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Project Managing an Open Source Project

April 8, 2020

In this episode, we welcome a new host, Christine Bryan. And as a sort of initiation, we interview her about project managing an open source project.

About Christine

Christine has been working in marketing and technology for over fifteen years. She’s worked in government, non-profit, and for-profit industries. Her first Drupal project was on Mass.gov, the state website for Massachusetts, and since then she’s worked with clients including universities, manufacturing, and financial services. In her spare time she parents a pretty awesome one year old kiddo, plays video games, and likes to walk around the world at Epcot.

 

Tool Pick

Let’s talk about Jira.

Interview

  1. Tell us about yourself and your role as a project manager (PM) at Mediacurrent.
  2. How did you get started in Project Management?
  3. What are some qualities you need to be an effective PMs?
  4. Are there specific challenges an Open Source project presents from a PM point of view?
  5. When we asked you what you wanted to talk about on your first time out on the podcast, why did you choose Jira?
  6. As a PM, do you interact with Marketers of the project you are managing?  How do marketers get involved with your projects?
  7. What could potentially make a project fail if not managed properly? And how would you avoid failure?
  8. A project, although managed by a PM, depends on the execution of many people (devs, stakeholders, etc.), what do you think others can do to increase the chances of success?
  9. How do you define success when managing a project?

Transcript

Mark Casias: And welcome to Mediacurrent's Open Waters podcast navigating the intersection between open source technology and marketing. I'm Mark Casias along with our trustee cohost, Mario Hernandez.

Mario Hernandez: Hello, everybody out there.

Mark: And then there's Bob Kepford.

Bob Kepford: Hello, people of the internet.

Mark: People of the internet love Bob Kepford. And this episode, we're going to be welcoming our new host, Christine Bryan.

Christine Bryan: Thanks, Markie.

Mark: As sort of an initiation to the podcast, Christine will be a regular host on the podcast, but since this is her first time, we're gonna go ahead and interview her about project managing an open source project, which will be fun. How's that sound to you, Christine? Is that okay?

Christine: And it sounds like fun to me. I get to do it every day.

Mark: Yes, exactly. So little bit about Christine. Christine's been working in marketing and technology for over 15 years. She's worked in government, nonprofit, and for profit industries. Her first Drupal project was on mass.gov, the website for the state of Massachusetts. And then since then she's been working with clients, including universities, manufacturing, and financial services. In her spare time, she parents a pretty awesome one year old kiddo, plays video games, and likes to walk around the world, but only in Epcot. So how much of the actual world have you seen?

Christine: So outside of Epcot, where I've seen Norway and Mexico and a number of really awesome things, the only places I've been in the world outside of the US would be Canada and Ireland. Where I studied at the, I think it was the national theatre, for a summer when I was in college. Although, I did have a lot of whiskey that summer, so I may have made that up.

Mark: I've had a lot of whiskey since this COVID-19 thing, so I understand that completely. So, starting with every interview we do a thing called a project pick and what project did you like to pick?

Christine: We're gonna do a system pick today cause I wanted to talk about JIRA.

Mark: JIRA. Oh, JIRA.

Christine: Everybody loves JIRA. I know.

Bob: Good old JIRA.

Christine: (laughs)

Mark: So tell us about JIRA.

Christine: Sure. JIRA is a work management system. I've used a lot of them over the years, including this one home brew one that some of my coworkers said we had to make. And it's by far my favorite, it's a way for you to break up work and describe it in ways that make sense to you and the client and the whole rest of your team.

Christine: And then to show where that work is and its journey it's just started, I'm working on it, somebody's testing it, or it's been deployed to production it's already done. So it's just a really nicely made system. It supports agile projects really, really well. And it's made by Atlassian who also made Confluence, which is a pretty great Wiki system as well as Bitbucket, which we use a lot here, as well.

Mark: Yeah. And they're all very well integrated together, which is really nice because, if you have a JIRA ticket, you open up a Bitbucket branch, it knows. It knows everything.

Christine: Yeah. They play nice together. Although, you know, when I go click into Bitbucket, I'll be like, "Merged" and "Who did what?" And there's a whole world of Bitbucket beyond what I understand as a PM, but it gives me the pieces that I need to know, like what's going on, who's doing what, that piece I can definitely see. So.

