Have you ever wondered what the project management career path looks like? This post will show you different ways you can make that move.
Have you ever wondered how to get a project manager position before you’ve actually had one? Exactly how does someone go about getting that job?
Yes, there’s training and certification, but it’s often hard to get hired without any project management experience. I’ve seen the following types of questions about the project manager career path and becoming a project manager in LinkedIn, Reddit, and other similar sites:
- How do I become a project manager if I have no experience?
- What degree / certification do I need?
- Should I get a master’s degree in project management?
- Do I need to be PMP certified before I can be a project manager?
- How do I get a job as a project manager if I don’t have project management experience?
If you are interested in becoming a project manager, you don’t necessarily need to start with a master’s degree or a PMP certification. There are other paths to the role of project manager that provide valuable work experience that employers are usually looking for.
Is Project Management Right for Me?
You might first want to verify that project management is indeed the career you want to pursue. According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge, (PMBOK Guide) 5th Edition: the project manager (PM) is the person “responsible for achieving the project objectives”, who has ultimate responsibility for the success of the project, ensuring that it meets the determined budget, scope, and timeline, while also ensuring quality.
The PM serves as the primary point of contact for the project and will carry out many of these activities:
- Identify tasks needed to execute the project, resulting in a project schedule with dates, dependencies, and task owners
- Develop and manage the project budget
- Identify and manage scope
- Identify and manage risk
- Manage contracts
- Manage team, customer and stakeholder expectations
- Manage changes to the plan
- Communicate effectively across many groups
- Organize and coordinate teams and activities
The following are traits that make an effective project manager:
- enjoys learning new information and concepts
- strong communication skills
- great leadership
- problem solving
- attention to detail
- ability to work with different personality types and communicate across various levels and channels
- meeting management
- business writing
- issue and risk management
If you find that the lists above fit your personality and skill-set, then project management could be the perfect fit for you. However, take heart. You don’t necessarily need to go back to school to get a master’s degree in project management or get a PMP certification right away. In fact, employers often want to see experience in addition to certifications when hiring. There are other ways in which you can get both the experience towards project management and a feel for whether this path is truly right for you. The project manager career path often involves holding positions that allow you to gain project management experience, yet don’t always come with the title of “Project Manager”.
There are other roles and job titles that provide experience that can be applied to project management, encompassing various components listed above. These can give you both the feel for whether project management is a good fit, and get valuable experience to move you toward that project management position.
Job Titles that Can Lead to Project Management
The following positions usually involve activities that might also be carried out by a project manager and are often great roles in which to gain project management experience. There is overlap between the descriptions of the various positions, and the title can vary across companies and organizations.
The project coordinator (PC) is a great position to get you on the project manager career path. The PC often works closely with a PM, and assists with a variety of project related activities.
Work typically done by a Project Coordinator: Working with the team to develop the project schedule, test plans, vendor activities, testing, budgets, and organizing project activities such as meetings and document preparation.
Skill sets that are beneficial to a project manager are also beneficial to a project coordinator: attention to detail, coordination, leadership, motivation, trust-building, and reliability.
The PC could also have ownership for various components of the project, and a PM might have more than one PC working with her on a project. The PM must still be concerned with and aware of all aspects of the project since she has ultimate responsibility for project success. Therefore, the PC would maintain constant communication with the PM on the project, sharing information on status and progress, and any issues that must be resolved.
There is no firm rule on how to use a project coordinator on a project. It likely depends on the person’s strengths, where the need is, and if the coordinator is seeking an opportunity to grow in a certain area. Much of what the project coordinator will or can do will be dependent upon the work environment and structure.
I have worked with project analysts, and their roles have varied depending on the work environment and what was needed by the project team. I’ve seen them focus on documentation and requirements, and also on scheduling and coordinating activities. Techopedia has the following description:
“A project analyst is an individual that analyzes, reviews and documents the requirements of a project throughout its lifecycle. He or she helps the entire project team complete the project within its planned scope, schedule and budget, while serving as a liaison for the project’s technical, functional and non-functional teams.”
