A complete guide to the digital project management career path to help you land your first PM role.
If you ask someone who’s been in the digital project management world for a while how they became a digital project manager, you’ll likely hear this answer:
“I just fell into it!”. That’s definitely the case for me!
There aren’t many 10-year-olds out there who will answer “digital project manager” when asked the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” That’s why it’s hard to determine what you should study, what experience you need, and how to get into the industry.
The digital world has evolved at a rapid pace, and is still a relatively young industry. This means that our specific jobs haven’t been around for that long, compared to many other professions.
So, I think it’s really important to share the knowledge on how to become a digital project manager (DPM). I’d also love to hear from you guys about your path to digital project management and your progression within the role.
This post can serve as a starting point for anyone interested in exploring the field of digital project management.
In this article
What Is A Digital Project Manager?
A digital project manager manages digital projects — of course, there’s more to it than that, but the core of it is that the projects are digital in nature.
Digital project managers might work for:
- Digital agencies
- Marketing agencies
- Creative agencies
- In-house digital marketing teams
- In-house creative teams
Project types might include:
- Digital marketing campaigns
- Search engine optimization (SEO) projects
- Social media campaigns
- Mobile apps
- Video projects
- Ecommerce campaigns, websites, and projects
- Email marketing campaigns
- Digital products such as SaaS or Content Management Systems (CMS)
It’s worth noting that your title might not always be “digital project manager,” even if you have the responsibilities that come with that title. For example, you may be a digital marketing manager, an account manager, or an eCommerce manager.
Whatever your title, if you have similar responsibilities to those of a project manager, and you are managing digital projects, you are a digital project manager.
DPM Responsibilities: What Does A Digital Project Manager Do?
Down to the nuts and bolts of it—what does a DPM do? What is our role? If you Google “What does a Project Manager do” you get a variety of descriptions? Here are just a few:
“A project manager is a person who has the overall responsibility for the successful initiation, planning, design, execution, monitoring, controlling, and closure of a project.”
“Essentially, the project manager is accountable for the success or failure of a project. Typical responsibilities of a project manager include Planning, Executing, and Closing Projects — defining the project, building its comprehensive work plan, and managing to the budget.”
A similar search on “What does a Digital Project Manager do” provides:
“The person responsible for ensuring that the digital project runs smoothly is called – you guessed it – the digital project manager. … The DPM works with clients, outside contractors, stakeholders in his own organization, and the project team to ensure that the project meets its stated goals on time and within budget.”
Nobody’s wrong. However, I think that the digital project manager role has evolved a lot over the years. We started out as more traditional project managers where our role was to deliver a project on time and budget. While these are still boundaries that we work within, there’s a lot more to our job than this—if we were merely good at tracking timelines and monitoring finances, I don’t think we’d be successful digital project managers!
A Day In The Life Of A Digital Project Manager
What does a digital project manager actually do? In a nutshell, a digital project manager leads a digital project and the team involved in it, ensuring the needs of the project are met throughout the project life cycle—project scope, timing, and budget.
While the emphasis is on making sure things happen, the role has evolved to become more of a leader than manager (despite the title!). To get the best work, the team producing the work needs to be happy and have the ability to get on with their work to the best of their abilities. The digital project manager enables this.
I love Brett Harned’s description of a Project Manager in his book ‘Project Management for Humans’. He describes us using the following statements:
- We are chaos junkies
- We are multilingual communicators
- We are lovable hardasses
- We are consummate learners and teachers
- We are laser-focused
- We are honest, always
- We are pathfinders
This is a very relevant round-up of what we do, day in and day out. In particular, the last statement really resonates with me. A project manager is not just there to make sure things get done—we are also strategic players on a project, helping to direct the project on the right course. Brett’s also done a podcast on these statements, which you can listen to here.
What I Do On A Typical Day
I’m a Project/Programme Director, which is at the senior end of the scale, but my role can involve anything from booking resources, chasing timesheets (always a fun job!) and running stand-ups to leading client workshops, managing other PMs, and ensuring team issues are resolved quickly.
