Boulder Project Manager Meetup Wrap-Up: Apps For The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon

If you’ve been a Digital Project Manager (DPM) for longer than — say — a minute, you’ve probably been on a project with crazy expectations and crazier deadlines. Even though we’ve all been there, it’s always interesting and educational to learn how other teams have dealt with these unrealistic situations. This is why the Boulder DPM Meetup (BDPM) has had a few presentations that relate to this subject, and why we will continue to do so in the future.

In our latest BDPM Presentation, we heard Dan Fox, VP/Executive Creative Director at Crispin Porter & Bogusky (CP&B), talk about creating the website and applications for The Tonight Show Featuring Jimmy Fallon. I don’t know Jimmy Fallon (sadly) but I can only assume he was not going to settle for anything less than a fully baked and working product. He also wasn’t going to delay his debut on the Tonight Show if the website wasn’t ready, so despite only starting on the project in late November, everything needed to be up and running by February 17th.

In his presentation, Dan referenced a lot of familiar challenges that come with large scope and tight timeline projects, but he also called out many unique challenges, strategies, and solutions. Unsurprisingly, I learned the most from the more unique challenges, and I wanted to highlight a few of them here:

No time to play the telephone game

At CP&B it’s standard process to have a Project Manager (PM) and an Account Manager (AM) on every project. As I understand it, the PM focuses on internal coordination, and the AM focuses on client communication/relationships. However, when this project started, they made the decision to go with just a Project Manager. The thought was because this timeline was going to be as tight as possible, there wasn’t room to play the game of telephone, where the client tells the AM something, The AM tells the PM, and the PM talks to the internal team.

At Viget, we often have only one managerial role on a project, so what stuck out to me was not the novelty of using only a PM, but rather the idea of determining where you can be more efficient on a team (personnel wise) when a project has a tight timeline. Each person and role we have here at Viget is important and brings a unique skill set to the table, so how do you decide what roles are necessary on a project? It can be a tough call, but when done right — as Dan demonstrated — it can be a successful way to rein in a project.

Working 24/7 (seriously)

The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon project was a Drupal project, but CP&B is not a Drupal-focused shop. To top things off, the platform used wasn’t standard Drupal, but rather a proprietary NBC Drupal customization. To help ensure development worked with NBC's platform and completed the project on time, CP&B worked with many outside developers. These developers spanned the globe, from Mallorca to India to Ottawa to California. As a result, there was literally somebody working on the project 24 hours a day.

This concept, of working with a team this big and wide spread, is completely foreign to me, so I found it fascinating. To get up and see progress that’s happened since you went to bed would be incredible, but is not without its challenges. Communicating with a team that spans all time zones is nearly impossible. Doing so required dedicated people on the CP&B side to coordinate regular communication with the outside developers. A lot of coordination was also required when it came to committing, reviewing, and deploying code. CP&B had to put a lot of faith in the outside developers, and trust that the code they were writing was solid.

Innovation is still a thing

I think the biggest takeaway I had from Dan’s presentation was that just because time is tight, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t think outside the box. Innovation is often born out of pressure situations like this, but it still feels easier to just stick with what you know and what the client is comfortable with when you are under the gun.

Dan’s team discovered early on that the templates available through Drupal were going to be too limiting for what they wanted to do. The CP&B team had a vision for how the new website could highlight video clips and images in an interesting, seamless, and consumable way. The Drupal templates unfortunately didn’t appear to provide the flexibility to do that. Rather than bum the design team out and say it was impossible, they came up with a unique solution. They built their own API that could consume data from the Drupal CMS and output it in its own way, eliminating the need to rely on Drupal templates. It would have been so easy to just work within the constraints of the existing system, but busting out of those constraints is what can take a site and app to a new level. At Viget, we always try to push the envelope as we are creating, but this served as a reminder that our mentality should not change when the timeline is short.

What worked?

Another fun part of Dan’s presentation was that the PM of this project accompanied him to the meetup, and at the end, provided her thoughts on what made this project a success. For those about to embark on a crazy, impossible sounding project, here are some tactics that worked on this project. CP&B:

  • Streamlined the team, and gave everyone as much access to the NBC team as possible (eliminating the telephone game).

  • Held a morning stand-up with internal team to allow for everyone to stay on top of blockers, challenges, and progress.

  • Held a daily stand-up with the team that NBC also joined, so they could hear progress and challenges first hand.

  • Gave NBC access to their JIRA (ticket management system), so fewer calls and emails were needed to inform the client of what the team is working on.

  • Had the technical leaders work with their NBC’s technical leaders, rather than having a PM try to translate from one team to the other.

Congrats to the CP&B team on turning a high pressure project into a successful one! Take a few minutes, prepare to laugh, and poke around The Tonight Show’s website!

If you are a DPM in the greater Denver area, and have interest in joining us at a future meetup, join our Meetup group here!

Becky manages digital projects from our Boulder, CO, office for clients such as Duke University, Volunteers of America, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Shure.

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