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Career Guides

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.

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

What Is a Project Manager?

A Project Manager is in charge of the entire project scope and project team, managing budgets, resources, and employees as they take the lead role in planning, controlling, developing, executing, monitoring, and closing projects. In short, Project Managers are responsible for the entire project scope, project team, resources, ensuring tasks are being completed on deadline, and ultimately, the success or failure of the project.

Project Managers are agents of change: they align their own goals with that of the project and use their project management skills and experience to guide the project team and keep them motivated, inspired, and focused on meeting all project objectives.

Now that businesses around the world have come to understand the immense value of effective project management, Project Managers are found in virtually every type of organization, business, and industry – as employees, managers, contractors, and independent consultants.

Project Management vs. Product Management

Project managers:

  • break large initiatives down into smaller tasks, before monitoring and tracking task completion

  • develop, plan, and monitor project timelines

  • allocate, analyze and track project resources

  • communicate progress to top company stakeholders and leadership

  • ensure projects complete on time, budget, and at satisfactory quality

Product managers:

  • set product vision

  • own communication of that vision to stakeholders

  • work with software development and engineering teams to develop products

  • create and maintain product roadmaps

  • drive and oversee development through all stages of a product life cycle

Project Management Disciplines

Project management is a field that uses a variety of skills to keep projects on time and within budget, successfully steering them to completion through the entirety of the project life cycle.

Project management is also an umbrella term that can refer to portfolio management, program management, and change management, three disciplines that are quite alike but with several key differences.

What Is Program Management?

Program Management comes into play when a number of different projects – possibly interrelated or just similar – can’t be managed separately, but instead must be coordinated in order to meet an organization’s goals. Program Managers would have to work closely with Project Managers to make sure the projects are proceeding in harmony with one another. They would also manage any dependencies between projects and address any issues that may threaten the success of the program.

What Is Portfolio Management?

Think of a portfolio as all an organization’s programs, projects, and operational work. Portfolio Managers work with company leadership to choose, prioritize, balance, evaluate, analyze, and steer the organization’s approved work to best meet its goals, taking into account total resources and risk factors.

What Is Change Management?

Change Management guides how we prepare, equip, and support people to successfully adopt changes that will help the company achieve more success and meet its goals. Ultimately, change management focuses on how to help employees enthusiastically embrace, accept, and use a change in their day-to-day work.

What Does a Project Manager do?

A Project Manager will plan, lead, and direct projects until they're complete while ensuring that the projects are on budget, on time, within scope, and that they meet or exceed business goals.

A project manager's exact responsibilities will depend on their industry, company, and business and could vary dramatically. But almost any Project Manager will oversee each process of the entire project life cycle: Initiating, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing.

  • Initiating. In the first phase of a project, Project Managers define the scope and goals of a project, create a stakeholder list, and map out what success will look like. It should be noted that Project Managers are sometimes not assigned until some of these decisions are already being made.

  • Planning. Establishing a project plan helps Project Managers understand the scope, cost, timelines, risk, quality issues, and communications. Here, Project Managers should identify and define key deliverables and milestones, as well as the tasks required to complete each. The project plan – which is a living document – then becomes both a great communication and motivation tool for team members as they work to complete the project.

  • Executing. As team members get to work on meeting the goals established in the project plan, a good Project Manager will keep the team focused, mediate any potential conflicts, and help the team adapt to inevitable last-minute changes.

  • Monitoring and Controlling. This "phase" is really baked into every process of project management, as Project Managers need to constantly monitor project progress, budgets, and key milestones.

  • Closing. Finally, a Project Manager will release any resources no longer needed, review the work of any third-party vendors, and finally attain sign-off from the client that a project is complete. It's not a formal part of any process, but this is a good opportunity to review the entire project, what worked and what didn't, and determine any useful lessons learned for future projects.

Types of Project Management

The different types of project management methodologies will all help a Project Manager arrive at the same destination – a finished project – but the directions will differ. Here are a few of the key types of project management methodologies:

  • Waterfall project management. One of the oldest methods on this list but still widely used, Waterfall project management means working in a structured sequence – think waves, where each one relies on the one before it. This approach relies heavily on smart and extensive planning at the outset of a project.

  • Agile project management. This is the program of choice if you anticipate that a project will undergo many changes before it's complete. Agile is based on short delivery cycles (sprints), forcing a business to become more nimble and adaptive to change.

