If you ask someone who’s been in the project management world for a while how they became a 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 "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 other professions.
For this reason, it’s really important to share the knowledge on how to become a project manager.
A project manager manages projects—of course, there’s more to it than that, but in our case, 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 '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.
Get a video overview here:
What does a project manager actually do? In a nutshell, a project manager leads a 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 project manager enables this.
Other project manager responsibilities and duties include:
- Logging requirements
- Keeping the project organized
- Creating timelines
- Tracking budget
- Motivating the team
- Problem solving
- Managing risk
- Managing change
What I Do On A Typical Day
I’m a Project/Program Director, which is at the senior end of the scale, but my role can involve anything from booking resources to 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 client offices
- Present decks
- Write reports
- Hold retrospectives
- Define a project process
- Make numerous Google Sheets
- Drink a lot of coffee
The job is varied—you often feel you have a million different things to do at once. Check out this digital project manager job description for more details.
Is A Project Management Career Right For Me?
It depends! There are many benefits to becoming a project manager:
- We're generally paid well
- It's usually a role that can be done remotely or in the office
- You get to see the real results of your work out in the world (in the form of website launches, marketing campaigns, and the like)
- Completing a project successfully provides a ton of satisfaction
- Every project is different, so there's always something new to learn or test out
- You'll get plenty of transferrable skills that can be applied in a variety of industries (ex. software development, IT, or even construction and engineering; although you'll likely need to put in some extra education time before making the jump to the latter)
- You have the ability to be a freelance project manager, which has its own perks (set your own hours, works on projects you're really passionate about, etc.)
There's also a few cons to this profession:
- It's stressful: you're often the one on the hook when things go wrong
- Uncertainty: you have to be okay with not knowing exactly what will happen in a lot of scenarios
- There's often conflicts: between members of the project team, between project managers competing for resources, between project managers and clients or other project stakeholders
You need to weigh these pros and cons for yourself. If you're the kind of person who can handle stress, uncertainty, and conflict, and you get satisfaction and a sense of purpose out of seeing things happen and getting projects launched, then yes, project management is the right career for you!
How Long Does It Take To Become A Project Manager?
This depends on your existing skills, experience, and education level. Most companies looking to hire project managers will require a bachelor's degree or four-year degree (even if the subject of your degree is not directly related to the field).
Entry-level positions won't require much specific project management experience, but they might require you to have some experience in a particular field (ex. working at an information technology company or in an IT department if you're trying to become an IT project manager).
Certain certifications, like the PMP, require a specific number of years of experience before you can become certified. As I mentioned, lots of people fall into project management early in their careers, and get proper training or certification later down the road.
All told, once you've completed your education, it can take anywhere from 3 to 5 years to work your work way up from an entry-level project management role to a bona fide project manager.
Junior or Associate Project Manager
This is an entry-level role in the industry that involves 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.).
This is a mid-level role, where you start to run projects on your own.
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).
Senior Project Manager
This is a lead role where you manage and run larger-scale projects, potentially with junior team members to support.
Project Director or Program Director
This is a senior role and can mean either managing a program or portfolio of work (multiple projects across one account) or a large scale project which requires a more senior level, working with project managers who cover more day-to-day tasks.
Head of Project Management / Delivery
This role is running the PM team. They usually won’t manage projects themselves, but instead oversee the company’s delivery.
Other Job Titles
Other job titles you might encounter include:
- Project coordinator
- Delivery lead
- Project portfolio manager
- Scrum master
- Marketing manager
- Project leader
- Account manager
- PMO manager
What Is The Average Project Manager Salary?
According to our data, the average project manager salary in the United States in 2023 is $100,459.
Each year, we conduct a survey and compile the results to see how much project managers are making in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
In the below table, you can see salaries for project managers, project coordinators, project directors, and senior project managers in each country.
The numbers in the comparison sites columns are aggregates of data from Indeed, Glassdoor, and other salary comparison websites. The numbers in the our data columns are from our survey.
All salaries use the currency of the specified country. We didn’t collect enough data from project coordinators in the United Kingdom, so that cell is blank.
|Job Title||USA: Our Data||USA: Comparison Sites||Canada: Our Data||Canada: Comparison Sites||UK: Our Data||UK: Comparison Sites|
|Senior Project Manager||$120,549||$119,783||$112,733||$113,222||£57,508||£62,653|
Factors That Impact How Much Digital Project Managers Make
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 specialize 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 referenced above, cities do tend to pay higher than companies outside these areas.
There’s a variety of project management skills that 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 (or maybe you're already learning them the hard way).
If you’re starting your very first digital project manager role, you’re not expected to know in-depth details on every project management software tool, estimation tactic, or statement of work structure.
However, it’s a good idea to at least familiarize yourself with some of these areas before interviewing.
Practical (Hard) Skills In Project Management
These include the following:
Time & Cost Estimation
This involves building out a timing plan and estimating the cost of a digital project based on team shape and deliverables. You’ll work with your organization’s leads to determine project estimates (generally in hours) of the breakdown of tasks for a project, which will go into your project plan.
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 familiarize yourself with what project managers use.
This involves writing project documents like the:
And that's just 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 them out.
You can have practical skills based on your technical knowledge before becoming 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 project management course in web development basics using one of these online learning platforms, or read up on core terminology. This could come in handy if you're planning on pursuing a technical program manager career path down the road.
