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The demand for digital project managers is booming. As more and more organizations switch from traditional to digital, they increasingly need managers trained to deliver digital projects. This guide will share the roles, responsibilities, and skills you need to be an effective digital project manager.
DPM, a popular blog for digital project managers, calls digital project management the “wild west” of project management where “crazy clients, tiny budgets, and stupid deadlines reign supreme”.
This reputation isn’t entirely undeserved. Conventional PM attracts conventional clients. And these clients have conventional budgets and expectations.
Things aren’t so traditional on the digital front. Your clients often have no idea how the digital space works. Or worse, they have the wrong ideas.
If you’ve ever heard a client argue that his “nephew can make this website in two days for free!”, you know what I’m talking about.
Budgets, deadlines, and processes - all tend to be skewed when dealing with digital projects, and not in a good way.
In the middle of all this chaos stands the digital project manager (DPM), bringing order to disorder and process to practice.
As things stand, the DPM is one of the most important roles in any modern digital organization. The success of so many digital transitions and projects hinges on this critical role.
In this guide, I’ll share the roles, responsibilities, skills and salaries of digital project managers. I’ll also share guides, resources, and paths to becoming one.
In an earlier post, I defined project management as:
“...the art and science of initiating, planning, executing, managing, and implementing projects.”
Digital project management is exactly the same, except it deals exclusively with “digital” projects.
Any project with a digital component - a website, app, online campaign, social media, software, etc. - can be construed as a digital project. It might be wholly digital (such as a website) or partially digital (such as an offline marketing campaign with an accompanying website).
The person responsible for ensuring that the digital project runs smoothly is called - you guessed it - the digital project manager.
So to answer the original question - “what is a digital project manager”:
“A digital project manager is an individual responsible for initiating, planning, executing, managing and implementing projects with a digital component.
The DPM works with clients, outside contractors, stakeholders in his own organization, and the project team to ensure that the project meets its stated goals on time and within budget."
A digital project manager wears many hats. He or she is a business analyst, a communicator, a people person, a manager, a leader, and a strategist all rolled into one. In smaller agencies, one might also double up as the account manager, and sometimes, even do creative or technical work.
However, if I had to define a core responsibility of any digital project manager, it would be “people management”.
From the first email he sends in the morning to the last task he assigns in the day, a manager’s work revolves around people and their effective management. He plans and delegates tasks, tracks their performance, and looks for areas of improvement.
At the same time, the digital project manager is also a leader. She understands the strengths and weaknesses of her team members, motivates them through rough days, and helps them reach their full potential.
In short, anything that involves people in some way in a project goes through the DPM.
Besides people management, a digital project manager has several other roles and responsibilities:
One of the best ways to understand what a DPM actually does is to read real-world job descriptions for the role.
For example, here is a digital project manager job description from Accenture:
Take a close look at the role description. Notice how points #2, #3, and #5 are all related to managing people, resource forecasting, and ensuring quality standards?
This is a great example of how a digital project manager might operate in a specialized role within a large organization. Since Accenture has thousands of employees, it can afford to hire people to manage only a small portion of its business (in this case, the ‘Email Campaign Team’).
A digital project manager job description for a smaller business would be vastly different.
For example, here is one description from Cstraight Media, a Virginia based digital agency:
Notice how this job description includes significantly expanded responsibilities? The project manager here is the primary point of contact for managing all web design/development projects, managing resources, team communication, and meeting deadlines.
This goes to show how flexible the digital project manager role can be. In large businesses, it’s common for them to specialize in managing specific tasks and teams.
In smaller businesses, however, the manager will often manage every aspect of the business’ day-to-day operations.
Given the breadth of their responsibilities, digital project managers are also expected to have a diverse set of skills.
Obviously the actual requirements will vary from role to role and business to business. A specialized DPM will need domain-specific skills along with general project management know-how.
For example, in the Accenture job mentioned above, some of the “good to have” skills include specific knowledge of email marketing and related tools.
