Project Management Institute

Digital Nomads Project Leadership Beyond Borders

Transcript

STEVE HENDERSHOT 

Most of us are stuck working from home. But that won’t last forever. So today we journey into the world of digital nomads—the professionals who opt to lead projects from the road. Whether they’re in Bangkok one week or Berlin the next, they’re constantly handling change—and that can lead to growth.

CHRISTINA NGUYEN

I really love that journey of owning the unknown. What I appreciated most is that it kept me in a growth mindset, and it still does. It’s this self motivation to push yourself, to find a sense of who you are, what you stand for and how you want to move forward. And that growth mindset really thrives on challenges and sees failure as a springboard to expanding your capabilities. And I think that concept can really be applied both professionally and personally.

NARRATOR

The world is changing fast. And every day, project professionals are turning ideas into reality—delivering value to their organizations and society as a whole. On Projectified®, we’ll help you stay on top of the trends and see what’s ahead for The Project Economy—and your career.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

This is Projectified®. I’m Steve Hendershot.

Right now, most digital nomads have put their roaming on hold, but this pandemic has the potential to boost their numbers in the long term, as more workers discover just how effective they can be while away from the office. Once it’s safe to travel, we could see more project leaders trading their physical offices for hotels, cafes or really anywhere with steady Wi-Fi.

Today we’re going to hear from a project professional who was a digital nomad and still considers herself to be semi-nomadic as well as the leader of a landmark project that caters to these on-the-move leaders.

Our sponsor for this episode is PMTraining.com. From live, virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP®. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

Let’s head now to the Republic of Estonia, a small country in northeastern Europe that has become a global capital for digital nomads, even if most of them have never visited. That’s because of Estonia’s e-Residency program, which lets anyone claim a limited form of Estonian residency, including the ability to domicile one’s company there—a service that helps nomadic entrepreneurs get around one of the more daunting logistical challenges presented by their lifestyle. E-residents have launched approximately 12,000 new companies since the program’s launch in 2014, including more than 4,000 in 2019 alone.

I spoke to Ott Vatter, the program’s managing director, based in Tallinn, Estonia, about e-Residency and the community the project has created.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

When the e-Residency program began, the project’s leaders expected traditional business, corporations and entrepreneurs to utilize it, but that’s evolved to now include digital nomads. How are digital nomads participating in the program?

OTT VATTER

They don’t have a base or they don’t have a place that they call home. And for them, e-Residency is in addition to being a tool, whereas to run their business, it’s also a kind of community because we found out while doing some soul searching with anthropologists in e-residents’ souls, that they can get quite lonely in terms of being alone in their business, being the sole proprietor and then also not being home because an entrepreneur’s life in general might be quite lonely.

So it’s kind of a community effect for them. It’s not only the fact that they can run a business, but they can get information from the ecosystem, talk to each other and all that.

STEVE HENDERSHOT

You mentioned working with anthropologists to get a better understanding of e-residents and this creation of community. How has this community-building affected the program and the participants?

OTT VATTER

I think at the early stages, I think we underestimated the power of the community a little bit because, again, if we go back in time, the first depicted persona was a traditional, or rather traditional businessman for us, so we didn’t see this community aspect back then. But as this program evolved, and especially through the anthropological study we did, we tried to dig deeper into understanding what are e-residents struggling with and why do they need e-Residency and what kind of people they are, from which kind of backgrounds and to go into the deep dive that private companies usually do not do about their customer segments. But we really wanted to understand the pain points behind every persona, and the digital nomad—or that’s a freelancer, what I like to use—they’re an interesting group, as I mentioned, that their life can get quite lonely, and the community aspect is very important for them.

