Sam Barnes is a speaker, author and consultant on digital project management and team leadership, with experience of over 14 years in the digital industry.
He started as a front-end developer at TBS. During that time, he was appointed Nokia’s key user for UK and Ireland, which led him to move into digital project management. In 2008, he started working at Rawnet, an award winning digital agency, where he was responsible for delivering projects and managing accounts for clients like BBC, BaxterStorey, HHIC, Go Ape and Jordan Publishing. In 2010, he became a Technology Analyst at the agency Volume and was responsible for making sure that the web projects of clients like Dell, Oracle and Zebra were delivered smoothly. He then spent two years as a Digital Project Manager at Venntro, before being appointed a Development Team Manager, with some of his responsibilities being line management of all developers, supporting the direction of projects and representing the department at a senior level.
Sam currently works as a Senior Development Manager at Marks and Spencer. He is responsible for line managing a team of engineers that work on a wide array of digital products and projects, and behind the scenes infrastructure systems. Aside from his work, Sam writes for thesambarnes.com, a blog dedicated to the topic of digital project management.
PMTips: Today we are doing an interview with Sam Barnes, who is a speaker, author and consultant on digital project management and team leadership. He currently works as a Senior Development Manager at Marks and Spencer.
Sam, welcome and thank you for accepting our invitation. We are honored to have you with us today.
Sam Barnes: Thanks for asking me.
PMTips: With over 14 years of experience in the digital industry, can you tell us how one develops a career in the rapidly changing and fast-paced digital world? Moreover, what kind of challenges have you faced in your professional life?
Sam Barnes: So, I think it's really about immersing yourself into all things digital to begin with. You need to get a foundational understanding of as many areas as possible, really, so not just one. So, anything from marketing to development, design – every single aspect. And I think the bigger challenges, in digital specifically, is just keeping up with the latest technologies and trends and decided when to use them and when to wait, which I think comes with experience. I think that's the hardest thing and it was an ongoing thing.
PMTips: Your responsibility while working as a Digital Project Manager for Venntro Media Group was the managing of multiple projects from conception to completion. What does it mean to be responsible for the planning and managing of web development projects, but also making sure they are delivered successfully?
Sam Barnes: So, in essence it means that you're able to take often a really short brief, sometimes it's vague and you need to do all that required from there to deliver something that meets that brief. In Waterfall – which is where I kind of started – in a Waterfall world, it means building a team, fleshing out requirements, creating schedules, managing stakeholders and all of your typical Waterfall-esque activities. In an Agile world however, which is what's more typical now in digital, it really depends on what your role is, so there isn’t a project manager role per se in many Agile methodologies, but it could be that brief in product owners or even maybe acting as one, which is similar to working as a PM, but actually different in many ways.
If you're a product owner you would still work with business areas, as you were with a traditional role, there and you'd be establishing requirements, but rather than creating specifications, you'd start creating user stories that would be worked on within Sprints. And this is done much more collaboratively with the entire production team, as it were, the scrum team, if it's Scrum you're using. It still means an awful lot of communication, but the role of a product owner is very different to traditional PM, but in both cases you've really got to get successful delivery. It's really down to being able to constantly talk to different audiences, having tough conversations and paying attention to both the detail and people around you at all times.
PMTips: For the past 3 years you have worked as a Senior Development Manager at Marks and Spencer and one of your responsibilities is line managing a team of over 30 engineers. What is the difference between managing a smaller and a larger team of people?
Sam Barnes: Yeah, I should update my LinkedIn there, because I think it's about 14 people now. But I've managed larger teams, done smaller teams, so I can still give you some answers on that one. I think the main difference is that, really, the time you can dedicate to each person in your team. So, the smaller the team obviously the more time you can spend with them and of course that allows you to get to know their work, also them as people, which is really important. But then the more you manage, the bigger the team gets; it gets really hard and I'll be honest it does become a challenge to keep a good connection, a good rapport with each of those people. But I do believe that regardless of size there are three primary things that I think are key to being a good manager regardless of team size. So, that's that you do regular one-to-ones with your team, no matter what. It's really easy, especially when you've got a lot of people to manage and you're getting busier in the senior position, it's really easy to start skipping those. It's quite a bad habit to get into, but it's always easy to do that, but you forget what impact that has on each person, which is very negative.
Likewise, when you're busy you can you can skip the small things, but I'm a big advocate that the small things are what makes a really big difference to people you manage. So, it's really the tiny things like checking how people are, whether they’re not well, you know, just sending a message, showing you care and making sure you reply to messages and mails promptly, again – something the busy managers tend to put to one side if it's not urgent, but I think is really important to people that you're always very responsive to them. Even helping your team with all sorts of life or personal issues. A lot of managers or a lot of workplaces will find that perhaps strange, but I find that it helps everyone, it helps the business, the person and helps the relationship, too. Even tiny little things, one of my bugbears, which is making sure you check people's availability when booking meetings. I think the more senior and busy people get, the less they tend to do that, and I think that's one of the big differences between someone who can climb a ladder, but still be very conscious of people's time, which I think makes a big difference then.
