How to get into Project Management

This article gives lots of advice on how to get into project management and the career path you can follow. Project Management is an interesting and constantly in-demand skill set, so well worth learning about. Many jobs have transferable skills to help you transition into a Project Management role.

What makes a successful Project Manager?

Being a successful project manager is not for the faint-hearted; you can often be placed in stressful situations where you must lead a team, balance other people’s needs, and get the project over the finish line whilst balancing the competing measures of Time, Cost and Quality.

Do you have the determination and the work ethic to get things done?  To be strong and manage everyone else in the project who may be there for the paycheque and not share your work values? 

Still deciding if this is for you?  Well, stop procrastinating and do something practical; make a list.  The qualities you need to be a successful project manager are worth considering to see if they align with your skills.

Start with a list of your skills and what you like to do at work.  Then make the opposite list of skills you do not have (doesn’t mean you can’t improve).  If, for example, you are not so great at Time Management, read/study more about it to equip yourself with this skill set.

Then, write a list of sectors you are interested in.  Every sector will have Project Managers – Arts, Education, Legal, Services Industry, Manufacturing, Financial, IT and Construction.  Having a background in any of these industries will give you a rung up the ladder into a Project Management job in that sector.  Knowledge of an industry is invaluable and may make you even more employable than having a Project Management qualification.

These lists will give you a plan to help you discover what is best for you in Project Management or even if you are suited to being a Project Manager.

Some project management skills needed to be a Project Manager:

  • Time management
  • Risk management
  • Leadership Skills (team leader)
  • Positive Attitude / ‘Can do’ attitude
  • Organisational Skills
  • Sector Knowledge
  • Adaptable mindset
  • Project planning
  • Software Skills
  • Control Budgets
  • Critical thinking
  • Excellent communication – effective communication skills are essential
  • Analytical Skills
  • Self-motivation
  • Previous work experience – especially relevant past experience
  • Motivate team members
  • Strong work ethic
  • Maintain schedules and meet deadlines

Many of these are highly transferable skills from other roles.

Now, make a list of things you like to do at work:

  • A detail person
  • Time conscious
  • Can unite a team – not a loner
  • Has a keen eye for the finances
  • Analytical in your approach – do not assume and always ask the obvious
  • Take control of difficult situations and move forward, taking your team with you
  • Manage multiple tasks and ensure the right people in your team are completing these tasks
  • Don’t shirk responsibility and look to blame others
  • Make others accountable
  • Self Motivated – you are in charge (no one else will motivate you)
  • Ability to adapt and push on when circumstances change

I have concentrated on a few of these skills in more detail below:

Sector Knowledge

I have an IT background, so my project management has been gained in this sector.  I cannot imagine being able to work in another sector, such as finance, doing the same job.  All sectors have their uniqueness, such as language, procedures, and having a clue about what that industry does.  Your knowledge of a given sector is a valuable transferrable skill. 

Time Management

Are you the kind of person who likes a deadline?  If you are a free-spirited, creative type who likes to go with the flow rather than being confined by the milestones of a project plan, this might not be your career.  If creativity is your driving force, you should probably choose a career without such time-specific tick boxes.  If, however, you like order and for work to be measurable, or you enjoy bringing organisation to a situation, then you will want to read further.  Time Management is an important skill, so ask yourself the following questions, are you on time for every appointment, do you care if you are late?  Do you cancel appointments at the last moment with no compelling reason to do so?  If this is you, how can you expect others to trust you to manage the time of a complicated project when you can’t manage your own timekeeping?  If this is not your strongest point, but you would like to improve, many online courses and books will be studied to help you realise that good time management can be useful for life and project management.

I have always found that project management team workers can get distracted easily from a project, especially when things get difficult.  People will avoid dealing with problems if it feels too big a problem to solve easily.  A successful project manager will always ensure everyone knows how to escalate problems with the correct people.  All assigned tasks need a strict deadline to keep them on track.  These may not be milestone tasks, but everyone responds well when given clear direction.  A project manager who does not have one eye on the time scale will lead to problems for all.  As a starting point, managing your time, from having a timer on your desk to specific software to track time, can help you improve your own skills.  Moving onto project management, spreadsheets and software can allow you to track your team’s time management and reassign tasks where people are getting behind.

