Why can't a project manager pack light when they go on a trip? It's because we are the ultimate optimists, believing that we can conquer any obstacle that comes our way so we pack accordingly. We have anticipated the project risks—er, trip risks—and prepared for them to the best of our abilities.
I am a project manager with decades of in-the-weeds experience, having covered the vast depths of project management by leading projects across various industries.
When I travel, my suitcase usually has everything in it to make the trip as smooth as it can be, such as flashlights, ziplock bags, instant cold packs, antihistamines, thermometers, watch batteries, universal adapters, fidget spinners, and much more.
I have friends who travel with massive suitcases, and when we start unpacking at our destination, they ask me if I have an extra toothbrush. Of course I do.
And I can fit all this into a small suitcase! Why? Because I'm a project manager and I'm prepared for anything.
What Is A Project Manager?
A project manager is a professional responsible for leading a project team, which is composed of individuals who are dedicated to achieving the project goals and objectives, and delivering on the scope of the project.
The project manager has multiple roles, such as overseeing all project management processes, assisting and supervising team members with project outcomes, and ultimately ensuring successful completion of the project. The project manager is the essential element to project success.
In other words, a project manager is your best travel buddy. They are the ones thinking ten steps ahead of you—what is our destination, what will we need when we get there, where we can explore, and what unlikely detours will we take along the way?
What Is Project Management?
Project management is a way of connecting different elements of a project and weaving them together to create a harmonious outcome. We use a series of processes designed to guide the project successfully in a careful and deliberate manner through the project life cycle.
For example, when project managing a new scheduling system for a hospital, we don't just purchase the system and start scheduling patients!
We ask pertinent questions to gather requirements about things like who will use the system, how many patients need to be scheduled, and how often.
Then, we strategically align the system needs into a project plan with a timeline and monitor progress as the project progresses along that timeline. At the end of every project, we take everything we learned and apply it to the next project.
There are many ways to manage a project, including both agile and waterfall project management methodologies.
Agile is popular, especially the Scrum approach, and it involves delivering requirements incrementally with continuous small improvements, providing more freedom and flexibility for the solution to be delivered, which often means more engaged project team members.
Waterfall, on the other hand, can provide more visibility and structure when it comes to looking at the overall picture. Many project managers use a combination of both approaches.
What Exactly Does A Project Manager Do?
Project manager job descriptions can be broad. Here’s the nitty gritty on what exactly you’ll be doing on projects.
When a project manager starts a new project, the first thing we do is figure out what we are “really” asked to do—and it may not necessarily match what actually needs to be done.
This is called the initiation phase of the project. Think of it as a game of “guess who?” or perhaps, “guess what?” Once we've established what needs to be done, it's time to start planning the project—putting all the pieces together in the correct order to make sure the project is a success!
For example, if you are asked to co-manage a construction project for a brand new medical clinic, you will need to spend time collecting all the requirements needed for that clinic.
This might include: “where will the clinic be located,” “how many patients do we expect,” “what is the licensing process,” “who will be signing off on the requirements,” and the most important question, “who will be the construction project manager so we can start planning together?”
Then the project starts. This is when the project manager ensures all the steps happen at the time they were supposed to happen, and if not, how to adjust and shift as needed. While the project is executed, the project manager is on the lookout for anything that could go wrong. This is known as risk management.
For example, if our new patient scheduling system starts to experience slowness, the project manager will immediately troubleshoot, assemble the team, and investigate the issue. The project manager is always proactive and looking ahead.
When the project is done, we tie up loose ends, document our process including all our successes and failures, and then travel on the next project. Most project managers may have either a couple large projects on the go at one time, or multiple smaller projects.
It's our job to always keep the balls in the air, and not lose any along the way. This is a skill we develop over time as we learn time management skills and to manage our own time, as well as the project team’s time and tasks.
Read more about the responsibilities of a project manager on all types of projects.
Project Management Skills & Qualifications
Here are some key project management skills and qualifications you’ll need.
1. You like to be organized
Project managers process a large amount of information, constantly organizing it into neat buckets. We strive to ensure each project is completed in an organized manner. When we are assigned projects that are disorganized and messy, we first assess the situation.
When I am asked to jump into the middle of a messy web portal project, the first thing I do is take stock and find out what has been done and what needs to be done.
Sometimes I ask the team to take a short pause to get them aligned on what tasks need to be done. Once everyone agrees on next steps, we move forward and get it done!
