It’s a fact: many project managers fell into their roles. Some more quickly than others, but the fact is: there are qualities that make a great PM, and even better managers. In this episode, Sam Barnes, engineering manager at Marks and Spencer, shares his own winding path into PM and talks about where his experience led him. It’s a personal tale with unexpected twists and turns--one that you may relate to whether you’re an accidental PM, trained PM, or part-time PM. Along with his story, Sam also shares:
Although a little short for a Stormtrooper, Sam Barnes is currently an Engineering Manager at Marks and Spencer.
After receiving his degree in Digital and Business Computing, Sam spent two years as a front-end developer before moving into digital project management and leading teams at both digital agencies and product companies. Over the following years, Sam delivered digital projects of all sizes for clients including Nokia, Dell, Zebra, BBC and Oracle.
Sam is a Certified Scrum Product Owner, an international keynote speaker, has written for Smashing Magazine, Think Vitamin and has been published several books including the Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. He can also be found posting articles at thesambarnes.com, a blog dedicated to the topic of digital project and team management.
Brett Harned: Hi and welcome back to Time Limit. This week's episode is all about the project management career path. There are so many routes a PM can take today, from PMO to operations director, consultant, and even a podcast host like me. Who knew?
Brett Harned: So for this topic, I wanted to bring on a guest who took a less traditional route in their career but really stuck with management in the end. So I called on my good friend, Sam Barnes, who's going to share his path from being unsure about where his career was going, to jumping into digital as a developer and eventually landing in project management. Sam's currently a development manager for Marks & Spencer in London and he's been a key figure in the digital project management community with fun and relatable blog posts, both contributions, keynotes, and so much more. I hope you enjoy the conversation as we talk about the path of the PM, the paths that many take or can take, the qualities of successful project management, and how those qualities can help you to find a career path of your own. Check it out.
Brett Harned: This week I'm happy to welcome Sam Barnes to Time Limit. Hi Sam, how are you?
Sam Barnes: Hello, good. Thanks, yourself?
Brett Harned: Good, good. Sam, I think before we get started, it would probably make sense for us to mention the fact that we've become friends through our work in digital project management.
Sam Barnes: We have, across the Rubicon.
Brett Harned: I mean, so you've been really invested along with me and the digital PM community, starting with a really great blog, speaking at some conferences and on podcasts, among other things. I also know that you've had a really interesting career path. So you're really well suited to join Time Limit and talk to us today about your career path, about project management and kind of where that's taken you.
Sam Barnes: Sure.
Brett Harned: So you've been a digital PM in the past but you now work at Marks and Spencer in London.
Sam Barnes: Correct.
Brett Harned: Can you tell us a little bit about your career path and what you're doing now?
Sam Barnes: Sure, so it's kind ... I mean, from my experience, it's kind of a strange one, an unusual story. So initially I was ... and it goes right back to school, so I was at grammar school and did my GCSEs, is what we do in England at the age of sort of 15, 16. The next step was, I went to graphic design college, so all throughout my childhood really, I enjoyed creative things and it just seemed natural that that was a next logical path for me to sort of go into that area. I went to graphic design school and I got in and I was absolutely shocked that I didn't enjoy it, really didn't like it. It was not kind of what I expected it to be, so I found out through that, that I was much more into sort of ... I guess you could call it layout versus drawing, you know? It was much more graphic design than I thought, as opposed to the art side of it but I understood why it was important. The upshot of that was that I didn't know what I wanted to do.
Sam Barnes: I left college and essentially went into a lot of manual labor jobs, so I worked in the supermarket full time, I worked servicing construction equipment. I did quite a lot of those things, kind of those kind of jobs and they're really hard jobs but when things really changed for me and I'm talking when I was probably in my early 20s, at this point, I managed to log onto the web one day using a homemade modem cable, believe it or not. We didn't have a modem cable, we had a modem cable with two of the same ends and a phone cable with two of the same ends and I spliced them without any instructions and we suddenly got the modem noise and that was it. That was very much a change for me.
Sam Barnes: So the minute I got on the web, I don't know if others have the same experience but I just knew. I didn't know I wanted to do it as a career but I was fascinated. It was the first thing that wasn't video games or something like that that I was fascinated with. I just wanted to know how it all worked. I mean I kind of stayed in those jobs but eventually, I realized that I really really wanted to do this, so I did a thing where I quit all those jobs, I went back to live with my parents, which I was both very lucky to do but also, in your 20s, that was not an easy thing to do. I think everyone would agree but I did it. I did my IT degree at my local college, so not like going away to a campus. It literally was a 10 minute drive from my house.
Sam Barnes: So it wasn't the best but it was there, it was available, and when I did that degree, I absolutely loved it and what I realized when doing it was that if I'd have done ... so I was obviously doing it a lot later than most people. Most people do it straight after school or college, college in the English sense, and I really ... I absolutely loved it and I learned that, if I'd have done it at that younger age, actually I don't think I'd have done very well. If I'm honest, I don't think I was mature enough, but those three years, I loved it. I enjoyed the homework. I enjoyed the coding.
