How to become a Project Assistant

I was running around.

Chasing people, deadlines, suppliers.

From one day to another, I had become a project assistant.

It was exciting and challenging at the same time. Like every time you start a new job.

Maybe more challenging than I thought. But as I was in now, there was no way back.

From IT consultant to project assistant — my story

My transition into project management began 10 years ago. I was an in-house IT consultant at a manufacturing firm in Switzerland. Work was great and I enjoyed helping people with my skills. After about 2 years however, things started to repeat. Another project of the same type. The same issues from last year. The same faces. I was ready to make a change.

So, I approached my manager and told him “I’d like to get into project management”. It was a good moment, as my boss had just launched a new project which could become big. He already had a PM for it, but there was always a need for extra help. So I offered to support the project — initially only for o.5 days per week, but then getting more and more involved.

This is how I became a project assistant, and here I’ll give you a 100% real perspective on that role.

What a PM assistant does, what the challenges are. but also how you can excel in that job.

What is an assistant project manager?

At the top of every project there’s the project manager. And these guys always have a lot of stuff on their plate. Actually, too many things they are able to take care of.

That’s why they are always in need of helping hands: People who will do the admin stuff for them like booking conference rooms, writing the minutes, preparing slides and other tasks. Not having to do low-level work means project leaders can focus on important stuff, such as leading meetings, fixing issues and handling difficult stakeholders.

Assistant project managers (or project assistants) do just that: They take over administrative tasks so that the project manager can do what he’s been hired for: to lead the project.

Next, let’s look at what project assistants actually do.

What does an assistant project manager do?

There’s no official role definition for project assistants. It always depends on the project as well as the personality of the assistant what tasks he’s actually handling. In general it’s admin and organizational tasks that normally a secretary would do, with the difference that PM assistants have a deep understanding of the project context.

Here I’ve mapped out responsibilities of a PM assistant (vs. what a PM does):

image showing the responsibilities of an assistant project manager
What a project assistant does vs. what a project manager does

Typical tasks of a project assistant:

  • following up on tasks
  • keeping the minutes
  • creating slides
  • room booking
  • data collection (e.g. collect expenditures for cost report)
  • creating status reports (e.g. project status reports)

Basically, a project assistant is facilitating the project manager’s work. For instance, PMs usually have to give status updates to the executive team. The project assistant would support by collecting status feedback from the team members, putting together a progress overview, getting actual cost information etc. and cast everything into a Powerpoint.

Example of an assistant job: Scheduling steering board meetings

Another example would be the planning of steering board meetings: When I was an assistant project manager, I would plan our steering board meetings upfront for the entire year. Here’s what I had to do:

  1. First, I would call up the executive assistant of each steering board member, and ask: “Hey Claudine, we want to hold  steering board meetings in January, March, May, July, September, November and December. Could you please let me know what dates Jeff would be available?”
  2. The assistant would check their manager’s availability, and I would jot down everything into an Excel file. Once I knew everyone’s availibility, I would look for a meeting room. This was not easy! Most rooms were booked already. So I had to negotiate with the people had a reservation, find an alternative until everybody was happy.
  3. Finally, I would send out the Outlook meeting invitatitions. Sometimes, managers would cancel and I’d have to re-schedule the meeting (again going through the same tedious process).

What skills do I need as a project assistant?

I’ve been a PM assistant myself, so I know what the job requires:

  • be good at organizing stuff
  • work well under pressure (you may have to re-assess your understanding of pressure)
  • have good communication skills

Also, you need to be skilled in the following apps:

  • Excel
  • Powerpoint
  • Word
  • Outlook (or whatever email software your company uses)
  • MS Project (if it’s being used)

Do you need to be an expert right from the start? No. The only exception would be Excel. Make sure you know how to work the spreadsheets fast. Know how to use formulae and pivot tables. Check out Exceljet for their great video tutorials.

How to become a project assistant

I already told you how I became one, so the easiest approach would be to follow my steps.

By the way, my goal was never to become a project assistant. My dream was to become a respected project manager some day. Doing simple assistant work was just a way to get my foot in the door. And I gradually scaled up PM work from 0.5 days per week to managing projects full-time, 5 days a week.

Assuming your goal is to end up as a respected and highly paid PM, here are my tips for getting your first PM assistant job:

  • Talk to project managers: Find out what projects are currently in progress and get the name of the PM. Call them up and tell’em you are interested in project management and would like to support their project. “Do you think you could need help — for a few hours or half a day each week? I could help you with x and y” (give some of the tasks I’ve talked about before).
  • Check job listings: See if your favorite employers have any releavant vacancies. These jobs are typically called project assistant, assistant project manager, or project coordinator. They are listed on sites like monster.com, careerbuilder.com or glassdoor.com.

What’s on your mind?

I’m always happy to help ambitious people like you with their career goals. If you have a specific question about becoming a project assistant or if you need specific advice, send me an email and I’ll get back to you.

If you would like to give feedback on the article, just leave a comment below.

Thanks,

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