  • Scrum project management. Another Agile approach, Scrum allows teams to change directions quickly by breaking projects down into sprints with specific timetables, usually one month.

  • Kanban project management. Instead of focusing on time management, Kanban looks at how tasks can be streamlined or achieved more efficiently.

  • Lean project management. With a focus on achieving good quality without a lot of staff, resources, or time, management teams that use this approach focus on customer value and bottleneck removal.

What Skills do Project Managers Need?

Project Managers need a mix of technical and soft skills to thrive in their demanding jobs. Here are some of the key project management skills:

Technical Project Management Skills

  • Project planning. A good PM has mastered meeting plans, statements of works, estimates, timelines, briefs, and resource plans.

  • Process Management. This means staying on top of budgeting, project delivery and launch, invoicing, and resource management.

  • Scheduling. Having the right people on the project at the right time is a crucial project management skill.

  • Risk management. A great Project Manager can see trouble on the horizon and deal with it proactively.

  • Cost Management. A Project Manager needs to know how to create a realistic budget, anticipate every risk that could get that budget off track, and then take responsibility for controlling budget costs through the execution of the project.

Soft Project Management Skills

  • Organization. The Internet is home to whole communities of Project Managers who discuss and debate the merits of different organizational strategies. That's because being organized is a crucial skill for a Project Manager.

  • Communication. A Project Manager needs to be able to communicate effectively – orally and in writing – with everyone from clients to lead company stakeholders and down to the most junior members of a team.

  • Negotiating. Negotiation belongs as its own project management skill, and we aren't just referring to going back and forth with vendors for the best possible rate. Project Managers must also constantly find a compromise with stakeholders on the scope of the project or their contributions to it, and navigating those discussions isn't easy.

  • Leadership. To lead a team, a Project Manager must understand how to lead by example. Controlling every employee is impossible but to manage a project from going off track, a Project Manager has to set the right tone in the office.

  • Time Management. Given the importance of deadlines, a good Project Manager will budget for every and plan ahead for every risk that could develop and threaten their timelines.

  • Relationship Management. Managing the expectations and attitudes of key stakeholders is one of the crucial skills that comes along with any Project Manager position. It's also important to carefully manage relationships with not just those in a stakeholder position but also all the other employees working on developing the project.

Find out more about what skills you need to become a Project Managert.

Characteristics of Successful Project Managers

While there are lots of technical skills that a Project Manager needs to be successful, there are also a number of more intangible characteristics that seem to be shared by all successful Project Managers.

The following are the key attributes of a good Project Manager:

A Project Manager is Passionate About Leadership

The top Project Managers have excellent leadership skills, whether they’re natural leaders or it’s a quality they actively cultivate. As a Project Manager, you must be able to guide your team through the entire project life cycle without losing motivation or momentum. Your team should know exactly what you expect of them. Good Project Managers are adept at assessing team member’s strengths and weaknesses and they put them in positions to maximize those strengths and mitigate their damage in the areas they don’t excel.

A Project Manager Must Communicate Effectively

Strong project management means clear, consistent, and concise communication both within the project team as well as with key stakeholders outside the project team and any relevant clients or sponsors. There should be no surprises about the scope or unforeseen tasks that now might threaten a deadline or unexpectedly increase a team member’s workload. Not only do effective Project Managers have great communication skills – verbally and in writing – project objectives, project progress, and team members’ responsibilities. Likewise, they’re skilled listeners who take directions carefully and are adept at reading other people.

A Project Manager Needs a Great Sense of Time

Time management is a crucial skill for Project Managers to master. You not only have to manage your own time impeccably to juggle your many project management responsibilities, but you must understand how much time all the other project tasks -- some of which might be interdependent -- will take to complete and then follow up with the people completing that work to make sure you’re on track to meet those project goals. Time management often determines the success or failure of a project -- it’s that important.

A Great Project Manager Loves Problem-Solving

No matter how competent a Project Manager or how thorough a project charter and project plan is crafted, problems and unforeseen events will inevitably arise on any project. How you handle and solve those issues will dictate how well your project fares. A career in project management means you must be a quick thinker and creative problem-solver in many knowledge areas who isn’t daunted by unexpected setbacks. As you gain more project management experience and become more comfortable with your responsibilities, this will become more intuitive.

A Successful Project Manager Can Delegate

Effective project management means delegating tasks to the right people at the right time. This isn’t just because your own plate will be full and you can’t spend your time working on tasks that could easily be completed by more junior employees. It’s also because keeping your team motivated means giving them meaningful work and trusting them to do work worthy of the project.

