Trailer: From Pilot to Platform

As a project manager, I’ve often described myself as a herder of cats and an organizer of chaos. I’ve managed a number of projects and platforms over the years, each one has become a bit more complex, and not all of them successful. I’ve made a career of taking on projects (and positions) that have started from a tiny seed of an idea, trying to do something that no one else has attempted in quite the same way. That makes work exciting, but also terrifying. There is no blueprint or formula for success. 

A confused cat surrounded by chalkboard question marks.
Me, most days. (Thanks @JortsTheCat.)

A bit about my background: I’ve got 21 years of experience as a project manager, mostly in technical project management. My BA is in Film Studies, with a minor in Theatre, and I’m a librarian with a specialization in information management. That might not scream “project manager,” but in truth, some of the skills I use the most are the ones I learned in film and video production.

I’m currently the project manager on Humanities Commons. Humanities Commons started as an experiment. It was a pilot that grew organically out of discussion at the MLA, building on user requests and organization needs. Now housed here at Michigan State University’s MESH Research unit, we seek to move the project from pilot to platform. We’re grappling with aging infrastructure and parts of the platform that no longer work quite the way we think they should. Mike Thicke, our Tech Lead, has talked a bit about the issues of scalability and our vision of the future Commons in previous posts, but how do we get there

In thinking about our approach to this I’ve wanted to start a discussion on the project management of ambitious, nebulous projects that seek to fundamentally change the way we work. Over the next few months in this blog series, I’d like to explore what managing a project like Humanities Commons entails, the ways in which large projects like these are different in the ways they’re funded, staffed, and developed, and how we might define new ways of thinking about and creating structure around them. Consider this post the trailer!

Let’s dive in: What if I told you that project management was a lot like making a student film? 

Making every film, much like managing every project, is different. Components, from scripts to locations, are different each time and require different ways of thinking and managing. There’s no easy formula to learn to get it right, it’s got to be done by collaboration and feel, much like turning a pilot project into a platform. The same is true of large grant-funded digital projects, whether they’re DH projects seeking to answer a question or convey information, or the creation of a platform to allow users to collaborate, express themselves, and disseminate their own work. The thing is that the current most common project management methodologies, Waterfall and Agile, don’t necessarily fit due to the size/makeup of the team or the ways in which the work must be managed due to staffing and funding constraints. Our team consists of members who also work on other teams. Due to this we can’t meet the requirements of a traditional Agile team. While Waterfall might fit, the lack of iterative development could leave us with unexpected issues and more rework at the end that our funding structure could not absorb. Neither framework fits particularly well given the nature of our staffing and funding. 

Like storyboarding a film, these frameworks help shape the project, designate the roles, and organize it into a timeline in order to accomplish the work. If you’re working on the same type of project on an ongoing basis this does become much easier and you can develop working norms that will continue to support and sustain your team. If you’re creating something that’s constantly growing and changing in unexpected ways, with a shifting set of collaborators seeking to redefine how we communicate and create, it can be far more difficult. Norms need to be revisited, team members reconfigured, and new technology and goals assessed and integrated. 

We intend to take the best parts of the Agile framework – the non-hierarchical team structure, close collaboration and communication between teams, and weekly stand ups to ensure that we’re making progress – while working to create a new framework that reflects the nature of our team and the experimental nature of our work. In my experience, if you try to focus too much on following any framework you can get caught up in too much process work and not enough development work. When that happens the project slows to a crawl as discussions are had about how to do the work instead of actually doing it.

Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

Next up in this series will be The Cast: how roles function differently in a large academic, grant-funded project, and the ways in which that impacts the management of the project as a whole. 

Stay tuned!

One more thing… I’d like to give a shoutout to our UX Researcher, Stephanie Vasko, who was invaluable in helping me work out the structure of this series and organizing my thoughts. Thanks Stephanie! You’ll find out more about Stephanie and the rest of the team in the next post.