Here are some typical daily tasks:
- write emails
- have face to face meetings
- communicate on Slack, Jira, Confluence
- make phone calls
- sit down with team members
- plan and run workshops
- go to clients’ offices
- present decks
- write reports
- hold retrospectives
- define a project process
- make numerous Google Sheets
- drink a lot of coffee
And it goes on… Obviously, this list shows you that the job is varied—you often feel you have a million different things to do at once. I think multitasking has become ingrained in me! I still mix up either running projects myself or managing other PMs running projects, as I still like to have a hands-on role as part of my job.
Is A Digital Project Management Career Right For Me?
In this video, Kelly and I answer some common digital project management career questions.
Tune in if you’re new to the role or considering becoming a digital project manager! We answer questions like:
- What’s it like being a project manager?
- What skills are important?
- What do we love about being project managers?
- What do we hate about being project managers?
Digital Project Manager Salary and Roles
Curious about the career path that you might take as a digital project manager? There are quite a few options in terms of seniority and specializations that you can explore as you progress through your career.
What Are The Different Levels Of Project Managers?
The standard levels for a digital project manager are as follows. Note that salaries are reflective of project managers more broadly, rather than digital project managers specifically.
Junior or Associate Project Manager
Entry-level role in the industry, supporting digital project managers and more senior roles on the project. This role can be more admin based, helping to keep the more granular tasks in check (reporting, scheduling, time tracking, etc). Average Salary (US): $55,329
Mid-level role, where you start to run projects on your own.
Average Salary (US): $76,632
Senior Project Manager
Lead role where you manage and run larger-scale projects, potentially with junior team members to support.
Average Salary (US): $97,452
Project Director or Programme Director
This is a senior role and can mean either managing a programme or portfolio of work (multiple projects across one account) or a large scale project which needs a more senior level, working with project managers who cover more day-to-day tasks.
Average Salary (US): $98,138
Head of Project Management / Delivery
Running the PM team. Usually won’t manage projects themselves, but oversees the company’s delivery.
Average Salary (US): $106,882
What About Producers?
Yes, there are lots of different types of roles out there with similar skill sets! A producer is very similar to a digital project manager, but the term is more common in production-based projects (for example, above the line brand communications like videos, ads, and social content)
Factors That Impact How Much Digital Project Managers Make
It’s not a cop out, but it really does depend on a number of factors. There’s a great and extensive DPM salary guide on this very site. The guide outlines the results of five years of surveys on how much digital project managers make and gives average results across the USA, UK, and Canada. Core factors that can affect your salary are:
Contract vs Permanent
Freelancers do get paid more than permanent employees, but you have to weigh the pros and cons (for example, not being paid for holidays or sick days). If you’re interested in freelancing, start with this freelance project management guide and consider factors beyond the salary: Does my skill set and level mean I will enjoy being thrown into the deep end on digital projects?
Can I cope with multiple short-term contracts in different places? Think about yourself and levels of work happiness as well as the money!
Generalist vs Specialist
If you specialise in certain areas, then sometimes you can find increased pay for roles that need your special skills. For example, someone might need a DPM with a Scrum certification (more on certs later) or with a strong technical development background.
Financial and IT industries do tend to pay more. Again, consider if this is a field you’ll enjoy and thrive in. Balance the lure of a large salary with whether this will suit you and your skillset!
As shown in the survey, cities do tend to pay higher than companies outside these areas.
Digital Project Management Skills
There’s a variety of skills that digital project managers need to have to succeed in the role. A lot of these skills, especially practical and technical skills, will be learned in the role or through formal project management training.
What Do I Need To Know Before Becoming A DPM?
If you’re starting your very first digital project manager role, you’re not expected to know in-depth details on every project management tool, estimation tactic, or statement of work structure. However, it’s a good idea to at least familiarise yourself with some of these areas before interviewing. I’ll cover how to ace an interview later, but first: what skills do I need to be a digital project manager?
Hard vs Soft Skills
You might have heard these terms before: hard skills and soft skills. What do they actually mean? “Hard” skills are more concrete, learned tasks that you perform in your role. “Soft” skills are the more behavioural parts of your role. However, I dislike this terminology as the words hard and soft have negative connotations. I use the terms “practical” and “personal” instead.