Sam Barnes: So the actual degree was ... It was called, web and e-business computing, at the time and it essentially mixed up everything from a bit of Java programming right through to business topics. So I guess what they were trying to do is give you a decent foundation to go into a technology field in whatever role you wanted to, which is, to be fair to them, is what they pitched it as. I think, like most people, that I thought that going to college meant I'd come out an expert in something and actually, on day one, I remember them saying, you won't come out an expert but you will have a foundation in many areas and then you can maybe specialize. They were correct about that.
Sam Barnes: But anyway, so I did that for three years, loved it, did really well, thinking that I would leave there with my good grade and get a job pretty much instantly in a cool funky digital agency and that was my career sorted. It actually sent me 68 job applications before getting my first job in an agency.
Brett Harned: Wow.
Sam Barnes: It was a big shock. I mean I had a really good grade and I thought that would be a differentiator and apparently not. In fact, the first job I got wasn't even like a permanent job. I went to interview for a small agency as a, at the time, sort of a HTML coder and they turned me down initially and then I got a call later that day saying, would I be interested in doing a small contract and I went there for three months. I mean I didn't know what a contract was at that point. I had no clue. So I went there for three months and then at the end of that, they offered me a permanent role and that was the beginning of that.
Sam Barnes: So I sat down at this agency and my job, essentially, was a website editor. So it was CMS work, it was content management system work, which utilized a little bit of HTML to make things look a certain way but really, that was it. It was content, it was HTML, it was working for Nokia, so we were an agency that was supplying Nokia, back in the day when they were pretty much the world's most popular phone company and it was updating their UK and Ireland websites with the products and stuff. It was great.
Sam Barnes: I couldn't believe I was doing it as a job. I felt so lucky and I often tell people, I still got ... I think on the first day because I didn't know anything and they needed to get me doing stuff, they asked if I could use Photoshop and they asked me to create a Call of Duty banner for I think it was the Nokia N-Gage at the time and I've still got that banner, that looks awful. It's got all the different bells on it. It's got everything that you'd imagine but I kept it because I remember finishing it, sending off, and I just could not believe I was being paid to do this. This is the kind of thing I was doing for fun after my day jobs and now I was doing it.
Sam Barnes: So I was so happy and so grateful and I think that runs through my entire career but I was at this company for about three and a half years but I think after about a year and a half, I think I thought for whatever reason, it was quite a small agency so I kind of felt like I'd gone ... like I knew the job, the actual job that I was doing, the CMS with the HTML, it was ... It stopped becoming challenging. I didn't kind of think that consciously, this is no longer challenging, but I really wanted to learn more and I was under the mistake, especially at small companies, where people think they're going to get trained from junior to senior, all the way, with tutorials. I think, as most people find out, a lot of it is down to yourself to elevate yourself and progress yourself and hope that work supports you in that.
Sam Barnes: I mean I initially wanted to get into back end development, when I was at college, that was what I enjoyed but I really struggled with it. What I found was, when I moved to work on the front end, it just ticked all the boxes for me. I enjoyed it, I got it, I seemed to be okay at it. So I essentially taught myself that. My parents thought I was pretty crazy, I would get home from work, have some dinner, go straight to the ... many people laugh now, straight to the computer room, which I'm sure people of a certain age will remember in the house, and I would just teach myself front end development. I did that. I got myself into a position where work kind of would be willing to let me do that and eventually, I stopped just doing the website and the CMS stuff and then I was the agency's front end developer and so on and so on. [crosstalk 00:09:02]
Brett Harned: So it sounds like you've had a lot of kind of different roles and interests but all within the digital realm pretty much.
Sam Barnes: Yeah, I mean the best thing for me, without planning it, pure luck, was getting into a small digital agency first. I'm not saying it's the only way but looking back at my career today, it was working at small agencies that I was just so valuable, more valuable than I think I could ever imagine and more valuable than you can sort of pitch to someone when you're telling them to do it. The reason is because there I was, joining an agency technically as a complete rookie, complete junior, I've taught myself a little bit of front end development and I'm able to do that in my day job now and again, that kept me happy for a couple of years. Again, I felt so happy to be doing that.
Sam Barnes: It was just unbelievable but then, this is where my DPM career kind of started and as me and you have discussed many times and I think many people of our generation will experience, you don't decide one day you're going to do it. It's not something that I decided to do. I remember when we did that first workshop in London back in 2013, I think it was. We had 100 DPMs in front of us and we asked them, who here decided to become a project manager because one person had asked that question. Rather than answer it, we asked them and I think it was two people out of a hundred that put their hands up, if you remember, and it was one of those moments where I realized that this is not an unusual story.
Sam Barnes: So working at the small agency, the reason it's so good is because you have to wear so many hats. If you're an agency that's sort of 10, 20 people, you simply can't have a specialized person in every role, you just can't. You just can't do it. It's a commercial decision at the end of the day. So again, this is what I know now. At the time, I didn't have a clue. I was just enjoying my job and there were jobs that needed doing and someone needed to do them. There were only, I think, 12 of us at the time. So there I am as a front end engineer but I'm also working on projects and these projects have other things that need doing, organization, there are also the business needs to run, so we were obviously trying to win other work.