Mark: Excellent. Excellent. Well, welcome to the show.

Mario: Yeah. Very happy to have you, Christine. Thank you for joining us.

Christine: Yeah. It's a pleasure to be here.

Mario: So you've been working with us for a while. How, how long have you been with Mediacurrent and tell us a little bit about your role here at Mediacurrent.

Christine: Sure. It's gonna be, it's gonna be three years this year in 2020. You know, I've run a couple of different types of projects both, you know, new build that I've run from start to finish and projects that I've joined in along the way that have been you know, pretty large or, you know, kinda small, just depending on whatever work is needing doing, that's the work that you pick up.

Christine: The other thing that I do is I like to think of myself as a, a curator of the culture. So I've created a couple Slack channels. I run a couple like little mini contests that we have going on. And I think my favorite slack channel that I work on and keep moving is happy GIFs where we just get in there and we post happy GIFs to each other all day long. Well, maybe not all day long, but certainly whenever somebody needs a pick me up, you can go to happy GIFs and see a puppy dancing or something like that.

Mark: That's good. And I always say that my day is complete if I can answer all my questions with GIFs.

Christine: Yeah. That's why we get along so well.

Mark: Exactly.

Bob: So how did you get started in project management? Just to give you a little bit of a origin story.

Christine: Sure. Well I was bitten by a radioactive project manager and inherited all of their powers. That's my origin story, I suppose. (Laughs) I was a business systems analyst for a long time, which is a requirements elicitation expert. I worked on waterfall projects for a pretty long time. That was kind of the thing in your older in industries like telecom. And so I did that for a long time and I sort of led those projects despite not being the project manager. You know, you can always be a leader on your team, even if you're not the named leader.

Christine: And that was definitely sort of, a niche that I occupied for a long time. So I transferred into project management more formally when, I was at mass.gov, when I was at the state of Massachusetts consulting there. And then worked on the mass.gov project where I was coaching other project managers. And I was leading a couple of different projects underneath that sort of umbrella. And it worked, it worked out really well. I really ended up liking it a lot, becoming sort of more formally a project manager and I've been doing it ever since.

Mark: Cool. And what are, what would you say are some qualities you need to have to become an effective project manager?

Christine: Well, that's, that is a very, very good question. Definitely good communication skills. It's really hard to get the job done if you can't be that person who tells the story from one person to another. Organization, calmness, especially in a crisis. But I'd say the one that I work on the most and I've been working on it for many years is the ability to delegate. To be a good project manager, I need to be up at the top of that totem pole, kind of keeping my eye on the whole landscape and supporting my entire team. And it's very easy to get tempted into doing work that I know I can do or that I used to do a lot like requirements writing or working with clients and things like that.

Christine: And I have to remember, you know, to always work on delegating to my teams to make sure that you know, not only am I growing them, but I'm keeping my head space clear to do the things that I need to do as a project manager. And I imagine for you guys who have been leaders in development, that it's a very similar thing where, you know, you could jump in there and do the job, but you have to step back cause you have other things you need to do. You can't just dig into the code and fix the problem.

Mario: Yeah. It's definitely an adjustment there, but you know, I think we were talking the other day about, you know, the difference between working on open source project and non-open source project. And we certainly, as developers can see some of the differences right. And challenges, but are there any specific challenges to open source from a management, project management, point of view?

Christine: You know, from my point of view, no. I think open source projects are actually very much alike to other projects that most projects are more alike to each other than they are not, you know, all throughout my career. I've had people tell me this project is unique or this project is a special flower, like over and over and over again. And I've never had anybody just say to me, you know, this one's pretty typical. This is a standard project, like no surprises in here. We've done this kind of thing before.

Christine: But I think, when I look back, I see that projects are more similar to each other than not. But you know, as I was thinking about this question a little bit more, I think maybe the only challenge that I could see and, and maybe you guys could weigh in on this more than I could is with open source. Maybe licensing can get a little, little bit funky cause the different open source communities have different licensing needs.

