- Heather Ellis
Internal Effort for External Excellence: Project Management at ATOMIC D
ATOMIC D Project Manager Gisela Fernandez talks through best practices, lessons learned, and the tools of the trade.
2021 is already shaping up to be ATOMIC D's busiest year ever. With new clients being onboarded and a full project load, the Project Management team is growing and adapting to our ever-evolving needs. Veteran Project Manager Gisela Fernandez sat down to walk us through how her team is tackling this big year.
To begin with, tell us a bit of your story. What’s your background, and how did you come to be a project manager at ATOMIC D?
Since I was little, I was always very organized, disciplined and methodical. I loved playing sports and doing every extracurricular activity, so my parents' rule was that as long as my grades were good I could continue doing whatever activity I wanted. This helped me juggle different activities and responsibilities from a very young age.
I think I became a project manager naturally. I enjoy making processes more efficient, even outside of work. One of the things I dislike the most is “wasting time” so finding efficiencies in everything is kind of my passion. (I need to learn how to enjoy the present moment more and I’m working on it!)
I'd love to learn a bit more about your day-to-day work; what exactly does a project manager at a creative agency do?
As a project manager at ATOMIC D I’m responsible for carrying projects through from start to finish. This means evaluating project requests and drafting operational documents like proposals, budgets, and burn reports on a daily basis. I’m also responsible for invoicing and keeping track of our quarterly budgets.
My role is both client facing and internal facing. I work very closely with our creative team to set project timelines, schedules, and review sessions, and to ensure that our client’s expectations are met on time and within budget. I also work closely with our clients by scheduling meetings and constantly communicating project status. I see myself as a facilitator. I try to make processes more efficient and seamless for our clients, but more importantly for our creative team, so they can focus on what they do best: create, design, animate.
Most of our projects have a quick turnaround time, ranging from 3-4 weeks. On average, I’d say I usually have ~8-10 active projects at any given time. However, during our busy months, I’ve managed up to ~20 projects at a time.
With such a high volume of projects to manage, all in different stages of completion, what's the key to staying organized?
My main focus is to make sure that other people are not waiting on me. I go through my active project list every morning to determine if any deliverables are pending on our end. If there are any, I confirm with the team that everything is progressing as planned and ask for an ETA on the next deliverable. If we’re waiting on client feedback, I follow up with them as soon as the internal team has been kicked off with the day’s tasks.
I also make sure that I never have any unread emails sitting in my inbox and I know exactly where all the project assets are saved. Keeping track of the status of deliverables and knowing who is responsible for each task from both the client and agency side is of utmost importance. It's always worth it to do a little extra work to save the team from miscommunication. One of our mottos at ATOMIC D is: never assume, never guess, always ask.
With so many moving parts and several key players to coordinate, what tools do you and the team use to communicate, track, and deliver work?
I LOVE Slack for fast and easy communication with the team, sharing links, and even on-the-spot calls. I’ve enjoyed working with Asana and Basecamp in the past, but we’re currently using our own system of spreadsheets while we get set up with new project management software, Monday. Google Drive is the magic place where we keep all our files organized and store links to share with clients, which is my preferred method of delivering final work.
How has project management at ATOMIC D evolved since you began working here, and what prompted that evolution?
We are definitely busier than when I started, and our processes have become more efficient as a result. A great thing about working at ATOMIC D is that management has always encouraged and been open to new ideas from everybody at the company. This has allowed us to make changes as it made sense to do so. Our processes and file management systems have become extremely organized over time, and that has helped our project management practices evolve naturally.
What's the biggest challenge when balancing client demands and designer capabilities?
I think the biggest challenge comes at the beginning of the project: managing the client’s expectations. If you do that right from the beginning, it will save a lot of stress and rushing later on. Another challenge (especially since rushed timelines are inevitable) is to remain calm but clear when requesting project updates and deliverables from the creative team. I try not to add any additional stress when communicating with them, but also to make sure they understand what the deadlines are.
What can clients do when making requests, submitting proposals, or giving feedback that best ensures success?
Be clear with their objectives, ideas and deadlines. If there is an existing budget they have in mind, that helps us provide a more accurate proposal from the beginning. Additionally, a great part of our work depends on clients’ feedback, direction, and sometimes sourced assets needed for the project. The more information and direction that can be provided up front, the better. It will ultimately save time, streamline communication, and help prevent the need to re-scope a project after kickoff.
Further to that point: since clients sometimes pay for designers and project managers by the hour, how can clients ensure they are being efficient with their time?
Well, most of the time we charge a project fee agreed upon by all parties prior to kicking off the project. When we do take projects and bill as incurred, we try to be as transparent as possible with how time is being spent. We usually share a burn report with our clients throughout the project where they can see the hours spent on a given day by each designer. Clients can ensure efficiency by making the most of each version of a deliverable: compile notes from all stakeholders and provide clear, complete feedback before setting the designer back to work on a new version.
As we start what's expected to be the busiest year in ATOMIC D history, what goals are you setting for yourself and the project management team?
As our team grows, I have a personal goal to make sure new hires feel comfortable asking questions and getting guidance from the start. We’re also working to create an onboarding process that makes it easier for new hires to take on their PM responsibilities more quickly. I hope to also create stronger ties with the clients I work with, and continue to increase efficiency when creating budgets and proposals - especially for larger projects.
One last thing, just to nerd out a little bit: what do you think is most fun about being a project manager?
The most fun thing about being a project manager is marking tasks completed or crossing off items from my daily to-do list.
I also enjoy being a “facilitator”. Helping people focus on what they do best is what I love the most about my job. I love working with creative people and realizing every day that we all have different minds and different ways to approach ideas and life in general.