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Career Guide

How to Become a Project Manager

BrainStation’s Project Management career guide is intended to help you take the first steps toward a lucrative career in Project Management. The guide provides an in-depth overview of the project management skills you should learn, the best training options, career paths in project management, how to become a Project Manager, and more.

How to Become a Project Manager
Ready to start your career in Product? Find out more about BrainStation's Product Management Course

Project managers play the lead role in planning, watching, executing, controlling, adapting, and closing projects. They are responsible for the entire scope of the project, project team, resources, and whether or not the project is ultimately a success or not.

If you have any professional experience, you’ve likely either avoided a Project Manager in the office hallway or desperately sought them out. These individuals play a critical, and often fleeting, role in an organization. Their goal is to steer a specific project through its lifecycle with an eye towards striking the delicate balance between time, cost, and quality.

Project Managers have a bird’s eye view of a project. They’ve mastered the art of laying out a plan that maps out the timeline and resources needed to bring a project to life, breaks down the budget, identifies and removes roadblocks, and minimizes risks. On top of all of that, Project Managers need to motivate the team through the typical highs and lows that come with project delivery and manage communication with stakeholders of all stripes.

How to become a Project Manager in five steps:

  1. Learn project management fundamentals
  2. Get familiar with the project management process
  3. Learn to use project management tools
  4. Study your line of business and industry
  5. Develop your own projects to build skills

1. Learn Project Management Fundamentals

Project Managers are responsible for planning, organizing, directing, and ultimately executing the completion of specific projects for organizations with the understanding that they will ensure these projects are finished on time and on budget. By overseeing complex projects from initiation to completion, Project Managers have a lot of power – they can change an organization’s trajectory, help to reduce costs, maximize company efficiencies, and increase revenue.

The exact duties of a Project Manager will depend on their company, industry, and the types of projects that a Project Manager is tasked with overseeing. But across the board, all Project Managers share responsibilities across what’s commonly referred to as the “project life cycle,” which consists of five phases (or processes):

  • Initiating
  • Planning
  • Executing
  • Monitoring and Controlling
  • Closing

To become a Project Manager, you must learn the fundamentals of these phases and processes. There are many different ways you can choose to go about learning project management fundamentals. You could pursue a college or university degree in project management. If a traditional university isn’t the right fit for you, there are also a range of project management courses and online training options. Which path is better? That depends on you. Either option will help you make contacts with others entering the same industry and begin to build your professional network in project management, which can only help you land that elusive first job.

2. Get Familiar With the Project Management Process

Project Managers are experts on processes. There are several different ways to approach the project management process and its methods – and they’re constantly changing. Don’t trick yourself into thinking you can get away with only knowing Agile for the rest of your time as a Project Manager. Which process or framework is right for you will depend on your project, team, and goals.

Since we mentioned Agile, let’s start there. Agile is a series of practices and principles ideal for projects that face various changes during their progress. The process is based on short delivery cycles (called sprints) and on a dynamic work culture that supports continuous team collaboration. Stakeholders will review each stage and recommend adjustments accordingly. Obviously, flexibility is key here.

Another process used primarily in software or product development is Scrum. Small cross-functional teams collaborate with a Product Owner, who oversees the overall direction of the product. Every day, the team reviews its work and discusses what’s next.

A final example is Kanban, which is great if you prefer a visual sense of what’s ahead of you. This method consists of a board (physical or digital) with three columns (“to do,” “in progress,” “done”). Tasks get moved from one column to the next as work is completed on the project. Kanban can help you manage your workflow and identify bottlenecks early on.

3. Learn to Use Project Management Tools

Although soft skills are crucial for Project Managers, technical skills are too. To stay on top of your project – and likely, eventually, multiple projects at once – you have to pick the right software. The software will help you communicate effortlessly with team members, including assigning tasks, taking notes, and getting information to the right people.

Budgeting and scheduling is another benefit of using project management tools to keep everything on track. Popular tools used by Project Managers include:

  • Basecamp
  • Evernote
  • Aha!
  • Microsoft Project
  • Atlassian

As a Project Manager, you’ll be expected to be extremely comfortable using these tools, so try using them on your practice projects and learn how to harness their power.