Mario: Yeah. That can certainly, you know, it could affect a project from a development point of view. You know, if you think about licensing and what restrictions that may bring to the project, right? You may not be able to get the resources or that we need to, to either complete a feature or whatever the task is.

Mark: Yeah. I was, I was gonna say supportive feature enhancements. That, where with an open source project, we can just get in there and make things happen with. I worked with at a company that did exclusively Microsoft projects, and I was trying to connect to one of their services, and I called their support and I was telling them that I'm trying to create a Drupal module to connect to their service. And the person said, "Well, you need to call the person that wrote the plugin." And I'm like, "Well that's me. I'm that person. How do I do this?" So yeah.

Mario: Now that's certainly a challenge. Yeah.

Bob: I think working with open source mostly, just the way you think about it changes a little bit. I agree with you. It's more, it's more similar than it is different. So, when we ask you what you wanted to talk about as far as your first time on the podcast, why did you mention JIRA?

Christine: Yeah. Well, I know that a lot of developers and a lot of people who do things don't love JIRA. It's not a, having to write down what it is you do on all the time, it's probably not a beloved task. I know I had someone say to me recently, well, do you want me to do the job or do you want me to, to talk about the job? And I was like, well, I kind of need you to do both. Like if you're out there doing what you're doing, but I don't know anything about it, there's so little I can do to help you. You know, it's, it's a communication tool. That's really what it is. And it helps people get in there and just say what they're doing, what the successes are, what the blockers are. And by bringing those to me, you sort of unlock this whole suite of project management services that I can do for you.

Christine: You know, I can make sure that I'm bringing things up to the client or to the stakeholders. When you need more information, I can go fetch it for you. If you're blocked, I can go find the person who can unblock you. I've even done, you know, release management and incident management and all sorts of things. You know, you just jump in feet first and get, get going with them. But in order for me to understand what's happening, you can't sort of be off on the lonely island just coding in, you know, pure silence. You have to be shouting back to me and the rest of the team, kind of what's going on so that we can make sure that we're supporting you and also that we're highlighting all of the really cool things that you're doing, and that applies to anybody on the team, whether you're a strategist, a UX designer, a developer, a tester, I have taken stories from all, all sorts of people over the years that have sort of emerged through JIRA tickets.

Christine: We're all, I'll call somebody out in Slack and be like, "Hey, I saw this thing. Did that really go as well as you expected? You know, you thought it was gonna be this really tough thing, but you found, you found this way through you, you sort of threaded that needle way faster than we thought." Yeah. And I'm like, "I'm gonna tell somebody about that. I'm gonna talk about how great that was." And you know, maybe I'll take that to the client. Maybe I'll it back to that person's manager, but it's really important for me to be able to find those sticky spots so I can kind of help un-gum the works, but also those, those really heroic moments. So I can make sure that not only, you know, are those stories getting to the right ears, but that the people who do those things are feeling and hearing how appreciated they are for finding the best way to do stuff.

Mark: Yeah. Especially in a remote staff like us, we're all distributed. So knowing what the other person's doing is not as simple as leaning back and yelling across a cubicle saying, "Hey, what do you got? You got a question about this?" Usually, I do that and my dog looks at me blankly and doesn't answer.

Christine: I used to have so many hallway conversations like in a physical building and, you know, I used to, I would (laugh) at my last physical building job, I used to do something called the Bacon Fairy every once in a while, where I would just pop down to the cafeteria on the first floor and pick up just an order of bacon and walk up and just walk around with it and offer it to people and just hear how they were doing. And it was real fun. You know, it was a nice way to brighten people's day.

Christine: Even I had one person who was mostly vegetarian, who would, who would still jump in when, when fresh, hot bacon came to the table, but you can't do that remotely. You have to find other ways to have water cooler conversations or to transmit vital information to each other. And you need both of those things. You can't, you can't ignore the culture either.

Mark: I've been working remote for almost 15 years and this is the first argument I've ever had for working in an office: the Bacon Fairy.

Bob: Well, for working in an office with Christine. (laughs)

Mark: Yeah, but there's that I guess, like.

