Believe it or not, project management is about more than making spreadsheets and nagging. There's an art to the process, and being familiar with the techniques and concerns can help you, whether you're a one-person shop or a large company. Here's what a panel of experts had to say about starting projects smartly at DrupalCon 2011.

When Do You Need a Project Manager?

Whether you have a dedicated project manager depends on the size of your organization. Moderator George DeMet, founder and CEO of, points out that, while there are still many small Drupal (news, site) shops out there, the market has matured enough that there are a number who have fifty people or more.

Companies that large can't afford not to have a project manager, at least if they're getting sizeable deals. Those in the middle might best decide based on the number of teams who need to interact and work together. If there's a lot of miscommunication or just a disjointed feeling that the right hand never knows what the left is doing, it might be time to consider investing in project management. Or, at least, assign someone already on the project to fill part of that role.

When Should They Get Involved?

There was a general consensus that having a project manager involved from the beginning is important. In the sales phase, the PM can help define the statement of work in a way that will hold them accountable. Bringing them in at this point also creates the relationship that the PM will continue building on through scoping out the project, building it and delivering it. Each phase may be handled by different people within your company, but the client won't feel that they're being shunted from one person to another.

This approach can have a polished, professional appeal. It also adds another perspective during the design and implementation process, with the PM acting as the client's advocate internally.

How Do PMs Start?

The beginning of a project sets the tone, and determines just how much confusion and re-work will happen throughout. Amy O'Malley, senior VP of, said that key things she does at the start of a project are:

  • Make sure everyone's working from the same vocabulary, such as defining various Drupal and project phase terms
  • Asking which two parts of the PM triangle are most important: Budget, time and scope

Budget, she said, is almost always one of the choices. Nicole Lind, senior VP of operations at Treehouse Agency, addressed the Discovery phase of a project. Time doesn't always allow for going as in-depth as you'd like, but in general this point involves at least some of:

  • Documenting the customer's business requirements for the site, and then going through the list of features and getting the customer to prioritize them
  • Building wireframes
  • Mocking up designs, and even mocking up prototypes if they really aren't sure what they want
  • Examining their existing website(s) and content
  • Determining what third-party integrations need to happen (she says, invariably, you'll find more during the project)
  • Develop a test plan with milestone markers that clearly indicate that a particular part of the project is done
  • Choose a development methodology, which must fit well with both the developers and the client
  • Setting a schedule

In particular, Lind said that there can be culture clashes between laid-back Drupal developers and serious IT people who are concerned about uptime and other issues. This is the type of issue that project managers can help navigate.

When it comes to managing projects involving Drupal and other open source packages, Joel Sackett, senior technical project manager and creative manager at Phase 2 Technology, discussed dispelling common GPL myths for legal departments and educating customers on what comes "out of the box," what requires some form of extension, and what that all means. In Drupal projects in particular, he finds that clients have a tendency to think that just installing some particular module will solve all of their problems.

The question is, will project management solve all of yours? The panel was in agreement that your plans must be flexible, as unforseen things can and will happen. But you'll learn a lot from experimenting with project management techniques, and your business will benefit from it.