Smashing Spotlight: Nicholette Daniel, Senior Project Manager

Ever wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Nicholette Daniel, Senior Project Manager, to talk shop, what her three keys to team motivation are, and how she strategically uses FOMO to stay on top of current trends in the tech industry.

 

Nicholette, you are a Senior Project Manager here at Smashing. What is the essence of your job and why do you enjoy it?

My job consists of making sure that our clients’ needs are being met, that we are delivering what we promised when we promised it, and that the team has everything they need to do a stellar job. Basically, I keep things moving and work to eliminate obstacles, preferably before they are blocking our path. I feel the greatest sense of accomplishment when I know that my contributions lead to my teammates delivering amazing work that they are proud of — especially if they’re doing it with a relatively low stress level.

 

As a senior project manager you have to be able to shift your perspective between steering towards the big goal, but also understanding the significance of the small-but-crucial details. How do you get comfortable with this complexity?

Time and experience. I’ve been doing this for over 12 years, and anytime you’re doing something for that long, you naturally develop a Spidey-sense for what is important vs. background noise. I’m also a huge believer in reviewing lessons learned from previous projects so that I don’t unknowingly repeat mistakes. A second set of eyes also helps, so I like to touch base with my peers or my boss from time-to-time for a sanity check.

 

In our company’s history we’ve been so fortunate to see people return from having had to leave the city and – as such – the company. You are a boomerang – one of the employees who’s returned to us – which we were over the moon about. What made you come back to Smashing?

Before I left Seattle, my last day at Smashing was one of the only major tear-fests I can recall in my recent history. There wasn’t a day that went by after I left that I didn’t think about or talk to the people from Smashing.

Here’s the thing: the culture at Smashing is something I’ve never experienced before. The people really do live by the core values, and it shows in the work and the atmosphere, and it’s something that is hard to let go of once you’ve experienced it. I might have shed a happy tear or two on my first day back…but I can neither confirm nor deny that.

 

We work with a multitude of project stakeholders on each project, and it’s crucial to make sure everyone has the right information, understands what’s going on, what risks we are facing, and where we’re headed. What’s your approach when it comes to managing communication with people on all levels in an organization, as well as with our internal teams? Furthermore, how do you make sure all parties are happily progressing towards the end goal?

Nerdy answer warning: At the start of a project, I make sure to capture communication needs in the Communication Management Plan that is contained within the Project Management Plan. All stakeholders are included in this process, and we determine who needs to know what, when they need to know it, and how they will receive that information.

Here’s the key: you have to stick to that plan! When in doubt, I always err on the side of over-communication. I’d rather receive a message and decide that it’s not important to me, than miss a very important message because it was never sent. This is not permission to spam, by the way.

I find Atlassian Confluence to be the best way to collaborate with all stakeholders, since it serves as a single source of truth, but again, you have to keep it updated and organized.

 

If our reader wants to become a project manager here at Smashing, what are – in your opinion – some essential skills that you must possess? And is there anything in particular that seals the deal?

Let’s start with the thing that seals the deal, which I believe is the ability to remain cool and collected under pressure. If your project manager panics, it causes a ripple effect with the team, and possibly clients. Nobody wants that.

Organization is definitely an essential Project Management skill, as is the ability to effectively communicate. The PM has to have difficult conversations from time-to-time with clients and team members, so knowing how to navigate those discussions is critical.

 

When you work in the intersection of innovation and design, you have to be open-minded, curious, and eager to learn about new technology, processes, and people. We‘ve benefitted a lot from your writing and perspectives about the industry on our blog. How do you feed that curiosity and remain comfortable in this ambiguous industry? Any must-read books?

A comfortable dose of FOMO (fear of missing out) keeps me up-to-date. My Twitter feed is carefully curated to give me a quick glance at chatter pertaining to the latest developments in the tech industry, user research, and design trends. MIT Tech Review and MIT Media Lab, Apple, Google, Nielson Norman Group, Comm Arts, Ars Technica, AIGA, and a pile of designers and technologists that I respect the heck out of are some of the regulars that fill my feed.

As far as books go, they’re too slow to keep up with the rapid pace of technology, so the books I read are usually on topics pertaining to psychology and other social sciences that help me effectively run teams and participate in the design of top-notch user experiences. Three of my recent favorites that I highly recommend are The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink, and Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less by Greg McKeown.

 

You strike us as a project manager who is excellent at using your expertise and skills to inspire your team to do the impossible. How do you work to motivate and lead the team to reach our client’s goals?

Thanks, but c’mon, I can’t give away my secrets! Between us, I think there are three keys to team motivation: a shared understanding of goals, flexibility, and a good sense of humor. I’ll unpack that a little:

Shared goals | If everyone on the team doesn’t feel like they know what’s going on, what we are working towards, and feel like they don’t have a say in how that happens, things are going to fall apart when confusion or change creeps in. Morale will drop, leading productivity to drop, and then we have a big mess. Good communication will mitigate this.

Flexibility | Everyone has different needs to be happy and productive. I solve complex problems the best in the morning (after coffee, of course!), and if I’m writing, I’m doing it from my living room. One of the iOS  devs on our team likes to go for a run mid-day, and another comes in a bit later and leaves late. By allowing everyone to flex a bit in how they work, people are happy and do better work.

A good sense of humor | Software development deadlines— especially when a hardware component is involved—can get very stressful at times. If you’re able to joke and build bonds with your teammates, then you find yourself laughing through those late nights at the office instead of being grumpy. Trust me, I laugh harder at work than anywhere else.

 

How do you maintain good mental fitness? We know that you put a high value on physical exercise and also have certifications in CrossFit (Training and Weightlifting, to be specific). Tell us why this is important to you and how you channel that energy into your professional life?

I take a very holistic approach to overall health and wellbeing, so I don’t think you can separate the two. Routine is very important to me, so I try to keep a consistent schedule at work and eat “brain food” as much as possible. I make sure to take mental breaks throughout the day; maybe a walk to the Pier66 overlook for some fresh air, or catch up with co-workers over coffee. All of these things help me to focus on the tasks at hand while I’m at my desk.

 

Here at Smashing we collectively set out to design solutions of the future. Within that context, what is your personal guiding light?

Without a doubt, the thing that is always on the top of my mind is the reality that there are repercussions or effects of what we are creating on individuals and society. It’s so easy to get bogged down in business goals, pixels, and micro-interactions that you forget about the fact that this “thing” you’re making is (hopefully!) going to be used by the masses, out in the world. We have a responsibility to consider the impact of our designs: could this be used to harm people; what happens if people use it too much; are there environmental consequences; could this help someone in a way we hadn’t already identified? So many things to consider.

Ever heard of fake news or screen addiction…? Yeah. That’s my point.

 

What was your last truly smashing idea?

Well, I like to think I’m full of smashing ideas, but I believe my last truly, madly, deeply smashing idea was to move back to Seattle and return to my home at — you guessed it — Smashing Ideas. How’s that for a meta answer?

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