What Are The Practical (Hard) Skills In DPM?
These include the following:
Time & Cost Estimation
Building out a timing plan and estimating the cost of a digital project based on team shape and deliverables. You’ll work with your organisation’s leads to determine estimates (generally in hours) of the breakdown of tasks for a project. Or, if you’re working to an Agile methodology, you might develop a Sprint plan and create an initial backlog. Look into tools for planning and estimating to familiarise yourself with what DPMs use.
Writing project documents like the statement of work, project initiation document, RACIs, status reports, and risk logs (to name a few). Often you can work from your organization’s templates to learn what core areas are covered, or dig into the articles below. If you’re new to writing project documents (or even if you’re not!) get a manager or peer to review before sending out.
You can have practical skills based on your technical knowledge to become a digital project manager, but I don’t believe it’s a necessity. A keen interest in the field is important, though, and understanding the technical work can help you work through issues, explain things to clients, and better communicate with your team. If you don’t have a technical background, consider doing an online course in web development basics or reading up on core terminology.
Digital project managers should have at least some understanding of digital skills and concepts. While it’s not necessary to be an expert in all of them, a grasp of each concept or skill is an asset.
Here are some examples of digital skills you should be familiar with:
- Coding and programming languages, such as HTML and CSS
- Social media
- Digital marketing
- Content management systems, such as WordPress
- User experience and user interface design principles
- Digital analytics and data
There are lots of digital skills that are worth learning about in addition to the ones on this list. As the digital world evolves, new skills and ideas will pop up as well, so keeping up with new trends and technology is also important.
Useful further reading or courses on web development:
- With a focus on web design and development, A List Apart has loads of articles on a wide range of topics and is a great resource.
- A Book Apart also produces handy, digestible books on design and development topics.
- There are loads of articles on Medium, just search for web development or design
- Codecademy offers free courses on web development. Take a look at the catalog here.
Managing risk is an important PM skill. If you identify potential areas of risk upfront and develop contingency plans, it will be much easier to mitigate if they do rear their ugly head in your project. Create a risk log upfront at the beginning of the project, and make sure you’re transparent with all stakeholders if risks do materialize.
Methodologies used in digital project management—always a hot topic! Applying these processes is a practical skill you can learn and develop. There’s lots of different methodologies, but two of the most popular tend to be Waterfall and Scrum.
Consider reading about some of the most popular methodologies to understand why and how they are used, the steps involved in it, and the pros and cons.
Useful articles on methodologies:
- A great summary of PM methodologies: 9 Project Management Methodologies Made Simple
- My article on Agile vs Waterfall methodologies: Agile Vs Waterfall. What Should You Use For Your Project?
- A Smartsheet article on how to choose the right methodology: How to Choose the Right Project Management Methodology.
This list isn’t finite; there are lots of practical skills out there that you can learn! Going in as an entry level DPM, you won’t be expected to have all these skills upfront. Even so, a keen interest and some basic knowledge and demonstration of extra reading can only help!
What Are The Personal (Soft) Skills In DPM?
These are less tangible than the concrete practical skills. What do they include?
This is core to a digital project manager’s role. You’ll be communicating with many different types of people, at different levels and in different fields. On a normal day you could speak with a designer, a developer, a senior stakeholder in your client’s company, a third-party supplier, and your CEO. You’ll also communicate in a number of different ways, with different tools. Coming into the digital project management world, make sure you’re comfortable with this and with your communication skills.
Being a leader is a personal skill that will develop with time. If you’re just entering the industry, you might not lead a full team straight away, but this will grow as you gain experience.
You need to be able to adapt continuously to changing situations within a project, with blockers and issues that arise along the way. I have never had a project where I’ve stuck rigidly to one plan from start to finish (I’d love to know if any of you have experienced this, though!). Don’t freak out if things don’t go to plan—instead, learn to embrace change.
One of the core personal skills for a digital project manager. Problems will arise. If something blocks a team member or project, you need to be able to remove this blocker. Again, this is something you will develop your skills specific to digital project management in as you gain experience, but is definitely something that you can already bring to a role.
