Smashing Spotlight: Shaughn FitzGerald, Program Manager
Ever wonder what makes Smashing Ideas so smashing? Our people! We sat down with Shaughn FitzGerald, Program Manager, to talk shop, how she ensures that smooth communication keeps her project teams sane and on the same page, what to do when one’s spidey-sense is tingling, and how she’s inspired by the notion that ‘you are not your idea‘!
Shaughn, you are one of those rare, but true 4th-generation Seattleites! What is your favorite thing about living and working in this part of the world?
I love the Pacific Northwest for the mild climate, trees, water, and my large extended family. My personal history here has bitter and sweet chapters; the birth of “grunge”, deaths of loved ones, college meanderings, dot-com explosion and bust, and the music. I’ve always been a big music fan, since my father managed stages at music venues when I was a kid.
Working in technology and within Seattle-based agencies has been a continual source of inspiration and growth for me personally. The combination of the more laid back attitude in the Northwest, the intensity of innovation, and the kinds of opportunities this brings, keeps me engaged and jazzed to be here.
Within your role as Program Manager, what elements are essential to building successful products and teams?
I think it’s important to not let a process previously used get in the way of asking questions that may force a change in how the current project comes to fruition; people over process, as the Agile Manifesto states. Be open to change, as every client project is different and each team combination can yield different outcomes. And last but not least, have some fun along the way.
You have a Bachelors of Fine Arts (BFA) in photography and a Graduate Certificate in Museum Studies. Those don’t necessarily have a direct line to the tech world. What drew you to work in technology, and how do you bring your past experience with you into what you do as program manager?
I love to learn and have continually sought out ways to keep learning. Working in tech requires a desire to continually learn, not just about the technology itself, but about new ways of applying the inventions. As a program manager, I have the luxury of learning a little bit about everything involved in the project or program, which then allows me to find the connections between the parts and (ideally) bring some glue to the mix. After completing my BFA, I managed a photo gallery in New Orleans and was a freelance photographer. These experiences were my introduction to the intersection of creativity and business. Technology is very much an art and science marriage, which is exactly where I want to be.
In my museum studies program at Harvard Extension school, I focused on art museums. (I entered the program thinking I would eventually work in an art museum, but realized I couldn’t deal with the slower pace after a few years in technology.) One of my big take-aways from the program is my fascination and respect for human creativity. Preserving and celebrating culture is part of the missions of museums, which continue to draw me in. And lastly, all the above has helped me become a better communicator, which is key to program management.
Projects move through many iterations as we test prototypes of design and development. That brings about a series of refinements in order to fine-tune the product to meet the needs of the end-users. As you and your team move through these different phases within the product development lifecycle, how do you ensure all parties keep their eye on the end goal?
Before planning meetings, I like to reread the scope description in the contract and think about this from the client’s perspective:
- What are we delivering of value?
- Do the current activities contribute to this value?
- What problems are we hired to solve?
Then, with this in mind, I corral the conversation towards answering these questions and document the scope of these tangible deliverables. In addition, it’s important for the team to regularly discuss where we are and where we want to get to. Often, the project or product roadmap is not so clear or easily defined. Regular conversation with the client, in conjunction with internal team discussions, is key to a mutual understanding, followed by decisions in writing.
What are your greatest tips for ensuring smooth communication amongst all involved players?
Face to face communication is best, when possible. Daily stand-ups are also very helpful. Align on the process, terms, and the project roadmap in the beginning of a project and check in throughout. This allows for everyone to have a shared understanding and speak the same language. Things change and people forget, so it’s ok to repeat main ideas, big decisions, and to summarize for further alignment. Get to know your team, both internal and client-based, in order to understand how communication styles differ and to determine what will work best for the collective.
One of the hardest things to do in your position is to predict and mitigate risk. What advice do you have to avoid jeopardizing timelines, budget, vision, and project health?
Think ahead and document everything! If your spidey-sense is tingling, best to listen to it. Chances are good that something on the project is out of balance and needs to be brought back into alignment. Look at how the hours on a project are being spent and ask questions. Also, keep in close communication with all team members including the client team to be sure that everyone has a shared understanding of the goals and plans to reach these goals.
Working in technology, we all see how things that were commonsense yesterday, are completely transformed tomorrow. That of course also holds true for the roles required to push the boundaries of consumer experiences. How do you foresee the role of program management changing and what will that mean for someone in your position?
I think the “internet of everything” has pushed all teams working in technology to think broader, across the whole experience, not only in their area of expertise. This means thinking about the product ecosystem and where the current project fits into that ecosystem. Program and project managers need to be gathering all the questions for all the things! Then, setting up a framework for the team to discuss and determine which questions relate, which can be put aside, and which are at the core of the problem at hand. The craft of program management will continue to be less focused on tools and more focused on thinking about all the parts that build the solution, while at the same time, keeping an emphasis on building team environments that foster healthy problem solving and a get ‘er done attitude.
Rumor has it that you can provide excellent book recommendations. Can you name a book that unexpectedly provided you with a useful perspective to solve a professional problem?
Yes, thank you for asking! I read a lot on a wide variety of topics, but the common thread is people and culture. In the last few years, I find myself more drawn to non-fiction and history, rather than literature. On my first day here at Smashing, I received the book “Creativity, Inc. ”, by Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. I found several gold nuggets of wisdom such as: “You are not your idea!” I brought up this quote before a team brainstorm session recently, as it really resonated with me and hoped it would with the rest of the team. It set the tone for a good discussion.
Here are a few of my current favorite authors and books:
- Rebecca Solnit – anything she writes…LOVE her writing.
- Winter Dance: The Fine Madness of Running the Iditarod by Gary Paulsen (Because…dogs!)
- TransAtlantic by Colum McCann. This is a rare fiction book for me, but seeped in history. I have missed my bus stop twice as I was so immersed.
- Hunger Makes me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein; think local rockstar goes mainstream. Curiosity made me start it, jury’s out.
Among countless volunteer activities throughout your career, you raise funds for the volunteer-run women’s organization, Soroptimist International of Seattle-Metro (SISM), and you volunteer at the YWCA women’s shelter downtown. Tell us more about this work and how it plays a role in your life.
Volunteer work has a funny boomerang effect; the more I volunteer, the more I want to do. It helps give me a perspective on the world. For instance, when we think about homeless people, we may have an abstract idea of this demographic. Yet, when I sit down for lunch with a woman who has been living on the street for over a year and talk to her, I see an individual person, which builds not only empathy, but creates connection to her story and how it relates to my own life story. There is a common thread between all of us; it only needs to be revealed.
My volunteer work with Soroptimist has allowed me to build relationships with a wide variety of women in the club, coupled with an even wider variety of men and women through outreach, that I may not otherwise have had a chance to meet. Getting outside of my comfort zone on a regular basis has helped me to be more confident, and at the same time, more accepting and empathic.
And last but not least, what was your last truly smashing idea?
A most recent idea was to pro-actively reach out to the Smashing recruiter about my interest in Smashing Ideas. That worked out well!