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My First Year as a Project Strategist at Big Nerd Ranch, Part 1
In November of 2018, I will be celebrating the completion of my first year in the software industry. Yes, I will get my picture on the anniversary slide of my company’s bi-weekly update from our CEO. And yes, the Director of my team will say a few words about my accomplishments (and follies, probably) during my first year. For those of you reading this, perhaps your first year in the software industry is a distant memory, or perhaps your career in the space is in its infancy, as mine is. Regardless of where you are in your journey, I want to bring you back to the very beginning and share a few invaluable skills that I have learned- and am still perfecting- as I navigate the perils of a Project Strategist at Big Nerd Ranch.
For those of you who don’t know, at BNR, the Project Strategist wears many hats. We are involved in nearly every project from sales to delivery and, along the way, we serve as scrum masters, story writers, backlog groomers, mediators, escalation points, inspectors, meeting facilitators, nudgers, follow-uppers, and a whole list of other things. At first, I assumed the apparent fluidity in our role is largely due to the range of clients that BNR serves, which spans Fortune 500 companies to local mom and pop shops. After all, how could a large, well-funded, multinational corporation suffer from the same blockers as the entrepreneur who has his life savings and a dream? And how was I, a newbie in this field and position, supposed to know which skills apply to which project?
I will admit, the roadblocks that I came to in my first few projects really threw me for loops as I tried to figure out how to uncover that golden ticket solution that would solve everything. I was exhausted after my first few months, under the impression that I would be devoting a huge amount of emotional energy to every project that I would ever manage for the unforeseeable future. My Director and team members were a powerful support system, reminding me that I’d “get the hang of it, it takes time.” But those words fall flat in the face of a deadline that you and your team cannot meet for reasons that seem out of your control. Stressful right?
However, as I continued to work with clients of different sizes, from different industries, and with different levels of understanding of software in general, I began to recognize consistent patterns in the projects I managed. In my first year, this was my Aha Moment. I was able to start asking questions before project kick-offs that would allow me to get in front of situations that were ominous but could be avoided. I could be confident in conversations with clients because my talking points were solid and focused. I could convey topics or expectations clearly and in a way that alleviated the client’s concerns. I was able to realize that my many hats are not unique to projects, but unique to the people I interact with. This is what my team was telling me, but it’s something I had to figure out on my own to believe. Our roles as Project Strategists are not that ad-hoc list of things I mentioned before, but simply “do what you have to in order to put both the client and BNR on a path to success.” When I shifted my thinking from trying to be good at everything to being excellent at a few things, I finally felt settled into my role.
So what are those few things, you ask? You’ll laugh- I was actually told what they were in my initial phone interview with my current Director. I remember asking, “What makes someone in this role successful?” and being told (in a nutshell), “This role requires you to be authoritative, proactive, inquisitive, and relational.”
At Big Nerd Ranch, the Project Strategy team builds its processes around those four concepts: authoritativeness, proactivity, inquisitiveness, and relationships. It took me a few turns up at bat to understand and apply them to my projects- they seem so vastly experiential and my teams were blocked by real, tangible, immediate things! In my next blog post, I will outline each of these characteristics, explain how Big Nerd Ranch’s Project Strategy team utilizes them to steer a project to a successful completion while providing the highest levels of client satisfaction, and share a few amusing examples of my own experiences along the way. In the meantime, I encourage all you software strategists and managers out there to reflect on your own processes and perhaps identify how at least one of these skills can improve a client relationship or unblock a project.