Techopedia lists the project analyst job responsibilities as including:
- Creating, managing and disbursing reports related to the project
- Maintaining project assets, communications and related database(s)
- Evaluating and monitoring the overall project
- Reviewing and reporting the project’s budget and finances
- Routinely performing complete or component analysis
- Notifying the entire project team about abnormalities or variances
Payscale.com has the following list of activities listed for the Project Analyst:
- Identify user needs and verify the data to meet those analytic needs
- Analyze, track, forecast, and report on project metrics and shortfalls
- Develop and maintain project schedules, goals, and communications
- Develop and manage project documentation and reports
I have met multiple project managers who were originally business analysts (BAs). According to the International Institute of Business Analysis, “Business Analysis is the practice of enabling change in an organizational context, by defining needs and recommending solutions that deliver value to stakeholders.”
The site goes on to explain that “Business analysis is used to identify and articulate the need for change in how organizations work, and to facilitate that change.” Business Analysts help identify and define beneficial solutions. They could be “involved in everything from defining strategy, to creating the enterprise architecture, to taking a leadership role by defining the goals and requirements for programs and projects or supporting continuous improvement in its technology and processes.” I’ve worked closely with many business analysts as they gather and document business requirements for projects, and they’ve always been a valuable team asset.
I have not personally worked with anyone with the job title of Project Administrator, but a very quick search on Monster.com quickly resulted in a long list of these positions, one of which listed duties such as scheduling meetings, developing presentations, and forecasting financial performance, among other things. I saw postings in both the construction and IT sectors in my quick search.
A look back to Techopedia gives the description of a project administrator as one who “organizes the necessary team members and specializes in facilitating, reporting and analyzing projects under the supervision of a project manager. This position requires great responsibility and proper time management because the job entails constant monitoring and control of all project variables. The project administrator’s role is not only to ensure that the project is finished on time and on budget, but also may involve acquiring more contracts.”
Being a project administrator requires strong executive administrative skills, as well as experience in finance budgeting and reporting.
Some duties and responsibilities required of a project administrator:
- Planning the financial budget necessary for the project
- Coordinating with his/her team members frequently for updates regarding the work in progress
- Monitoring the progress of the project and acknowledging team suggestions
- Supervising the team members and ensuring that guidelines are met
- Initiating the project or contract and working until the project is completed
- Discussing updates with senior officials and the client
The project administrator role can look different at different companies. If you’re looking at that role, it’s best to get information on job duties from the company posting the job.
Stories from the Project Management Career Path
To illustrate the point, I wanted to provide some real examples of people who work in project management in various roles listed above. Their stories just might inspire you to go ahead and make that move.
Osama El-Hamarna: Project Coordinator Gaining PM Experience
Osama El-Hamarna, PMP, works as a Business Intelligence Project Coordinator at Cummins, Inc. He did not actively decide to move into this role, but rather was placed in this role when he was an intern for the group while going to school. He’s always been more of a technical person, but when his company offered him this position, he accepted. He’s since become PMP certified and has become a valued member to the team.
In his role he reports directly to a project manager. However, he distinguishes between the “role” of a project coordinator and the “position” of a project coordinator. “For some big projects, my role is of a project coordinator. This is where I handle the communication between our project team and the stakeholders, giving status updates, collecting requirements and changes to the project’s scope/schedule, and assisting the PM with project documentation. The PM will manage the resources and the work between the team. Project coordinators on a project usually do not have authority over the resources. My position/title is a Project Coordinator, but on some projects my role is that of a Project Manager. I am documented on the official project charter as a project manager.”
This is a great example of how the project coordinator position can provide solid project management experience.
As far as career path, while he initially planned to focus on a more technical role, he has “become pretty fascinated in the PM world.” He thinks he will likely move on to an actual PM position. He would then ultimately like to get into program management or be a part of a Project Management Office (PMO) “I know I would be successful in a PMO because…I have created standard documentation, mostly following the PMI standards. It has really helped the project team in organization and the stakeholders are happier….”
As far as advice for those looking at project coordinator positions as a move into project management, Osama shared that “the project coordinator position is a really good way to get into project management. Your responsibilities would overlap the things you would do as a project manager. It is the perfect way to learn the PM practices in your organization and it will give you the experience/knowledge you would need to be a successful PM. Because you work with the PM very closely, you will learn the keys to success as well as learn from their mistakes.” This also gives you the opportunity to see if you really love the work and wish to follow a project management career path.