Understanding people as individuals is really, really important, so one example, one I've read up a lot about is what people who are introverts or extroverts say and that can determine how they for instance prefer to communicate, which can make a big difference to people. And I think the main one for me is just always keeping your word, like if you say you're going to do something then you do it and if you can't do it you never ever just not do it, you always get back to them on the day you said you would, explaining why and apologizing and make it – you just become someone they can trust. And I think, you know, if you can make sure each of your team genuinely believes in you, then I think it makes a huge difference. There's a quote that I have always used when asked this kind of question, which is from Bernard Montgomery. He was a field marshal for Britain in WWII and he said “If you gain the confidence and trust of your people and they feel their best interests are safe in your hands, then you have in your possession a priceless asset and the greatest achievements become possible,” and I really do believe that.
PMTips: How important is the planning process when it comes to the successful delivery of a digital project?
Sam Barnes: I think it depends, if you're working or how are you working, so you could be working Waterfall, hybrid or an Agile methodology. I'm personally someone who isn't militant about using anything. I've seen all of them used successfully and unsuccessfully, and, you know, it really depends on what the project is, what you use. But I am a big believer in ‘the more you plan, the more chance you have of success.’ Many years ago, when it was just Waterfall, say, maybe some hybrid in digital agencies, I would say a lot of projects [went] wrong simply because people skimmed on the planning and that was mostly because they found it boring to do. I'd often be told that I would perhaps spend a little bit too much time planning that, you know, when I was doing it and we need to get working.
But honestly, more often than not, not always, I’ll be honest, but more often than not, I would always see results from that time I’d spent planning upfront and that would prove itself during development testing and delivery, with many commenting afterwards how smooth it seemed to go. So, I really do believe in that. But when it comes to Agile projects, planning is quite a contentious word. Lots of people have very different interpretations of what planning should be done, ranging from none to as much as a Waterfall project and everything in between. But my personal take is, as with so many things, it depends. For an Agile project, I think you need to be able to plan enough to enable work to get started with some sensible constraints and expectations, but not so much that you turn a process that was meant to be Lean-er into a kind of a Waterfall-in-disguise process.
PMTips: Sometimes it turns out to be a challenge to work with digital project sponsors. What is the best way to deal with them? In addition, is there a way for project sponsors to give their own contribution to the successful delivery of a project?
Sam Barnes: I think, yeah, to help manage sponsors there are definitely a few things you can do. So, one of the key things is to involve them from the start. But not just ask them, [but] kind of insist they're involved, so they don't just become a folk that ‘sweep and poop’ which is one of my favorite phrases, you know, people that come in randomly during projects to make decisions. They need to be involved in the beginning. And also make sure they're not just involved at pre-sales, but also at kickoff. No matter how senior, no matter how important or busy, they have to be involved at the kickoff, because that allows you to really set out the entire project and set expectations, including for their involvement, which is unusual and I think a lot of people don't do that and I think it's a big mistake.
One way to manage sponsors, I think, is using weekly status reports. I know a lot of people do these, but I find them to be highly valuable only as long as you keep them very simple. And I try to keep mine to literally one slide, you know, in big font. But the key thing is you have to start sending them from the very first week of the projects, and I think many people make the mistake of not doing that, and only starting to send reports when the project’s well underway, and it just becomes a few surprises, and then they'll miss a week. So, for me the whole point of the weekly status report, keeping it simple, is that there are no surprises throughout the project, from the very beginning to the very end. It's just really an evolving set of news, so I would print perhaps only a couple of sections: completed this week, planned for next week, blockers and issues, revised project timeline and revised project budget. And what gets interesting is that for the first, hopefully, quite a few weeks everything is finally status reports and they can seem a bit dogmatic, but when you do encounter an issue and that project timeline changes, that's when you start to have interesting conversations with clients or stakeholders, that's when their interest is piqued. And what you find is that then it's much easier to have that conversation at that time, rather than kind of hiding the fact and hoping it gets better, hoping you make up time.
As for getting sponsors to contribute, again, I think it's really about keeping them engaged, which isn't always easy, but that's where actually Agile methodology can work really well because it encourages everyone, including sponsors or stakeholders or whatever the person is. It encourages them to be involved in the very beginning and ideally on a daily basis, with ceremonies in Scrum, such as daily stand-ups or sprint-based ones like retrospectives. But when there's a short feedback cycle that requires input at least every two weeks, it can help keep people engaged as opposed to engagement at the beginning – they go away and check in half-way and see how it is at the end.
