An interview with Jon Rhodes: On managing digital projects

In my second interview, I chat to Jon Rhodes, a senior project manager for Sheffield based digital agency Quba. We chat about project management, Agile vs. Waterfall, the mistakes freelancers make, microadventures, and much more. Enjoy!

Did you go to university or college?
No, I didn’t go to either. I left school at 16. I was pretty bored of learning at that point so I decided to do a youth training scheme.

What’s your take on higher education? Will you encourage your daughter to go to university?
Well, my wife went to university. I’m biased to not going if I’m honest. It hasn’t held me back at all. I’ve missed out on some of the life skills, if you want to call it that, like living away from home and making friends and all that stuff but I didn’t have the debt and I started working straight away and I think that has been a better thing for me. I started working at 16 and I’ve learnt so much from that. Would I recommend it to my daughter? Well, I’ll give her every opportunity to make her own mind up. I wouldn’t try to sway her either way.

How did you get into project management?
I was working at a company called learndirect in a junior admin type role and my manager at the time said I should apply for a project manager job. That was in 2007. My first project was a website selling e-courses to the SME market. I absolutely loved it. I got made redundant from there, and then joined HSBC, where I managed IT projects. It wasn’t that well suited to me, it was such a massive company with such a massive office – I think it was around 4000 people in the Sheffield office – and I tried to do what I wanted to do, and do things my way, but there was a culture of this is how we do things. Then I moved to a web agency called Technophobia for a few years, before joining Quba as a senior project manager which is where I am now.

“If I say I’m going to do something, then I just do it.”

Can you describe what you do at Quba?
I’m a senior project manager at Quba. We’re a web and digital agency. I do my best to make sure what a client wants is ultimately delivered. I facilitate scoping sessions and workshops to get a better understanding of what a client wants and I write these up so I can replay back to a client to make sure our understanding is correct. I run estimating sessions so we can all get an understanding of how long things will take to deliver. I work with our team of designers and developers each day to make sure what we’ve said we’re going to do is done, and that we are on track with any timescales we may have committed to. I keep a client up to date as things progress and if something’s not right, I’ll let them know. And towards the end of a project I’ll work with our test team to make sure what we’re giving is to our high standards. I work with a client to make sure any steps for going live are as pain-free as possible.

I’m currently working on between 4-5 projects, between 2-3 new business pitches, and I manage a small team. I also work with the rest of the guys at Quba trying to make it a brilliant place to work and a brilliant place for clients to come to.

What makes a good project manager?
I think you need to be honest and trustworthy. There’s no point telling a blatant lie because you’ll either get caught out or you’ll disappoint someone. A big thing for me is that I want to be reliable. If I say I’m going to do something, then I just do it. If I promise a document or an email and that means I have to stay a bit later, then unfortunately that’s what has to happen. If you give your word on something, then you really ought to do it. It goes without saying that you need to be organised. You need to have good people skills and get on with people. And I believe you have to be a good mediator at times. Not everyone gets on at all times and you need to manage that, and it helps if you can get people gelling and working together. You also need to have the skills to create well written and well crafted documents.

What tips or advice would you give to someone, like myself, that doesn’t have any background or training in project management?
There’s various certifications, courses, and qualifications that you can take. They’re all great but actually you can just do simple things. Be helpful and friendly. If you say you’re going to call someone back at a certain time or email someone, just do it. And a big thing, if for whatever reason you can’t do something, I think it’s better to say you can’t do it than over promise. If you know you’re going to miss a deadline, or there’s a tricky situation, or you need to take a day off, just be honest with the client and say you’re really sorry but I can’t do this. Be organised, keep control of your schedule or calendar, make lists to know what you need to get done today, tomorrow and the following days. If someone asks you to do something which is miles away from what you initially agreed, mention it. If something is different but might only take 5 minutes, then do that little bit more and deliver something amazing.

