In Conversation with Kathryn Farwell

We’re pleased to share another installment of In Conversation, our series of friendly chats amongst Athletics colleagues and collaborators on subjects of personal or professional interest.

We’re joined this week by Kathryn Farwell, Athletics Senior Project Manager. At Athletics, Kathryn has been the glue holding many projects together, from our ongoing relationship with IBM to our Webby-winning work on New York Review of Books. In this episode, Kathryn chats with Athletics Co-Founder Matt Owens about her journey from a High School DECA kid to the world of New York advertising.

Listen below, or read the transcript, and stay tuned for more conversations in the weeks to come.


Matt Owens:  Welcome to another episode of In Conversation, a series of discussions amongst Athletics team members and creative colleagues on subjects of personal and professional interest. For today’s chat, we welcome Kathryn Farwell, senior project manager at Athletics. As a senior project manager, Kathryn works at the intersection of management, creative, technology, and leadership, serving as the crucial glue that keeps projects running smoothly. Today, we’re going to talk to Kathryn and learn more about her professional journey, the lessons she’s learned, and where she sees the future of agency, culture, and work. And with that, I welcome Kathryn to In Conversation.

Kathryn Farwell:  Hey, Matt. Thanks for having me.

Matt:  Thanks for doing this. I appreciate it. Wanted to kick it off and just have you tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, and how you got into project management.

Kathryn:  Yeah, sounds great. So, I’m originally from Northern Virginia. My dad was in the Secret Service, so we actually moved around a couple times, but I would call Virginia home, for the most part. I think my journey with project management oddly kind of started a little bit with my dad’s background. In the Secret Service, he was always … We were planning every trip ahead of time. I’ve always watched him, how he’s so calculated with every trip we did, and that kind of stayed with me. And then in high school, I really got interested in marketing. I was in DECA in high school, which is like a marketing business club for students. And in college, I was in a business fraternity, which is a nerdy way to say that I always really kind of loved this stuff.

Matt:  Wow.

Kathryn:  Yeah. Being in the backdrop of Northern Virginia, most people work in government or have a military background, or something in IT. But I was always kind of drawn to something a little bit more creative, but I didn’t really know how to get a start in that, or how my skillsets matched to that. So, I kind of found project management in a roundabout way.

Matt:  Interesting, and it kind of came out of just your upbringing. It was just part of that culture of childhood and your parents, and that region. And curious to know, how did you kind of move from that into working initially at Carrot and then at Gin Lane?

Kathryn:  Yeah, so I was a marketing major in college, and I took an advertising class my senior year. It was an elective for my major, shockingly. I didn’t even need to take it, but I was like, “Well, if I want a career in this, maybe I should take a class on it.” You know, looking back, I’m so glad I did, because it opened up the aperture of what’s possible in that industry. I’m not a designer by any stretch of the imagination, and I didn’t really know what jobs I could’ve done in advertising at the time. I just knew that I loved it and was really interested in it. So, out of college, I made some connections through that advertising class, actually, at a local digital agency in Blacksburg, Virginia, and I didn’t get the internship I wanted. I wanted a strategy internship, or at least I thought so at the time, and I didn’t get that, but I did get a quality assurance internship, which opened the door for me.

Matt:  Wow.

Kathryn:  Yeah, it was cool.

Matt:  Cool.

Kathryn:  And then I got some experience doing that, testing websites and kind of just understanding how digital production worked. It was fall after I graduated, and I was still in my college town, just kind of living the life, and I was like, “I think I need to find a job.” And I always knew that I should be reading industry websites, and I had a friend in advertising in WeWork at the time who recommended I do that, and that’s how I learned about Carrot Creative, and I read this blog post by the new creative director who had just started there at the time, and I went to their website, applied for a job that didn’t exist in quality assurance, and four weeks later, I was hired and moving to New York. So, it all happened really fast.

Matt:  Wow. Wow. And how long ago was that?

Kathryn:  That was a little over … probably like eleven, twelve years ago.

Matt:  Wow. A lot of evolution between then and now.

Kathryn:  Yeah, certainly. I think my first few years at Carrot and then Vice, I was rolling up my sleeves and getting a lot of experience in a wide range of projects. I think it was sort of the beginning of that digital social landscape, and there were countless different fun jobs to do, so anything from building websites to … I was line producing social photo shoots for Target, and Anheuser-Busch. I was producing a Medieval Times disco party, like experiential events for brands out in L.A.

Matt:  Wow.

Kathryn:  It was really challenging, but it was a great learning experience.

Matt:  It kind of was like … I feel like you have had your hands in so many different sort of interpretations of project management. Does that make sense?

Kathryn:  Yeah. I mean, at the time, I had to be a jack of all trades. My first five years at Carrot was just getting exposure to all types of project management skillsets. Then my jump to Gin Lane was about honing that steel, and getting experience specializing a very specific type of project management around early launch startups, and some digital production and photo shoot production.

Matt:  What did you think about working for startups? How was that?

