Monday, September 27, 2010

Project Manager or Producer? The Great Debate.


I worked in the software industry as a Technical Support Engineer, then a QA Engineer, then as a Project Coordinator. When I moved into the interactive entertainment space, I was challenged with finding the right title. I began life at Linden Lab as a Project Coordinator, as that was my previous title and they hadn't yet decided on a name for what I did. (What I did, by the way, was: build engineering, release management, project management, and technical writing.)

In short order I progressed to Development Program Manager at Linden Lab. For a while, I was the only project manager and since I worked with all 25+ engineers on the team, I did indeed manage the program of Second Life.

Moving on to Garage Games / in 2007, I took the title Project Manager. Soon I found that the team needed something different, so I found a niche as Director of Customer Experience. Instead of managing someone else's projects, I managed my own. I staffed up, developed a plan for supporting our customers at launch, acquired software & hardware to run out support center, and hit the ground running.

When I determined that GG/IA wasn't the right fit for me, I joined a company that was right: BioWare. In the Edmonton office, I became a Project Manager. I was given the choice between the titles "Associate Producer" and "Project Manager." Being that I am interested in project management in a wider context than just video games (our longer-lived cousin, the general software industry, understands "project management" but not "producer") I took the latter. So, PM or Producer titles notwithstanding, the job was the same: I worked closely with the in-game, technical, and cinematic animation teams to ensure that animations were proceeding on time and at a high quality. I was partnered with the Lead on each of these teams, and interfaced with other leads from Engineering, Design, and Art to enable our work to flow into the pipeline smoothly.

And now, I am Sr. Project Manager at World Golf Tour. What does that mean? It means that I manage the process of getting our releases out the door, from concept to deployment. My role is actually that of Technical Project Manager, though when you work in software development you are perhaps inherently "technical" (or should be, anyway). In addition to the daily tasks of moving the product towards regular releases, I manage our relationship with recruiters & the hiring pipeline, coordinate meetings and some interactions with third parties, and provide general wrangling of Things That Must Get Done.


That was a really round-a-bout way to get to the discussion, but I think the background helps. Specifically, what does a project manager do? What does a producer do?

Is the video game world so different from "traditional" software development? Are producers different than project managers?

The answer, I think, is "yes." Here's why:

Project managers have long complained of responsibility without authority. We are negotiators, facilitators, mediators, pinch-hitters, bad guys, den mothers - whatever the team needs to achieve the goals of the company in a certain amount of time for a certain amount of money. When the desired outcome is beyond our grasp, we report to our superiors, and plan contingencies.

Producers do almost all of these things. However, it seems to me that they are more like a hybrid of a project Manager and a product manager: they organize and negotiate, and they are also able to provide creative input on projects. In some roles - specifically Senior Producer or Executive Producer - the Producer runs the show. The project leaders of Mass Effect and Dragon Age: Origins were called "Executive Producers," for instance.

Of course, it really depends on the studio or company, and possibly even the projects themselves. I'd love to hear from folks with experience in one area, or both, to better understand the difference.

What do you think?

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