In more general-purpose project manager roles, a core understanding of project management - in theory and practice - along with technical knowledge will help.
Generally speaking, the following digital project management skills will help you in your job:
General Digital Project Manager Skills
Besides these, you’ll also need a number of technical skills to work in a DPM role.
Technical Digital Project Manager Skills
You might also need additional technical skills based on the organization's current software use.
Essentially, some basic technical chops along with strong people and project management capabilities will help you excel as a project manager.
Now the most important question: how much do digital project managers actually make? What is the job outlook for this position? Is it worth it to become a DPM?
The answer to these three questions are, respectively: “a lot of money”, “extremely positive”, and “a resounding yes!”
According to multiple reports, project managers as a group, and digital project managers, in particular, are in high demand.
Anderson Economic Group (AEG) estimates that by 2027, demand for project managers will increase by 33%. 88 million people across the world will be working in project-oriented roles within a decade.
A ‘Talent Gap’ report by PMI estimates that by 2020, there will be 15.7 million new project management roles. The profession as a whole will grow by a massive $6.61 trillion.
As more and more organizations transition to digital, DPMs are projected to be particularly high in demand, especially in more mature economies.
Average digital project manager salaries align with this positive outlook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes project managers under “architectural and engineering managers”. The median pay for this profession is $134,730/year.
PMI’s annual salary survey has more accurate data. A typical project manager with a PMP certification makes $112,000/year in average salary. Project managers in Switzerland are the best paid, making $130,866/year on average.
This data can be somewhat misleading, however, since it includes both senior and junior roles. Junior PMs get paid substantially less compared to their senior counterparts.
According to a survey by DPM, project coordinators who start out at the lowest rung of the PM ladder, make just $44,041/year on average.
In contrast, the head of project management can make as much as $138,000/year.
PMI’s salary survey corroborates these findings. As PMs do up the ladder, their annual salary rises from mid five-figures to low six-figures.
Team-size affects salaries as well. Managers leading teams of 20+ people get paid low-six figures on average, while those leading under 5 people barely cross the six-figure mark.
And of course, the size of the projects they lead impacts project managers’ salaries as well. Of those leading projects worth $10M+, the average salary was $130,000. In contrast, for projects under $100k, average salaries were $92,000.
On the whole, a digital project manager can expect to make anywhere between $45,000 to $135,000, depending on skills and experience.
Given the earning potential for senior managers and the positive job outlook, this is certainly a profession with a lot of potential - now and in the near future.
In the next section, I’ll share courses, resources, and approaches to becoming a DPM.
Becoming a digital project manager is rarely a straightforward process. There are no university degrees in “digital project management”, and it’s not the kind of job you can walk into without prior experience.
Further, the roles, responsibilities, and skills of digital managers are seldom clearly defined. As we saw earlier, a DPM might be responsible for a single activity in one organization. In another, she might be overseeing virtually every aspect of a project from start to finish.
So how do you prepare yourself for a career in digital project management? What sort of career path should you take to lead projects in a digital agency or tech firm?
I’ll share some answers below.
Charles Day, a freelance DPM, writes:
“As far as I can see there is no standard route into digital project management and there doesn’t seem to be a specific course or prior career path that will lead you to being a PM”
Charles later shares his own career path that took him from a programmer to a DPM, encapsulated in the graphic below:
This seems typical of digital project managers. Many of them “stumble” into the job after performing around its periphery for years.
The process is mostly the same: a talented person (engineer, marketer, or designer) works on different projects within an organization. Over time, he takes up more and more responsibilities in managing the project. Eventually, this leads to a project management role.
As you can imagine, this is a drawn-out process. However, there are a few things you can do to hasten your growth:
One of the surest ways to build any career is to find and build skills companies you want to work for are actively looking for.