It’s not just about a tool to create a company, but it’s actually about an ecosystem of people that you can trust, that you can talk to, that you can actually get advice from. Because as you’re starting out, it can be quite scary on your own. You’re either quitting your job or whatever kind of situation you’re in, you would like to get some kind of positive, reaffirming advice. An example is an e-resident from Turkey and they have a special Facebook group and there’s an e-resident who writes, “Hey, I’m an e-resident from Turkey. Is there anyone else like me?” Then there are like 12 guys responding, “Hey, I’m from that region, I’m from that region, and I do this and that.” And then they ask or exchange information with each other.

And we saw immediately that if you have been, so to say, verified by the Estonian government that you are an e-resident, that makes them much more trustworthy to another e-resident or potential e-resident because they share this communal feeling. And this has spit-fired into something I would have never guessed that would happen is that the e-residents have now made their own chamber association. Completely without our involvement, there has been a group of active e-residents who have made an association to represent their interests and to run this community. If that is not enough, they have it in the plans to actually have a physical festival of e-residents in Estonia.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

While many aren’t traveling now, technology has made it easier to live and work as a digital nomad. But there’s an element of perpetual discomfort that seems pretty well baked-in.

Christina Nguyen, strategy practice leader for Global Professional & Field Services at Dell Technologies, led projects as a digital nomad for more than a year. For her, it was a valuable experience—one that forced her to respond to challenges. She’s now based in Austin, Texas, in the U.S., but still considers herself semi-nomadic.

She spoke to Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt about her experience and how it changed how she leads projects and teams.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
HANNAH SCHMIDT

While you were leading a project portfolio, you traveled to 11 countries in 13 months. What was that experience like?

CHRISTINA NGUYEN

It’s really hard to articulate the contents of almost an entire year, but I guess if I had to sum it up, I would say the experience was very vulnerable, and I mean that in a very positive way. I view vulnerability as sort of the jump-off point to the growth zone of connection, understanding and adaptability. Despite what you may see on social media, it is completely a different lifestyle that has its ups and downs, just like life for everyone else.

You have all of your work responsibilities that you’re trying to maintain and be accountable to, but you’re constantly always having to figure out what the new normal looks like in each specific location. And on top of that, you’re always trying to find new ways to integrate to an entirely new culture. So that experience is all about embracing vulnerability. You really have to accept the challenges of the uncertainty of the unknown and creating strength out of moments of doubt.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

So during this experience, what was the biggest challenge for your work?

CHRISTINA NGUYEN

Shifting from mostly on-site to fully remote is considerably more complicated than just sending employees home with laptops. You have to build structure and discipline to maximize your productivity and also create new boundaries to create that work-life balance. And I think a lot of us are sort of experiencing that really right now with the global pandemic.

And then you throw in this additional element of being a digital nomad, which means you’re more or less living out of a suitcase in a foreign country where your normal routines are most likely going to be challenged. From a work perspective, I had to transform my existing career and build a completely new operating model around it. It required significant shifts in how I managed and led teams, and most importantly, I had to find different communication methods.

I was no longer seeing people face to face. And this was kind of at the time when we were primarily doing teleconference calls and not so much over video. So I had to just really find ways to check in with people, find connection and make time to foster those relationships.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What are some of the lessons you learned from this experience?

CHRISTINA NGUYEN

Travel’s a great self-development tool because it removes you from your own values for a moment, and it shows you that other people or another society can live with entirely different values and still function. This exposure really forces you to reexamine what seems obvious in your own life. In order to be a good leader, I think it’s incredibly important to have clarity on your own values, and being in tune to what is important to you helps you navigate the challenges and lead through it.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

How did these lessons affect how you lead projects and teams?

CHRISTINA NGUYEN

In my line of work, and I would imagine for most people who are probably listening to this podcast is, creating scalable solutions to global problems is a requirement. That’s just kind of the global world that we live in today and how our work kind of operates. I strongly believe you can’t develop a truly global mindset without putting yourself in different environments with different people and to transform the way you think, act and empathize.

I really think that empathy is the key to connection, and connection fosters collaboration. And so this whole experience really opened up my eyes on how I connected with teammates and other project leaders and how I lead and foster that collaboration to allow everyone to succeed.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

I’d also like to talk about how you’ve seen work change. You’ve had the experience of being a digital nomad, and you’re currently a semi-digital-nomad and work remotely. What’s the difference between being a remote worker and a digital nomad?

