Shakthi Oke started her career in the chaotic world of the media. Now a project manager at Massive Interactive, a digital creation agency, Oke implies it was only a matter of time before she discovered how to put that chaos into order. After completing a degree in communication and media studies, she spent a couple of years travelling before returning to land a role at HWW, a content aggregation company. “I worked behind the scenes coordinating the design and production team responsible for TV listings in our print department. We had 10 regional editions and six deadlines per week to service, so I found myself in a deadline-driven environment,” she says. “That started my hunger for efficiency and managing process and achieving delivery.”
With management and coordination skills in tow, she took up a position as a product manager at regional pay TV supplier Austar Entertainment where she was exposed to the formalities of project management for product development, deployment and maintenance, including interactive TV applications and Austar’s PVR (personal video recorder). Working alongside project managers, she heard her calling. “I found myself gravitating towards the management and coordination of the work that was scheduled, and the issue resolution,” Oke explains. “I decided to gain the necessary skills and training required to make an official switch. There wasn’t much [industry-based] training around without it being a full-time or costly, so I went to TAFE and did a certificate in project management.”
Wielding her newfound qualification, Oke moved to Austar service provider Massive Interactive as a producer, which covered a number of duties including project management, she says. “While at Massive, the company and my skill set evolved and I was able to focus on wearing only one hat as project manager. Because agencies value the need to separate these roles and have specialists, I could just wear the role of the project manager and delegate the other bits.”
Her first formal project management position has thus far lasted four busy years, where Oke says she has “project managed almost every screen-based challenge out there”. From e-commerce, editorial, and in-flight entertainment to content management systems, social media, and applications for handheld devices, Oke has been exposed to a diverse offering, which has informed her project management learning.
In particular, a technology rollout of an IPTV (internet protocol TV) program for a major content provider tested her skills. “The most challenging project that I’ve worked on was the most rewarding project,” she remarks. “I was faced with pretty much every issue a project manager could face. The projects within the program rollout varied greatly between user experience and design of their suite of products, to actual end-to-end application development, deployment and maintenance.”
Overcoming language barriers across the Asia-Pacific region and managing high client expectations in parallel with dealing with new technology, Oke had her work cut out for her. One lesson learnt was on stakeholder communication. “The project was very high profile within the organisation with tight go-to-market timeframes, so the main lesson I learnt was to continually revisit stakeholder involvement to indicate who owns what and whose say actually counts.”
Because of the high profile of the project within the client company, Oke says there was more feedback and questions than usual and, in many cases, “the questions that had been addressed, explored and resolved resurfaced later down the track with limited traceability as to why the decision was made”. She has now learnt to document every piece of communication, including informal material that may have contributed to a decision, so that the process can be traced: “You have to be meticulous about making sure that even though the session was on a whiteboard, it will migrate onto a wiki of some nature.”
A good project manager will have a solid understanding of the market and the technology with which he or she works, believes Oke. “You don’t have to become an expert, nor is there an expectation for the project manager to be the expert, but it’s important to invest time in learning because you are the central point between the client and the internal team. It’s vital in establishing rapport.”
She adds that this knowledge also allows a project manager to recognise if a solution is the right one. “Some solutions can be overcomplicated, overarchitected if not scrutinised. Just knowing the industry that you’re working in, knowing the product, gives you the confidence to challenge it. If it’s too complicated, it can be damaging to the budget, schedule and quality.”
The fast-paced multimedia environment has also seen Massive’s project managers move from Waterfall to Agile in approach, which Oke says suits projects where many elements are unknown. In addition to products going to market quicker through incremental delivery, Agile allows the project team to incorporate feedback from users along the development timeline instead of building it only to find that no one comes. “Next is putting an iterative development process into practice more by embracing the tools and processes required to move towards a more Agile approach,” she says.
Although Oke admits she’s never had a project management mentor, she says she satisfies her questions through online forums such as blogs and wikis: “Just typing in challenges and getting responses from other project managers, learning from other people’s mistakes and taking on other people’s suggestions, has been my main learning.” She adds that at Massive the project managers gather weekly for an open discussion on resource, process, budget and client challenges. “We continually train each other, so it has been peer-to-peer, on-the-job training.”
This collaborative approach doesn’t stop with the project managers. Oke says the most rewarding part of the role “is when the team you’ve worked with has shown dedication and motivation throughout all circumstances, including the projects where you’re faced with changing requirements”. Besides that, she appreciates that there’s “never a dull day” on the job. “You’re a central point in the whole process, that’s what I love about it,” she says. “I love the responsibility, the satisfaction and respect gained from seeing a project through.”
The stressful nature of responsibility is one of the downsides of being a project manager, but that’s where having a team that trusts and respects you becomes important, Oke says, “so team members feel comfortable bringing up problems, taking ownership, instead of leaving things too late”.
Oke confesses to being a project manager outside work as well—”I try and project manage everything I can get my hands on, I live off a to-do list”—but says she always finds time to maintain a work/life balance watching movies or dining with friends. And yet project management is always a part of her mindset. “If you know you’ve put effort into the planning, you know you’re bound to see the results. It’s a principle you should apply to your everyday life,” she says, though stops short of recommending doing so for partners. “Try not to project manage their life or it causes problems at home.”
With her first baby due any day now, life will soon change for Oke. But don’t expect her to walk away from project management. “I don’t see myself changing careers. As much as it comes with all the stress, I do love it. I love the challenges and the cutting edge environment where you’re delivering new technology. It’s an exciting role.”