2. You like to be prepared
Do you know the scout motto “Be Prepared”? This resonates with a project manager. We like to plan at least five to ten steps ahead to make sure we are ready for anything that comes our way.
When collecting the initial requirements for a website rebrand project, I also gather stakeholder contact information and communication preferences for all potential project team members.
This way, when the project starts, I have a head start on the project’s stakeholder register and communication plan. Plus, I know how to reach them if needed!
3. You come from a diverse background
There are no set qualifications for becoming a project manager—after all, the more diverse your background and experiences, the better equipped you'll be to succeed in the role!
It’s generally recommended to get a bachelor’s degree, but don't be afraid to get creative and think outside the box when it comes to the field. Consider business, marketing, operations, software development, information technology, computer science, or other digital fields.
For example, your years of experience managing graphic design projects could show you have the skills necessary to manage a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) implementation project.
While the required technical skills might differ, you’ll still need the same resource management skills, communication abilities, and documentation skills.
Transferable skill sets such as organization, problem solving, and communication can be adapted to the management of the new project.
4. You like to ask a lot of questions
As you begin a new project or continue an existing one, it is important to ask questions such as: “what is this project supposed to look like when it is done,” “which stakeholders will be involved,” “what are the project or resource dependencies,” “what is the project budget,” “what timeframe does this need to be completed by,” “what metrics will be used to measure progress and success,” and most importantly, “what do we really need to do right away?”
And of course, learning to ask these questions using effective communication skills is a must have soft skill!
5. You become certified over time
If someone is interested in becoming certified with the project management membership organization called the Project Management Institute (PMI), there are specific project management courses and experience requirements to complete prior to earning one of the PMI certifications.
A CAPM certification, or Certified Associate in Project Management, is the best certification for those starting out in the project management field. This certification tests your knowledge in basic project management fundamentals.
The PMP certification, or Project Management Professional, is a certification that tests more advanced skills acquired through managing projects over a longer period of time.
The Pros & Cons Of Being A Project Manager
Being a project manager can be a fulfilling job. On the upside, you get to manage a ton of details and everyone counts on you—which can be both thrilling and intense. Even though the pressure can be high, you get to be the one to make a real difference in the end.
- You have a ton of project manager job opportunities because you don’t need to be market dependent
- You can make an above average salary
- You can geek out on details
- You can see a project from start to finish
- A lot of people depend on you
- There’s a ton of pressure when projects don’t go to plan (the buck stops at you)
- You may get frustrated when your project team doesn’t get their deliverables done on time
- You could be managing many projects at once with competing deadlines
Average Salaries For Project Managers
According to our data, average salaries for project managers in the United States in 2023 sit around $100,459 per year. If you are brand new to project management, your salary will likely start lower.
Many companies have entry level project management roles, called project coordinators, which average around $55,355 USD a year.
This data is from our recent project manager salary survey, and you can read more about average project manager salaries across a variety of industries in Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom.
Once you work your way to managing larger projects with more complexity, your salary will rise accordingly based on which industry you work.
Also, the Project Management Institute, in their Earning Power: Project Management Salary Survey found that the median salary for project managers with their PMP to be 16-32% higher than those without certification.
In the past, I have accepted lower pay to gain experience in a new industry or to get my foot in the door at a fascinating company with cool projects. Be open to any and all project possibilities out there!
How To Become A Project Manager
To help kickstart your career path to become a project manager, it is important to get some experience managing projects. The best way to do this is to ask your boss to let you manage a small project.
If that doesn't work, then offer to volunteer at non-profit organizations or schools that could help getting projects out the door—and you might even get a cool water bottle out of the deal.
Local chapters of the Project Management Institute are volunteer-run communities that are always looking for more volunteers. Or you could also offer to lead your next family reunion!
So, Are You Still Thinking Of Becoming A Project Manager?
Good project managers are always on the lookout for the most efficient way of doing things. Much like traveling, you never know when the project/trip could take a wild turn, even if you have a rock-solid itinerary.
I tell the project managers I mentor that asking a lot of questions is a good start, but asking the right questions at the right time with the right context is the most important.
When I first started managing projects, my mentor once told me, “when in doubt, ask another question!” Read more about asking the right questions in project initiation here, and I recommend you start with some of these project management templates as you’re learning about project documentation.
Has this piqued your interest in project management? Do you want to hear more? Subscribe to The Digital Project Manager newsletter here.