A Day in the Life of a Program Manager: How We Get Things Done at The Iron Yard

Eric Dodds is a first year Program Manager at South Carolina’s finest accelerator, The Iron Yard. We’ve asked Eric to share his experience as he navigates his way through his first program (The Iron Yard’s second) and share the good, the bad, and the ugly about working at an accelerator. Take it away Eric…

If there’s one thing the internet doesn’t need more of, it’s prescriptive self-help content. The only time I’ve ever completed the 5 steps to a better and more productive me, I didn’t like the person I met at the end. Which was me. Which was confusing.

Not to worry, though. No guilt-inducing lists today, just a few lessons I’ve learned that have helped me manage a heaping plateful of responsibility. Speaking of which, you’re probably thinking, “what do you actually do?” I’m sure the job description for a ‘Program Manager’ varies from accelerator to accelerator, but here’s a crack at what my job looks like:

In general, I’m the Managing Director’s righthand man. That’s Peter Barth, and in reality, I mainly just try to keep up with him. He runs The Iron Yard, has his hand in another software company, and is an awesome dad to 5 kids. He hides his cape well.

As for me, my scope of responsibility includes promoting applications (which are open!) and recruiting teams; recruiting, communicating with, and scheduling mentors; planning events for our teams, building curriculum for the program, planning fundraising trips, and managing our blog and social media properties. We’re also expanding to include another accelerator class in a nearby city, so I’m helping with build out in that physical space as well as training a program manager who will work full time in that location. If that wasn’t enough, this spring we’re moving into a new space, which needs built out, and we’re also starting an intensive code school. Sometimes I want to cry, but whenever that happens Peter asks me if I want to adopt a few of his kids and I come around pretty quick.

So, here are a few things I do that keep the train on the rails. Most of the time.

1) I don’t manage projects through email

Email is like taking a pity date to the prom: it seems like a good idea at the time, but when the booty dancing starts, things get out of hand pretty quickly. OK, maybe it’s not exactly like that, but it is a necessary evil for a lot of people. But they don’t hate it because it’s a bad medium for communication. They hate it because it becomes the sun in the solar system of our jobs; a catch-all for content, conversations, plans, and links to Facebook pictures from prom.

People’s minds work different ways, but I think email is a marginal project management tool for one person, and a really horrible one if you’re working on a team and multiple projects. Amazingly, there are a whole lot of people (and companies) who run their business out of their inbox. For me (and my team), there’s simply too much to do to waste time each day sifting through unrelated messages in email just to figure out what needs to get done.

I try hard to follow the same process as Ryan Carson from Treehouse: planning, prioritizing, and scheduling my day, running email through that filter, then attacking my to-do list as hard as I can. Lots of days that process gets derailed, but the key is that planning comes before working and communicating, so I know that my team and I are working on the right stuff, not spending our days in a constant state of reaction or wondering what’s next.

The mechanics of this look different for everyone, and there are tons of great tools out there. At the moment we use Asana for project management and their related to-do’s, Dropbox (and sometimes Google Drive) for file management and sharing, and Highrise for organizing and sharing contacts.

2) I create “Constraints and Courageous Blocks” (paraphrased from the amazing Merlin Mann)

With our accelerator in it’s second year, we’ve been lucky to generate a lot of interest from both local and non-local startups who want to apply. We also receive inquiries from businesses, investors, and other people who just want to learn more about what we’re up to. We’re incredibly thankful for that interest, and we try hard to respond to every single person, but the rate of inquiry has started to outstrip our calendar’s ability to accommodate everyone while still getting our work done in time. So we put a constraint on everyone who is interested in what we’re doing. We block off several hours every Monday morning that people can book to meet with us. We use Google Apps, so it’s as easy as creating appointment slots in our calendar. We’ve found that people appreciate not having to email 15 times back and forth to find a time works for everyone.

Courageous Blocks
This is a crazy statistic: “when you switch away from a primary task to do something else, you’re increasing the time it takes to finish that task by an average of 25 per cent.” In other words, if this post is going to take me an hour to write, and I stop twice in that hour to answer email, it will increase the total time I’ll spend to an hour and a half. If I didn’t start my professional life working with email notifications ringing constantly throughout the day, I probably could have come up with the idea for Facebook before that other guy.

I’ve found that if I carve out chunks of time to work on a single thing (writing blog posts, email, scheduling, etc.), I get tasks done far more quickly, and the work is usually better. As I said before, there are a lot of days that this plan is thwarted, but some focused productivity is better than none.

3) We have a lot of fun

The people I get to work around are really fun, and we have a great time–even when we’re swamped with work. Whether it’s a funny story, something we find for our Lazy Friday Links posts, or enjoying when our picture is in the paper next to an article about Downton Abbey, we generally have a good hard laugh together every day. Happy people work harder.

4) Bonus

• Internally, we try to use passive forms of communication when people are working. HipChat (and it’s amazing custom emoticons) works awesome for creating different chat rooms for different teams and subjects. Voxer is a walkie-talkie-like tool that allows you to have non-real-time conversations. Your calendar will love it. (We use it a lot.)

• I mentioned him before, but Merlin Mann changed the way I think about email. Getchu some.

This is a Quora post about habits of ineffective people that I printed out and taped to the wall next to my desk.

• This is another great post from Ryan Carson called “7 Do’s and Don’ts for Founders.”