Sam Barnes: Essentially, I had the technical foundation knowledge and at the time, it was as good as another engineer's to be honest because I was also doing the company's IT networking and dabbling around with PHP and whatnot, but typically, a technical person would stay in the technical realm. I don't know what it was. I don't know when it was but I started to be used to go into client meetings, as the technical guy, clearly because I guess I could communicate a little bit better with clients than say some of the other technical people and I think that the account managers at the time, the salespeople, had previously been at those meetings and doing what still goes on today, overselling, due to lack of knowledge.
Sam Barnes: So they actually appreciated me coming along and also, I did as well because I was getting a chance to kind of inject some, what I would call, realism, into those pictures and make sure we weren't overstretching too much but ultimately, I was also in the office, these projects were happening, and I remember specifically because I was a front engineer, I was being handed, at the time, Photoshop templates quite a lot. A lot of my job was being [inaudible 00:12:09] these designs that were in Photoshop and essentially being told to go and create the front end templates for those designs.
Sam Barnes: More often than not, at the time, there were a lot of agencies like my one where it had transitioned in the past from a print to a digital agency but there was still remnants of the print world, so you had a lot of PSDs, Photoshop files coming to me that weren't in any state to really be cut up in the way that we would think of it today. They were pretty pictures, right? They were pretty pictures that you could have print out to sell something but they weren't practical, so I suggested to the leadership team of this agency that with just a little bit of training to the designers, who were creating these PSDs, I really believed we could cut a lot of time off these projects and kind of make everyone's life better, including my own.
Sam Barnes: They let me do that. I went with it and I think it was around about then, without realizing it, that I started my DPM career before I ever managed the projects. What I'd done is I had spoken up about how we could organize things a bit better and the company had recognized that and put me in a position to start doing that. We did it. It worked and I don't know what happened between now and then, it's all a bit of a blur. That's about 15 years ago now.
Brett Harned: Yeah, that totally makes sense.
Sam Barnes: Yeah, I mean I don't know when I wrote my last line of code. There was a point when I was project managing projects in it's entirety, including doing the coding as well but I don't know. Even the next sort of year or two years at that agency, I essentially moved from a hands on, full time front end engineer to not coding at all, purely managing projects, managing clients, being a part of pictures, you name it. Even being QA, when you're in this company, you rarely have dedicated QA. I know that today, developers sort of pride themselves on testing code but back then, that wasn't the case. I was responsible for these things going out the door, so I was essentially the QA. People would finish their work, I would test it. So the point was that I had an awful lot of experience in an awful lot of different areas. I was talking to clients from blue chip companies, clients from small companies, startups, I was trying to help run the agency internally. I was probably line managing at that point, some engineers. Yeah, doing all sorts.
Brett Harned: Yeah, I think you're bringing up some really interesting points because I think you're saying, there's a wide range of skills that can help you as a project manager or digital project manager. You're not bashful, you're able to communicate, you've taken ... You're willing to take on more in your role, so doing more than just managing a schedule and a budget.
Sam Barnes: When I was younger.
Brett Harned: Yeah, right.
Sam Barnes: [inaudible 00:14:44]
Brett Harned: So as you've progressed in your career, I'm curious, what qualities do you see in really successful project managers? Because I think you've pointed a couple of those things out already, interestingly, in yourself but I'm sure you've seen in others.
Sam Barnes: I mean, I don't put these in sort of any order or priority, I guess, because I was kind of doing a bit of prep for this podcast and I made a list, which I'll go through but the truth is, I felt like I could have kept going, so I'll just read what I've got.
Brett Harned: Okay.
Sam Barnes: So I think obviously being organized. In fact, I've written down here, hyper organized. This isn't ... I've seen project managers, I've seen account managers, but project managers specifically, I've seen many, quite honestly, fail really badly and it was mostly to do with the fact they couldn't deal with the amount of parallel thins you have to be doing practically but also thinking about and planning. When I first moved into managing projects from being an engineer, one of the first things that went wrong for me was the amount of stuff that I had to deal with. It was just a nightmare. So being hyper organized. It helps, it helps a lot.
Sam Barnes: Being personable as well. There's an awful lot of project managers out there, who I've seen, who have got so many great skills but they're kind of cold, whether they mean to be or not, whether they know about it or not but I find that the more personable you are ... being a project manager is about being a leader without any authority. That's kind of what I've always felt it's like.
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Sam Barnes: How do you get the respect and how do you motivate people and how do you do all the things that a normal person with authority does, without it? It's really being ... I'm sure there's many ways to sell that. My personal approach is that you have to just be able to get on with people, you know?
Brett Harned: Definitely.
