By Steve Hart
In my professional life the project management career path has represented a rewarding and challenging destination. In my case, I did not wake up one day and say, “I am going to be a project manager when I grow up.” Project management is a skillset and career that I have developed over many years in the IT industry. Why is the career path to become a project manager ambiguous? I think the answer to this question is linked to the fact that to become an effective project manager you must do two very different things consistently well:
- Apply tactical project management related skills. These skills include managing schedules, budgets, and risks (to name a few). These skills must be learned and then applied appropriately in the context of managing projects. Education is helpful to learn these skills, and certifications such as the PMP validate that the project manager has developed the core knowledge base to manage projects. Organization and attention to detail are critical attributes of the project manager to effectively apply the tactical project management skills.
- Demonstrate the ability to lead people. The project manager must establish a leadership style that is used to form, build, and lead teams to deliver successful project outcomes. This leadership must include specific skills such as facilitation, communication, managing conflict, and building client relationships.
It is often hard to find people that have mastered both elements of becoming a good project manager. Depending on the person’s education and career path, they commonly favor one element over the other. What is the best career path to become a project manager? My opinion is that there is a single correct answer to this question. Below I provide my thoughts on 4 different paths to become a project manager. Many people, including myself, pursue more than one of these paths before becoming a project manager.
Path #1: School to Project Manager
Colleges offer bachelor’s degrees in Project Management. The bachelor’s and master’s degrees are great opportunities to help people with project based experience make the transition to a project management role. However, I struggle with the idea of hiring a person right out of college as a project manager. These candidates may have the “book knowledge” associated with project management, but do not have the experience of applying these skills in “real world” situations, and likely have an underdeveloped leadership style. To me this approach is the same as hiring a person with a sports management degree, and no coaching experience, to be the head coach of a team. My recommendation to people seeking project management roles right out of school is to pursue a contributor role on a project team, or obtain an “apprentice” type project management role (i.e., project analyst or project coordinator) to gain experience and develop into the project management role over a 3-5 year time period. The PMP certification is a great way to validate that they have obtained sufficient experience and practical knowledge to make the transition. It is also helpful for this person to find a senior level project manager to help them develop and manage the appropriate profession development plan.
Path #2: Business Analyst to Project Manager
The business analyst (BA) role plays a significant leadership role on project teams. The BA is responsible for the “what” associated with the project (product content), while the project manager is responsible for the “how” associated with the project (project content). There tends to be more contributor type roles for a BA, and therefore lends itself to a good starting point for project resources. Many business analysts gain project experience and desire to move to the project leadership role. Based upon the ability to exhibit leadership on projects, and gain experience observing the project manager in action, project management can be a natural career transition for business analysts. I recommend business analysts making the transition to project manager obtain the PMP certification to validate they have obtained the knowledge required to perform the new role.
There is often a perception that the project manager role represents a promotion for a BA. I don’t agree with this perspective. Business analysts have the ability to take on as much responsibility, and add as much value, as a project manager. In addition, the BA to PM transition is only for those interested in the opportunities afforded by the project manager role – it is not for those that are passionate about leading the definition and delivery of product content.
Path #3: Technical Lead to Project Manager
Experienced technical resources often take on a leadership role on the project. The project’s technical lead performs some key activities that support the project manager (e.g., task estimating, resource assignments, issue resolution). In absence of a project manager, the technical lead may even be called a project manager. Given the technical lead’s experience working on project teams, and technical leadership capabilities, the technical lead is a logical project management candidate.
In my experience, this is not as common a career path to project manager, primarily because technical resources do not want to give up the technical aspects of their role as a technical lead to become a project manager. Generally the biggest challenge for the technical lead’s transition to project manager is learning and applying the tactical project management related skills (technical leads do not always like this element of the project manager role).
Path #4: Management to Project Manager
On the surface it seems like it would be a “demotion” to move from a management position to a project manager role. However, the scope of a project manager role can be every bit as challenging and fulfilling as that of a resource manager. In my case, I found the role of leading a group of people to accomplish specific and tangible project goals to be more rewarding than leading a larger group of people to accomplish very difficult to measure organizational goals.
This is a great career path based upon the leadership component of the project management equation. The skills and experience of a manager (assuming they were effective managers) translate well into the leadership requirements of a project manager. In many cases a manager will have performed project management responsibilities in the context of fulfilling their management responsibilities. However, in these cases the manager is usually performing the project management function using very informal techniques, many of which need to be “unlearned” when they transition into the project management role. I always recommend that managers making this transition pursue education and certification (PMP) to ensure they have the core tactical project management skills to perform the job. I also recommend the manager find a mentor that has made a similar transition to help them “fill the gaps” from a skills perspective, as well as to make the necessary adjustments to their leadership style.
What has been your career path? What have you found helpful or a challenge with that career path?
Steve Hart, PMP is the Practice Manager responsible for project leadership delivery services for the Cardinal Solutions Group in the RTP area. He has 25 years of project management and technical leadership roles, and has developed an extensive practical knowledge that spans a wide variety of industries, and project delivery approaches. Steve recently transferred to the North Carolina Chapter of PMI from the Dayton Ohio PMI Chapter, where he was active as the editor of the chapter newsletter, and PMP certification instructor. You can read more from Steve Hart on his blog.
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