Rachel Burger is a senior project management analyst and content marketing team lead for Capterra, a company that helps millions of small businesses across the world find the right software. She’s been featured in major publications like CIO, The Hill, Forbes, Brazen Careerist, and the BBC. Widely respected as a project management expert, Rachel has presented on Agile and project management software nationally, including as a third-party expert for the Project Management Institute and for Digital Marketing Summit. Prior to Capterra, Rachel worked in HR consulting as a research analyst. She is a graduate University of Chicago and Agnes Scott College, and is currently pursuing her second MA degree at Johns Hopkins University.
TaskQue: First of all, tell us about yourself. How did you start your journey? What was the real inspiration?
Rachel Burger: When I was in my freshman year of college at Agnes Scott in 2007, my English professor asked me if I’d consider majoring in English. I responded, “I can’t major in English—I want a real job after college!”
That sums up my academic mindset: practical long-term thinking at odds with the esoteric, impulsive nature of artistry. (I ended up minoring in both creative writing and studio art.) I majored in international relations, concentrating on the economic and cyber relationship between the U.S. and China. I continued that work through grad school at the University of Chicago, got honors from John Mearsheimer, went on to do HR consulting, and then quit consulting within six months.
The reality was that, as much as I wanted to be an economist, I really wanted to be a full-time writer; it made me happy—but having a career that involved strategic thinking was also important to me.
I ended up at Capterra in 2014, not because I’d focused on cyber relations, or because I was particularly fascinated with project management (I didn’t even know what that term meant coming in), but because they had a full-time writing position open. J.P. Medved, my boss, took a look at my interests and my thought processes and smartly assigned me to write on project management software.
When I discovered Agile, everything clicked. An Agile mindset is very similar to the writing process. Think about it: in writing, reader satisfaction is the end goal. In Agile, it’s customer satisfaction. Grammar and conventions (often) matter, as does context. The hardest part of creating is getting started. Edits improve first iterations. External feedback makes the final product better. I quickly figured out that I could share my passion for writing with researching and writing about Agile software, because they both have the same underlying philosophy:
There will never be a time when innovation expires.
Once I figured that out, I passionately dove into reviewing software for people who share that mindset, while also adopting an Agile approach to all things work-related, from setting team goals to interpreting Scrum for our content marketing processes. I’m in love with the Agile community, and I don’t expect that to change any time soon.
TaskQue: How do you feel being associated with one of the biggest IT companies? Which work processes do you like the most here and why?
Rachel Burger: When Capterra was acquired by Gartner, I was a little hesitant—I was Capterra’s 18th employee, and at the time, Gartner had just shy of 8,000 workers. I prefer small environments where I could push the limits and grow.
But, what I soon found was that Gartner did a really good job of maintaining the small-team feel of Capterra, while sustaining our exponential growth. The coolest thing about working with Gartner is the extent of quality research available. Within project management, I feel like I have access to some of the greatest minds in the PPM field, especially in regard to software. With our combined ideas, I’m able to better understand the enterprise project management community and translate those trends down to the small business level—and, conversely, see trends in small businesses before they hit large companies. It’s an awesome symbiotic relationship.
TaskQue: Being a senior project management analyst, what mistakes do you find common among project managers, and what remedies do you suggest?
Rachel Burger: As a specialist in PM software, I’ve actually met a number of project managers who haven’t figured out their processes yet and want software to do that legwork for them; they want to rely solely on the software tools. Yes, PM software is ridiculously helpful, but only if you take the time for change management, and you already have a working foundation (Scrum, Waterfall, etc.) for it to do its magic.
TaskQue: You have worked in an HR consulting company as a research analyst focusing on generational trends. What do you think is the the biggest obstacle in getting a first job?
Rachel Burger: My heart goes out to Millennials looking for their first jobs—for college graduates, they’ve had their whole life path laid out for them. Go to school, get grades that somehow reflect your worth as a worker (I think grades are more a sign of being able to follow directions and work independently—they’re not the best proxy for making quality hires), get an internship or two, and then get a job. But in that process, they’ve been steeped in academia with very little business experience. They may know how to fill out a resume and cover letter template (follow directions, work independently), but they’re too skittish to take the necessary risks needed to distinguish themselves.
For example, the cover letter is your best opportunity to shine. Try these formats—certainly not taught in career services—to apply for your first job:
- List out five essential reasons why you and the company are a good fit.
- Tell a story that doesn’t involve college. It makes you seem older and more mature.
- Mimic the brand’s tone in your cover letter. It would be perfectly appropriate to make a tasteful, playful joke in a cover letter to Capterra. That wouldn’t necessarily be the case with the Red Cross.
TaskQue: What is the “no limits” attitude in regard to productivity? If that culture isn’t available in the workplace, what should a “no limits” worker do to survive in that environment?
Rachel Burger: “No limits” is a lot like Agile—it’s the idea that employees should be intrinsically motivated to learn and grow their skill set, are team focused, choose how to spend each day wisely, and consistently ask more of themselves.
I’m actually lukewarm to a “no limits” mindset versus an Agile mindset because of its transactional nature. Of course every executive wants every employee to be using the most of their time and to be proactive in becoming better workers. Of course every executive wants their employees to “work smarter.” Unfortunately, though, there’s often little reward and incentive to do so, so those expectations turn into “work longer hours” and mandatory training sessions. It can quickly become restrictive.
Why? Because the emphasis is on the company’s outcomes, and not the team’s. If you’re asking your team to focus on each other, but you are only focused on the bottom line, then what can happen is a “self-preservation” culture.
