Like many of the best project managers I know, my pivot into the profession was by chance and almost accidental. But, after over a decade of project management experience and millions of dollars in project budgets managed, I guess it’s time to claim that expert title.
Sometime in 2013, I started getting pulled into meetings for a very large project my company was undertaking. It involved deploying a new CRM to a global sales team. I didn’t know much about project management or how to manage stakeholder expectations in such a complex environment.
The next few years were a bit of sink or swim, but this experience truly cemented my love of project management. While some days were more sink than swim, I consistently got feedback that I was pretty good at this project management stuff. I couldn’t wait to learn more and become a better project manager.
Today, one of my favorite things is to help folks considering project management as a career get started or at least get on the right track.
How To Get Started In Project Management
While I’d love to tell you it’s as simple as picking a project and running it, it’s just not quite that easy to find a project management role. So, if that’s the end goal, here are a few things you can do now to get started on landing your first job.
1. Find ways to bring project management skills into your current role
If you’ve ever planned a birthday party, helped choose a new software, or put together a presentation, you’ve done some project management. A project (as defined by the Project Management Institute) is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.
So, if you want to be a project manager, seek ways to practice project management in your current role.
For example, if you work in marketing and your team is looking for a new task management tool, consider raising your hand and asking if you can lead the charge. You may have the opportunity to gather requirements, work with stakeholders to make a choice, plan to roll out the new tool to the team, and even manage the budget for the project.
No matter what kind of job you have now, there is likely an opportunity to manage a project. Taking these opportunities as they arise can help you develop some project management skills and evaluate if this is a career path you want.
2. Start networking with successful project managers
When you’re getting started in project management, building your network can be helpful. Start by setting up some informational interviews with successful project managers.
Your ask should be no more than 20-30 minutes for an informational interview. You might want to ask how they got into project management, what types of projects they manage, and what skills they need. You can also ask for any advice or guidance on breaking into that type of project management.
Not sure that you know any? Try using LinkedIn to search for project managers in the industries you might want to work in. Not sure what industries are going to be a fit for you? Meet with project managers in a variety of roles.
Almost every industry, from food and beverage to healthcare, needs project managers. And, since we focus on digital projects here, I’d be remiss not to point out that there are digital projects in almost every industry.
One great way to meet other project managers is through the DPM membership, where you can network with hundreds of other project managers, participate in live events, and gain access to valuable educational offerings. Also, check out this list of project managers to follow on social media for more people to reach out to.
3. Invest in some project management education
This tip isn’t suggesting that you spend a lot of money on project management courses or certification prep right out of the gate. Consider free or low-cost courses like PMI’s Kickoff (free), videos you find right here on The DPM, or courses through LinkedIn Learning or Udemy.
This coursework aims to help you build a foundation and ensure you’re feeling excited about a future project manager position. As you grow in your career and experience, you can continue to invest in additional learning and training or project management certifications.
The CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management), PMP (Project Management Professional) certification, Prince2, or agile project management certifications are popular depending on your industry and your company's project management methodology.
As most of these certifications require some experience, it’s not critical to start working through them now.
Can (Or Should) You Teach Yourself Project Management?
This might be a bit of a hot take, but I believe that while you can teach yourself project management, you shouldn’t. There are so many project managers with years of experience who offer support and coursework for aspiring PMs.
While practice does make perfect, do yourself a favor and learn from the pros. It will help you shorten the learning curve and avoid making some rookie mistakes—the ones we’ve all made that are incredibly painful.
For example, as an inexperienced project manager in my first agency role, we had a meeting with a client and slightly altered the project scope. I didn’t realize how much we had changed as the managing director of my agency was leading the meeting.
What I failed to do was send out a meeting recap outlining the next steps and issue a change order for the client to sign. I had come from an in-house position, and these changes were pretty normal to me, with no (or at least a lot less) documentation needed.
As an experienced project manager would expect, the client’s recollection of the conversation and ours were quite different, and without the right documentation in place, coming to a resolution was a bit messier than needed.