Sam Barnes: And I come in with that as well is being a good communicator and not just a good communicator to one audience but to many, to many different audiences. I've seen people who are good ... say, in a bigger company, an internal project manager of technical projects and they're great at it but the minute they have to talk to say, external clients or CEOs or someone, they're not able to change the way they communicate, in the tone or the words or whatever it is they use and they kind of fall down there. So I think being able to communicate to many audiences is really important.
Sam Barnes: Relating to being organized of course, being able to multi level to an extreme level. As you say, I've done many jobs in my career, including what I'm doing now, which is engineering management and I'm ... I know that things may change but to this day, there is no job more intense, that requires more multitasking, than [inaudible 00:17:23] project management and I guess to an extent, project owners, in another world today.
Sam Barnes: Another key thing for me is being resourceful and staying calm under pressure. So by that, being resourceful, I mean you have to be willing to find a way to solve a problem, even if it seems like there aren't many ways where it can't be done. As the person leading the efforts to provide a solution, there will always be roadblocks, there will always be problems. You have to be the one, not necessarily to do it all, but you need to either be leading it or getting others to learn to be resourceful but you have to find a way to solve it and staying calm under pressure. I mean, what comes with the extreme levels of multitasking is an awful lot of pressure, so anyone that's kind of weak in the area, it's probably not going to be the career for them, if I'm being honest.
Brett Harned: Yeah, absolutely. I think, too, a lot of these things that you're mentioning are not necessarily things, like qualities that you step right into your career with, right? Maybe-
Sam Barnes: No, definitely not.
Brett Harned: -being organized.
Sam Barnes: You might have some raw talent in those areas, you know?
Brett Harned: Right, yeah. I tend to think like you can teach most people how to create a plan and how to manage a budget, how to create a work load plan, but when it comes to having difficult conversations, staying calm under pressure, being a good communicator, I feel like it sometimes takes a little bit of experience, would you agree with that?
Sam Barnes: 100%. I think it takes experience, I think it takes working in other areas as well. I think it takes ... I know this is a bit of a cliché but I do think it takes making mistakes and failing.
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Sam Barnes: A lot that I've learned is not through being smart, it's through being a bit rubbish at my job. I've kind of messed up a few times here and there and sometimes you learn the lessons straight away, sometimes it takes years. Sometimes you sort of ... I think you look back and you go, oh, I could have handled all those situations a little bit better. I've often talked about introverts and extroverts. I won't go on about it here but that's something that if I go back over my career, I think I would have very different relationships with some people that I had challenging relationships with because I just didn't understand certain things back then.
Sam Barnes: Yeah, no. I mean not afraid to have difficult conversations is an incredibly important one. I think it's one of the ones that is often missed as well. I think that people ... People's idea of difficult conversation or what that manifests like is not always the same amongst people, so you probably get ... just to use example numbers, out of 100 people, you probably get 90 project managers saying, that's an important thing to be able to do but then how they would handle those difficult conversations, I think you would get a lot more of a split and I think people think just by talking about a difficult thing means that they're ticking that box but it isn't.
Brett Harned: I totally agree and it's like how you handle the people too, right?
Sam Barnes: Everything.
Brett Harned: Exactly, like how you talk about it, when you talk about it, how you interact with the people, how you prepare for it. I think we all definitely do that differently. I think you're talking a lot about kind of how people can grow into their careers and I'm curious, can you talk a little bit about how you yourself grew as a PM? Like what were the things that helped you to carve out your career path into other areas, thinking about the steps that you took out of project management, into actually people management?
Sam Barnes: I think I've kind of alluded to the very first part of my career, where I felt like it enabled me to progress at a faster rate in any path and that was to do with the multitasking. So as I say, when I went from an engineer to a project manager, I think within ... I mean it was a short time. It must have been within literally two to three weeks of being a full on project manager, I almost, I wouldn't say burned out, but I lost control, completely lost control of emails and my world had changed. I'd gone from working on 1 or 2 projects at a time to having 13, 14 and 50 people that needed to speak to me and all sorts of complications.
Sam Barnes: So the first thing that helped me and I use it to this day and I don't know how I'd survive without it, is I use a thing called GTD, I think a lot of people have heard of it. It stands for, getting things done, and it's a productivity methodology created by someone called Dave Allen. Essentially, it's a way of processing your inbox and creating to do lists. I won't go into too much of it here but it was something that the minute I got on top of that, I suddenly could think clearly and that has ... I think when you move into any senior role, you're going to have to deal with a lot of things. I actually believe that a big part of the higher salaries that you get is paying for your ability to handle more work than say, someone who hasn't got the experience. So that was a huge thing that I've done and that I learned the hard way but that has enabled me to move in any direction in my career.
Sam Barnes: As I said earlier, everything I've learned, it's through mistakes but I think the main thing for me personally, was the ... It was getting lucky, working for a small agency, having essentially, that between college experience and the agency, I picked up the foundational level of knowledge in the entire life cycle of a digital project, right from sales, right through to taking off a website and thank you very much, we're done now. Everything in between, technical, business, the money. So for me personally, it was really about getting exposure to all of those areas and at the time, for me personally, the technical knowledge that I had was quite rare. It was quite rare to have someone who was in a project manager role who also knew what they were talking about technically and to a degree, creatively back then as well, as you'll remember, the web and web projects were an awful lot simpler back then. We're talking pre responsive design here, pre smart phone.