Louise Worsley: Project Administrator as a Good Path to Project Management
Louise Worsley is a consultant in project, portfolio and program management and also a visiting lecturer in project management on the MSc in PM at the University of Cape Town. She explained that in South Africa they differentiate project administrators (PAs) from project coordinators. PAs are support staff for projects and the PMO but may also be interns or trainees starting a career in project management. Often the project administrator will start as a PA then move to a project coordinator role where they get to run small to medium sized projects. Project administrators could have the opportunity to see many projects and become skilled in understanding finance and the monitoring and control aspects of projects. Project coordinators typically work on small or medium-sized projects, reporting into a program manager. Most project coordinators aim to move up the PM ladder, and if so, it is important that they look for every opportunity to work on a variety of projects. In particular they should aim to get to know as many business stakeholders as possible as this will position them well for more complex projects.
Brad Nunley: applying skills and expertise to quickly move up
Then there are other job titles altogether that utilize the skillsets of project managers, so don’t limit yourself to simply searching for a job with the title “Project Manager” or “Project Coordinator”. Brad Nunley is a Project Controls Manager in Huntsville, AL, in the Defense and Space industry. During his job search, even though he was able to show a lot of his military experience as project management experience, he was still lacking the civilian experience that companies were looking for. He took a job with lower pay to start, worked hard and ensured his boss was aware of his outside education (“letting him know I signed up and was studying for my PMP”) and even mentored co-workers who sought guidance. He advises to let your boss know that you want to be mentored. Brad points out, “if you’re in an entry level spot with a Masters Degree…he brought you on for bigger things down the road…” Brad did the above and a short 4 months later he was able to move into a project controls manager position when it became available, along with a higher salary.
Jan Schiller: Lessons Learned Through Transitioning From BA to PM
Jan Schiller took the business analyst route to project management. She is currently a project manager (as a Berkshire Consulting consultant) at OnCourse Learning. “I think back on how I got started as a project manager after graduating from a state university with a broad “management information systems” degree and taking my first job as a software developer.” Though she started as a software developer, “someone recognized the strong organizational skills I had, my natural ability to put structure on ambiguity, and my team-based focus and approach.” These traits made her a good fit for the PM role. “In IT, I’ve noticed a trend that business analysts tend to become project managers…” She points out that making the move from BA to PM requires a definite “transition in perspective and knowledge from 2 inches wide and 10 miles deep (BA) to 10 miles wide and 2 inches deep (PM).” She explains that some challenges she experienced when making this transition were the following:
- I had to learn how to delegate because there was no way I was ever going to be a PM *and* keep track of all the details like I did when I was a BA.
- Getting comfortable being uncomfortable. One of the things that keeps me happy as a PM is always learning…but I’m always learning. It’s rewarding, but in a different kind of way than that feeling of coming into your own as an analyst that develops over time in a subject area or domain.
- Being able to assess people for fit, and to grow a good team.
- Working effectively from a position of influence only. In a matrixed environment, a PM is effectively borrowing and assembling a team from people reporting to other managers. I see very few truly projectized non-consulting organizations. and even fewer PMs whose authority is in alignment with their accountabilities.
Technical Advisor – Yet Another Option
I also have a friend who works as a Technical Advisor but based on the work she does, she is essentially a project manager. She manages projects all the way from planning through execution to close-out. Her work is pretty by-the-book project management. She manages stakeholders, requirements, change management, schedules, risks, etc. She loves the work and echoes what others have said about various positions along the project manager career path. Her college degree was in Anthropology, and she shared that it’s not critical to have a PMP to get a PM position, as long as you can demonstrate that you can carry out the activities needed to successfully execute projects, and this experience can come via various routes.
As you can see, there are many routes and job titles that you could take along the project manager career path. If you are seeking a path to project management, consider these various other roles, especially if you need to gain a bit more experience before you can apply for a formal project manager position.
If there are others that I have not listed that might be beneficial to others, let me know.
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Hi Leigh, great post and I have added your blog to my rss feed when I had an interview for a program manager position. I want to hear your input on my situation. I’m a technical senior manager who have experience in a wide array of IT related delivery activities. Part of my job is to lead PM for system infrastructure migrations and closure programs. I want to get into a senior IT PM, lead PM or even a program manager. The thing is, I always had PM reporting to me so I would provide strategic guidance rather than step by step council on the PM process. Do you think I will have a problem working as a program manager without in dept knowledge of PMP?
Hi Harry! Interesting question. Because you have PMs reporting to you with you providing guidance, if you took a role as a program manager, it would likely be much the same. I’ve worked as both a PM, and a PMO manager (leading a team of PMs). However, I’d like more information to have a fuller picture. If you’d like to discuss, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can schedule a time to talk. I have several ideas on this and a conversation is a better approach.