From Software Design to Project/Product Management: An Honest Reflection

I’m a software designer, but over the past year, I’ve slowly started taking on project management responsibilities through a role we call the Delivery Lead. It’s been a big challenge, but also a lot of fun.

Growing into Something New

At Atomic, a Delivery Lead bundles the responsibilities of product management, project management, and client relationship management into a single role (read more here).

I started by doing these things informally—working on a few projects where I was the only team member. It was my responsibility to keep the ship headed in the right direction, manage all client communication, maintain the budget, and make scope tradeoffs where necessary.

I also had Delivery Lead-like responsibilities on a few larger projects, where I managed the higher-level customer relationship and budget, but not the day-to-day prioritization for the development team.

I found that I enjoyed these tasks, sometimes just as much as—if not more than–some of my design responsibilities. I didn’t spend much time reflecting on why I enjoyed them. At the time, I pushed my inner designer’s “but whys” aside to continue this personal exploration.

I’ve now spent the last six months or so serving as the Delivery Lead on a project that includes myself, four developers, and an exploratory tester. The product we’re working on has been successfully thriving in the US market, and it will soon be in Europe, as well.

Aspects I Enjoy

I’m now ready to dig into the “whys.” The following items are what I have enjoyed most about being a Delivery Lead.

1. I’m a central part of the team.

As a designer, I often feel like I represent a phase of the project, as opposed to a main component of the team. This is not due to design not being respected at Atomic, because that is certainly not the case.

It’s mostly due to the fact that designers are often very involved in the research, design, and planning phase of a project, and then they slowly phase out of the project as development begins. Designers typically spend a shorter amount of time as a full-time member of a project.

This is exciting because we typically get to work on more projects in a given year than developers do, but in my case, it’s also led to feeling like I have no “home” on a team.

As a Delivery Lead, the work I do is crucial to keeping my team moving forward efficiently and in the right direction. My responsibilities require me to be consistently engaged with both my customer and my Atomic team. The consistent engagement has lead to a real feeling of camaraderie with my teammates.

2. I play a crucial role in shaping the project experience.

It might not surprise you that I, a designer at heart, highly value experience. Being a Delivery Lead means that I get to shape the project experience for my Atomic team and our customer.

I want my teammates to enjoy working on the project. I want them to have fond memories of the time we’ve all spent together. I may not be able to control the tech stack being used, but I can help foster a fun working and learning environment in other ways.

On the flip side, I want our customer to see Atomic as an extension of their team. I want us to be a trusted partner who makes their lives easier.

Everyone on a project team influences the overall project experience. However, as a Delivery Lead, I feel a stronger sense of responsibility and ability to ensure that the experience is a positive one.

3. I am being challenged in new ways.

I enjoy a healthy challenge. I am the type of person who easily becomes bored without a new goal in sight. Because of this, I have thoroughly enjoyed the new challenges I have faced in working as a Delivery Lead.

Much of this role is a balancing act. I am constantly thinking through the needs of our customer, the needs of those who will use the software we’re building, and the needs of my teammates. Pulling the appropriate levers at the right time has been quite the learning process, but I’ve enjoyed how nuanced it can be.

Biggest Challenges

No job is sunshine and daisies in its entirety, so of course, there are some aspects of this role that have been harder for me to adjust to than others.

1. My time is more scattered.

As a Delivery Lead, more of my time is spoken for than it was as a designer. I spend more time in meetings than I did previously. I have far fewer blocks of uninterrupted time to go heads-down and get work done. Nine times out of ten, when my calendar shows that I have a solid chunk of time available for myself, a request will come in that forces me to refocus. Some days, this can feel like I don’t have much control over my schedule.

I’ve began to remedy this by reserving blocks of time on my calendar for myself to write up a process change plan or pick apart a requirements document. Sometimes, I even book a small conference room and camp out there to ensure that I won’t get pulled into something else by looking like I’m available.

2. There’s more pressure.

I certainly feel more pressure now than I did as a designer. I want to ensure this project is a positive one for all those involved. However, not everyone is going to be in agreement 100% of the time. Sometimes, I have to disappoint someone for the greater good of the project and/or product. Learning to accept this has been an interesting journey for me.

3. I’m not the designer.

This one might be painfully obvious, but as a practicing designer for many years, it can sometimes be hard not to jump into “design mode” and focus too much of my attention on usability or visual design.

Of course, if I foresee the design moving toward a direction that would not be beneficial to the overall vision and goal of the product, I will have a conversation with the appropriate people. I’ve had to constantly check myself to stay a step back from design.

Yes, and No

When it comes down to it, I have enjoyed working as a Delivery Lead because it allows me to advocate for all those involved in a project, and to help foster the best experience for all parties. Knowing that any experience can be improved also feeds my desire to constantly grow and learn as a software maker.

I still split my time at Atomic between these two roles. I’m unsure if my love for design will ever allow me to give it up completely. However, I have been pleasantly surprised with just how much I have enjoyed leading delivery on my current project. I hope these realizations will encourage others to seize the opportunity to try out new roles!