Sam Barnes: So it was really about the exposure to different areas that enabled me to go in any direction in my career and I should say though, this isn't a plan. Even now, I don't know what my plan is for the next five years. I'm just kind of going where it takes me. The reason I gravitated towards people management, I think it was just something that I didn't realize was a skill until the last few years actually. It was something that I didn't realize other people either detested to do or would like to be good at it but just couldn't do it, weren't good at it, a bit like me and backend engineering. I didn't seem to have the right chip in my brain for that and I just think some people don't quite have that for people, whereas I actually really enjoy it. So that's kind of how I've ended up where I am. I guess for lack of a plan, I think I've ended up in a role that does leverage a lot of the things that I'm just ... I actually enjoy doing and I think when you enjoy something, you tend to excel at it.
Brett Harned: I agree and it's funny because earlier you said that you're a little bit lucky and I know that I've told you this before, it's not that you're lucky, it's that you've basically gotten to a point in your career where you've recognized what you're good at, what you're not good at, and where you can excel and you've found that path and I wonder if maybe you have any advice for people who are in a PM role, looking to kind of build that strong career path, whether they're going to move out of PM or stay into a PM kind of role. What are the things that those people should be doing or thinking about?
Sam Barnes: I mean the first thing to say on that, above anything else, is that I got into project management by accident, as did most people, but it was a very very fortunate accident for me because what I've learned since getting out of it is that the skills that I learned in that particular role are super transferable. I've had a taste of many many roles in this space and I'm not sure there's one that is where you have such transferable skills. So anybody that's listening now, in a project management role and thinking they have to stay in project management because that's kind of their call, all I will say is, that's not true. So that's the first thing to say is that, already, you're doing things for your future career, whatever that may be. It doesn't matter. The skills are transferable.
Sam Barnes: Other tips that I would say for building a strong career path, I think, in any area is just don't get too complacent in the role you're doing now and the knowledge you need to do that role and it's something that's easy to say and nobody listening is going to disagree with that but it's surprising how often you see people get complacent without realizing it. What I mean by that is, you get comfortable. You get comfortable with the company, with the people there, with the salary that affords you the life you enjoy, and suddenly, if you don't focus on continuous learning, you're really going to start to become ... Well, not as knowledgeable quite quickly and more and more quickly as time goes on.
Sam Barnes: I'm not saying you've got to be reading every minute of every day, but some people get into a job, they like it, they're at senior level, and they just stop and then they don't realize they're actually harming their career there. So be careful of that one. Like I said, you don't have to be reading all of the time but you do need to be reading and learning, it's as simple as that. A lot of the time, the difference between people that have got continually progressing careers is the fact of what they're willing to do outside of work, which isn't always possible. It's a big of a luxury really in some cases but there's people read on the train, people that progress and really enjoy learning find a way, okay? So I think you need to really focus on staying up to date.
Sam Barnes: The reason that the PM role, for me, and I don't think this is the same for everybody, was such a good basis for a strong career in the future in any space really was because that ... because of the small agency in [inaudible 00:27:05], I got exposed to an awful lot of different areas of a business, of running a business. Right from the ones that were relevant to my job at the time, in the technical creation, but also down to things like cash flow and business things that transcend across all businesses, so I think it's ... When you're busy, when you're managing projects, try to get involved in other areas of the project or the business that you're in, even if you're busy because that time is going to be valuable and what you're going to be doing there is you're going to be spending time talking to senior people who have a completely different world view than you, different experience, but you get to understand what they're like, you get to see what it's like to be someone in finance.
Sam Barnes: It's all very easy to point fingers at different areas of a business when you're struggling but you need to be able to understand what ... why the people are resisting whatever change you're trying to make or why they're being the way they are. Often, it's a completely reasonable standpoint, you're just not aware of it and I think the final thing is, just to ... We talk about empathy in project management an awful lot and I think that it's such an important thing. If you build empathy, if you got the ability to empathize with anybody no matter what, you are set up to be a leader in any business of any space, in my opinion, because when I was younger and it's really come with other younger folk, you kind of become quite tribal in your thinking and your belief.
Sam Barnes: When I first joined agencies, there was ... believe me now, there was Flash versus CSS at the time, there was Mac versus PC and there's always something, Agile versus Waterfall, you name it. There's always a thing. I find that the most successful, not only project managers but the people that end up just being successful in general in whichever way they turn, it's not because of any particular skills of having that role, it's more fundamental. It's more foundational. It's more about how they've grown as a person.
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Sam Barnes: And I think, especially in these modern times with an awful lot of ... What's the word? Extremes on either side and it's exacerbated by social media, I think the best place you can be is to just not be tribal, just try and see everyone's point of view, try and understand it, and just remain looking ... like someone looking for solutions rather than a battle. I think-
Brett Harned: Absolutely.