PMTips: How demanding is it to manage a client’s expectations and to make sure that you and your team deliver what was initially promised?
Sam Barnes: So, as I mentioned the weekly status reports is the most effective way I found of managing expectations to both sponsors and clients, but the key is to really always be honest. You know, ‘undersell and over-deliver’ is a commonly used phrase, but I believe in that. But I think also what has to come with that is honesty, and I mean brutal honesty. So, I'm still waiting for it and it always feels like it's going to happen, but I'm yet to have a really bad reaction to honesty, when other people in the same situation would perhaps sugarcoat some news, or to be honest, they'll be flat-out lying to people. What I find is that even if a client or a sponsor or someone that doesn't like hearing the news that they're hearing, I do find that the respect you get from doing that lasts a lot longer than the negative feelings about the news itself.
As for delivering what's promised, well, that's a bit of a dark art, and often what is sold is not always what you can deliver. It depends on how your organization is set up, but I think this is where a really skillful project manager can use their communication skills to slowly, but honestly talk to their clients about expectations. It's not always possible, unfortunately, if the sale was crazy and if that's happening a lot. So, I think it's something that the PM needs to act on, either by raising it to the sales teams or working with them to create more realistic expectations from the start.
PMTips: How important is it for a digital project manager to get involved in the pre-sales process and influence the defining of a more realistic scope, budget and timeline for both the client and the company?
Sam Barnes: Yeah, really important, really important. Something that when I got started just never happened. I think it still isn't that common, but I think it's becoming more common, especially in smaller companies. I would always advocate for a project manager getting involved in the sales, even if they can't influence it, just to see what it's like. Because when I did get involved in it myself, I have to say, I was quite surprised with the process. And it actually changes your perspective once you've realized the pressure is on the sales people, what they're working to, it can really change your view of people. And I also find if you can get involved in the sales process to the point where you're perhaps either presenting to them, to a client, it can really, you know, you can actually show as part of the sales process how you're going to deliver what you say you will, using a really solid process. As opposed to it being a bit of a bit of a black box until the project is sold at the start. And if it's done right, what I find is that it gives the prospective client a lot of confidence that you can deliver what you say you can, and that can sometimes be a differentiator in the sales process. However, something that I've learned along the way is that it can also be done badly and scare clients off. And as a younger PM I was far too process and detail-oriented in the sales environment. And I wasn't really always balancing the need to sell enough with the need to set realistic expectations, and this kind of came across negatively to some clients.
I learned over the years that you have to balance things in the sales a little better than that and also adapt to individual clients. So, some clients want to be spoken to honestly and they'll say that is a real big asset, but others, they don't, they just want to be wowed with shiny presentations and fine details and talking timelines, at that stage quite boring and negative. So, in those cases you really need to change how you present information or at worst make sure you have a great relationship with the salespeople so you can influence the information presented. And this allows you to convey what you want to be conveyed, but with them presenting it in a way that hopefully won't risk the sale. And it will always be an eternal challenge I'm sure, but I think the worst thing you can do is complain about them and when I say ‘them’ I mean the client or a sales team. And you really need to get involved, you have to get involved with all of them and make things better for everyone, rather than just complain.
PMTips: We already talked about Waterfall and Agile, but maybe you would like to expand a bit further on the topic. In your experience, which project management methodology brings the best results in terms of project success? Is it Waterfall, Agile or maybe a mixture of these two methodologies?
Sam Barnes: So, as with most questions at my age – it depends. I'm personally not a fan of tribalism or militantly believing in one methodology over another and that's because, truthfully, I've seen and run projects delivered in all three ways successfully and unsuccessfully. I think if you believe in one way only, then your mind is a little bit closed and you'll think a little bit too narrow, which tends to result, in my experience, in divisive attitudes and polarizing results, which really is never healthy in an organization.
So, my answer to this question is always dependent on the factors, what's involved in the project or not, and it can be anything ranging from the client, the project type, the company you are in, the financial requirements, compliance needs and literally everything relating to that project. So, for example – as a rule of thumb, it's not the case always – but for a software house that develops in-house products, Agile can be really an effective way and easier to use than say in a digital agency that has many clients, which is often where you'll see a hybrid approach. Waterfall, as much as some people will scoff at it, especially in the digital world, I disagree. I think it can still be used effectively. I've seen it used effectively recently, and that can happen if you embark on a project where you really do know the requirements upfront and people will say they will change, but sometimes they get them right. One analogy that I've always liked to refer back to when asked this question is that, if you think about, you can use Agile methodologies to design a car, but then you can switch to Waterfall and produce many on the assembly line. That's quite a good way to think about it. But for me it all depends on the factors and also the people running and working on those projects. But a versatile project manager, I believe, can run a hybrid project, where other people would say it must be Agile and they can do that.