CHRISTINA NGUYEN

Being a remote worker, you have your day-to-day duties, and you usually create an environment that is part of your normal routine. So for me personally, I have a home office. I have all the things I know that I need to be productive and continue my day to day and create that routine.

Being a digital nomad is a little bit different because you are constantly changing what that scenery always is. You might be working out of a coworking space, you might be working out of a cafe, you might be in your Airbnb with very limited connectivity. So there’s additional challenges that always come with it. But over time as you start figuring out what it is that you need to be productive, you start prioritizing those kinds of items, to make sure that you’re satisfying all of your needs. But I would definitely say the kind of routine and the pace is very different with traveling.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

How do you think remote work will change in the future, especially as a lot more teams are working remotely now due to COVID-19?

CHRISTINA NGUYEN

Coronavirus certainly has introduced new challenges for businesses who aren’t used to supporting a remote workforce or even doing the majority of their work digitally. This has been a very interesting time period where the pandemic has affected everyone across the world. Everyone now has this common understanding that we’re all in this together and have shared responsibilities on how to make remote work more productive.

People have been forced to do something very different by working remotely. And I think they’re finding out that there’s real value in it. It certainly requires a major mental pivot and adjustment to your routine to create an environment that meets the needs of both work and your personal life. But I certainly think that COVID-19 is challenging all leaders to reimagine the future of work. And it’s presenting an opportunity for all of us to think about what it truly means to collaborate and how it can improve our organizations.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Once it’s safe to travel again, if a project leader was thinking about becoming a digital nomad, what advice would you give them?

CHRISTINA NGUYEN

One is: Be prepared for the challenges, because they will come. Get clear on the things that are important to you so that it makes navigating the challenges a little bit easier.

Two would be: Adopt a beginner’s mindset. Try to approach everything without assumptions and revert from doing new things the old way.

Three, look for community. It gives you an opportunity to connect with others that will help you reach your goals and support you when you need it most.

The last piece of advice I’d really say to anyone is if you’re seriously considering embarking on any new journey, I’ll just leave everyone with a question. Ask yourself: When is the last time you did something for the first time?

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

Nomad or not, upskilling is an important aspect of career success. It’s also something that’s equally accessible whether you’re logging in from a beachside cafe table in Malaysia or from the same trusty home-office swivel chair where you’ve reported for duty throughout these many months.

Project leaders can upskill through outside training or certifications, and our episode’s sponsor, PMTraining.com, equips students to prepare for PMI certification exams. Matt Koch is the vice president and director of operations for the federal business unit at Atkins North America, a design, engineering and project management consultancy. He’s based in Kansas City, Missouri, and he used PMTraining’s course to help him prepare for and pass his Project Management Professional, or PMP, certification exam.

Matt spoke with Projectified®’s Hannah Schmidt about the training process and how it’s changed how he leads his teams.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
HANNAH SCHMIDT

Matt, why did you decide to pursue your PMP®?

MATT KOCH

In my career where I’m at now, I am directing all of operations. I am directing a cadre of project directors who then manage project managers who manage projects for their clients. So I’m well removed from the actual project management of the day-to-day needs that we have for managing our projects and our clients. So I felt it was very important to go back to the PMI set of requirements and get my PMP certification, so I could literally, at the end of the day, lead by example.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

And ahead of your certification exam, you and a group of Atkins project leaders together went through a course led by PMTraining. Why did you choose PMTraining, and why did you go as a group?

MATT KOCH

The thought came up, if we’re going to get Matt and a few other folks trained, why don’t we look at talking to PMTraining as a provider to see if they can customize the courses for us, as opposed to just sending person A this week and person B the following week and a month later have somebody else go.