Sam Barnes: It's not about being right, it's about getting the solution together and that sounds very Disney, but people that know me know that I'm not Disney. That really is how-
Brett Harned: No, I think you're right. I've said it before, you have to be Switzerland if you're a PM, right?
Sam Barnes: Yeah, [inaudible 00:29:41] perfect.
Brett Harned: You can't have opinions. You're managing people, you have to be right in the middle and stay in the middle.
Sam Barnes: Sure.
Brett Harned: So you said something really interesting in the beginning of the response to that question, which was that the skills that you've learned or that you've excelled at have been transferable. So now that you're a manager and you're responsible for a large team of developers, what would you say are the aspects of your PM career that are helping you in that current role?
Sam Barnes: Well everything, to be honestly. Absolutely everything. I can't think of a single thing that I learned as a PM, in terms of a skill or a new value, that I don't use on a regular basis and it surprises me to this day. So when I first moved out of project management into this more line management sort of role, I did assume that a lot of what I learned wouldn't be used but contrary to that, it's been completely the opposite. So I can give you ... Ultimately, line managing people is about coordinating and it's about being able to understand people. To be a good project manager, those two things you have to be excellent as well. If you're not, you're going to struggle.
Sam Barnes: So I'll give you an example, so at the moment, recently, in my current role, we had to kind of redesign how we're going to recruit a lot of engineers, so we didn't really have a solid process. It was a bit kind of one person did it this way, another person did it that way. It worked. People came in but it wasn't very efficient and it wasn't scalable, was the point, it was very reliant on individuals. So I set about redesigning this process of recruiting engineers. Now, on paper, you look at me saying that and that's the job I've got to do and you're not sure how project management is going to fit into that but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of what it takes to do that, well, suddenly I need to, first of all, think about everyone that needs to be involved. I need to get these people together, form a bit of a team, I need to understand the requirements, I need to also work into a deadline of some description because there's other people waiting for this.
Sam Barnes: This particular thing was so we could actually then go on a sort of a larger hiring spree. There were so many parts of it. I had to understand everyone's different priorities, obviously the HR people are going to have different priorities to my boss, the head of [inaudible 00:31:51] engineering, had to understand the engineers, had to understand that also as part of that, that I needed to perhaps use this as a way to develop lesser experienced people, engineers on the team, that may be going on this path or want to have a say in recruitment. Again, it was multitasking because I'm doing this on top of my day job. It was basically about leading a piece of work, so that everyone felt like they had an input and that everyone likes the solution and more so the point, we can test that solution and see if it's good.
Brett Harned: Yeah, so what you're saying is that-
Sam Barnes: That to me is a project.
Brett Harned: Absolutely and I think, sorry to interrupt you-
Sam Barnes: It's okay.
Brett Harned: -but I think what you're saying is that really good PMs are well rounded because they have exposure to all parts of a business and you get the opportunity to not only learn about all of those different parts of the business but interject and work on those parts of the business and if you're so inclined, to like be a part of them and long term maybe grow into roles there.
Sam Barnes: Definitely. I mean I'm finding ... So I'm at a company now that's the biggest I've ever been at, so Marks and Spencer, I think, and I may be wrong here, it's tens of thousands of employees, at the very least. I think it might be 80. The previous company, the biggest one I was at was sort of 250 people, so the skills of coordinating them in an environment, an enterprise environment, is a lot harder than in a 250 person company because in most cases, they're either sitting next to you or you know them very well.
Sam Barnes: In a big corporate company, you are literally taking people from all different backgrounds, people that have been with the company 30 years, 1 year, all backgrounds, all ... you name it and you have to somehow bring those people all together, to get them to work on something with you, put their best efforts in, and solve a problem and more importantly, I think this is a really key one, project managers, one thing I've noticed, whenever I come across project managers doing other roles in say, Marks and Spencer, but they used to be project managers, the one thing they seem to share that does often differentiate them against other peers doing the same job is they have a much more sense of urgency and delivery. They want to complete a job.
Sam Barnes: So just the recruitment initiative that I just talked about, it could feasibly have gone on and still be going now and I'm not even saying it would be bad work, we'd obviously be putting a lot of effort in but there was ... I think I see a lot of people who haven't had that experience, they don't often have a sense of, this has to be delivered, and that's either because that's not in their mindset, sometimes because they've never even been close to the money, so when you're in a big company, you don't have much commercial exposure, it's very easy to fall into the feeling that we can just get on with this and do it the right way in our own time but I don't care how big your company is, be it 1 person, a 10 person, or an 80 thousand, someone's money is on the line-
Brett Harned: It sounds like, put a PM in one of those roles and they're going to get things done.
Sam Barnes: They'll get things done, absolutely, and depending on their other traits, in terms of how well they get on with people, so on and so on, they'll just be out to deliver things. They aren't necessarily delivering apps or websites. Delivery. Delivery is an abstract term in that sense. I delivered a new recruitment process. What was on paper? Not much. A few notes here and there and a couple of boards but that was about it but the work that went into it was, in my belief, a pure project management job.