And last but not least, organization is one of the key skills that most DPMs say comes naturally to them! Most DPMs that I know seem to have some geeky love of a tool that gets their life and daily job in order (for me it’s Google Sheets, as you might have guessed previously). But in all seriousness, organization is often core to keeping a project running on a track and something you can really bring to your first DPM role.
Build Your Skills With Relevant, Practical, Expert-led Training
Watch this preview of our upcoming Mastering Digital Project Management Online Course — get expert instruction on leading happy teams and delivering high-value projects in the digital world.
What Experience Do I Need To Become A Digital Project Manager?
Should I have experience in other fields? The straight answer is no, this is not necessary—however, everything helps. Going into my first role in digital project management I didn’t have any direct PM experience, but I could demonstrate transferable skills.
I’d done an English Literature university degree (lots of writing, analyzing, and structuring arguments) and I’d worked both in hospitality and retail during college and university (communication, dealing with customer problems, making sure budgets and timings were hit). So don’t count yourself out if you haven’t got what you might think is ‘direct’ experience.
To stand out from the crowd, consider looking at work experience or internships. Email companies with digital project management teams and ask if you can come in for a day or two (or longer!) to shadow other DPMs. Join communities (like our DPM forum and membership!) and engage with other DPMs, and get involved in conversations. Anything that you can apply to a new role like these examples can be useful.
Do I Need Web Design Or Development Experience To Be A Digital Project Manager?
I don’t think this is a necessity, but it can be very useful. It can open up more specialized roles where a technical background is necessary, and it can provide context when you’re trying to understand timings and issues within a project.
I’ve come from a non-web design or development background—and because the personal skills I discussed above are so integral to the project manager role, I think you can be a digital project manager without having web design or development experience.
One tip though: hopefully you’re interested in the web design and development world. I love reading articles, digging into things, and following people from these industries on Twitter, and I think this has really helped me over the years.
Should I already know about Project Management methodologies?
Now, I love a project management methodology chat. I think it’s such an interesting part of the PM world. There are a lot of different methodologies to pick from (Waterfall, Scrum, Kanban, XP PRINCE2…). Generally the organization you join is following a certain process or workflow, whether that’s a strict reflection of a framework or a more hybrid approach.
Therefore I don’t think it’s necessary to already know about PM methodologies when you get into digital project management since you’ll be learning your particular company’s process. However, my recommendation is always to look at any project and the specific parameters of it to determine how it should be run.
Therefore, any interest and knowledge around different methodologies would be an added bonus—there are loads of articles on this out there, some of which I linked to earlier in the article!
Digital Project Management Certifications
A question that comes up frequently when I speak to new project managers is, “Do I need to get certified in order to progress as a PM?”
I don’t believe certifications are mandatory to enter the project management world. I’ve managed to progress my career without focusing on them (FYI I have a ScrumMaster certification). Experience is key to being a digital project manager, as is being able to work across a wide range of clients and projects, and with different people and different teams.
Any type of learning or experience can give you a wider context, so certifications can only be beneficial. In some roles, they can help open doors and tick extra boxes. Often job openings will also specify some certifications. A report from PMI Job Growth and Talent Gap 2017-2027 looking at the project management industry found that, “on a global basis, certification also bolsters salary levels”.
All-round PM guru, and fellow member of the DPM team, Patrice Embry says:
“I’m actually not a college graduate, so I’m a big proponent of real-world skills and how far those can get you. Certificates can get you in the door, but they’re not a guarantee that you know your stuff—experience is the best measure for that. However, I have taken certificate classes (like the Certified ScrumMaster course) and really have found useful tools that I use every day. The key for that, for me, was having a teacher that taught by doing, not by lecturing. The more experience you can get (even secondhand, through reading about others’ experiences) the more prepared you will be. And if you have a certification, too, well then all your bases are covered.”
What Are The Best Digital Project Management Certificates To Get?
Mastering Digital Project Management
The Digital Project Manager runs its very own certification, which is an online course over 7 weeks running through and teaching all the core digital project management topics and skills. The curriculum is focused on digital projects, so you can be sure you’ll get the training you need if you plan to specialize in digital. It features the DPM Expert Panel (which I’m on!) and there are weekly video lessons, webinars, assignments, and coaching sessions.