To do this, first make a list of companies you want to work for. These can be specific names (such as ‘Google’ or ‘McCann’), or these can be companies in a specific sector or geographic location (“San Francisco-based digital agencies”).
Next, look for any open or recently filled digital project manager roles in these companies. Go through their jobs/careers page or run a search like the following:
Site:[company_website.com] “project manager”
Once you find an open position in a company you want to work for, look at their skill and experience requirements. Make a list of all the technical skills, theoretical knowledge, degrees, and certifications they demand for the role.
For example, Huge wants its senior project managers to have an understanding of project management tools and web development:
Make a list of all such skills you find. Then work your way up by learning them.
If you want to get somewhere, follow the people who’ve already reached the destination.
This rule applies as much to building careers as it does to navigation.
Search LinkedIn for project managers working in companies you’d want to work for one day. Trace their career path. What sort of roles did they have prior to becoming project managers? What was their education background? What skills have they listed on their public profiles?
You’ll find that a lot of DPMs specialize in a particular digital domain - marketing, design, or development - and work their way up to managerial roles.
Thus, learning one of these core digital skills and joining an agency would be your first step in becoming a DPM.
Getting a project management certification won’t get you a project management job. But it will make the process much, much easier. Between two similar candidates, the one with the certification is more likely to get the job.
There are several project management certifications you can get, such as:
There are several other certificates such as MPM (Master Project Manager), PMITS (Project Management in IT Security), CPMP (Certified Project Management Practitioner), etc. In most organizations, however, the above certificates will help you stand out.
Besides these, a management degree, especially an MBA, will significantly increase your chances of landing a DPM job.
As you might have seen by now, digital project manager is a role you move up to after gathering significant experience as a specialist.
This process might take years, or it might happen in a few months. It all depends on your organization and your willingness to take on the job.
Demonstrating proficiency in project management tasks and becoming a leader will greatly help your cause. If your boss sees you taking on more and more PM-focused duties - managing resources, developing schedules, assisting the PM in making work breakdown structures, etc. - you will have one foot in the door.
Take stock of all project management duties being performed in your existing team. Ask yourself: what duties can I assume responsibility for?
The more work you take on, the faster your climb to a PM role.
There is no proven way to becoming a digital project manager. The minimum requirements are a bachelor’s degree. Beyond that, it’s a matter of proving your knowledge, experience, and fit for the job. Certifications, past experience in PM roles, and technical skills will certainly help.
Before we leave, I’ll share some crucial digital project management resources to help you learn more:
Here are a few must-read books on digital project management:
Refer to this article for a more comprehensive list of project management books.
In addition to the PM certificates I shared earlier, there are also a number of courses you can take to hone your digital project management skills:
What sort of tools do digital project managers use?
The answer will vary from organization to organization. At the very least, they’ll use a project management tool like Workamajig to manage the overall working of the project.
Given the importance of Gantt charts in the project management process, they might also use a Gantt chart software if their PM tool doesn’t already offer one.
Digital project managers will also be required to use some sort of content management system (CMS) to manage projects. The exact CMS will vary from organization to organization, but familiarity with WordPress, Drupal, etc. can’t hurt.
Most managers will use a range of communication tools, ranging from email to chat apps such as Slack, HipChat, Skype, etc. They’ll also have to be familiar with video conferencing tools such as Zoom and GoToMeeting.
And of course, a knowledge of office tools, especially Excel is a must.
A digital project manager is one of the most important roles in any digital organization. As a change agent, the DPM leads diverse projects covering development, marketing, and design functions. He works with a range of designers, programmers, SEOs, social media specialists, and analytics experts to initiate, plan, execute, and manage projects from conception to delivery.
Because of their wide-ranging powers and responsibilities, DPMs are among the best-paid people in any organization. Consequently, becoming one is also hard and requires years of experience.
Follow this guide to understand what a digital project manager does, how much he gets paid, and how you can become one.
Do you have a digital project manager in your company? What things did you look for while hiring? Share with us in the comments below!
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