The biggest thing about “no limits” is a nuance that goes undiscussed. Yes, each individual does have limitations. I can’t write for 20 hours straight right now—not just because I’d burn out in the process of trying, but because I have life commitments outside of work. But if I trained for such a writing marathon and scheduled it out, I probably could in a year or so. Context matters in limitations. It’s important—and respectful—to recognize the team’s limitations and how context (time, place, sociological needs, etc.) plays a role in them.
TaskQue: You have been working in the field for a long time. Which personalities have inspired you? Who do you think are the shining stars in the community?
Rachel Burger: I just met Dave West, the CEO of Scrum.org, in August. He’s incredible—he takes the philosophical part of Agile seriously, and has an amazing humility about his processes and about himself. I really look up to him.
I think that Natalie Warnert should get more attention than what she gets right now. She’s done an incredible job advocating for women in the Agile community, from creating mentorship programs to facilitating speaking engagements at conferences to organizing Women in Agile, an offshoot of Agile Alliance’s annual conference. I think that Agile is a particularly women-friendly approach to work processes, and I’m grateful for the work Natalie is doing to bring more women into the field.
I am also a big admirer of David Allen, author of a famous productivity book called Getting Things Done. I’ve adopted the GTD method myself, and, in the process of instituting it in my life, found that happiness and productivity are intertwined. I haven’t met Allen myself, but I think his thoughtfulness about how to best use your time is worth everyone’s attention.
TaskQue: What’s your point of view on Agile software development? What trends do you see in upcoming years ?
Rachel Burger: Agile software development is a huge umbrella that can encompass a whole bunch of different processes. What I think is most interesting is how Agile is spreading to the umbrella of business processes. I think it will affect project managers, certainly, but also our business paradigm as a whole.
This graph explains the theory pretty well:
As for Agile software development, I think there are a bunch of cool developments (pun intended) on the horizon. While already a trend across enterprise, I think blended Agile models (think “Scrumban”) will continue to get more popular. I think getting a PMP certification will matter far less in the next five years to HR. DevOps will merge with Agile so closely that continuing to distinguish between them will seem silly.
I also think that code itself will become more accessible to layman users—think drag-and-drop or natural language processing as programming. Greater access to IT will mean a change in culture, and only an Agile mindset will be able to handle the needed growth of diversity in software development.
TaskQue: You also have strong opinions about productivity topics. What do you think is the best metric to measure productivity?
Rachel Burger: It’s funny you ask that; I think that measuring productivity falls into that umbrella of “quant addiction.” A better question would be “how long does it take you to organize your weekly tasks, and how many of them do you get done?” While, yes, productivity can be measured (total outputs over total inputs), I think that those two questions are the only two quantitative questions you should be asking yourself. If it takes you too long to organize your tasks in your personal retrospective, you’re probably not being proactive enough during the week to organize what it is you need to do. And if you’re not able to get everything done (I tend to aim for 70%—overestimate to push yourself, but not to the point of demotivation), it means that you’re missing a fundamental context question about your limitations for that week.
The more important questions to me are qualitative. I regularly check on the following:
- How am I physically feeling? Do I have knots in my neck and back? Am I tired? Am I skipping meals or eating more because I need something to do?
- How am I mentally feeling? Am I feeling energized by my work? Am I proud of the amount of the work I’ve been able to produce this week? Is something bothering me that’s changing the context of my work?
- What feedback did I get this week? How do my processes affect others? How do they feel about my work and the results of my work? How can I improve my efforts for them? (I solicit feedback in every email I send.)
With those questions and introspection on my estimates, I feel well measured in my own productivity. I meet with each individual member of my content team on Fridays, and we go through each of those questions together as well—it’s how I keep track of their productivity. I think project managers—and managers in general—need to remember that quantitative metrics are proxies for answering qualitative questions. If you can answer whether your team is motivated, inspired for the long term, regularly turning in high-quality work in a timely matter, and whether they feel taken care of, then you’re measuring productivity correctly.
TaskQue: How do you manage a team of content marketers? How do you keep things Agile? What’s your take on the Agile methodology?
This past September, I presented my interpretation of Agile for content marketing at Digital Summit DC. As of now, “Agile” content marketing has been code for “use the Scrum process seen on the tech team and transpose it to content.” Let me ask you something: If you took a manufacturing plant from Ghana and dropped it into NYC, would you expect it to work at the same rate of efficiency? No. Because context matters.
Instead, I started from Agile’s fundamental principles and values (e.g., individuals and interactions over processes and tools), and massaged them into the writing process. Some of Agile, such as “deliver working software frequently,” shouldn’t make its way into a content organization; instead it should be repurposed into something content specific. For this example, I translated that principle to “deliver original, repurposable content regularly.” The emphasis isn’t on speed, but regularity.
My interpretation of Agile content marketing is going into its pilot program with three or four direct reports in October—we’ll test, adjust, and deliver through all of Q4. It’s a radical change from our process now (traditional marketing), so we’re taking an MVP approach to the new process.
I plan on documenting my findings and sharing them publicly for those who may also be interested in Agile content marketing.
Related: How to Scale Agile Methodology
TaskQue: Apart from your professional life, what are your hobbies and interests? How much do you believe in work-life balance?
Rachel Burger: The effects of working hard don’t discriminate between “work at home” and “work at work,” so why should productivity experts distinguish a difference, especially when concerned with burnout?
I’m much more in the camp of work-life blending. (I have found that trying to achieve “work-life balance” is inefficient and unenjoyable. I’ve learned to schedule out everything, from grocery shopping to evaluating crosstabs, to make sure I don’t get burned out at work or at home.
As for hobbies and interests, I’m a big fan of Rocket League—there’s nothing like attempting to play soccer while driving a race car in a competitive match in a video game. I am also taking courses at Johns Hopkins for my second MA (in writing—studying English can help you find and keep a job!), and I own and operate a small online art store.