So, while there are many things about project management you can teach yourself and you will learn on the job, I think some formal education and coaching from project managers with years of experience is the way to go.
More about how to learn project management here.
What To Do If You Have No Project Management Experience
First, as we’ve already discussed, if you’ve even planned a birthday party or a vacation, you have some project management experience or at least some seriously transferable skills. But, if you have no formal project management experience in a work setting, you can still transition into a project management role with some careful planning and passion for the profession.
If you weren’t able to volunteer to lead some projects in your current role, consider some work with a nonprofit. These organizations often need some project management support and may consider letting you lead a project or two pro bono to build your skills and your portfolio.
If you decide to go this route, it’s okay to ask for a letter of recommendation or a LinkedIn recommendation to share so that potential employers can see how you work and what you’ve learned.
Another way to become a project manager without experience is to consider project management adjacent jobs. Look for titles like project coordinator, administrator, or entry-level operations role. This advice is geared toward those with less general work experience, as these roles tend to pay less than PM roles.
However, if you can afford to take a pay cut or are currently in a role where you’re being underpaid, this may be a shortcut to a higher salary within a few years as you gain experience and can move into a project management role.
Six Project Management Skills To Learn
If you want to be a project manager, there are many project management skills you will need to master, from creating project plans and managing teams to reporting on project status and tracking the budget. If some of these are new to you, don’t stress; we were all beginners at one point.
1. People management
Projects are completed by people for people. So, if you’re going to be a project manager, you need to learn how to manage people. And no, this isn’t just about assigning out work and scheduling reviews. A good project manager is an advocate and support for team members and can help stakeholders manage their expectations.
For example, if you’re a project manager who oversees teams of people who work on multiple projects (including with other PMs), you might occasionally notice a team member who seems unusually stressed out. You dig in a little deeper to find out that this person is assigned to three of the company’s biggest projects, and they all have deadlines next week.
They’ve been burning the candle at both ends to come up with the creative concepts needed for each project, but you can see it’s taking a toll. As the project manager, you might need to step in and help them with some time management skills, re-prioritize some of the work, or see if you can postpone one of the deadlines to buy them a little more time.
Conversely, if you have a developer on one of your projects who is badly underperforming, your client and the project team have taken notice, and you need to do something to resolve the issue. You might start by pulling this team member aside and asking them from their point of view on what is happening.
Maybe they share that they have less experience with this type of work or that the work is fine, but they’re struggling to communicate with the team and the project sponsor. In either case, you, as the project leader, need to use your problem-solving and leadership skills to help this person get back on track.
2. Task management
A key component in project management is breaking a body of work down into smaller, more manageable tasks and creating the project schedule so the team members know what to work on. It takes some practice and skill to break work into the right set of tasks and subtasks in the right order.
For example, when project managing a new website, the design tasks need to be broken up in such a way that the client or key stakeholders have enough context to review designs and give feedback. Presenting too small of a subset of designs may lead to rework later as these folks get more context around what their final site will look like.
Another important skill a project manager needs when assigning tasks is the ability to provide project team members with enough information to complete the task. For our website project, this might look like compiling any brand guidelines, preferred fonts, and approved imagery and working with the team to produce the final sitemap and some wireframes before the designers can pick up their tasks.
3. Budget management
Ensuring your team sticks to the estimated hours in the project plan and accounts for all licensing, hardware, and software costs is part of your job description. And while it may sound simple, unexpected needs can often arise during projects.
Let’s say you’re managing a custom software development project and your UI designer resigns a quarter of the way through the project. What do you do? How does this impact your project budget?
As the project manager, you’ll want to work with your leadership team (head of UI/Operations) to determine next steps. It's unlikely the work can completely pause while your team hires a replacement.
You can either shift the workload to another UI designer or hire a contractor to provide support in the interim. The latter may impact your budget more than the former—and you may need to communicate with others in your organization about how.
