that he reserves time to do so. This would allow him to be up to date with current standards and solutions and to anticipate problems. Project planning skills can be improved too, even if it’s clear that the web project manager should ask his team to provide a detailed scheduling.

Does the web project manager work for a company or is he a freelance?

In most cases a web project manager works for the company he manages projects for. The main reason, considering that he’s a professional that works closely with other experts, is that the quality of the project depends on reciprocal people acquaintance. This approach is not profitable if the web project manager is a freelance.

Does a web project manager need to master Microsoft Project?

It depends. Some web project managers work with just Excel sheets while others prefer to build complex diagram in Microsoft Project. More than the tool what’s important is to keep these documents updates and share them. A detailed diagram kept in the web project manager’s drawer is useless, while a simple sheet of paper delivered every week to every member of the team is invaluable.

Is web project management a full-time job?

In small agencies it’s quite common that the web project manager works side by side with his team and helps developing small portions of code. This is the ideal working environment for him, because he has the opportunity to improve his technical skills too.

What’s the difference between management and leadership?

The answer to this question is well expressed in an article written by Mike Morrison. In short management skills are the ones required to manage people and resources to deliver a product or service while leadership skills are the ones required to engage with people and persuade them to ‘buy-in’ to a vision or goal.