The four low-tech aspects that are most valuable to tech projects
As a marketing designer I shape and manage messaging, branding, and marketing for SMEs. A lot of what I do is find web projects, spec them out, quote them, and manage the project. In doing this I work with techies and often bridge the communication gap between tech-speak and client-speak. I’m no tech expert, and not a programmer (unless you count Fortran and a little HTML), but I help make projects with a big tech component happen.
I value tech. Tech is important; IT is integral. But it’s not everything. In fact, much of a tech project’s success rides on low tech aspects like interpersonal relations, project management, and knowing the target users of what you’re making. If you don’t have control of these your project won’t be as good as it could be.
So what are the four low-tech aspects that I find to be most valuable to tech projects?
- Understanding the basics of marketing
- Project management and time management
- Understanding that there are a lot of stakeholders to please
- The project musts that go without saying
These may seem like a lot to take on, but really it will be easy for most tech folks. Already whip-smart, all you need is a little effort to internalize these aspects, which will go a long way toward helping your work go more smoothly.
Understanding the basics of marketing
It’s good to know the basics of accounting so you can go over your taxes with your accountant. It’s good to know the basics of medicine so you can talk to the doctor about your health.
It’s good for marketing designers to know a bit about programming so we can talk to you using a common vocabulary, and have an idea of what we’re asking for: “I need a 50-page website with a custom database and a fancy shopping system. I can get that in two days, right?” No, and a few 30-minute conversations with programmers would make clear why.
In the same vein, it’s good for programmers to know a bit about marketing so you know what we’re talking about when we ask for things, and why we’re asking for them in the first place. “Look at this awesome, super-complicated GUI I made for the website project, isn’t it great?” No, unless you’re the only one who’s going to use it, because the colors and the feel don’t match the brand and the target market isn’t going to understand it. One good hour browsing the marketing section at Borders and you’d be in total agreement.
The bonus to getting a solid understanding of marketing basics is that when you really get them you become more valuable to your employer because you can talk to clients in a way that they understand, participate in planning, and make suggestions that are relevant.
A good place to start is MarketingExperiments, a site with a tech flavor to marketing. They test optimization for search, landing pages, e-mail, and more.
Another fun way to get a little marketing think is from Seth Godin. Seth’s a savant about marketing and the way ideas spread, and his blogs touch on all areas of common sense marketing and operations.
Project management and time management
You need to get involved early on in managing the project if you want a say in how it goes. Start by really determining, definitively, what they’re asking you to do. A lot of times marketing planners don’t know how to articulate what they need, so drill them with questions to make sure you’re on the same page. Then figure out exactly how long it will take you, map out a project course, and hold yourself to it. And hold them to their requests; I know how much you love scope creep!
I’ve found that what a lot of programmers seem to fear most is being regarded as incompetent; if someone asks for something you’ll do it if it kills you. But then you don’t get it done – because no one possibly could – and the marketing designer and client are disappointed. Big bummer.
So address change requests with a polite but firm, “This new idea is great. Let’s round out the initial plan so we can accomplish our deadline, then move on to new ideas.” No one ever argues with accomplishing the deadline.
Or say, “This request makes sense, but it raises some issues that might cost more time and money.” I got that from evolt.org, and it’s brilliant because it gets the project manager or client to back off if they’re not serious, or talk time and money if they are.
Understanding that there are a lot of stakeholders to please
There’s the perfect IT world where every project is done optimally for the most beautiful code and end result, and project managers and clients understand the value of everything you’re doing and life is beautiful all the time.
I know this because there’s also the perfect marketing world where every project is done optimally for the most beautiful campaign and end result, and project managers and clients understand the value of everything I’m doing and life is beautiful all the time.
These perfect worlds aren’t real, mainly because there are so many stakeholders to please in each project: Mr. I-control-the-purse strings Comptroller; Ms. I-need-to-ride-your-butt-so-my-job-looks-valuable Project Manager. Mr. Because-I’m-the-boss-and-I-want-it-that-way CEO. And don’t forget the target market!
You probably don’t even know about some of the folks involved in the projects you work on, and there’s no way to control for how they act. So keep in mind that there are a lot of stakeholders with a lot of ideas, and be choosy about which issues you turn into problems; let the rest slide. If you pick your battles carefully you may be surprised at the cooperation you do get because you’re so easy to work with.
The project musts that go without saying
This last item is really a collection of four things that should go without saying but bear repeating because we forget about them.
Good communication: Know who’s on the project team, who the project boss is, and stay in touch. Ask questions, suggest an improvement or two. You want them to know that you’re there so they’ll take you into consideration when they’re coming up with new ideas.
Good documentation: Know what reporting and meetings are expected of you. Keep a running record of your ideas, problems, and time so your reports are solid and you can come to meetings fully prepared. No, this isn’t really part of the tradition tech job description. But tech is evolving, and so is employment. You have be more than a brain and a pair of hands to continue to be successful.
Knowledge of usability, whether that’s innate or learned: Don’t make software only programmers can use. Think K.I.S.S. all the time: What can I take out? It’s just like copywriting: edit, edit, edit! Check out other programs and websites to see what other people are doing, and adopt the best of what you see.
Knowing the ultimate goal of the project: Sounds elementary, but how often do marketing designers or project managers actually tell you about the whole project and not just the one part you’re working on? If they don’t, ask. Then consider that goal in the work that you’re doing.
There they are: The four low-tech aspects that I find to be most valuable to tech projects. I hope it was enlightening!
If not you’re a programming rock star and may want to consider applying for project management positions.