Kathryn:  It was one of the most rewarding experiences I’ve had, I think. It was a lot different from the landscape I had come from, which was a very … Our clients were very corporate, but fun. Whereas with pre-launch, early launch stage startups, it’s usually just a co-founder or two. This is their livelihood. This is their shot at doing something big. And so I really got to get really close with these co-founders and develop that relationship. I felt really invested in the potential of the company and where it was headed.

Matt:  And that’s really interesting, because being that close to the product and to the people that are making the product or the service, I mean, you really become part of their team, largely.

Kathryn:  Truly. I mean, they only have so many people to lean on at that small infancy of the company at that time. And so you really start to think about every dollar, every hour spent, and making sure that you’re doing what you think is best for the company and for that client and partner. So in that way, that’s why I think it was so rewarding. And then to see them, oftentimes it takes several months to a couple years to launch after we’ve completed the project. So it was really nice to see once they were out in the world, and people could experience the brand in a new way. It was really exciting.

Matt:  That’s awesome. I’m just curious to know, after all of that experience, and you kind of have been involved in so many different facets of project management across so many different verticals, and now you’ve been a little over a year here at Athletics, and wanted to get a better sense of your experience here so far and how working at Athletics might be different than your previous experiences.

Kathryn:  Yeah. Every company has a different way of writing and operating as well … As much as we’re similar in services sometimes, truly every company is different. I would say Athletics, our approach is really thoughtful and very bespoke to the needs of our partners. I’ve spent the last year working under some really intelligent people and understanding our approach to really service design. I’ve learned so much in the past year, and just how … As a project manager, I’m often very hyper-focused on the timeline, the deliverables, you know, making sure we’re running efficiently. And we have a really thoughtful, hands-on approach to how we treat our clients and our partners, and really make sure that we’re looking out for what’s their best interest while protecting our design team and creatives at the same time.

Matt:  And it’s interesting to hear that, because it is this balance between what I would sort of characterize as tactical necessities, but then sort of the humanity of everyone involved. For you, you’re kind of at the center between the clients, the teams, and leadership. And I’m sure all those aspects have different perspectives. And within that, I’d be curious to know what you think the biggest sort of challenge is with being sort of in that center eye of the storm. What are the biggest challenges for you and the biggest opportunities?

Kathryn:  Yeah, that’s a great question. I think what’s often a tough challenge is the team is always looking at the next milestone ahead and when challenges arise on unanticipated pieces of the project, which are inevitable, right? Like, that every project encounters some sort of thing that you didn’t plan for in a timeline. It’s pulling the team together and getting us all to look ahead and see where we need to take it next, because sometimes you need to take a right exit when you weren’t expecting to, and it’s just adapting to that schedule and getting back on course.

Matt:  Yeah. And I mean, I know I think your role is really … A lot of designers … Of course, designers are always kind of developers, especially when it’s like, oh, heads down, doing the task at hand, and your role is to sort of help everyone look up from what they’re doing every day and seeing the short-term, medium-term, and long-term goals. You know?

Kathryn:  Yeah, and I think every stakeholder has their own goal and own reason for approaching a project in a certain way. And I do think project managers have a really nice opportunity to try to pull all of those goals and get alignment on them, and really highlight and make sure that if there’s a junior designer on a project, that they’re being able to get some presentation time, if that’s what they would really love to achieve on this project, as well as making sure the client’s goals at the end of the day are being served as well. Because I think there’s often some tension between those two pieces of the puzzle, and you always want to make sure that you’re thinking about your partner at the end of the day.

Matt:  Totally. And of course for all of us, the last year plus has been very challenging and there’s been a lot of different approaches that we’ve had to kind of leverage, given all the constraints of remote work. And just curious to know if there’s anything that comes to mind over the last year or so that you feel like you’re the most proud of or was an unique experience.

Kathryn:  Yeah. I mean, I think if anything, this year has shown us that remote work is possible. So much has changed, but in terms of my day to day, I’m still focused on the same pieces of the project that I have been in the past. I think there’s a much bigger emotional support role that we play that I think everyone has had to learn how to do.

Matt:  Totally.

Kathryn:  I think we all support each other in a much stronger way at Athletics this past year. We’ve had to. It just was essential to making sure that we were all getting through it okay. Yeah, but I think that topic of support and how we support each other, people within our same disciplines, is a really interesting topic, and one that I’ve enjoyed digging into further this past year.

Matt:  Yeah. I would almost argue that remote work has made us closer in weird ways, you know? Just because video calls and things are much more intimate. And I feel like it’s a different kind of productivity, and it’s a different kind of engagement with the teams.

Kathryn:  Certainly. I mean, I think the culture of Athletics has always been a really productive and hardworking one during work hours. And we have the benefit of work-life balance, because come 6:30 every day, I feel like we all know that we can relax a little bit. But I think being remote, yeah, it’s really changed how much we lean on one another. I had only been at Athletics for about three months before we went remote. Three or four months. And I felt like I had been there over a year in that same time, because you just get to know people in a different way. And also, the way you present yourself on client presentations, it’s a bit of an equalizer in terms of who can participate on those calls and who’s in the room. And I think there’s been a lot of benefits to remote working, despite its challenges.