Brett Harned: Yeah, so let's talk for a few minutes about other career paths because there are obviously people listening to this podcast coming from all different organizations, walks of life, what have you, so there are a lot, right? Like project management is everywhere. It's really pervasive but what do you see as some kind of more obvious career paths that a project manager might take?
Sam Barnes: So I think if we stick to the classic project manager path, I think that that's still relevant and there's still many many companies that have these. So I'm talking about moving from a junior PM to a mid level, just a PM, to a senior PM, then perhaps either a project management director or a projects director. I mean, the thing is, they have different names. There's a whole thing about titles, especially in the digital project management area, that has never really been solved or even something like a program manager or working for a PMO, that's kind of your traditional path but actually, I see a lot of people get into project management and find it's not for them but they liked certain aspects of it because obviously being a project manager, you, by default, depending on the project, you do tend to get exposed to other sides of businesses, be it yours or a client's.
Sam Barnes: So I see a lot of people moving to account management because they enjoyed the client interactions and that kind of thing but didn't so much enjoy the production side, seen a lot of people do that. I think more modern thinking, titles, you see a lot of people moving to say, delivery manager roles. So again, it's a title that has many different meanings but for instance, if I use the sort of of government digital service, it's called GDS in the UK, give one of their kind of themes, it's like ... I'm prepared to get lots of abuse for this but I kind of think of a delivery manager as a scrum master plus plus because you're kind of doing all that team stuff but you're also responsible for things like hiring and helping.
Brett Harned: I see.
Sam Barnes: It's not a a scrum master, it's not a project manager. That's why it's got it's own role and it's own title, I guess, but it's a bit [inaudible 00:37:24] but a project manager could do that but a project manager might not have had ... might be able to do all the delivery manager role but had never done recruiting before, so there's the chance to get into it.
Brett Harned: Yeah, I think that that's just proof that also the PM role is different everywhere, so the career path is going to be different for every person.
Sam Barnes: Yeah, definitely [crosstalk 00:37:40].
Brett Harned: We're talking about digital project management and working with account management in an agency. That career path is far different than an in house corporate project manager who is working outside of digital or even outside of marketing. So there are a lot of different places it can go. I think one place where it seems like PMs seem to be really suited is in an operations role or like a chief operations officer kind of role.
Sam Barnes: Yes, 100% and I think I see people that have been around for many years, I see a lot of them ending up in that kind of role, head of operations, COO, whatever it might be and I think the reason for that is it's just logical in the day. So the traits of a good PM, they seem to really map well to that sort of high level of strategic thinking, that along with caring about the people, the organization, and the production and detail side of stuff. Again, this isn't for everybody, but in my experience, your COO is much more likely to be very very entrepreneurial and typically, not always, but typically that means that someone is very very strategic and I think very creative and actually, it's not that they don't care about the details, thinking about the details actually bores them. It makes their day not fun. It's like some of that.
Sam Barnes: So what clever companies do, one of the reasons the COO role exists, in my opinion, is because you need to balance. You need someone who's also senior, who's also got a ton of experience at a strategic level, but who's able to balance, let's say the craziness of an entrepreneur, and I think when you get that balance right, that's when you get an incredibly good company. Get it wrong, and it can lead to problems but project managers ending up in that kind of role, the kind of role where you can talk to senior people, you care about the details, but at that level, you know how to bring them up with somebody who doesn't enjoy them. You care about the money.
Brett Harned: Right.
Sam Barnes: Traits of a COO, don't worry about it. I got it. I got the details. You just focus on the next 10 years, you know?
Brett Harned: Well and if you're in that role and you've come up through project management, you have a certain value for project management and you're able to kind of explain that value to the employees and hopefully create a culture where project management is respected and needed and people recognize that. There are places where that doesn't happen but I think that's also a time where, if you're in that role, you kind of reevaluate and figure out where you need to be, just knowing that if you're in a position where PM is not respected, look for something else. If you really like the role and you don't feel respected, there are places out there where PM is valued and there are places where you can grow.
Sam Barnes: Or, as I think I did this myself, it wasn't the plan but I think if you are in a place where PM isn't valued, you could start doing things outside of work, start writing, start speaking, start doing things that ... What I found, when I did that, is that the people that perhaps didn't value it as much before, suddenly started to take note, they started to realize, this was an entire area that wasn't valued for many years and actually, it really ... it's no different, it's no different to any other role. It's hard. It can have it's good days, it's bad days. It's for some and not others. It really just depends but yeah, it's incredibly valuable. I think we're doing okay on that. I think it's getting better but yeah, still lots of work to do.
Brett Harned: I agree. All right, so you've given us lots of great information. I've got one last question for you.
Sam Barnes: Sure.
Brett Harned: So you know our show is called Time Limit, kind of nodding to the fact that we all have limited time to do great work, right? And even time for caring for ourselves, right, there's an idea of having a really good work life balance and that's something that TeamGantt really cares about. So how do you continue to think about and groom your career when you're a PM and there doesn't seem to be time for that, right? Like you're always focused on the drama of the day, team members, projects, deadlines, everything else. How do you focus on yourself?
