Saturday, March 14, 2009

What’s the difference between a project manager and technical director?

It depends. A few years ago, before choosing to go back to school to get my MFA I saw, or felt that there were two types of TDs, or at least one type on one end, another on the other end, and a lot that combine everything in the middle, but I felt the differences between the two types was diverging not getting closer.

Type 1 tended to work in a small shop, was very hands on and were truly jacks of all trades. Not that they dappled in everything – but were very skilled in a lot of areas. They were 1 man forces of nature. Sometimes they had a few people to help, but sometimes they didn’t. They don’t tend to “manage” they do.

Type 2 worked in a large enough shop where the scale of the show(s) demanded an crew, and management became necessary. The TD isn’t as much as a craftsman, but tend to still have most of those skills because they worked them self up to the TD position. At a LORT or regional theatre, this type of TD may do little hands on work in the shop. One TD I know once stated that if he was in the shop swinging a hammer he hasn’t done his job properly.

This is the nutshell of course – I could expound much more on the subject. And obviously it isn’t clear cut there is a lot of grey area.

I felt myself moving toward the later. More people around me means more ideas and new challenges. Also, I felt that the second type of technical direction was moving even more into a management realm because of the increasing amount of technology, materials, and complexity of stagecraft. We do a lot more things in a small scenery budget today than 15 years ago. But the draw back (or good thing for me as a TD) is that I get to research and develop and prototype and experiment with new things. But that changes my job as a TD from someone swinging a hammer and dealing with the things that need to happen right now for the show that opens in two weeks, to someone who is currently working on a show or even two in the future, while managing the show that is open, and managing and coordinating the current build.

So as I worked in this type 2 environment, and then even more so when I worked as a production manager, I found myself looking to develop my skill set, and the place that offered the most information was project management (see my earlier posts for why I thing a building a set qualifies as a project).

The tough thing about the question is that the answer to the question depends on your definition of a TD and project management. Even when you have two people that can stand there and agree on the definitions, watch them work. I’m sure that they manage and work differently. Plus, I am sure that my duties here as a PM differ from what they could be if I worked in another shop.

So for sake of brevity (what’s that?) I will leave it to you to define what a TD does. I’ll tell you what I do, in my current job, as a project manager.
-I estimate a project (set, exhibit, trade show or whatever). I do this on my own, or with others, including shop personnel depending on the scale of the project and the amount of time available. We price materials and labor, and use a variety of techniques to arrive at the estimates.
-I get price quotes / work with subcontractors / talk to the client about information and ideas, research materials and alternative solutions and have a good idea of how we can build the project for the price quoted.
-I write a proposal that tells our client what we can offer to them for what price. It will also often include onsite supervisor or labor and shipping – additional services as required.
-Then I work with the client to answer questions and may revisions based on value engineering.
-Once we get the job I order materials (or coordinate all of the following) get the drafting started, talk to the job lead and go over the job in depth, and get the calendar planned out.
-I then continue to check in, monitor, make corrections, and keep everyone in communication with each other making sure that the guys building it have all the info they need, and anything I need from or communicated to the client is done. If we have outside contractors I monitor that as well.
-The build gets moved into assemble, then down to paints and finally ready to be loaded on to the truck. I have maintained communication, schedule, scope of project, and costs, if I have done my job well.
-I plan the truck pack and load in (often with the lead supervisor who will be onsite)
-I facilitate the transition between the transfer from shop to onsite.
-I make sure everyone one has what they need when they need it.
-I remove roadblocks.
-Sometimes it feels like when I do my job the best I am not doing anything because everything goes smoothly!

The difference can be in the details. I can draft something myself, or have the drafting department do it. I can purchase materials, or the shop lead will do it –or our purchasing person will do it. I can be very particular about how I want something to be built, or I can use the resources in the personal working on my team to find options and determine the method of construction.

Beyond having more of a management point of view and the ability to use fun materials, I think the biggest difference is having a client who has chosen to use your services. While I think the idea that maintaining a good client relationship could transfer to interactions between a TD and designer / it is a very different relationship when the client can walk away from the job.

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