PRINCE2 (Projects in Controlled Environments) is a methodology for structuring and running projects, using the following stages: Foundation (for the basics) and Practitioner (more advanced after you’ve taken Foundation). PRINCE2 certification can be taken without previous experience. It is quite a structured and linear process intended for more traditional project management, so might not be best for those in more agile environments (although there is an agile version).
While fairly expensive and time-consuming, PMP (Project Management Professional) is definitely one of the more thorough certifications that takes a more traditional project management approach. Led by the PMI (Project Management Institute), it’s internationally recognized and covers core stages of a project process. NB you need experience in the field to apply.
Certified Scrum Master (CSM)
The CSM is often the first stepping-stone into the world of agile qualifications, and even though a scrum master is not a project manager, a lot of the skill sets needed mirror each other. Run by the Scrum Alliance, it’s relatively easy and quick to complete and is a good intro to Scrum.
The APM (Associate in Project Management) is a good entry-level course into the world of project management, with terminology, current thinking, planning, risk assessment, and quality management for projects more broadly, rather than just digital projects. It’s relatively cheap, and there’s study and an exam. See here for more details.
Professional Scrum Master (PSM)
This scrum master qualification from Scrum.org positions itself as more advanced Scrum training than the CSM as it has three levels, PSM I, II, and III. It covers more ground than the CSM. This could be a good certification to look at for those with CSM who want to take it further.
How To Ace A Digital Project Management Interview
So, you’ve just been invited to your first digital project management interview? Exciting! But yes, nerve-wracking as well. How do you smash it and get the job?
What will I be asked?
Some of the core areas to think about in your interview are:
Why do you want this role?
Make sure you look into the company you’re applying to, and think about the reasons you would like to work there. Talk about the role they’re offering, the requirements they are looking for, and how you’d fit.
What experience do you have that’s relevant to the role? Don’t worry if it’s your first digital project manager job and you don’t have direct experience. Try and see where you have transferable skills relevant to DPM.
Strengths And Weaknesses
What are your strengths and weaknesses? It’s easy to talk through strengths, but the “What’s your weakness?” question often throws a lot of people. Try and think through a weakness that you’ve actually made steps to change.
Often interviewers will ask about difficult situations you’ve been in or challenges you’ve come across, and how you worked through and turned them around. As we saw in the personal skills necessary for a digital project manager, problem-solving is one of them. Prepare a few examples of challenging situations and ways you’ve solved them.
A lot of interviewers will want to know whether you’re enthusiastic about digital and the industry in general. Read articles, look for the latest happenings and hot topics through sources like Medium and Twitter, and make sure you can show how you’re passionate about a career in digital project management.
Questions For The Interviewer
You’ll likely be asked if you have any questions. Again, preparation is key here. Gathering a few questions beforehand, such as:
- What is your company culture like?
- Can you tell me more about the day to day responsibilities in the role?
- What are typical projects for the company?
- What do you see as success in the role?
- What are the next steps?
There’s also a thorough article on interview questions and answers for digital project managers giving loads of example questions and useful tips, plus links to more resources.
How should I prepare?
Think about the personal and practical skills I discussed above. Read up on the practical skills necessary in a digital project manager’s role, and show interest and enthusiasm if you haven’t got direct experience. Think about the personal skills—even if you haven’t had a digital project manager role before:
- How have you demonstrated any of these skills successfully?
- Where have you communicated well?
- How and when do you have to deal with different people?
- When have you successfully led something?
- What problems have you solved?
Here’s a great bit of advice from Brett Harned:
“Hiring project managers can be difficult because we can’t build portfolios. While it’s easy to show an example project plan or well-written communication or scope, it’s terribly difficult to express how well you communicate, manage others, or even fare under stress. And that’s where the magic of a great PM lies. So when you are interviewing, it’s great to have some situational answers to questions prepared, for example how you handled obstacles that your team has faced.”
Tips for Successful Interviews
- Come prepared
- Show passion
- Demonstrate transferable skills
- Don’t be scared to ask for clarification
- Be professional
- Be yourself!
