Every course, game, or simulation that NogginLabs produces doesn’t just happen by way of sheer luck. Sure, it might seem that way on account of our amazing custom designs and crisply tailored content. But behind the scenes, each project has a person that winds it up and makes it go. That person is the Project Manager.
I sat down with J.T. Litchfield, my own Project Manager AND the guy who trained me back when he was a Senior Content Producer. I like reminding J.T. of this because, if he takes issue with any of my work, I can remind him that he’s the one who taught me everything in the first place. I wanted to get his insights on what he considers to be the most important elements of being a PM, what he’s learned in his transition from CP to PM, and some of his favorite parts of the job. (Spoiler alert: It might have to do with our kegerator.)
J.T. and I begin by talking about the importance of constraints to the development process. One of our most prolific mantras at Noggin is, “Constraints force innovation.” J.T. adds to this:
"Within those constraints, though, we want to stay as open-minded and creative as possible. We use [constraints] as a positive way to focus brainstorming and thinking."
During these initial brainstorming sessions, it’s J.T.’s job to keep the team’s ideas in line with the objectives of the course and the wishes of the client. The Project Manager asks the important questions:
- How can a new character communicate the appropriate message?
- How can we gamify the content in an appropriate way?
- What is the best possible way for a learner to experience this course?
Project Managers are big-picture thinkers, anticipating obstacles in the future while maintaining control and efficiency in the present.
JUMPING THE FENCE
J.T. started his Noggin career as a Content Producer. I was curious about the biggest difference between his old position and his current:
"This position requires me to take a step back from the content and oversee all aspects of the project—that includes programming and design. You have to remove yourself from the minute details and make sure everything comes together the way a client wants."
This kind of oversight is crucial during the development process. The guidance and feedback that comes from the Project Manager is what gives a project its shape and flow. The Project Manager is also the primary contact with the client. That means J.T. sets up weekly status calls with clients in order to give updates, as well as receive any pertinent information that is needed for the production team.
I asked him about the most difficult aspect of his change in roles:
"Nobody does things the exact same way. So at first, I would watch how my CPs completed a task and I’d think, 'Well, that’s not how I would have done it.' But I soon learned that it’s ok. It’s easy to want everyone to do it your way, but it’s not necessary in order for a project to be completed. In fact, I’ve seen lots of instances of CPs doing things much better than I would have!"
I can relate to this. It's easy to focus on the tactics by which others choose to complete tasks. But sometimes, leadership is about focusing on what's ahead of you and trusting others to get their work done. This ability to delegate is what makes a team successful. J.T.'s beginnings as a CP also inform one of our greatest frenemies: the project timeline. Every team knows they are shooting for a specific date, but having a PM who has been on the ground floor of production makes the creation of this timeline a little easier.
J.T. can make accurate estimations of how much time a writer will need to complete a script, or how much time a designer might need to create mock-ups. All PMs develop this skill throughout the tenure of their position, but J.T. had a leg up. I have to call attention to this, though; there are some CP tasks J.T. will not let go. If you hear cool music in your course or game, odds are, J.T. spent some time down the audio rabbithole in an attempt to find the perfect soundbite.
THE CLIENT'S ROLE
I asked for some additional nuggets of PM wisdom, and J.T. immediately jumped at the chance to talk about e-learning vendor-client relationships:
"It’s important to treat the client as a partner, not a roadblock. This process is collaborative and iterative, and they should feel a sense of ownership over the project."
I like to think of this from the client's point-of-view: If I interacted with the content on a day-to-day level, and then entrusted that content to a group of strangers who had promised to turn it into a simulation, game, or course, I would certainly want to be involved. I admire the degree to which J.T. checks in with clients on calls or via email, just to make sure we are still on the right track. This goes for all our PMs; constant efforts to communicate, internalize, and empathize are made every day.
I asked J.T. if there’s anything else I should mention about the PM position:
"I’m in charge of the beer that goes into the kegerator! I don’t think that’s necessarily because I’m a PM, though."
We're all grateful for the countless efforts our PMs make to ensure our products are near-perfect. And the beer selections aren't so bad either.