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How to Become a Project Manager

Updated on July 31, 2012

So you want to be a project manager when you grow up. My son wants to be Batman or The Flash, which in my opinion, are both excellent choices. A project manager is a good choice too but only if you have chosen not to go the superhero route. On second thought, being a superhero is dangerous, all the best jobs are taken, and it's not as appealing once you find out, as my son did, that Batman doesn't hit people with bats and The Flash doesn't flash people.

Project Management may also be the better choice because it is fast growing field with salaries over 100k, and, despite recent cutbacks, companies are still hiring project managers. Plus, since project management practices are applicable across many industries, such as healthcare, information technology, consumer goods and services, construction, and government, you are not limited to just one area of practice.

People often ask me how I got into project management. It is a fair question considering I worked several years as a therapist before becoming a project manager. I usually start by telling them why I walked away from the glamorous life of being a therapist. My life consisted of charming events such as waking up a client who dozed off during our session due to popping too many pills, supervising urine screens, doing home visits to crack houses, and wondering if my flat tire was the work of one of my clients that was mad at me. Then there was the fun part of telling people my job and responding to all their questions: No, I don't take children away... No, I don't know what you should do about your boyfriend... and my personal favorite, No grandma, I don't read people's minds - I studied Psychology it has nothing to do with Psychics!

Transitioning from therapy to project management was easy because I was building on an existing skill set, such as the ability to manage chaos, stay calm in crisis, think about a problem objectively, communicate and motivate. You will need to understand what project management really entails, assess your current skill set, and build on that skill set before you can whip off your glasses and turn into a project management superhero. (By the way, it's always a good rule not to bat or flash anyone regardless of the superhero name you pick.) So here is your project plan for becoming a project manager:

1. Seek therapy. Seriously. I am not just advising this as a former therapist. This is not an easy job. Projects are, by nature, chaotic, stressful, and somewhat unpredictable. All projects are unique, which means they have not been done with this particular goal, at this exact time, or with these specific resources. Project management is hairy work. So pack your favorite depilatory and put your therapist on speed dial.

2. Talk to some project managers (PMs). Seek out some project managers in your current organization. They are easy to find, they are often found running down the hall to a meeting, papers flying everywhere, with a look of panic on their face. If you don't have any in your organization, seek some out through friends, colleagues, or LinkedIn. Ask the PM:

  • How he/she got to be a PM?
  • What does a typical day look like?
  • What he/she likes/doesn't like about the work?
  • Does he/she have any advice for you?

3. Ask yourself if you have what it takes and be honest. You better be a thick-skinned person. People hate project managers. It's true. If you don't believe me, see my article on Why People Hate Project Managers. Ask yourself:

  • Do I work well with people?
  • Can I tolerate conflict?
  • Am I a good public speaker?
  • Can I write well?
  • Am I good under pressure?
  • Do I mind holding people accountable?
  • Am I highly organized?
  • Am I a good planner?
  • Am I a good communicator?
  • Am I ready to be held totally accountable if a project fails?

4. Get yourself involved in the Project Management Community. Start with the Project Management Institute (PMI) at www.pmi.org. PMI is an international membership association for the project management profession. Here you will find helpful resources such as articles, books, and conferences. I highly recommend joining PMI as well as going to local chapter meetings (you can find chapter meeting information on their website). Chapter meetings are great places to network, see if you fit into the project management nerd herd, and attend a presentation at low cost (about $40). Chapter meetings count as project management educational hours, which you will need to start accruing if you choose to get certified in project management by PMI (see step #7). PMI calls these PDUs or Professional Development Units. For each chapter meeting, you get one PDU.

5. Take some project management trainings. I recommend starting with some free ones. I like the free webinars on the Boston University Corporate Education website: http://www.corpedgroup.com/resources/webinars.asp. They are only an hour, some of them you can do on demand, all them are free, and you get one PDU for each. There are a lot of expensive certificate programs out there but spend your money pursuing a certification from PMI (again, see step #7). Their certifications are extremely well respected, recognized internationally, and you don't have to spend thousands of dollars to get it. If you do spend money on trainings, I suggest you spend it on a PMI certification exam prep class. This way you kill two birds with one stone, you get your PDUs that you need to sit for the exam and you prepare for the exam at the same time.

6. Find a mentor or three. I have about four different mentors. They are colleagues that I have met along the way, with diverse professional backgrounds, who are well connected and whose opinion I respect. Before I make any professional move, I run things by one or more of them depending on the issue. I don't even know if they know they are my mentors. They offer insight, knowledge, support, encouragement and honest feedback on my strengths and weaknesses. As the saying goes, a mentor is someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.

7. Get certified by PMI. By now, you should have joined PMI and have an account on their website. This is the hardest part of the transition but it's worth it. PMI's certifications are well respected and will open up opportunities.

  • Buy the PMBOK® (Project Management Body of Knowledge). This published by PMI and is a guide for managing projects; it is the recognized standard for the profession. It is also a large part of what you will be tested on for PMI's certifications.
  • Check out the PMI certifications and determine what level project management certification best suits you. PMI has a brochure to help you choose among their six credentials: see http://www.pmi.org/Certification/~/media/PDF/Certifications/PMI_Brochure_US_v5.ashx
  • If you are just starting out you may want to apply for the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® certification, which requires either: 23 hours of project management education OR 1,500 hours experience on a project team (1,500 hours option is only accepted if you have at least high school diploma/global equivalent).
  • People who have experience leading projects may want to consider the Project Management Professional (PMP)® credential, which requires: Three years of project management experience, with 4,500 hours leading and directing projects (or, if you don't have a Bachelor's degree/global equivalent, at least five years of project management experience, with 7,500 hours leading and directing projects) AND 35 hours of project management education.
  • Download the appropriate handbook for your chosen credential.
  • Start logging your PDUs on PMI's online certification application. This is where a I recommend spending money on training. Take an exam prep class, then use the PDUs you earned for the class on your application.
  • Start logging your project experience. Remember that projects are, according to PMI, a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. If you think about your work this way, you probably have more project experience than you think.
  • Submit your online application.
  • Prepare for your exam. The exam is multiple choice and 150 questions for CAPM® and 200 questions for the PMP®. Check-out some of the self-study tools on PMI's website as well as the study groups. Most importantly take practice tests; these are expensive tests to take ($225 CAPM® for and $405 for PMP®) so you want to pass on the first try.
  • Pass the exam, get your credential, and celebrate!

8. Revise and reformat your resume. Add in all the PDUs, re-write your resume work experience to be more project focused. Remember projects are, according to PMI, a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result.

9. Get a job! Go to PMI chapter meetings, update your information on LinkedIn, post your resume on job sites, send your resume to recruiters (companies often use recruiters to fill project management jobs), and network, network, network.

10. Decide on a cool project management superhero name. Like The Risk Reducer, Gantt Girl, or Milestone Man.


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