How to Become a Project Manager -- Lessons From the Corporate World

Since this has come up a couple of times recently (in both my online and IRL lives), I thought it would be useful to spread the PM gospel. While I believe that everyone can benefit from acquiring some PM skills in order to meet their own goals, there are also some people for whom project management would be a good career.

It's important to have a role model
First of all, why would anyone want to be a project manager for a living?

  • The skills are cross functional and can be used in many industries, from computers to medical care to construction. That means more options in the job market based on other skills you already have.
  • The money is good. Let's just be blunt about it. PMs make a good living. They tend to be respected and valued for the work they do.
  • Your job isn't going to get replaced by a robot any time soon.
  • The role isn't easy to off-shore (and if you have PM skills managing off-shore teams, you are doubly valuable).
  • You don't need -- and likely don't even want -- a college degree in PM. This is a field where real-world experience is considered the best training. Degrees can even be looked on with suspicion unless they are coupled with actual experience.

So what sort of strengths do you need to be to be a good PM?

  • Communication skills -- written, verbal, presentation, non-verbal.
  • People skills -- projects are made up of people, so you need to be good with them.
  • Management skills -- even if you don't directly manage the folks on your teams, you are still effectively a manger for that project, so you should not suck at it.
  • Organizational skills -- obviously.
  • The desire for responsibility -- not just the willingness, but the desire. You have to like owning and running stuff. Most of the successful PMs I know are proactive control freaks who enjoy being responsible for things.

If PM degrees aren't that interesting, how do you get a job?

People typically slide into project management sideways. They start out in construction, development, engineering, or healthcare -- something where there are PMs -- and prove that they have the skills and sense of responsibility to manage and coordinate projects and people, then they start seeking out those opportunities until they find they are asked take the role, get a change to get training or a certification, or find they end up with the experience necessary to get the role someplace else. This works because not everyone wants to a) run stuff and b) deal with the details. People who want a) but not b) go into upper management. People who want b) but not a) are wonderful individual contributors. If you like both, you have the makings of a PM and that makes you valuable.

Great, but what if I'm barely out of school / not working (or working in a place where I don't get to run the french fry machine, let alone a project) / or trying to get into a new field entirely and have no experience?

There are professional certifications that carry some weight. They are managed by the PMI -- the Project Management Institute -- and while I didn't have one until I'd already been a program manager, they can help as part of a transition plan. The best and most well known certification is the PMP, but it requires documented experience leading and managing projects as well as training (and a killer exam). The good news is that you can get this experience without the job title, so if you've been doing it and can justify it, this will help you look better on paper. The training can easily be bought through a week-long boot camp class (which trust me, will really help you pass that test).

Another option -- that I'm less familiar with -- is the CAPM, which is the associate PM cert. This one requires experience OR training (and what looks like a smaller exam) and would be a good option for a younger person (like my nephew who has a business degree and is working in fast food right now).

I want to be a PM! What should I do next?

Options: 
  • See if there are PMs where you work and take one out for coffee. We are as amenable to flattery as the next person.
  • See if there's a local chapter of the PMI and go to a meeting and network. By definition these people will be champions of the career field.
  • Scour job listings. Note, everyone should do this always -- you don't even have to be in the market for a new job for this to be super useful):
    - Look for jobs listings called "project manager" "project coordinator" "program manager" that you might be qualified for based on other experience (it's worth a shot, especially since there are jobs that have the title but that don't have the pay, which you could use as a jumping off point).
    - Look for jobs that you might be able to get that have a project manager type component without the title. You use the experience as the stepping stone to the certification and actual title.
    - Look for the skills that PM jobs are looking for and see how you could get them. Honestly lots of organizations are desperate for people to help organize and coordinate things. Volunteer at your favorite charity, school, club, etc. You'll learn both skills and lessons and can put those on your resume.
  • Do magic. Once you know what you need to learn, enchant for those learning experiences to come to you. Enchant for opportunities to take low cost or free classes in the field (just because a degree isn't useful doesn't mean there's nothing to learn). Enchant to put the right mentors and contact in your path.
I hope this is helpful for anyone curious about PM as more than just a nifty toolkit for getting what you want personally (though it is that as well, obviously). If you can not only keep your shit together, but help other people get theirs together as well, if you crave responsibility and like to control things, if you are reasonably organized and a very good communicator -- you have the makings of a career PM.

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