This is a guest Blog by that well respected writer and career project management coach Josh Nankivel. He writes about Breaking into Project Management.
I am a project management career coach, and specifically I focus on helping new and aspiring project managers reach their career goals and get into the project management discipline.
I correspond with hundreds of people monthly about their own career paths, and there are a few topics that surface again and again.
Gaining experience and questions about certifications are two of the most common. I am very happy to offer my advice here in a guest post, and I hope you gain some valuable guidance from what follows!
Go Get Some Experience
When it comes to project management, general management, and many other careers you just need to go get some experience.
A common assumption is that a catch-22 exists, where you can only gain experience through positions that require previous experience. This is wrong.
If you have an expectation that an organization will hire you as a project manager and hand you a sizeable project so you can gain some experience, you probably need to take those rose-colored glasses off now.
Just as with other positions, you earn higher levels of responsibility as you prove yourself. Many project managers start out as technical resources and spend years working in projects before making the move to project manager. Others may come at it from the business side, working through positions with titles like “business analyst”, “project controller”, “project coordinator”, etc. Still others are simply operational managers who also manage projects as needed on the side. They get interested in the “project management” part of their role and go from there.
My own personal background includes a little of all of these:
• IT Industry: Technical Lead >> Project Manager split role
• Telecom Industry: Functional Manager >> Project Management on the side
• Aerospace Industry: Project Coordinator >> Project Analyst >> Planning & Controls Project Manager >> Lead Project Manager
Get on a project team somehow and find someone who is doing what you want to get into. Ask them to mentor you. Do odd jobs for them, things they find tedious but that you will learn from. Go above and beyond and tap into the veterans. You will be surprised how quickly a great attitude and passion can open doors for progressively greater levels of responsibility.
Volunteer! Join the project management organization of your choice and find a way to volunteer to run a project for them. I did this with a PMI SIG I joined.
I found a project that I could carry out, did some preliminary work to plan it out at a high level, and then proposed it to the board. Note that I actively initiated the project myself. It’s important to make things happen actively. Don’t assume volunteer opportunities will just fall into your lap.
They accepted it, and I recruited team members. I was the project manager. If the board hadn’t accepted it, I would have tried again. And again. And again. I was actually working full time and doing 12-16 credit hours at university too.
If you can set aside a few hours per week for personal development, you could do something like this.
Certification May Not Be For You (Yet)
If you have no experience yet, the PMP certification is NOT for you. Neither are the IPMA certifications. The lowest-level IMPA certification requires “2 FTE years working on projects or 6 months and BA/BS” experience. The PMP requires 3 of experience with a BA/BS, or 5 without. I interpret “leads and directs project teams” as experience as an actual project manager.
A great way to get some formal education and an introductory certification is to go for the CAPM exam. The minimum requirements for this exam are 23 contact hours of project management education OR 1,500 hours where you “contribute to a project team”. (Ron Rosenhead suggests that if you are in the UK why not attend a non certified project management event. There are many one and two day project management skills based events or even e-learning courses that will suit you.)
If you do seek education in project management, I would like to add that its value is greatly diminished unless you are actively working in a project environment where you can implement the concepts you are learning, or at least use a real project environment as a means for comparing “book learning” to real life.
Certification Isn’t Everything
Once you earn that certification, it’s all blue skies and butterflies from there. Right? Wrong.
Certifications are a mid-point. The PMP for example is really just saying that you understand the basic concepts of a particular standard and have some experience.
When I see the “PMP” designation behind someone’s name, it just indicates to me that they are familiar with PMI’s standard, enough to have passed a test, and have some work experience too.
When I see the “CAPM” designation it tells me they know the standard, and probably don’t have much work experience yet in project management. Prince2 and many others tell me similar things.
There are some certifications like IPMA that seek to certify competency. I hold these in higher regard but recognize that most people including hiring managers are unfamiliar with them.
For the most part, certification is a starting point. It’s an interim career goal, a good milestone. You don’t get jobs automatically because you are certified, but you may not get screened out early if particular organizations are looking for a specific credential.
I hope that helps if you want to break into project management.
Josh Nankivel is a Project Management Career Coach and the founder of pmStudent.com, a site dedicated to helping new and aspiring project managers succeed. He has over a decade of project management experience in several industries, a Bachelor of Science degree in Project Management, and is PMP certified. Josh also writes a free Project Management Career Newsletter.