Delivery Sessions: Interviews with Great PMs (Christine Meginness)

Interview with Christine Meginness, Vice President Program Management at Hero Digital.

We were honored to sit down with Christine Meginness at Hero digital to hear about her story, professional experience, and insight into how to be an effective project manager.

Tell me a little bit about yourself, your background and your path to becoming a V.P. project manager at Hero Digital?

I graduated from college in the San Francisco Bay Area in the mid 90’s, and that was when the tech boom was starting to happen. I graduated with a sociology degree, so I asked myself, what job was I going to get? I decided to do tech support at Apple.

At that time, Apple seemed like such a cool place to go, and I’d learned enough about how to use a Mac, how to get online, and how to write a little HTML.

I decided this would pay the bills until I figured out what I wanted to do, and then I got into it. I was really just in the right place at the right time and caught the tech boom. I ended up staying in the software tech support, QA, and ended up getting a job at a small software company doing tech support then started managing some internal projects at the company. I sort of found project management, as I never really understood or thought about project management as a career option. However, I liked being able to work with lots of different roles and departments, while getting to put together a plan and execute that plan. I decided that that in and of itself seemed interesting. I explored many different career paths, but I realized a career in project management would allow me to work with programmers, creatives, customers and outside clients, which I really enjoyed.   

My title at the next job I took was “producer,” but it was really a project management job at a dot-com startup. That’s where I truly learned more of the project management fundamentals, like budgeting, scoping work, scheduling, booking resources, putting together a project plan, and seeing it through from end to end. I ended up stumbling into the agency world, which I believe adds a whole different facet to project management, and I actually think it gives project managers a lot more tools. I believe that project managers that have been through the agency world are a lot sharper than ones who have not.

Why do you think that project managers who’ve worked at agencies are sharper?

As an agency, it’s work for hire, so you have to be a lot more precise in what it is you’re committing to do, how long it’s going to take, and how much it’s going to cost you. While the agency is committed to delivering everything that they outline in a contract, the client also has to be equally committed to meeting all of their obligations and all of the assumptions that we’ve made about their contributions to the work.

Some people find agency work too hectic and stressful, while others including myself, get a lot of energy out of it. I’ve been in an agency space for so long that I worry that if I went in-house somewhere that wasn’t demanded at that level of rigor, I might get bored.

What do you think are the skills that you have that naturally allowed you to become a great project manager?

I’m super, super detail oriented. I just nerd out over spreadsheets, but I really like everything to be very clear, documented, tidy, and orderly; I would say this is even true in my life outside of work. All of those qualities certainly help a project manager nail the fundamentals. At various times in my career, and even in my schooling, I wished that I could design or build things, but I just don’t have that aptitude. I get to work every day with people who do, so I still get that energy of creative inspiration and that feeling of accomplishment when something gets built today and shipped out into the world even if it’s just virtual or electronic. I get a lot of the benefits of people who have those skills without having to have the aptitude myself. I also really like solving problems. If it’s too easy, it’s too boring. Throw me some challenges. Throw me some hairy resourcing or budget or scope constraints, and let me help you figure out how to carve a path forward. This gives me a great sense of satisfaction, and I think the best project managers are really good problem solvers.

Are there any role models that shaped how you manage teams now?

I’ve had a lot of leaders along the way who taught me how to lead. At almost every place I’ve worked there’s been a person, it might be my boss, it might not be, who has taught me how to become a better leader.

As far as learning how to become a better project manager, it wasn’t always other experienced project management professionals that I was learning from, it was engineering leads, strategists, sales people, and client services directors. From their interactions, I’d notice, “Oh, that’s a different way of dealing with an upset or frustrated client. I’m going to put that in my tool kit,” or, “That’s a different way of explaining how this piece of technology works to the client. I’m going to put that in my tool kit.”

What do you would think the advertising industry as a whole can do to better support project managers?