Digital Project Manager Interview Tips — Before, During, & After
Watch this video to learn about how to prepare for an interview for a digital project management role.
We go over what to do before the interview to prepare, as well as what to do during an interview so you make the best impression possible. Then, we discuss our tips for following up after an interview so you come off as professional and capable of filling the role.
Advice From Experts: Becoming a DPM
In this day and age, becoming a digital project manager is a varied career path. Since lots of PMs have approached their careers in different ways, we surveyed the DPM expert community to get their unique perspectives on what you should do to become a project manager:
““As with most people, I accidentally became a PM instead of setting out to be one.
My transition started when I was working as a front-end developer where work schedules, created by Account Managers, all seemed to be guesswork aimed to please only the client and Photoshop files given to me were very unorganised and often from a print designer whose pretty designs could not be turned into page templates at all. I felt things could be done more efficiently so that everyone's lives would be better. So, I offered to get involved with the Account Managers to create more accurate schedules and also trained the designers in the differences between print and web.
Without realising it, I'd taken my first steps to becoming a PM and almost 15 years later I still see folk with a compulsion to make things more organised so things are better for all parties, slowly moving into a PM-type role. I believe these are the only two traits one needs in order to begin as a PM.””Sam BarnesSenior Development Manager, Marks & Spencer
“I got into Project Management when my manager noticed how organized I was, and how I could think of how something should work in steps. Once I knew what a Project Manager was, I knew it was the right job for me. Sometimes, all it takes is someone pointing out your strengths and guiding you to the right place. If I could give Newly-Minted-PM Patrice any advice, it would be to learn more about what a project manager does before diving into more work—I learned a lot of things the hard way (by projects failing).”Patrice EmbryFreelance Digital Project Manager
“Find people who are passionate about what they do not only as PMs but as developers and designers, too, so you can learn from all sides. Take a course that gets you involved and find a community/network to help you get your foot in the door.”Mackenzie DysartSenior Project Manager, ecentricarts
What Should I Know Before Becoming A DPM?
We surveyed The Digital Project Manager community, a global network of 2,000+ project managers and digital leaders (join our membership community here!).Here’s what they had to say when we asked, “What should someone know before they become a DPM?”
“First, do they love organizing chaos and constantly learning on the job?”Annette HollandWeb Project Manager, American Tower
“Learn to enjoy puzzles and firefighting—and don't expect and don't waste time trying to find a single tool to do your job for you.”Andy McCormickDirector of Operations, DuBose Web Group
“Learn to figure out ways to get people to do things that they may not want to do without directly managing them and still have a good relationship with them.”Shiloh GealogoDirector of Product Development, BTE
“Be interested in the digital world, first and foremost! Also, look into getting Scrum training, get your hands dirty, and try basic coding (at the very least).”Jennifer SeixeiroDigital Project Manager, Arrivals + Departures
“Learn about the huge range of what people with our job titles do—there’s vast swathes of responsibilities that I think of as tangential or minor to my job…that are really at the center of others’.”Ben NovackSenior Software Project Manager, PromptWorks
“Have an interest in technology, strong organizational skills, and at least be familiar with the terms Agile and Scrum. A good DPM likes to solve problems, doesn't need a pat on the back or a Thank You (ever), and the thought process of Machiavelli!”Jason EiserEnterprise Project Manager, ORNL Federal Credit Union
“Preparation is everything. We live in a world of endless meetings, and going into any of them without an agenda or a clear expectations is a both wasteful and a miserable experience. Also, over communicate everything. The one time that you deviate from that is the one time a key stakeholder won't be in the loop.”David WoodingIT Project Manager, Tower Hill Insurance Group
“Get clarity of roles and responsibilities for each digital project. It is especially important to know who has authority to approve project deliverables on the client side and cultivate a good relationship with them.”Mike WinterthiemeCEO, Senior Project Manager Scrum Master, Ten Foot Table Inc.
“Ask yourself firstly whether you enjoy solving problems and can adapt to a changing environment and landscape, as this is the world we live in as DPM's and these are two really important traits and will enable you to succeed.”Dave SpencerHead of Projects, Distinction
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What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Also, how did you get into digital project management? What has your career path been?
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