4. Risk management
A project manager’s job is to think about all the things that could go wrong on a project. Unlike some of the hard skills we’ve looked at, this can be more of a soft skill and one that is developed over time with consistent practice.
Some risk is easy to spot from the get-go. Things like a timeline that’s too aggressive, insufficient budget, or poor resource management might be obvious even to a new, less experienced project manager.
What about the more subtle risks associated with a project? Things like team members spread across too many projects? Technology overload and gaps in information because you’re tracking project progress and communication in three different apps? A stakeholder who is known to change their mind often about work that was already approved?
These are all risks you may encounter on a project. Time, experience, and some colleagues who are willing to act as sounding boards can help you overcome these risks or better be proactive about mitigating or managing them.
Keeping good documentation is a large part of any project management job. An IT project manager, for example, might keep documentation about the infrastructure of a company’s website and the technology they use so that when it comes time to make updates or upgrades, there is good documentation of what has been done and the requirements.
In agile projects, which value people over process and tend to keep documentation a bit lighter, having a robust product backlog with clear requirements can help the product owner (with support from the scrum master) in backlog grooming and the workflow associated with pulling features into the next sprint during a sprint planning meeting.
No matter what kind of project manager you want to become, documentation will be important for you to master. You’ll want to document changes made to the budget, schedule, or scope, the current status of the project, as well as any next steps or items you need from a client or key stakeholder.
Documentation can help project managers keep team members and stakeholders accountable and can help the project team remember what decisions were made and, equally importantly, why.
As a project manager, you will need superior communication skills, both written and verbal. You will also need to know what information needs to be shared with different levels of stakeholders.
While your project team members need to know all of the details to be able to coordinate and complete tasks and projects, the project sponsor and other senior leaders will need more high-level and strategic communication about the overall project and its progress.
For example, if the project has burned through 27% of its budget but is only about 13% complete, you’ll need to communicate this to your project team to see if there is anything you can adjust to get back on track and complete the project within the allocated budget.
But, when it comes to project stakeholders and the executive sponsor, the conversation will need to be different. In this case, you might highlight the business impact and what led to the budget being spent faster than the work was being completed.
You may also want to come to this conversation with a revised project management plan and proposed solutions.
Four Project Management Books To Read
If you’re still doing some due diligence on the project management career path, here are a few project management books for beginners you may consider adding to your reading list:
- Project Management for the Unofficial Project Manager: A FranklinCovey Title: This is a great read for anyone who is exploring project management or who has been tasked with managing projects without the project manager title or certification.
- PMBOK Guide 7th Edition: If you’re considering getting either the CAPM or PMP certification the PMBOK Guide should be on your reading list as you’ll need it to prepare for your exam and learn the PMI way of managing projects.
- Doing Agile Right: If your organization or interest is managing projects using an agile methodology, this book is a must-read to get up to speed on the ins and outs of doing agile project management right.
- The Project Management Pathway: Your 90-Day Project by Jeremiah R. Hammon, Jr., PMP: Not just a good read, but: “The Project Management Pathway is not just a book; it's a transformative journey that will turn you into an active participant in your own success. Whether you're a beginner or looking to take your project management skills to the next level, this high-performance interactive workbook is your ultimate guide.”
If you’re looking for a more comprehensive list of books on project management topics, we’ve curated a full list of project management books here, and a list of IT project management books here.
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Becoming A Project Manager Is Hard Work That Comes With Great Rewards
Any career change can be a challenge, but because project management touches so many areas of a body of work, from financial planning to effective communication and even strategic thinking, it can be particularly challenging.
You will also need to use many tools you may be unfamiliar with, like project management software, estimation sheets, and even status updates and types of reporting. These may be built into your tools or live separately in Excel or Google Drive.
But this hard work will pay off, and you will be rewarded with a career that has longevity and competitive compensation. Experienced project managers (especially those with advanced project management degrees and certifications, such as a master's degree in project management) can easily earn a 6-figure salary in many parts of the world.
Still wondering if project management is the right career for you? We can help you decide.
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