Christine: I don't, I didn't learn that from anybody else. I just sort of called it that and ran around the office with a tray of bacon and people could have called me crazy, but instead they smiled and took the bacon, so it worked out okay.

Mario: I like to see what the, I like to see what the fairy looks like, you know, is it she all dressed in bacon and?

Christine: It was a government office, Mario, so no, she was, she was dressed relatively conservatively. Sensible shoes.

Mark: Just carried bacon. That was the, that was the defining factor. Yeah. So you know, this podcast is geared towards marketers and so as a project manager, do you interact with the marketers of, of the projects or more importantly, how marketing and marketers get involved with project management?

Christine: I love it when marketers are involved in my projects and if they're not, I usually try and seek them out. You know, they're either gonna be the primary hands on users of the things that we are making, you know, cause at the end of the day, most of the systems that we're making are, you know websites for organizations that are sharing things about themselves or giving people a way to do things and marketers are gonna be the ones getting in there and being like, I wanna make a new page that tells this story that says this thing to somebody.

Christine: So we need them to have buy in really early on and they have to have a voice in the process because otherwise we're gonna deliver this thing to the, to the folks who are gonna use it. And they're gonna be like, "Man, how does this work? Why does it not do this thing that I need to do?" So you gotta get marketers involved like super duper early because they're like a real critical success factor in making sure that what we deliver is used and loved and meets the needs.

Mario: So yeah, in every project, you know, there's a lot of things that can potentially go wrong, right? For planning. For execution. But what are some of the things that you have found that can really risk a project on failing? You know, if it's not properly executed?

Christine: Well, every project that fails usually fails usually, usually at least partially succeeds, maybe I should say you know, when something is perceived as a failure, when it goes out the door, it could be for any number of reasons, it could be timeline, it could be budget, it could be stakeholder expectations, it could be user expectations. You know, I think really the only way to make sure that it doesn't fail on any access is to really work with the, with the people who are gonna determine whether or not it's a failure. So you need to get in there and really pull out information from the folks that you're working for, who you're making this site for. And this applies to any kind of project, not just an open source project, much less, just a website project. You need to elicit from them what it is that they would consider to make it a failure.

Christine: My favorite way to do that is just to ask them, you know, you're in an onsite, you're standing up there in front of the client with, in front of a whiteboard, with a marker in your hand and you just write on the board, what would make this a failure? And it pulls out of people, all of these things that you would never see in a project brief. You know, so you you'll hear things like, oh man, like how you could do everything right. But if that shade of blue is not the, the precise shade of blue used by Duke University, then the CEO is gonna consider this a failure because he loves Duke University and that's why he picked that color. And that has actually happened to me. That is not, that is not a made up example. So we were like, all right, well thank you for telling us, let's write down there that this, we have to hit that shade of blue right on the head.

Christine: And you know, you have to get those things from people. They're not always gonna be able to just give you a, a piece of paper that says on it, "Okay, well, if you take these boxes, it's gonna work." Like you have to really work at asking the right questions, asking leading questions, sensing stuff. My, one of my favorite things to say is that it's really important to figure out when something feels weird, cause you're not even necessarily gonna put your finger on it, but you might just be like, you know what, there's something funky about this particular feature.

Christine: Cause the way these people are talking about it is a little different than the way these people are talking about it. Let's, let's just kinda get folks in a room and be like, "Hey everybody, can you describe to them what it is you want this to do?" Cause sometimes, you'll find out that just two different groups of people have the have different ideas. And that's just for internal stakeholders, really the only way to be confident that you're gonna hit your user base is with good user testing. And you could do that at the design phase, at the development phase. There's a lot of ways and times to engage representative folks who you're gonna be showing your product to in the end. And it always pays off in the end, I think. It always pays off in the end.

Mario: It sounds like, and I, I think I've been on some of the you know, calls first onsite call that we make with a client or stakeholder where we ask, you know, "What, how do you define success for this project? Or how do you define failure?" And a lot of times they don't even know what to say. I, I guess they really haven't thought that deep into what would define success or failure. So I guess bringing up those questions can really put things in perspective for the client as well.

