Meet the Philly guy behind the 1st nat’l conference for digital project managers

Last year's inaugural conference, run by Happy Cog's events arm, drew 150 people to Old City. This year, the event takes place in Austin, Texas Oct. 6-7.

Brett Harned had been to so many meetups — for designers, UX architects, developers, content strategists. But there was nothing for project managers. So Harned, VP of project management of Center City web dev firm Happy Cog, set out to change that.

Last year, under the guise of Happy Cog’s fledgling events arm, Harned and his team hosted the first Digital Project Management Summit at WHYY’s headquarters on Independence Mall. About 150 people attended.

The conference is back for another year, this time in Austin, Texas, from Oct. 6-7.

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Happy Cog plans to spin out the Bureau of Digital Affairs, its events arm, in 2015, said Harned, 37, of South Philadelphia.

Below, he explains what he did after the dot com crash, what he’s most excited for at this year’s DPM Summit and why project managers are not robots.


When did you get into project management? What were you doing before?

I’ve always been managing projects in some way. I started my career at a startup in Connecticut as an editor. In that job, I was taught all of the web basics — from HTML to Photoshop, and even Flash. When the dot com bubble burst, I made my way back to Philly (I went to college at Saint Joseph’s University). I worked in higher ed for a few years on web communications teams, and then at a small design firm called Kelsh Wilson Design, where I was an account director. All the jobs!

My first official title as a “Project Manager” was at Avenue A|Razorfish, which is now Razorfish Healthware. In that job, I was able to build on my organizational skills and learn a heck of a lot about finances. It was an intense few years, but I really gained so much from working there in that role. From there, I moved on to Happy Cog, a smaller operation with huge projects, and a focus on project managers contributing to the projects as much as “managing” them. So, I’ve been able to be myself more and explore what it really means to manage projects — and what the role means to our industry.

What does a project manager do? What’s an average day for you?

A project manager is ultimately responsible for the health of their projects. A good PM will take that to the next level by facilitating good project communications, and supporting their teams through the thick of any project. That could be through running interference with the client while the team is heads down on a deliverable, taking notes in a meeting, pitching in on some creative brainstorming, or even just being there to see a project through.

It’s impossible to predict a project manager’s daily schedule, because we’re really there to support the ebbs and flows of projects. Any typical day could see a combination of attending multiple project-related meetings, writing project status reports, updating or writing relevant project documents (project plans, scopes, change requests, requirements, etc.) and working with our teams to make sure that projects are delivered on time and under budget. It ends up being a lot of communication via phone, Skype/Google Hangouts, email and chat.

Brett Harned

Happy Cog VP of Project Management Brett Harned. (Photo courtesy of Brett Harned)

What’s a common misconception about digital project managers?

It really depends on where you are and how the role is defined, but one thing that I’ve encountered — mostly at larger agencies — is that project managers are the people who sit behind their desks and work in spreadsheets and don’t really have much to do with the actual delivery of the project. Sure, they oversee it, but they don’t contribute to its success and they certainly are never able to speak with clients. It’s kind of funny — they make us out to be robots. “Bleep bloop, here’s that number you needed and a date. Beeeeeep.”

That’s just not how it is, or how it should be! A good project manager can find the balance between being in the weeds of the project and interacting with a team and clients while contributing to the success of a project, or even a single deliverable. The bottom line is that we’re people people — we care about the well-being of our teams just as much, if not more, than the bottom line.

What has organizing the Digital PM Summit taught you?

This whole event was born out of the idea that I wanted to build a community for the people who do what I do. As a member of the greater web community, I’ve had many great opportunities to attend events for designers, UX folks, content strategists and developers, and rarely would I meet another PM. No one was hosting events for us.

So back in 2010, I decided to start a meetup group in Philadelphia, which is now called DPM Philly. We started with a small gathering of people, but it has recently picked up steam.

Anyway, it was through those events and some additional speaking engagements where I realized that there is a community of people who manage digital projects out there. And they are hungry to make connections and talk about the issues that are important to them. It has been so great to see the Digital PM Summit come to life — and to know that I’m not on some weird island in Philly.

What session are you most excited for?

Since we have two types of sessions — keynotes and breakout sessions — I feel like you have to give me two! They are:

  1. Keynote: [Minneapolis-based] Meghan Wilker and Nancy Lyons will be closing the conference with a presentation they are developing just for our conference. It’s called “Everything I Need to Know about Project Management I Learned from Little House on the Prairie” and it is bound to be funny and filled with great tips for PMs. Meghan and Nancy wrote a great book called Interactive Project Management: Pixels, People, and Process and spoke at our event last year. They’re super-smart, funny speakers, so I am pretty excited to see them again.
  2. Breakout: Anthony Armendariz and Danielle Moser from [Austin-based product design agency] Funsize will be presenting “MVP Planning: What Can Wait?” on day two. I’m most excited for their session because it combines ideas and principles of project management with product management. It feels like the more we get into building apps and digital products, the more we need to adapt to different methodologies, so this session should be enlightening.
Companies: Happy Cog

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