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How an agile project manager goes about her work at Vorwerk

"Ensuring change within the company is the biggest challenge"

As an “Agile Project Manager” at Vorwerk, Julia Tscheplanski from our Digital IT Department employs new, dynamic methods to speed up and optimize projects. Among other things, the intention is to produce shorter development cycles and feedback loops. Consequently, Julia’s job involves not only planning and organization, but also managing communication and motivating her team. In the following interview, she offers us an inside look at her daily work.

Julia, what does an Agile Project Manager do at Vorwerk?

In my unit, we deal with digital products and services across the entire Vorwerk product range. One familiar example is the Thermomix® and its digital recipe portal Cookidoo®. We are the ones who start up the innovation management for the digital services related to a product; we deal with innovation, conceptualization, and implementation in the run-up to the launch and everything that comes afterwards. This means that we watch over the entire process of creating apps, web pages, and other digital solutions.

Unlike a classic project manager who carries out strictly detached phases of conceptualization and development, we use more flexible techniques, such as "scrum" or "kanban", that enable us to obtain results faster. This works because we don’t insist on being able to describe all the requirements in detail right from the start, but only some, because the rest of them emerge during the course of the project.

That sounds like a lot of responsibility.

It is. Once we are given the go-ahead for a project, our executive designates an Agile Project Manager, for example, me. Together, we draw up the project and talk to service providers and stakeholders within the company. Then I am responsible for implementing the project. For me, this stands and falls with the cohesiveness of the project team and clear communication, so that we stay on schedule and achieve the set goals.

What has your career path been like thus far and why did you choose Vorwerk as an employer?

Before I came to Vorwerk, I was employed as a Senior Consultant at a major consulting firm in the financial services sector. In general, we developed software products for banks and insurance companies. What eventually prompted me to change was the lack of a relationship to a tangible product that I would also use in private life. At first, I was unaware that Vorwerk is so digitally minded. That is why I liked the idea of the new digital IT department. Now we are establishing something here – and precisely that is the exciting part for me: having a hand in shaping and developing it.

What skills are required in your profession?

Invariably, a project manager must be an excellent communicator and bring along flexibility and a healthy dose of team spirit. In a big company like Vorwerk, you also need to be adaptable and have the necessary perseverance.

What challenges do you face from day to day as an Agile Project Manager?

In theory and practice, agile working methods are nothing new. Every start-up operates according to such principles. However, introducing agile methods at a company that has operated according to classic project management for many years can become a challenge. That requires a lot of tact day in day out to reach out to everyone and convince them to participate. This is also a matter of self-motivation: I can’t convince others to engage in something other than classic project management unless I myself believe in it.

In all honesty: which relevant skills did you learn during your studies and which did you acquire directly in professional life?

Studying business management doesn’t really prepare you for everyday professional life, so I encourage everyone to do internships in various corporate areas early on in order to find out what they can do well. I experienced using agile methods in my previous position, so I was already familiar with some methods and with the agile project management approach when I took up my new position at Vorwerk.

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It takes a lot of tact and sensitivity to convince everyone to participate.
What makes the occupation of Agile Project Manager so special? What do you like about it the most?

I love project management because it requires organizing things. That suits me because I am a well-organized person. The agile approach appeals to me because of its flexibility and adaptability – that makes work dynamic. Moreover, the short development cycles enable our team to amass experience quickly, so we can design the product more optimally right from the start and continuously. I can immediately put this to use for the next sprint (development cycle - the editor). We grow with the direct feedback instead of not until the project has reached completion six months later.

Please describe a typical day at work.

When I get to work, over coffee, we in the project team review the events of the previous day and discuss our plans. We follow a very special process to then continue working with the service providers on our digital products. We have a so-called "backlog" in which all software requirements are collected by our product owner, the person responsible for the product. The most important backlog items (user stories) are at the top, while the less important ones are further down, so we know at a glance which task we must prioritize. We are organized in two-week sprints. Before a sprint can begin, we discuss the user stories in so-called "refinements" or “groomings” (denotes the continuous management and updating of the backlog). That way everybody knows what must be developed, and together we plan the next steps. Then the sprint starts and with it the development. A week later, we have another refinement and specify other user stories from the backlog. Once the two weeks are up there is a "review": The team demonstrates what was developed. We try out the result, and everyone is permitted to offer feedback that will be transferred to the backlog if necessary, so we can incorporate modifications in the next sprint. Then we have a retrospective in which everyone can say what worked well and what did not. From that we automatically derive action items that help us to develop digital products more efficiently and optimally. Then it starts all over again with the planning for the next sprint.

Communication takes place via various communication programs, whereby I prefer direct interaction – either a telephone call or a personal meeting. E-mails are mainly used for official matters. My daily work also includes workshops that I conduct with the project participants. They help to clarify complicated situations together in one place.

What project are you working on right now?

I’m not at liberty to say yet, because I’m currently working on an all-new digital product for an existing Vorwerk hardware product.

What makes you proud?

Being part of the way in which my team and I accelerate the agile transformation within the company. Change is the biggest challenge for us..

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It is possible for me to act according to my intuition and experience.
What do you hope to achieve professionally over the next few years?

My biggest goal is to realize the new product vision I am working on and get it to the customers. Once I have accomplished that, I will have already achieved a lot.

What do you especially appreciate about Vorwerk as an employer?

What I like about my job is that very little is dictated from above, which enables me to act according to my intuition and experience. In addition, we have flat hierarchies. This manifests itself, among other things, in the fact that the best idea prevails and not the one presented by the higher-ranking employee.

What occupation would you pursue if you weren’t employed as an Agile Project Manager?

At the moment, I am very satisfied with my occupation, but later I could envision working as a product owner, in other words, also designing products at the requirement level. Or starting my own business in the food sector together with my sister. Food is dear to our hearts.

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Julia Tscheplanski (29) 

studied business administration (Management & Economics) at the Ruhr-Universität-Bochum, completed a semester abroad at the Tongji University in Shanghai and then worked for several years in an international management consultancy that is already working in an agile way. With her experience in software projects and a certificate as Scrum Master in her pocket, she joined Vorwerk in November 2017.