We visited a clients office together a few months back and one thing that stands out was how you helped the receptionist when he couldn’t find the person you was after. Just being helpful and friendly goes a long way.
In my first job, when I was a young trainee, I was working with a woman in our post department. She gave me some advice I’ll never forget: “Always remember that people on reception are absolute key to making your life easier.” Receptionists are the first people you see when you go for a job or go to meet a client. Just getting a rapport with them is important. That interaction might feedback to the client.

“Being Agile is just being a bit more iterative and doing things quicker.”

What software do you use for project management?
You can’t get away from email, unfortunately. Skype is great. We use Basecamp – most clients and most projects are on it. I’m not the biggest fan of it to be honest. I’m a big fan of Trello; it’s a bit more visual and it’s easy to use. We’ve just started using a tool called DoneDone for bug tracking. Previously, we were trying to do bug tracking with Basecamp but that didn’t work. Most of my day is spent in either Basecamp or Trello.

I’d like to talk briefly about Waterfall vs. Agile. Can you explain what Waterfall and Agile workflows might look like?
Waterfall is where you do the scoping work up front and that will probably end up as a specificational or functional requirements document. Once that’s signed off, that will lead to the next step which is likely to be design. In a web project, we’re likely to do wireframes, visual concepts, style guides, things like that. At the end of that, those will be signed off, and that will lead into development work, which again will be signed off, and that will lead to testing, amends, and then user acceptance testing. And therein is the problem: you’ve got through quite a few stages where the client has seen documents, and some PSDs and mockups, but the testing stage doesn’t come until the end. Therefore, if you want any changes, you have to go back through the loop. Speccing out, design work, development, testing, etc. For large scale projects, it’s not great. A lot of the work is done upfront in documents.

Agile is breaking that process down into much smaller chunks. You basically do all those steps in a shorter period, usually somewhere between 2 and 4 weeks. You do less upfront planning work. In a web project, you might work on wireframes and concepts for the home page in a sprint and then after 2 weeks you might do a demo for the client. You might have nailed 90% of what is required, and 10% are little changes. That 10% goes into something called a backlog. In the next sprint, you take more items from the backlog and you go and change 10% of the homepage and then you might work on the registration page. Over a period of sprints, you build out a full picture. There’s a few benefits: you don’t have to do much upfront work, you can get cracking sooner, and it makes changing things easier because you just move into the next sprint.

Being Agile is just being a bit more iterative and doing things quicker. One of the problems with agile is getting client buy-in. The client needs to have an appreciation for agile and they need to have the right people in place for it.

In my experience, clients want to see some documentation. They want to know in writing what they’re getting and when it will be done. And there’s nothing very Agile about that.

Do you use Agile or Waterfall?
Quba generally takes a hybrid approach. We work with clients who have a fixed budget, they’ve got a timeline, and they generally know what they want and that generally leads to Waterfall. What we try to do at Quba is a specification document which is basically a summary of what the client will get. What we try to do in a slightly more agile way is the development phase. We break down the backend development work into sprints wherever possible and we do demos on a regular basis. The client sees something more often which is a more agile approach, but if they want anymore changes we’ll often go down the Waterfall route of you can have whatever you want but there will be a change request. That hybrid approach seems to be working really well.

How do you go about pricing projects?
For any project that we start at Quba, we hold an estimating session or an estimating workshop. That’s just an internal get together and we try and have someone from each discipline, so we’ll usually have a designer, developer, project manager, account manager and we sit down and go through whatever the project is. We then list out what we’re going to do, what assumptions we’re making, and how many hours we think it’s going to take. At the end of this, we have a price. I’m involved in collating how much time we think it’s going to take.

What do you think makes a great agency?
I think it has to have a good client base, a good pipeline and a massive thing is the people who work there. We’re lucky at the minute that Quba has some fantastic talent. All combined, that’s helping us become a brilliant agency. We’re really lucky that the office that we work in is really quirky, it’s a great place to come to work and a good place to bring clients. We’re concentrating on getting the quality of our work up to a standard that we’re happy with.