Leadership skills

Managing team members and everyone involved in a project is one of the most challenging areas of project management.  One of the key skills needed for project management is communication.  Teams can become unhappy easily if they don’t feel they are being communicated to and that their views count.  Ultimately, the project manager is the leader and must make decisions, but he or she should look to guide his or her team and, therefore, take his or her team with them to complete a successful project.  There are many books on managing people, and it is a skill that can be learnt.  You may not get to choose your team, but if you have some input, it is better to have like-minded people in your project team who share your values.  However, you may also have to deal with the alternative where people don’t share your values.  It is also good to have a diverse project team, but they should have some commonly shared values and most importantly a shared vision for what the project is to achieve.

One leadership problem many new project managers face is trying to solve all the problems themselves.  While it is important that a project manager has problem-solving skills, they should primarily use these to influence the team and push them for solutions.  Ultimately if the project manager and the project team cannot solve a problem, they need to escalate it to a Project Board or the Project Sponsor. 

Project Team Meetings

I cannot recall any meeting when I was working for other people, which didn’t drag on and turn into chat, usually not work-related whether chat drifts to what car, what holiday, children’s issues, etc, only give this a limited time.  There are plenty of opportunities for these over coffee and lunch.  Concise meetings with an agenda that you stick to keep people focused to achieve your project objectives.  More importantly, it allows everyone to provide feedback and raise any issues/concerns.  It is an excellent opportunity for your team members to feel appreciated and give their views/ideas airtime.  Good communication is one of the most coveted skills for Project Management, so if you are a natural communicator, communicate this to a prospective employer.

When arranging meetings, always send an agenda; if it’s a follow-up meeting, always include a copy of the actions or minutes from the previous meeting.

Measurable Achievements

I am always struck in an office environment when people like to say the same things to avoid awkward situations.  If you have asked a project team member if they have finished their task, how many will make excuses?  “I haven’t had time.”, “I am waiting for someone else to get back to me.”  This may be true, but why haven’t they escalated this to you, their project manager?  To begin with, make it clear that these are not valid reasons to be brought up at the last minute when team members could have done so earlier. 

Also, dissuade people from speculation.  We live in a world of speculation, demonstrated beautifully by TV news reporters outside Government buildings reporting facts and then speculating about everything else. 

If you ask someone working on an IT project what kind of user acceptance testing (UAT) has been carried out, they look back at you and say, “Yeah, looks good; I have had a click around, didn’t see any problems.”, this does not mean the user testing part of the project has been completed and is successful.  If you let that go, you are failing as a Project Manager, which means this milestone has not been completed.  Your team member is speculating, based upon not much, and what will happen when you, as Project Manager, get the project across the line on time and then the system falls over?  All kinds of misery will come down on you, and the team member will say, “I told the Project Manager that only I tested it, and they said that would be fine!”

Technical Skills

Often, technical skills can be undervalued.  I have often heard ‘I am not technical.’ offered as a reason for not bothering with software.  This is a strange position when all that is being asked is that you use software to help you do your job.  By getting up to speed in the industry-standard project management software, you save time later on by being able to get straight on with your work rather than having to figure out the software.  This provides extra confidence for you in the workplace, which is always helpful.

Project Planning and Organisation Skills

Are you a planner?  Planning is essential. If not, things end up in a muddle quickly, with no one knowing what to do.  Is your desk and home often filled with clutter, or do you sort out piles of paperwork and ensure everything has a place?  This may not be strictly Project Management related, but, like time management, it is a real-world skill that indicates how well you would take these skills into Project Management.  Planning, clear, concise instructions, and keeping yourself and everyone on track are important; not everyone is great at it.

Problem-Solving

Are you a natural problem solver?  Do you keep going until you find the answer?  Coming from an IT background, I was used to problem-solving as it is what you do daily.  However, plenty of people in IT look for the obvious solution and, when it doesn’t work, want to get it off their desk as quickly as possible.  They don’t like to think outside the box and test their skills.  Everything has to be neat and tidy and black and white, well, IT, like project management can be messy and there are grey areas, that you need to overcome.  If you are a project leader, you may not have someone else to dump your problem on and walk away from it.  You have to learn to research and see your way through it, which means not always taking the easy route, but it will be the correct one and let you succeed in your project.