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 (including the use of digital marketing PM software)
- 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.
- 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 when they do rear their ugly head in your project.
Create a RAID log upfront at the beginning of the project, and make sure you’re transparent with all stakeholders if risks do materialize.
Methodologies used in 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.
The agile vs waterfall debate is always raging in digital as well, and when it comes to choosing a methodology, you don't necessarily have to go for one or the other. As you get more used to running projects, choosing a methodology becomes more intuitive.
Generally, waterfall is best for projects where the timeline and scope are known from the beginning, and agile methodologies are best for when those are unknowns.
This list of skills isn’t finite; there are lots of practical skills out there that you can learn! Going in as an entry level project manager, 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!
Personal (Soft) Skills In Project Management
These are less tangible than the concrete practical skills. What do they include?
This is core to a 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.
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. Don’t freak out if things don’t go to plan—instead, learn to embrace change.
Problem-solving & Critical Thinking
This is one of the core personal skills for a 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 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 project managers say comes naturally to them! Most digital project managers 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).
But in all seriousness, organization and time management are often core to keeping a project running on a track and something you must bring to your first project manager role.
Here's a few notes on what kind of experience you might need, and whether you're required to have a professional certification.
Project Management Experience
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).
To stand out from the crowd, consider looking at work experience or internships. Email companies with project management teams and ask if you can come in for a day or two (or longer!) to shadow other project managers.
Join communities (like DPM membership!), engage with your peers, and get involved in conversations.
Do I Need Web Design Or Development Experience?
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 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, etc.). 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 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.
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 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 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 have found 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 other people's 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 a hands-on, self-paced online course that helps you hone the instinct, judgment, and leadership skills needed to successfully deliver complex digital projects.
In addition to covering all the core digital project management topics and skill areas, the curriculum is laser-focused on digital projects, so you can be sure you’ll get the training you need if you plan to specialize in digital.
All 7 learning arcs include multimodal lessons you can watch, read, or listen to on the go. It also features scenario-based quizzes, a learning community on Slack, direct access to course instructors, a hands-on final assignment for real-world practice, and panel discussions with real digital project managers (which I’m featured in!).
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). The PRINCE2 certification can be taken without previous experience.
It is 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.
So, you’ve just been invited to your first project management interview? Exciting! But yes, nerve-wracking as well. How do you smash it and get the job?
What Will I Be Asked?
Here's a few examples of questions you might be asked in your interview. Find a full list of common project manager interview questions and answers here.
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 project manager position and you don’t have direct experience. Try and see where you have transferable skills relevant to digital project management.
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 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 know how to show 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?
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 (more about how to become a project manager without experience here).
Think about 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.”
Here's some tips for showcasing your work in a portfolio of sorts.
Tips for Successful Interviews
- Come prepared
- Show passion
- Demonstrate transferable skills
- Don’t be scared to ask for clarification
- Be professional
- Be yourself!
Here are eight steps to becoming a project manager. Everyone's path will look a little different, so treat this as a general guide, rather than steps you must complete in a specific order. Read more about how to get your first job in project management here.
- Build a list of skills you need and skills you already have: Determine what strengths you already have, and where you might be lacking. Write them down. Soft skills are more difficult to learn than hard skills, so keep this in mind if you're still determining whether this career is right for you.
- Get a bachelor's degree: Generally, you'll probably want something in the business management, marketing, or communications fields. There are a number of specific project management degrees available as well.
- Get project management experience: Start building up project work as much as you can. Volunteer, ask for opportunities at your existing job, take on side-projects, etc.
- Start building the skills you need: Take your list of skills from step 1 and find ways to improve on the ones you're lacking in. For example, if your communication skills are subpar, you might take a public speaking course or join a networking group.
- Build your network: Start connecting with project managers on LinkedIn or coworkers in other departments at your existing job. There are plenty of LinkedIn groups and Reddit communities where you can meet people, get advice, and maybe even find your first PM job. Look for a local PMI chapter as well. Start with this list of project managers to follow on social media.
- Clean up your project management resume: Update your resume to highlight your project management experience, skills, and other relevant qualifications. Find more tips on creating a project manager resume here.
- Find an entry level job: Start applying for entry level jobs! Work your network, and treat job hunting like a full time job: 9 to 5, with a break for lunch.
- Consider whether you need a certification: This is something you can do at anytime, whether you're already in an entry-level or more junior role or whether you're still looking. While some roles require certifications, many do not. The Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) certificate from PMI is more for entry-level PMs, so it's one to consider if you're just starting out.
Advice From Experts: Becoming a DPM
In this day and age, becoming a 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 successful project manager:
"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 Embry, Freelance 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 Dysart, Senior Product Management Consultant, Thoughtworks
"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 McCormick, Director of Web Development, Eastern Standard
"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 Gealogo, Senior Manager Product Development, CDW
"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 Seixeiro, Senior Digital 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 Novack, Product Manager, TheoremOne
"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 Wooding, Vendor and Platform Manager, Endeavor
What Do You Think?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. How did you get into digital project management? What has your career path been?
If you are just starting out on your digital project management journey, check out the DPM school and what we offer in terms of training, hands-on experience, and expert guidance, and make sure to subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter.
If you're interested in striking out on your own, find out more about how to become an independent project management consultant here.