But I really think as a closing comment on that one, that, I think, you should be very wary of anybody saying that one way is best and other way is terrible, because I just don't believe that.
PMTips: What distinguishes a bad digital project manager from a good one? Is it possible for a project manager to transform into a good one even if initially they do not have the necessary skills?
Sam Barnes: Wow, I could write book on this one, I think. I think that there are a few things that I seem to see in good PMs that I don't often see in bad ones. I think the obvious one is experience, which is not an easy skill to learn as such, it's not, but obviously the more experience you have in anything, then the wiser you become and this tends to make you a lot more versatile, flexible, pragmatic, calm in stressful situations, which is a very good trait to have. In the digital world, and I guess many others, hands-on experience of the project you're managing. So, if you’ve got a digital project with hands-on experience in coding or design, or some production aspect – it can help, it's not necessary, but what I always say is that even if you don't have any hands-on experience and you happen to be running a digital project, just show some willingness to learn the basics. It not only helps you understand the nuances of the project and some of the things that can go wrong, but at a very core level it really helps you create a positive relationship with your production teams, and that in itself can make a project go really well and is one part in going into being a good project manager.
Another thing is the ability to communicate with many types of people, and I mean any type, so business people, finance, design, technology; just about any type of person you can think of. Because, I always see good PMs with these skills, as having the ability to – so I like to think of a good PM as a chameleon. You know, they can blend in with any of their environment and build relationships between very different sets of people, which is not something everyone can do.
The other thing I’ve kind of alluded to earlier is you need to be willing to have difficult conversations. Many bad PMs are great at so many parts of it, but they really fall down here and they just seem to sugarcoat things or lie to people, because rather than deliver that bad news and have those tough conversations. But again in my experience, they almost always tend to get found out and they either end up personally suffering for it, which is bad, or even worse, they try and sort of put the blame onto teams or clients, which is even worse in my opinion.
Another thing is being hyper-organized and great at multitasking obviously, and I think a good PM will always be detail-oriented, but with the ability to appreciate the bigger picture. As for someone, you know, being able to do this, if they don't have the skills, you know, you can manage a project without being great at all of this. But in my experience you may get lucky a few times, but over time you need to really see this as an art form and really study and research and get better at it, because if you don't I think you'll always be known as a bad PM, which is never good.
PMTips: What advice would you give young professionals who wish to become digital project managers, and which skills do you think they should focus most on developing?
Sam Barnes: So, for young professionals I haven't got too much experience. I think the best thing they can do, especially with the limitless resources out there now, is to read and watch as much as they can. But not just on, you know, one topic, in terms of project management. I think they should not just look at Agile, not just look at what's new. They should look at traditional project management, digital project management, Lean, Agile. Just immerse themselves in understanding the very basics of all these things, because, you know, it's all very well knowing one methodology, but that restricts your ability to work in other ways and you really need to be able to do all of it and be flexible to make it nowadays. When it comes to, specifically digital places, I think that anybody getting started should really try their best to understand the very basics of what it takes to build a simple website or product. They don't have to build it themselves of course, but just try and understand the steps that are needed by reading and watching resources that are out there. But also, when during the project itself, you know, be inquisitive about what they’re working on and how they're doing it, and when problems come up explain, try to find out why and think about how they could mitigate that next time.
As for skills, I think it's a tricky one, because I think it's quite a broad skill. I think that for young professionals, finding ways to be really effective multitaskers is it's something that is absolutely a must to be to be a good project manager. I've done many different jobs, you know, different jobs, from a developer to a team leader to project manager, and I would say that project management is by far the one that required the most multitasking. As I mentioned earlier, working on communication skills to different audiences, so when you're young it’s not just about talking to people. But when you're young you tend to sit in your desk or wherever you are and just stay within your little world, but get out there and talk to people in finance, talk to people in the sales, talk to people in areas that you wouldn't necessarily talk to and also listen. I think when I first started working, I spent my first two years just listening, just listening to every aspect of what people were working on, began just absorbing that, hearing what it's like and what stresses and priorities they have. And I think anyone that does those things, while that will set them up to be, hopefully, a good PM, I actually think that those are skills that are transferable and are skills I use to this day. I think when you're learning a development skill or a technical skill, sometimes it's very boxed in and once you've learnt it, you’ve learnt it, great, but it can't be transferred. But with these skills I think that they'll stand you in good stead for any kind of career you want.
PMTips: That was the last question. Sam, thank you once again for being our guest today.
Sam Barnes: Thank you very much.
Interview conducted by Ana Mitevska