Matt:  Totally. And one thing that I’d be curious to know about, because you’ve been able to do so many things in person and you’re sort of mastering remote work and the challenges there, and now that we’re moving into a more hybrid model over the next year or so, curious to know if you have any insights, any thoughts around the opportunities there, and especially talking about project management as its own culture, you know?

Kathryn:  Yeah. I think to start with your first question around the opportunities, like I mentioned before, I think if it showed us anything, that we can do our jobs just as effectively, at least in this industry, being remote. But what are those maybe more emotional things that we lose by not being in person? I know we’ve all really struggled with not being able to see each other face to face, not having happy hours, not eating lunch together. I think we’re all really craving that and missing that. And how do we make sure that more junior employees have the right level of support and opportunity at career growth as myself had when I was just starting out and could just try out a lot of different things? Because if you’re in the office, there’s different opportunities that arise. So, trying to make sure that we’re thinking about those moments on career development, I think will be an interesting challenge going forward.

Matt:  Yeah. I mean, I agree with you. Career development and sort of team bonding and all of those things are very, very … They’re very intangible. There’s no right answer. It takes time and it takes multiple projects to learn those things and to grow as a creative and as a project manager, and as a technologist. And I think the next year, year and a half, is definitely going to be a very interesting … You know, maybe you can talk to that. Do you see any bigger themes that you think we’re going to have to tackle?

Kathryn:  Yeah. I think, like I mentioned earlier, support is a really big piece that I’m thinking about. And for project managers … You know, designers have their design communities and their design blogs, but often in creative project management, it’s really hard to find that community. I’m really lucky to have a lot of former producers and project managers that I can lean on for support and just ping with questions and stuff, but in terms of a community, it’s rare to find that. Product management has its own channels and Twitter feeds and conversations and dialogues, but I’m interested to see how can I, as a mid-level PM, help foster some of that community more. Because I think we’re really craving that level of support and resources, and we’re going to have to look beyond just our workplace to see where we can find those resources.

Matt:  Yeah. And I mean, it’s mentorship, it’s having a culture. It’s being able to share systems and processes, because I think things are changing so quickly. And then I think for you as well, it’s about how do you work as a team of project managers? How you have a shared vocabulary and a shared process.

Kathryn:  Yeah, I think about that a lot too, because so often, I think maybe why project managers can’t really share that information is because it’s often very specific to the company that they’re at. And when you join a new agency, you kind of have to just spend a lot of time observing and listening and understanding what the shared vocabulary amongst the team is, what’s the culture like, and then taking what you’ve observed and trying to codify and make more consistent that process and what the workflows are that we’re all feeding into. Because I think that’s sometimes the hardest piece when you have different disciplines within an organization, right?

Matt:  Right.

Kathryn:  How does a design team that’s focused on one thing, how do they collaborate and interface with creative technologists? It’s not always … I mean, when you’re in person and you’re getting to know someone and building that rapport, you kind of just figure it out together.

Matt:  Right.

Kathryn:  But when you’re remote and you have new people coming on board who’ve never met you, you have to really find ways to facilitate that collaboration in a different way.

Matt:  Totally. I mean, it’s so funny. Between Slack and Zoom and video calls and everything else, it’s almost like we have so many tools at our disposal, but true collaboration is just … It’s always a mystery, right? It always happens in different ways for different projects at different times, you know?

Kathryn:  That’s really been true. And I think one other thing I’ve been cognizant of while we’ve been remote is I don’t think there’s anything … I don’t think you can over-communicate when you’re remote.

Matt:  Totally. Totally.

Kathryn:  There’s so much non-verbal communication that happens when you’re in the office. And if I’m on Slack and not on a video call, I can’t see kind of how someone responds to a Slack message that I write, or how they’re interpreting a client email, or if they’re having a hard time with just trying to figure out a solution to a design problem, you know? And so, I think pushing our teams to raise their hand when they’re not sure about something or not sure what they should be working on. I think we’re often afraid to admit that, but it’s often a really useful tool in moving forward and making sure-

Matt:  Completely.

Kathryn:  Yeah.

Matt:  Completely. Well, I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but I’m just curious to know any aspirations for the … As we sort of head into the spring and the summer and into the rest of the year, and knowing that things are going to change, any bigger personal and professional goals out there for the next year for you?

Kathryn:  Yes. I mean, the team has us on this OKR cycle that I’ve become a little bit obsessed with, and that’s really helped me kind of outline and articulate in a different way the goals I have for myself and around fostering a community around project management. So, I think that’s really where I’m pushing myself towards, and finding avenues and ways to bring people together that way.

Matt:  That’s awesome. That’s awesome. Yeah, well, thanks so much for the time. I admire everything you do for our teams. You know, it’s by no means an easy task to keep everyone on track and everyone together. And it is that blend of the tactical necessities and the sort of social emotional necessities of making a project a success for the teams and the clients and yourself. So, I applaud all the work you do.

Kathryn:  Yeah. Thank you for highlighting project management in this way. It’s exciting for me.

Matt:  Thank you so much.

Kathryn:  Thanks, Matt.