Digital media projects - are they really different?

Digital media (DM) projects are growing in number and importance. With the BBC Digital Media Initiative they have even got their own massive project disaster to match those in other industry sectors. Although there other aspects to DM projects such as the creative skills needed to design engaging content, the importance of the role of IT development and deployment in them is unarguable.

So how do DM projects differ from ‘mainstream’ IT projects - if at all - and how does this affect their management? James Laming of Ooyala (and a veteran of among other things of the project that gave us the Walking Dead app which interacted in real-time with the TV series) gave a presentation to PROMSG (the BCS Project Management Specialist Group) at the London BCS premises last week which opened a fascinating window on this branch of IT.

One difficulty in comparing DM with other IT projects is that there can be big differences between different DM projects. One common thread is that DM implementation always involve the delivery of content. The technology is there to provide the delivery mechanisms (e.g. streaming), but the essential value is in the content delivered (e.g. the latest block buster movie).

Also DM projects exist in a context of what seems to be ever-faster technological changes. James described how projects had to be delivered quickly so that their deliverables do not become outdated. And even with these short timescales, DM projects are likely to have to change technical course before completion.

With the BBC Digital Media Initiative, its size and duration always made it very vulnerable to technical obsolescence before it could delivery useful benefits. James suggested that if large DM projects cannot be avoided, they should be segmented into iterations each with its own checkpoint where the direction of the project can be assessed and modified. This suggests something of an agile approach and would not be very controversial in 2014.

But interestingly James argued that agile was often NOT the best approach for small projects. One strand of the argument was that it was possible the volume of requirement and technical changes could be so strong that agile developers were unable to cope with the amount of code refactoring needed. Better, perhaps, to freeze the requirements, and then deal with change requests after the project has completed.

Like all good PM presentations there were lots of examples and war stories drawn from past projects. These seemed to be very highly-pressured and tightly deadlined, with in one case developers working on Christmas day to meet a New Year deadline. But James then said that people in DM were generally rather laid back - the Californian influence perhaps.

In the UK in 2014, you sometimes get the impression that people think that projects can only be completed successfully if project participants are dealt with aggressively. It’s nice to know it does not have to be that way.

In Project Eye’s humble opinion, this was a great presentation. You can find the overheads that James used in the PROMSG members section in the BCS members' secure area.

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