4. Study Your Line of Business and Industry

A good Project Manager isn’t only on top of everything that is happening with her or his team – a good Project Manager is aware of what every other company in your industry is up to. You can learn lessons from their successes and failures and apply that to your own projects.

Find case studies on how other companies in your industry pulled off major projects. What challenges did they face? How did they overcome them?

By becoming an expert on your industry, you’ll be in a better position to set realistic budgets and schedules, to recognize potential problems and solve them proactively, and to make a convincing case for your ideas when talking to stakeholders.

5. Develop Your Own Projects to Build Skills

Hitting the books alone isn’t enough to teach you how to manage a project. It’s time to look for a project to manage. You’ll be glad you did this in an informal setting someday when you’re guiding a project with real KPIs deliverables. There’s nothing better than real life, hands-on experience.

But how do you get that experience?

If indeed you’re pursuing a degree in project management, join a club and offer to manage projects – like events. If that’s not an option, look for a charitable organization and help them run fundraisers or events. You’ll get great experience while making the world a better place.

For your first project, make sure to write a project plan with all of the following components: executive summary; project scope and deliverables; project schedule; project resources; risk and issue management plan; and communication management plan. That will be your project roadmap.

After you finish your first project, it’s important to look back on what you should have done differently. These lessons are crucial in your early days in project management.

What Is the Difference Between a Project Manager and a Product Manager?

Project Managers play an essential role in an organization by steering specific projects from ideation through to completion, while a Product Manager is responsible for the success of a product from concept to launch to continuous improvement.

Project Managers take a wide lens to any project. They carefully consider the timeline and resources needed to successfully execute projects, then they take into account budget, possible problems, and they identify risks. Project Managers are also responsible for guiding the team through the typical challenges and roadblocks that inevitably arise and manage communication both internally with the team and externally with stakeholders.

A Product Manager’s role can be slightly different depending on the organization. For example, some organizations include marketing as a responsibility while others don’t. Ultimately, a Product Manager is responsible for the success of a product from concept to launch to continuous improvement. They determine the what, why, and when of the product that the engineering team then builds out. They communicate this through a product roadmap (more on this further below).

Product Managers eat, sleep, and breathe the needs of their customers. They’re constantly working to create value for them that’s also aligned to business goals. For this reason, many people describe Product Managers as “mini CEOs” that sit at the intersection of business, technology, and user experience.

What Are Project Manager Career Paths?

There are a number of different jobs that Project Managers could pursue after gaining some work experience. These jobs include Chief Operating Officer (COO) and other senior management roles that have different titles depending on the company and the industry.

For an established Project Manager – meaning one with a decade or more experience – shifting into the position of COO is actually a fairly smooth transition. The experience Project Managers gain collaborating with all levels and departments within his or her company – along with the skills and assets acquired during years on the job – can prepare the Project Manager to graduate to this position, even with that imposing title.

Senior Project Manager roles go by different names in different companies and industries. As an example, in a vendor environment, software vendors typically use titles such as Business Development Director, Senior Managing Consultant, and Senior Project Manager.

Of course, the path of a Project Manager depends on how successful his or her past projects have been. Moving into a more senior role again means more responsibility but also a significantly higher salary.

Is Project Management a Growing Field?

Project management has always been an important function in business, and it’s only getting more important as time goes by, and as a result the field is growing very quickly.

In fact, studies have shown that by 2027, employers will need 87.7 million people working in project management oriented roles. In anticipation of that, 71 percent of global organizations now have a project management office – that’s an increase of roughly 15 percent since 2007. Clearly, the job outlook for professionals with project management skills is increasingly positive.

A PMI-commissioned talent gap analysis by Anderson Economic Group points to huge opportunities in this field in the 11 countries studied. In fact, through 2027, the project management-oriented labor force in seven project-oriented sectors is expected to grow by 33 percent, or nearly 22 million new jobs.

The report also showed the risk that could come if that dearth of talent isn’t somehow corrected. Talent shortages in the profession can potentially create risks of nearly $208 billion in GDP over the 10-year period in the 11 countries examined.

What Are the Benefits of a Career in Project Management?

The benefits of a career in project management are many, including job security, the ability to work in a wide variety of industries, and the chance to earn a high salary.

