How to Become a Project Manager in 2021: A Step-by-Step Guide
Is being a project manager (PM) the right career for you? Project managers wear a lot of hats. They have to be experts in their team’s capabilities and the intricacies of the project at hand. They have to be on top of communication between management, product owners, and the team. And finally, they have to make sure they deliver on time and on budget.
If you’re thinking about starting a career as a project manager, there are many things to consider.
- What do you want out of a career?
- Do you have the soft skills and hard skills necessary?
- Are you going to be able to maintain the right work-life balance?
Being a project manager requires specific skills — and, often, hard work and long hours. Will you need to develop additional skill sets, and is becoming a project manager a path to your career end goals? Is it your end goal itself?
Let’s take a look at some things you should consider before jumping in as a project manager.
Is project management the right career for you?
Let’s take a deeper look at the project management role. Exactly what does a project manager do? Project managers are professionals who take a project from beginning to end. They see it through to completion. They keep team members inspired and on schedule.
Specifically, a project manager will:
- Plan and develop the project idea. A project manager will work with their team to produce the project roadmap and to manage the expectations of the company and the product owner.
- Leverage known project management strategies. A project manager will use an in-depth understanding of project management systems, such as Agile, to ensure that the project remains on track.
- Utilize project management software. Project management software solutions, such as Kanban-influenced systems, will need to be utilized to track progress and keep the team synced.
- Resolve issues as they occur. No project is without hindrances. The project manager will need to work to swiftly react to issues and resolve them, both transparently and effectively.
- Ensure that the project remains on time and on budget. The project manager’s ultimate goal is to produce the final deliverable when it needs to be produced and under budget.
- Manage expectations effectively. Throughout the project, the project manager must ensure that the product doesn’t experience significant scope creep, and that nothing is promised that the team cannot deliver.
- Inspire the team. Project managers will frequently need to operate during “crunch times” and may need to inspire their team to work harder or to innovate.
Project managers are leaders, but they still always work with a team. They have to be flexible, and they need to use all their project management skills to resolve conflicts and problems. If you want to know how ready you are, check out a few project management interview questions.
Tip: Do you know what “active listening” is? Project managers have to do it all the time. Active listening is the act of keeping engaged while talking with someone, so you truly absorb what they have to say. The role of a project manager is often to ensure that you communicate effectively with all involved parties. You must always be actively listening; you cannot be “waiting for your turn to talk.”
Evaluate your skillset
Project management can vary significantly depending on the industry and specialization. A project manager working on machinery firmware using a Waterfall methodology may have an entirely different scope from a project manager working on SaaS software using an Agile methodology.
Nevertheless, there are specific skill sets that will lend themselves to the job. Here are some of the skills you would need for a project manager job:
- Strong work ethic
- Time management skills
- A solid understanding of risk management processes
- Proven self-management skills
- Strong leadership skills
- The ability to monitor and control budgets
- Critical thinking skills
- An understanding of business cases
- Communication and negotiation skills
- The ability to make decisions under pressure
- Interpersonal skills for leading the team
- The ability to interpret instructions
- Organizational skills
- Business acumen
- Multitasking skills
- A creative mindset
- Analytic skills
- Attention to detail
- Problem-solving skills.
Communication, specifically effective communication, is by far the most important asset for a project manager. If a project manager cannot effectively communicate, they aren’t going to be able to direct their team or manage product expectations. They will falter when it comes down to crunch time and won’t be flexible enough to adjust if challenges arise.
Another thing to consider is that a project manager should have in-depth knowledge of their team’s capabilities. As an example, a project manager leading a cloud development team should have a deep understanding of the structure of cloud development.
When project managers understand “project management” but do not understand the technologies or materials they are working with, it becomes far more difficult for them to assess what is realistic or reasonable.
That being said, the project manager doesn’t have to be a cloud developer. They need to understand the capabilities of their team and what the technology can do — they don’t need to understand the inner intricacies of developing for the cloud. The project manager can build a lot of trust (by trusting their team to tell them what is and isn’t possible).
These are the general and soft skills that a project manager should have. In addition to that, there are project management-specific skills:
- Integration management
- Scope management
- Schedule management
- Cost management
- Quality management
- Resource management
- Risk management
- Communications management
- Procurement management
- Stakeholder management
If you’re moving from one position to another (such as a lead developer to a project manager), it can be worth it to learn project management through a series of courses, such as a boot camp. You can get the basics of project management quite fast. You don’t need a degree in project management to become a project manager, but you do need to understand strategies and tools that are unique to the discipline.
You may already have some of these skills, which sets you up for a great start. Make a list of the skills you need to learn or improve on.
Tip: You can become a certified project manager. If you’re interested in moving into a career in project management, the best way to show your company that you’re serious is to invest in a project management certification. You can attend project management courses online, which include project management exam prep seminars.
What the day-to-day looks like for a project manager
What does a day in the life of a project manager look like? Often, this is going to determine whether you’re really up to the task. More importantly, it’s also going to determine whether you like the job.
It’s important to note that being a “project manager” can translate into a lot of different skills. For instance, the director of a film is a “project manager”; they are using project management skills. A lead programmer uses project management skills. Even a doctor might use some project management skills.
So, loving project management doesn’t necessarily mean you want to be a project manager. If you don’t like what project management looks like day-to-day, you might instead want to become the owner of a catering company, an event planner — even a lawyer is a “project manager.”