What does Quba get right?
We’re really good at investing in the people we have, even though that sounds cliché. I wanted to do Scrum Master training and I was given the opportunity to do that. There’s absolutely zero fuss over stuff like that, they just let you do it. We always have people out at conferences, workshops, getting certifications and there’s a really good buzz about it. I think that’s making a big difference.

And what do you think Quba gets wrong?
We’re getting to the point where we’re really busy. We’re trying to do too much at the minute and we’re spreading ourselves too thin. That’s something we’ve recognised over the last few weeks and we’re doing something about it. We need to fix that now because we don’t want that affecting the quality of our work. We need to be a little bit cautious about the work that we take on. We want to get to the point where we have a schedule and some clients will wait perhaps a month or two because they know the quality that we can deliver and that’s one of current challenges.

You’re actively involved in hiring and working with freelancers. What qualities do you look for in a freelancer?
We need to make sure they’re reliable and that’s generally going to come from personal recommendations or historic use of a freelancer. Wherever possible, a good portfolio is helpful. We need to make sure their rates are within budget. I also want to work with freelancers who are client facing. I don’t want to be a messenger, I’d rather go into client meetings with a freelancer if required.

“We always have people out at conferences, workshops, getting certifications and there’s a really good buzz about it. I think that’s making a big difference.”

What are the biggest mistakes you see freelancers making?
We recently used a freelancer who had given an estimate of a few days for a piece of work. After those few days he replied that he was a bit busy and he’d need a few more days to complete the work. After after those few days his computer had broke, and a few more days later the computer was still being fixed. It was just ringing alarm bells for us. My gut feeling was that he was just too busy and working on other jobs. If he’d just have been honest and said I can’t do the work this week, I’ll start it next week, we could have worked that into the schedule. The simple mistake was just not being honest.

How do you keep active and what impact does that have on your work/mental state?
I either cycle or run into work each day and I also go kickboxing once a week. I go to the local ParkRun most Saturday’s with my wife and I try to do a either a 10k or half marathon race each month. I just feel better when I exercise, it puts me in a better mood, it gives me more energy and it’s nice to get a bit of time to myself. If I don’t do something for a few days I generally feel a bit sluggish.

What are microadventures?
Microadventures is a concept coined by an adventurer called Alastair Humphreys who’s a bit of a hero of mine. A few years ago he was bored of doing expeditions abroad and he wanted to do something closer to home where anyone could do it.

Microadventures have a few rules: it should take place on a week night. It should be something where you leave the office and be back at the office the next day. The whole thing is about being outside, sleeping under the stars. You sleep in a bivvy bag, you don’t take a tent and your face is open to the elements. You go with some mates. You cook a meal over a fire and then nine o’clock next morning you’re back at your desk.

There’s a few groups springing up over the UK. I’ve just joined one in South Yorkshire – I’ve not been out with them yet but sometime this year it’ll be good to get out and meet some like-minded people.

What 2-3 books would you recommend?
Funnily enough there’s a booked called Microadventures by Alastair Humphreys. That’s a brilliant book, and has been really inspiring for me. There’s another cracking book called The Man Who Cycled the World by Mark Beaumont. That’s about his world record cycling around the world. And another one: Just A little Run Around The World by Rosie Swale Pope. She’s in her 60s and has run around the world. Just brilliant.

If you could give yourself some advice when you first started out, what would it be?
Years ago I worried that I didn’t know what I wanted to be—that’s the question you’re always asked at school—and I never had a clue. I’ve just landed into this project management gig and it’s working out fine. It’s just happened by chance. So I’d tell a younger version of myself just do what you’re good at and it’ll all work out.

A huge thank you to Jon Rhodes for sharing his insights here. You can reach Jon on Twitter or on his website.