Christine: My my favorite particular way to ask that is to say that I'm gonna ask the question and I want everybody to think of their response before we go around the room and say it. And what that does is that makes each different person think of a different response rather than just sort of, you get a lot of folks doing kind of group think even in a really strong group of people you see this tendency of people would be like, "Oh yeah, I totally agree with what Ted said there."

Christine: You know, so to say, "Hey everybody, I'm gonna ask you what would make this a failure? And I want you to just think of your response and then we're gonna go around the room and write all the different answers up on the board." It can really provide some interesting avenues especially if you have a group of people with varying degrees of power in a room. So if you have a CEO and then you have like a low-level subject matter expert, you need that subject matter expert to unlock and come out with really strong opinions about things, but you need to give them an avenue to do it in a way that supports the project. And in a way that they feel supported, even if you've just met them, it can be a very tricky, tricky thing to do well. But it is very worth it when you nail it.

Bob: Yeah. So you are highlighting a lot of the skills that it is required to be a project manager. It's a lot more than just creating JIRA projects and things like that. And taking notes at meetings and a successful project depends on the execution of a lot of different people of stakeholders, as you were mentioning, what do you think others can do that other people on your team that, you know, they're not a project manager, but what can they do to increase the chances of project success?

Christine: Well, if I had you guys on my team, we'd be aiming at success pretty high, I think. But there are things that even you could do to help me out. And probably the biggest one would be to just tell me things, you know, as I was saying before there's so much stuff that I can do if I just hear from people. So you gotta tell me if things are hard, if things are unclear.

Christine: Like I said, if something's weird, that's a great word to use cause you don't even need to define it. I just like people to come to me and be like, "You know what, something's a little weird here. Help me figure out why it's weird." And that is just such a, a great thing to be able to say. And to allow your, your team to say to you is to be uncomfortable with ambiguity, but to know there's, there's something there. You really just wanna make sure that people feel empowered to do that.

Christine: I always say that as a project manager, I'm a storyteller more than anything else, you know. I need to, to tell the story of the client, to the team. I need to tell the client what the team is doing. And, and sometimes I have to know what the story is of the project so that I can answer questions and things like that. So it's, it's important for me to be able to listen, but it's important for other people to speak.

Mark: So in, in that vein, how would you define success? We've talked about failure, we've talked about what can be done. What would you say defines success when managing a project as a project manager?

Christine: The only way to define success is collaboratively. I know that you probably weren't expecting an adverb there, but waha, I surprised you with one. Because when you, when you really start working on a project you have to have voices from your team, from the client, from all over to know what it's gonna be success. And even from say within Mediacurrent, you know, how would my managers perceive of the project as a success or a failure?

Christine: Now, the people I'm working with perceive it as a success or a failure. And you have to sort of gather those bits of the story from all over the place in order to come up with something at the end that will satisfy everybody. That'll help Mediacurrent, you know, make money and stay in business and that'll help the open source community, hopefully by giving some things back. That'll help the client by meeting their goals and their needs by helping the site visitors going to the client's website so they can get what they need out of it. You know, that's really the only way to define and make sure that something is gonna be a success, is if everybody buys in to the same set of ideas of what is gonna make it a success in the end.

Mark: Excellent. Excellent. So that's it for our questions. Christine, do you have any, any questions for Christine?

Christine: Did you say Christine, do you have any questions for Christine? That what it sound like? I think you did. Yes.

Mark: Yep. (Laugh) That was an accident.

Mario: We always question ourselves.

Christine: We got really existential there (laugh)

Mario: Yeah, we like to question ourselves. I do it all the time.

Mark: So, is that a no, you don't have any questions for yourself?

Christine: I'm sorry. I didn't prepare any, although I do, I do like to, to live on the edge. No, I don't actually have any questions for myself right now. Thank you, Mark.

Mark: Alrighty. Well, well then that will do it for our show. Thank you very much and welcome to the podcast. We're very, very happy to have you. And we look forward to you on, on future episodes.

Christine: Thanks. It's it's fun to be here

Mark: And that it for today's show. Thanks for joining us. Looking for more useful tips, technical takeaways, or creative insights? Visit Mediacurrent.com/podcast for more episodes and to subscribe to our newsletter. Thanks for playing.

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