Different companies have a different “daily life” for project managers. Your industry will matter, too. But some general tasks you can expect as a project manager:
- Ensure project tasks are executed and reviewed within the project scope
- Maintain accurate timesheets
- Ensure team members are well informed
- Evaluate team performance
- Establish effective communication
- Measure project performance
- Partner with departments to ensure work is done and meets demands
- Gather customer input
- Create revenue forecasts and predict resource requirements
- Make recommendations to improve the project
- Create and regularly update project documentation
- Prioritize project tasks
- Manage budgets and billing
- Evaluate customer satisfaction
- Define the project’s scope
- Develop and maintain professional business relationships
- Regularly follow-up on progress, risks, and project opportunities
- Mentor, motivate, and supervise members of the project team
- Develop detailed project management plans to track project progress
- Manage and track projects through their entire project lifecycle
- Conduct status meetings
- Report issues or conflicts to management when appropriate
- Set and manage project expectations with all stakeholders
- Direct and lead all project management phases
- Align teams to maintain the quality of deliverables
At the beginning of the day, a project manager will usually log into their project management system to see where their team is. A project manager could be devoted to a single project or a multitude. They will check in on what each team member is doing, make sure they are meeting their milestones, and otherwise make sure they are on track. A lot of a project manager’s time may be spent in meetings, making sure that all teams are aligned, that product owners are updated, and that the company is apprised of any changes.
These can change if the project manager is in-person or remote, if the project manager is on multiple projects or just a single project, and if the project manager is managing a large department underneath them (hierarchical) or multiple departments sideways (matrix). In a business, two important aspects of project management are who the project manager reports to (one person, two, an entire department?) and who reports to the project manager (one team, a dozen?).
Some people prefer working in larger companies and wearing a lot of hats. Others want to focus on a single project at once.
Tip: Consider shadowing your existing project manager or project management department. If you’re interested in getting promoted upward in your organization, this can be considered professional development. Talk to project managers you know and that you’ve worked closely with. They will likely know whether you will enjoy project management or whether you would find it stressful.
Where to begin in project management
If that all sounds great to you, you may be wondering where to begin with a project management career path. If you don’t have a degree in project management, don’t worry; there are ways to get the experience and the certifications.
Here are some steps you can take to get started:
- Talk to your organization about a project management position. If your organization has career development paths, they can set you on the right course to qualify. Your organization will need to know that you’re interested in a project management position before they can promote you into one.
- Start taking project management classes. There are many project management lessons, courses, and boot camps available online. These will let you experience project management and figure out whether it’s right for you, without working experience.
- Take the lead on your existing projects. It is easier to go from a “lead developer” to a “project manager” than it is to go from a “developer” to a “project manager.” You will want to show that you can display leadership and manage your team.
- Start talking to successful project managers. Reach out to your network. Talk to your project manager or project manager colleagues. Ask them what their job is like, what they like, what they dislike, and what they would improve.
- Join the Project Management Institute and local project management chapters. These will give you opportunities to network and meet with other project managers in your area.
- Follow project management blogs. Many project managers discuss both their former projects and their newly developed knowledge, skills, and technologies. This will give you key insights into your industry.
- Consider an internship. If you cannot move into project management with your current position, an internship can help. While there are few entry-level project management positions, internships are everywhere. You can see what it takes to become a good project manager.
- Get certifications. There are many project management certifications, such as the Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM) and the Project Management Professional (PMP). These certifications can help you grow.
You don’t need a degree in project management. You don’t even need direct project management experience. Many project managers are experts in their field before they become managers in their field. Having experience or various certifications can help.
Certifications for becoming a project manager
Even if you decide you don’t want to be a project manager, earning your PMP certification could help you in your current position. Every leadership position benefits from a thorough understanding of project management.
There are also free certifications such as Google’s Project Management Certification path. These certifications are free to take, but they may not be as highly recognized. You can take these free certifications as preparation for broader certification courses.
Because project management is so embedded into a variety of other businesses, you don’t need a related degree to become a project manager. You don’t always even need expertise in the given field. What you need is to be able to prove that you can take a project from start to finish.
Many boot camps or certification processes will simulate a project from start to finish, such as a capstone project, so you can get a taste of what it’s like to be a project manager and determine whether it’s the right course for you.
Project management tools for project managers
You can also gain project management expertise by using project management software and/or a variety of project management tools. You can automate project steps, view projects in Gantt charts, and otherwise assist with project planning.
- Microsoft Project
Project management tools are also changing all the time. But the basic principles will be the same. If you’re in a particular industry (such as manufacturing vs. news), you’ll find that the tools used may differ.
Tip: Take a look at the job postings in your industry for project managers to see what people are hiring for. Don’t get discouraged if you don’t have experience yet. Build a test project today to start developing that experience. Your first “project to manage” could just be getting a certification for project management!
Taking your next steps forward
Some take a non-traditional route and create a project management position within their current company. Others get certifications and experience and get hired elsewhere. Still, others dive in with an internship.
The important part is that you do what makes you happy.
By earning your certification (which can be a lot of work — studying, taking examinations, maintaining it), you can test out whether the principles involved in project management sound interesting and motivating to you.
A project management certification is respected everywhere and a great way to develop yourself professionally, regardless of where you land.
Frequently Asked Questions
What qualifications do you need to be a project manager?
A project manager does not need a specific degree. Rather, a project manager should have experience in managing and leading projects in the past. A project manager may have related certifications and will often be well-versed in the field they are seeking to manage. That being said, it is also possible to get a degree in Project Management or a related degree such as Communications.
How do I start a career as a project manager?
A career as a project manager is often started by learning more (such as by going through certification processes, degree programs, and boot camps) and by expressing interest (such as by going to the management in your existing company). Project managers are often promoted from internal teams as team leads or have already worked extensively within an industry.
Can anyone be a project manager?
Yes! Anyone with a passion for leadership, communication, and organization can become a project manager.
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