Project Managers are essential to nearly any type of business you can think of. From architecture to engineering to finance, healthcare, IT, manufacturing, software development, insurance, telecommunications, and more, every industry needs Project Managers. That means you can potentially have a lot of variety in your career, and you likely won’t need to worry about finding or keeping a job (PMI estimated that there would be well over 700,000 openings by 2020.)

According to the PMI Project Management Salary Survey, the global median salary for Project Managers is $90,260 (Project Managers who attain a credential average over $100,000).

Aside from the job opportunities and robust compensation, Project Managers also enjoy the opportunity to collaborate with people who have all sorts of different titles and roles. If you’re a people person, you’ll cherish the chance to take on a leadership role and work collaboratively and closely with all sorts of different people to bring your projects to completion.

It’s also worth noting that there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with successfully seeing a project through to the end. If you’re a problem solver who doesn’t like the idea of doing the exact same thing every day in the office, Project Manager could be the perfect role.

What Is the Salary of a Project Manager?

The average salary of a Project Manager in the United States is $85,000 plus $13,000 in cash bonuses that bring their salaries close to six figures, according to Indeed.

The certifications, skills, and licenses that a Project Manager has can make a significant difference to that salary. For instance, Indeed found that employers paid a 16.2 percent premium for candidates skilled with Microsoft Project, while a Program Management Professional certification from PMI was correlated with a nearly 25 percent salary increase.

There are at least five jobs related to the Project Manager job category that pay more per year than a typical Project Manager salary. Top examples of these roles include: Senior Clinical Project Manager, IT Project Manager Contract, and IT Security Project Manager.

Compensation also changes depending where you are in the country. The top four highest-paying cities for Project Managers are all in California, while the Massachusetts and New York areas also see Project Managers averaging north of $90,000 per year in salary.

How Do I Become a Project Manager With No Experience?

It’s certainly possible to become a Project Manager with no experience if you seek out an education, learn the tools, and begin taking on project management tasks in your current role.

If you’re looking to get into project management in a hurry, the gold standard of project management certification is PMI’s Project Management Professional certification (or PMP) – but before you can take the test, you need to amass hundreds of hours of project management work.

If that seems like too much of a commitment, you could take the test to become a Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) after an online course. Certification isn’t required for all project management roles, but it lets employers know that you are dedicated to shifting into this career track, and it might help you overcome some initial recruiting barriers.

Next, you should explore the tools at your disposal. Familiarity with these tools may give you better comfort in answering questions during an interview, as well as good guidelines in organizing yourself for the role. Start with Asana, DropBox, Trello, and Basecamp, and then browse the internet for other platforms.

Finally, if you’re part of team projects in your current role – and there’s no Project Manager looking after the details of these projects – you might be able to volunteer to take on a little extra responsibility. Even if it’s just setting and managing deadlines for your team members, it could be the beginning of a career in project management.

What Does It Take to Become a Great Project Manager?

Becoming a great Project Manager ultimately comes down to whether you possess good communication, leadership, organization, and people skills. That presumes you already have the technical skills necessary for a career in project management, meaning you’ve already mastered the latest tools for keeping a large project on-track.

To be a great Project Manager, it helps a lot if you’re a people person. Time log studies conducted suggest that Project Managers spend the vast majority of their time communicating with various stakeholders around an organization. Typically, that communication was oral – either face-to-face or by phone – and usually boiled down to sharing information, monitoring, or evaluating. A Project Manager’s communication skills were directly correlated to how successful they were – if you understand how to get a message across in a clear, concise, and straightforward way, and you’re adept at listening and understanding non-verbal cues, you have a great shot at flourishing in project management.

Leadership is another critical soft skill for Project Managers. Effective Project Managers are liked and respected by their teams, and that respect in turn inspires employees to work hard and efficiently to meet deadlines and targets. Leadership in project management means that you rarely need to force cooperation but instead use negotiation and persuasion to accomplish what you need to accomplish.

Finally, Project Managers need to know how to keep things organized in what is inevitably a hectic, chaotic environment. To successfully complete a project, a Project Manager has to impose structure. You must prioritize, set objectives, timetables, and create action plans to accomplish those goals. A great Project Manager is also quick on her or his feet, knowing how to shift on a dime and reorganize quickly when faced with unanticipated headaches.

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