Some agencies haven’t even recognized the need for project management. Understanding that regardless of a person’s title, there should be someone that’s figuring out how the work is going to get delivered and someone who’s in charge of making sure that happens.

The people who actually produce the work deserve the support of someone whose role is there to pull all the levers and press all the buttons. This support will help them to complete that work, whether it’s negotiating deadlines, finding more resources, or providing clarifying information.

If you feel like you’re struggling with priorities, quality, client expectations, or delivering work on time, then you’re probably missing that project management support and could benefit from it greatly.

What do you think are the biggest challenges that project managers face?

Every client is going to try to get as much as they possibly can for the money they’re spending. A challenge that project managers face every single day is working inside of budget constraints to still deliver good work. That’s where creative problem solving and creative resourcing solutions can help. You want to meet and exceed your client’s expectations, but at the end of the day it’s work for hire, and they want to get as much work from you as they can and pay as little as possible for it. I think that’s the daily challenge.

Likewise, in the agency world resourcing is a challenge. We’re a services organization, and we get paid by the hour, so we can’t have a bunch of people just sitting around that aren’t working on projects. However, when work does come in all at once, it can be a struggle to get the right creatives, strategists, and technical staff when we are already busy and spread thin.

Resourcing has been the unsolvable hurdle at every single agency that I have worked at, regardless of size. It’s like a one million piece puzzle laid out on the world’s biggest dining room table, and we all put a few pieces in it every day, and it still never gets finished.  Budgeting and resourcing constraints both go back to the existing issue of resourcing.

The agency life is a little grueling, a little hectic, and a little frantic. As an individual project manager, you’re feeling that every day, but you’re also trying to get great work out of people who are feeling that way every day.

However, I still try to calm down and take a breath, so I can realize “We’re not saving lives here, we’re helping companies sell stuff.” I do this to gain some perspective, and realize “Yes, it’s very important to get work done and get it done well” but it’s also not more important than your health, your family, and the rest of your life. I say, “Take a breath and calm down; this is not the worst thing that will ever happen to you.”

Are there any tangible ways that you work with your team to keep their wellness in mind?

For me, I try to bring as much levity and humor into each day as I can. If something terrible happens with the client or a project, I’m going to do everything I can to laugh about it and get other people to laugh about it, instead of crying about it. We all need to vent and we all need to have our moments where we just get out our frustrations. For me, I try to bring some levity, lighten up, laugh it off, move on to the next project.  I try not to dwell too long on things I can’t control.

What are the characteristics you are looking for when hiring a new Project Manager?

Project management fundamentals are being incredibly detail-oriented and meticulous in communication and documentation. If you have spelling errors in your cover letter, you’re out. You are the face of your team to the client. You’ve got to be polished and buttoned up. You need to thrive in a multitasking environment. You need to be able to jump from one project to the other, while being available to your team members and clients when they need you.

Folks who have been in roles where they’ve only gotten to focus on one project all day every day for long periods of time sometimes struggle. I look for people who have that energy and focus, as well the ability to multitask. Especially for work in full service agencies, I look for people who understand creative processes, technical processes, and where those two meet. The project manager’s role in an agency is to bring those two disciplines together and to make sure collaboration is happening.

What does the future of project management looks like in the advertising industry and how do you think we can better prepare for that?

I actually think a lot of the fundamental day-to-day project administration tasks that still have to happen are going to become more and more automated. Project managers are going to have to step up and become more strategic drivers and strategic contributors to the work they’re leading. Soon, you’ll be able to press a button and get a report that gives you all your financial projections, along with a timeline for all the work. Your role is really to bridge those gaps between disciplines, as well as to bridge client expectations with what the team is able to deliver.

Project Managers are going to have to become subject matter experts in the work they’re delivering. We’re moving more into an agile design delivery method. The idea of going behind the curtain and coming out months later with a “ta-da” design is becoming an antiquated process of the past. Being more nimble and more agile is something all agencies are going to have to do, if they haven’t already.

Christine Meginness
Vice President, Program Management