A Great Project Manager Takes Pride in Their Work

Project Managers may only be with a company for a short time, or they may work exclusively as contractors or consultants. To continue to work in the project management field you must have a proven track record of delivering on-budget, on-schedule projects that stakeholders are consistently happy with. Doing that requires caring deeply about a project. Your team will see that devotion, and it will be a powerful motivator to exceed expectations.

What Tools Do Project Managers use?

Project Managers use a variety of software, tools, and techniques software to handle project planning, communication, scheduling, budgeting, and content-sharing.

  • Project management software. Recent years have seen the release of many different types of software that can make office life a breeze. Programs and tools like Microsoft Project, Trello, Skype for Business, Evernote, and Jira will help with tasks including project tracking, managing workflows and training, communication, scheduling, risk prevention, analytics, and reporting.

  • Gantt charts. Offering a visual representation of your project's progress, Gantt charts usually show how each task is progressing (as well as who is responsible for it). Gantt charts can be used to determine tasks and subtasks, define connections and interdependencies between tasks, create timelines and schedules, sequence tasks, and finally for monitoring progress.

  • Critical Path Method. Critical path analysis forces the Project Manager to map out every key task needed to complete a project, along with the amount of time required for each step. The critical path method or analysis is a good tool for Project Managers who want to ensure that every key component of a project will be completed on time.

Benefits of Project Management

If you're still not convinced of how good project management makes good business sense, read on for some of the benefits of project management:

  • Better organization leads to better results. Any successful Project Manager will tell you that creating and maintaining a great project plan is crucial to the success of any project. A Project Manager will outline a clear path to success, with all necessary project tasks, deadlines, owners, and milestones. That will keep everyone on the same page.

  • Clearly define roles. Project Managers will make sure that everyone involved in a project knows exactly what's expected of them, when it's expected, and where their job responsibilities begin and end. That makes involved feel free to use their skills and knowledge to the best possible result and saves a business from money wasted on inefficient employees (which any resource management professional will tell you is a major obstacle for any project).

*Clear goals create clear paths to success. Just as all employees should have knowledge of their roles, they should also be laser-focused on the overall aims of a project. By clearly setting and communicating goals, milestones, and other standards for success, you're both managing expectations and motivating everyone working on a project to push a little harder to get those results.

*Project management tools can have your company working smarter. By smartly employing project management tools, you can streamline communication, encourage collaboration and facilitate knowledge sharing by creating a central place to share and seek information. These tools can help a Project Manager or company leader share status updates or reports, reflections on a complete project, or other data relevant to their work.

Project Manager Salaries

The average Project Manager salary in the United States is $77,000 in base salary plus another $13,500 in cash bonuses, according to Indeed. However, salaries for a career in project management will vary greatly depending on education, certification, and how many years of project management experience a job candidate has.

Certifications likely have the biggest impact on a Project Manager's salary. On average, a PMP certification from the Project Management Institute (PMI) correlates to a 22 percent salary increase (in the U.S., a PMP certification can mean roughly $25,000 in pay). Another option is to go the more traditional education route and pursue a master's degree in project management, which also correlates with a much higher salary.

Demand for Project Managers

Demand for Project Managers is high and seemingly growing, with the project management-related labor force in seven sectors forecast to grow by 33 percent by 2027. That's expected to create around 22 million new jobs, which means employers will need 88 million in project management or related roles.

Project Manager Career paths

Project Manager career paths often find PMs taking on more and bigger projects and responsibilities as they move up the career ladder.

If Project Managers are responsible for keeping projects on track, monitoring budget and deadline constraints, and meeting the quality expectations of stakeholders and clients, the next step for a project management professional would be overseeing programs, which are groups of projects that are coordinated to ensure key objectives are met.

A Program Manager would tend to draw a higher salary than a Project Manager since the responsibilities of the role are bigger. Program Managers are also expected to monitor dependencies between projects, create program plans and analyses that show the business benefits of their work.

The next step up the career ladder would be Portfolio Manager, which involves managing a collection of projects and programs to meet strategic business goals.

Finally, with years of experience in the above roles, the final step in the Project Manager career path would be an executive-level role with a title like Project Management Officer (PMO) or Chief Operating Officer (COO).

Another career path worth mentioning would be specializing in a specific industry of project management. This can be financially rewarding depending on the industry you choose; a Project Manager who specializes in construction and engineering, for instance, makes a much higher average salary than the general pool of Project Managers.