Sam Barnes: It's not easy. It's not easy. If I think back to when I first started project managing, I didn't. As you say, there wasn't time but I think as the years go on, I think there's a few tips and tricks. So one of the things is that within work hours, so I talked on this podcast about doing stuff out of work hours. In an ideal world, that wouldn't be needed and I also appreciate that in some people's world, they can't do that. Not everyone is in the same situation, I appreciate that. So one of the things that I would say about how to kind of focus on yourself is, in terms of your career this is, first of all, is when you're at work and I try and do this now and it's not always easy and I don't always win, but I try and do it still. I try to not avoid getting involved in other areas, regardless of how busy I am. So I've kind of alluded to that already. So when I've already got a packed schedule but then my boss or someone else asks if I want to get involved in something, nothing to do with engineering, it's to do with a HR thing or a finance thing or whatever, a hardware thing, I try and get involved.
Sam Barnes: So that's like a way of ... I'm going to learn stuff, regardless of whatever. So that's one thing that I can do but I think that's where I am now. In a small company, it's much harder to do that because of time but you still do get chances to get exposure to other areas. So that's what I would say there but the truth is, getting involved in communities outside of work. If you have them in work, great, but getting involved in communities outside of work is just an amazing thing to do. I find that if you can get involved in a community, and I don't mean necessarily everyone has to write articles and books and the conferences, it's not for everybody and not everyone's got the time but just by getting involved, I just mean joining a Slack community and just reading and writing ... well, reading. Reading articles as well. Maybe adding some comments, that will help you focus on your career.
Sam Barnes: I think it's true that the more you contribute to a community, the more you're going to get out of it personally and professionally. I think of that [inaudible 00:43:43]. There's lots of evidence of that. In my perspective experience, it is that as well but again, it's not for everybody, so I think the only way you can really do it is to, in terms of a bit more broader life plan here, so bit more about caring for yourself rather than career. I, as you know me very well, you'll know that I don't believe in particular skills being important as much as I do values and goals at a fundamental level. So if we're going to keep it to a project management theme, about how to look after yourself when you're so busy, I would say, take some time out. Take some time out whenever you can, maybe half an hour on a Sunday, whenever you can get that time and just think about yourself. Think about what you want to achieve but personally, I would never say what I want to achieve in my career, I would say what I want to achieve in my life.
Sam Barnes: What am I going for? What's this all about? Being on this planet? Make a little list of those things that you think you'd like to do, whether it's owning a house or it's a bit more abstract than that, make some things and then you've got something to aim for and then you can make sure that every decision you make, be it a big career decision or a small tiny decision to do with anything, you could always just crosscheck it against that list. It's a bit of an old school requirements list, you know? It's a statement of work. Statement of life. Call it what you like but I find that if you make that list, you don't make it too detailed because life changes, everything changes, it gives you a chance to ... You can just make sure you're heading towards something because I find that if you lose that focus, you can essentially put your head down, get busy with work, and you put your head back up and it's a year later, two years later. In extreme cases, five years later. I think if you've got that things you're heading for, the things you're aiming for, you can always just quickly check either a small, medium, or big decision against that and say, is this going to get me closer or not?
Brett Harned: I couldn't agree more. I think you're so right. I think, with anything in life, just knowing what you want to get out of a situation is so important and I think as employees, we tend to forget about that because we always feel like we're serving the job that we're in.
Sam Barnes: Precisely.
Brett Harned: But that company is there to serve you as well, so remembering that you have goals outside of work that maybe your work goals can help you reach, right?
Sam Barnes: Absolutely.
Brett Harned: So I think that's a really good piece of advice there. I'm all about setting goals, personal and professional as well. Well Sam, this has been really great. Hopefully some helpful things, tips and tricks for people to grab as they listen through the podcast. We're going to list some of your contact information, places to read things that you've written and recorded, but thank you so much for being on Time Limit today.
Sam Barnes: Thanks for having me. It's been a pleasure.
Brett Harned: Hopefully we'll have you back soon.
Sam Barnes: Okay.
Brett Harned: Bye. Wow, Sam and I could have talked about that topic for hours and in fact, we have in the past, but I hope you got something really good out of what we discussed and I hope you can find ways to make time to think about and carve out your own career path. One bit of advice that's helped me in my career was actually given to me by a peer at a conference and it was really simply but profound to me, especially at the time and it was, follow happiness because if you love what you do and it makes you happy, you'll find success. So thanks again for listening. We've got some really great interviews coming up on Time Limit. I'm excited about them, so I hope you'll come back and listen to the next episode but in the meantime, if you're looking for more resources on project management, check out teamgantt.com, where we offer free classes, templates, and resources, in addition to our popular and really easy to use project planning and management tool and of course, please don't forget to subscribe and rate the show on iTunes and check out our show notes for more information about Sam. Thank you.