Analytical Skills

You need to look through the chaos and see the details for project management.  Simplifying the information you are looking at so everyone will understand is an essential skill and is not easily obtainable.  Never get lost in the details, but make sure you see all of them and take actions related to them. 

Work Experience

You are unlikely to be a Project Manager if you haven’t worked as a team member on a few projects.  It can be difficult to crack into this profession, but trying to find a placement in a team due to your self-improvement, such as learning software used and taking courses and reading, may give you the edge you need.  Look for opportunities to lead small change projects or organise events in your current role. When applying for a project management role in the future, you can use these changes and events as examples of how you can be trusted to get things done. If you have a few years of experience with small changes like these, it will help you at an interview for a Project Management Role.

Control Budgets

The Project Management role is responsible for controlling a project’s Time, Cost and Quality aspects.  If you have any past work experience dealing with budgets and financial controls, it is a good idea to put this on your CV.  Showing that you can manage a department’s finances also shows you can manage project finances.  It never feels good to have to go and ask for extra money because of unforeseen circumstances.  Balancing Time, Cost, and Quality is a difficult task. They are all related, for example it’s easy to bring a project in early and under budget if you cut corners and the client is willing to accept poor quality.   It is best practice for the project manager to approve all spending related to the project, track this against the budget and stage in the project and check invoices as they are received. 

Adaptable Mindset

I think adaptability, like communication, is the best skill for work and life.  Many people are frightened by change because they don’t know the endpoint – what does this change mean?  Is it going to change everything I had run through in my head that would work in this project?  People thrive on routine and certainty, but as a Project Manager, you are in charge of things that may change, business objectives can change, and you must adapt to that new reality.  If you feel like you can bring calmness to a situation and feel comfortable with things going wrong, then you will bring a very good skill to Project Management.

Online Courses and Books for Project Managers

During the pandemic, the flexibility of online courses greatly assisted those who were in lockdown in improving their skills.  Many online courses can help with project management.  This is a quick guide to what is out there, from soft skills to formal project management certifications.

If you are unsure if project management is right, I suggest you start with some inexpensive online courses from Udemy.  This will provide introductory project management knowledge.

Even experienced project managers can benefit from taking an online course as a refresher or going deeper into risk management, stakeholder management and reporting. These all help develop your project management career.

Project Management Certification

Many project management jobs require professional qualifications rather than an A-level or Degree standard.

There are project management certifications you can work towards which will help prove you are capable of the job, however, much of being qualified comes down to the qualities you have as a person. 

PRINCE2

In the UK, PRINCE2 is the main project management professional qualification (Projects In Controlled Environments).  For full details of courses offered, go to https://www.prince2.com/uk  

Even if you end up working in a fully agile environment, the approaches taught in PRINCE2 will stand you in good stead.  You may also want to look at the PMP certification.

SCRUM

Scrum is an agile framework often used for project management or by software developers.  Scrum.org provides details of the courses you can take.

What do you need to be a project manager?

Think of it as you being the glue that holds everything together.  The person who keeps all the plates spinning and ensures that everyone else knows what is expected of them.  People will get upset and stressed, things will go wrong, and everyone will blame you and look to you to fix everything.  People can have slopping shoulders, but for this reason, they will be the ones who will never do your job.   Business requirements will change because businesses can be like that, and business leaders will expect you to respond accordingly.  You need to be the clearest thinking person in the room with a ‘can do’ attitude.  Own the situation, be seen, take responsibility, and push the project to a successful conclusion. 

What do you need to be an IT Project Manager?

If you want a project management position responsible for delivering software development projects, I highly recommend you come from a technical IT background and have a good grasp of the technologies involved.  Some people may disagree with this, but in my experience, you won’t know the questions to ask or the pitfalls to watch out for if you don’t come from an IT technical background.

Are you an accidental project manager?