And so a year and a half ago, we set up actually two weeklong sessions with about 10 to 12 individuals in each. It was all done online and it was focused 100 percent on Atkins people. We had nobody else in the training. So for that 10 to 12 of us that were in class from Monday to Friday, eight to five, it was very focused on being able to talk to each other about our experiences at Atkins. It was very beneficial versus me and 10 other people from 10 other companies going to a class together and not knowing each other, not being able to share experiences, not being able to bring up that project in the closet that everybody in the company knows about that was a disaster five years ago that we’re using as a learning lesson.

Having this ability to do Atkins-only specific training with nobody else in that classroom, even though it was virtual online, gave us the ability to network across all of our offices for the 10 or 12 of us within Atkins that were in the classes for those two weeks.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

Looking back, what were the most helpful aspects of your PMP exam prep class and using A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK® Guide?

MATT KOCH

First of all, following the roadmap and taking things seriously, and now in my role as operations director, if I could just step back for a second, I’m now in the responsible role of making sure that the new testees are doing the same thing that we went through last year. So the batch of 20 to 22 folks this year, I feel it’s very incumbent upon me to make sure they understand to take it seriously and to really follow that roadmap. The number one thing for me is follow the roadmap that PMTraining lays out for you. Don’t blow off studying and reading cover to cover the PMBOK two weeks before the prep course itself. That’s really the first part.

The second part is to dedicate yourself for the week of training. We ironically have a group of 11 going through the second week of PMTraining as we speak right now. They’re in Day Three. Take it seriously. Set the time aside to get through your Monday to Friday. Save time in the evening to do your homework and your study exams. That’s really the second piece.

Then the third piece is to decompress for a week or two before you’re really then prepped for the actual exam. That’s the third step. Those three steps are very important to me, and I’ve reiterated that to everybody this year that don’t short-step or shortcut the process. Prep before the week. Take your week seriously. Then decompress, and then do your final prep before the test.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

How has earning the certification helped your work?

MATT KOCH

It’s really allowed me to be more effective as a leader for our large team of project management professionals, in doing it in a uniform fashion. I can do it with authority and with what I feel is respect that is needed in my role and in my position, in order to effect a positive change and get results and performance improvements from our project management team. And the bottom line, it’s really given me the personal and professional confidence needed to lead the internal management efforts that I need to in my role and something that helps me deliver more value to our firm.

HANNAH SCHMIDT

What was the impact on how your team functioned after your team members also earned their certifications?

MATT KOCH

We’ve seen an uptick in the responsibility level of our project managers in realizing the activities, the duties, the actions they need to take on a month-to-month basis to manage their projects. But not just manage them like they had before, but with a new way of thinking, because PMTraining and your PMP certification makes you realize it’s not just about managing tasks and managing to cost, schedule and budget, which are the three legs of the pedestal for any project management, but it’s also managing your people, managing the stakeholders, managing your clients, managing your time, all of those things. And I’ve seen a huge uptick in the appreciation of our project managers to be able to realize that it’s more than just managing schedule, budget, cost. Because that’s what everybody thinks project management is all about, is schedule, management, cost, and it’s way more than that.

MUSICAL TRANSITION
STEVE HENDERSHOT

Our sponsor for this episode is PMTraining.com. From live, virtual classes to online courses available on demand, PMTraining equips students to earn PMI certifications including the Project Management Professional, or PMP. And Projectified® listeners are eligible for discounts of up to $400 per class; just enter the link PMTraining.com/podcast.

If we had told this digital nomad story prior to the pandemic, here’s betting many of us would experience it differently. After these many months with little opportunity to travel, combined with a sudden abundance of experience with remote work, the notion of a life of constant adventure with occasional video calls at least seems more plausible once it’s safe to travel again.

NARRATOR

Thanks for listening to Projectified®. If you like what you heard, please subscribe to the show. And leave a rating or review—we’d love your feedback. To hear more episodes of Projectified[R}, visit Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Stitcher, Spotify or Soundcloud. Or head to PMI.org/podcast.