But advancing within that specialized industry often requires a Project Manager to attain specialized skills. Pursuing a career specifically in managing software development projects, for instance, might require a Project Manager to build out their knowledge, education, and skills in programming, perhaps even to the point of achieving a coding certification.

Project Management Jobs

As you climb the ladder in the project management field, you’ll likely cycle through a number of different job titles within the project management profession.

Here are many of the most common:

  • Industry-Specific Project Manager. Many industries have specific postings for Project Managers with experience working within their unique circumstances and knowledge areas. For instance, a Construction Project Manager or Engineering Project Manager would have extensive experience working in the construction industry.

  • Project Coordinator. An administrative entry-level Project Manager position, Project Coordinators generate reports and assist the management team as needed.

  • Project Scheduler. This is a project management role that requires technical skills and a knowledge of some project management software, but not much actual management is involved in the work. Project Schedulers use software to input data and update files on larger projects.

  • Project Manager. A Project Manager will guide the project through its project management phases to its entire project life cycle, either running the project alone or at the head of a management team. They communicate project progress to stakeholders, oversee budgets and schedules, assign tasks, and take responsibility for the ultimate success or failure of projects.

  • Senior Project Manager. At this level, a Senior Project Manager might be responsible for multiple projects at the same time.

  • Program Manager. The job of this project management professional is to craft a program’s strategy, goals, and objectives and assesses how it will positively or negatively affect a business. Program Managers are responsible for a list of dependent projects needed to be completed to reach the program’s overall goals.

  • Portfolio Manager: A similar role to that of a Project Manager, with the difference being that a Portfolio Manager has a larger collection of projects, programs, sub-portfolios, and operations.

  • Chief Project Officer: The Chief Project Officer (CPO) is a more senior-level position within project management, responsible for leading the group through the project and provides organization, prioritization, resource supply, and internal consulting.

Reasons to Become a Project Manager

Project Manager is considered a great career for those with a varied skillset, keen mind, and the ability to thrive under pressure. Here are some of the reasons why it's a great time to start a career in project management:

You Never Stop Learning

Project Managers are a curious bunch. You never know what project is on the horizon – or which challenge or issue you might have to overcome – so a good Project Manager is always on the lookout for new information. Fortunately, there are training courses for all kinds of soft skills as well as hundreds of project management books. Further, most Project Managers see it as a professional duty to continuously up-skill and seek out new project management certifications to keep their skills sharp.

Every Project is Different

The scope of the project management field means that you could work in virtually any industry on an unlimited number of different projects, each totally unique. Each time, you work to create something completely new and then you move on to the next. You’ll never have to guide two projects that are exactly alike, and that variety is something that a lot of Project Managers enjoy about their jobs.

Project Management Has High Salaries

It’s not a secret that Project Managers are well-compensated. Indeed’s numbers show that Project Managers take home an average salary of $85,000 with bonuses of around $13,500, while larger companies pay their Project Managers in excess of $120,000-plus in salary. Some large companies even pay double that.

These big organizations have huge sums of money riding on the success or failure of these projects, and that amount of responsibility is reflected in the project management salaries they dish out.

Project Manager Jobs Abound

Since every business in every industry hires Project Managers, it’s not surprising that there are a ton of job openings for professionals in this field. A recent report from PMI showed employers would need to fill nearly 2.2 million new project-oriented roles each year through 2027, with $208 billion on the line. In other words, job security should be high in the project management field for a long time.

Project Manager Careers Can Be Fulfilling

There’s no doubt about it: being a Project Manager is a hard job. It's not just the skills required, but consistently delivering quality projects on-budget and in step with the project schedule comes with significant pressure, especially since Project Managers are often in a position where they’re reporting to the highest level executives in a company. Not everyone is cut out to deal with the stress of consistently delivering quality projects or the myriad Project Manager responsibilities that come with the job.

Those who do relish a challenge, however, will find the field a deeply rewarding career. A project management career will give you the opportunity to work with huge cross-disciplinary project teams of professionals from all different backgrounds and work in tandem to tackle your tasks. When you successfully complete a project, you will get the chance to celebrate with your project team members and savor your achievement, which isn’t possible in all professions.

Then there’s the fact that Project Managers make companies more money and more efficient. In fact, you have the opportunity to make a large positive impact on companies as a whole – and the lives of the employees you’ll be working with – and that’s something many Project Managers find rewarding.

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