Many of us get into project management by accident.  In a business, something needs to be organised, or a change needs to be made.  If a professional project manager is unavailable, the duty will fall to a manager or possibly someone they assign.  So, the good news is that this is a great way to get into project management in the longer term. The bad news is everyone will look to you to pull things together and complete the job. 

It is quite possible to tackle small projects without formal training.  If you have been asked to run a project, it is most likely that someone senior has seen how you conduct yourself, and they have confidence in you and believe you have the most important skill, common sense.   Much project management is common sense, keeping things organised and planning as far ahead as possible.

Here are a few things to get you started with a small project:

  1. Get a summary of the project signed off by the sponsor; this should include time, i.e., when it needs to be completed, budget, how much you have to spend, and success criteria as an alternative way to say quality.  Don’t forget a project is a defined unit of work with a clear start and end. If someone says it’s an ‘ongoing’ task, it’s not a project.
  2. Break down the project into the list of jobs (Work packages) that need to be completed to complete the project successfully and when they need to be done.
  3. Assign a single owner to be responsible for the work package/task.
  4. Lay these out visually in an informal Gantt chart.  You can do this with Excel.  I urge you not to rush out and buy Microsoft Project or try running your first project using Jira or similar. I’ve seen many first-time project managers use MS Project to try to draw their Gantt charts. These tools are complex if you haven’t had formal project management training. You learn so much from keeping things simple.
  5. Set up review meetings with all the work package owners so they can report any issues and alert others to the implications of any slippages or changes.  At these meetings, check that you are on track against the Gantt chart and can still achieve all the success criteria.  Assign each task a RAG status or, better still, a BRAG status – this means Blue=Done, Red=In danger, Amber=At risk, Green=OK and on track.
  6. Issue a weekly project summary report to all the stakeholders.
  7. When the project is finished, produce a final summary report detailing the budget, actual cost, learnings and recommendations.

Project Coordinator or Project Administrator roles

If your company has a formal Project Management Office (PMO) or is running a large project, it will be unusual for the Project Manager to do all the administrative work independently. The PMO will often have a number of Project Administrators whom they can assign to help a Project Manager.   This is a great way into Project Management. If you are lucky, you will work with some great project managers and see what works and what doesn’t.  As long as you have some good hard skills and know your way around Word, Excel and PowerPoint, you should be able to get into a Project Administrator role without years of experience.

Product Manager

While it is common for Product Managers also to cover the Project Management role, it is generally much bigger.  Product Managers are responsible for the product on an ongoing basis as part of BaU (Business as Usual) operations. They will talk to stakeholders internally and externally and plan out developments for their products.  They normally find a Project Manager to deliver a specific change or set of changes as a project.

Other management positions

In my view, all job titles that include ‘manager’ also include elements of project management. You see, the word manager is included because the job is to “manage change”. If a process never changes, a company would appoint an Administrator or Team Leader.  Managers are responsible for driving changes. This means that all professional managers should either have some project management experience or know how to engage and work with a project manager.

Where to find Project Manager Roles

Companies often hire project managers on short-term contracts.  Applying via recruitment consultants/agencies generally yields the best salary, but most will look for you to have an established track record.  People who can manage projects are in high demand, so it is worth getting a list of all your local companies and writing to their HR team to introduce yourself with a cover letter to explain your experience and why you would like to be considered for any project management role.

The Project manager career path

As you gain more experience and a track record of delivering successful projects, you will be given even larger projects to manage. These will be higher profile and attract higher salaries and bonuses.

Project managers can often switch to Product Owner Roles if they have been involved in establishing a new product or significant change to a product.

Project managers can move into more senior roles within the PMO (Project Management Office), for example:

Programme Manager: This is where you are responsible for a number of projects to deliver a specific strategy for the business. Each project within the programme typically has its own Project Manager.

Project Portfolio Manager: This is where you manage the whole list of possible and active projects for the enterprise. You will work with senior stakeholders at Board Level to commission projects within the Portfolio.

Enterprise Architect: This is a very high-level role, working with the most senior stakeholders in the business. You would be responsible for digesting the corporate strategy, laying out the high-level enterprise architecture to deliver the corporate strategy, and defining the projects to build the architectural design.




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