Hey there! You are currently working in some other position, maybe in engineering, IT or finance, or somewhere else. And you got interested in becoming a project manager?
Now your question is: how can I actually get into project management?
In this article I will show you what options you have to accomplish this career change.
Why experience and character are more important than credentials
Before we dive in deep, I want you to understand that — more than in any other job — experience is key when it comes to project management. Not technical experience, but experience in dealing with complex projects involving many people.
Once you have completed your first project, you are much more skilled than at the beginning. You do another project, and yet another one, and you build up your project management “tool set” along the way. No formal training can help you here.
The second point is character. If something doesn’t go as planned, if somebody barks at you in anger, if someone in your team doesn’t do what he’s supposed to do: How do you react? Do you hide behind your computer and hope the day will be over soon? Or do you deal with the situation and solve it, even if it requires a lot of energy?
The good news is: Companies are always looking for trustworthy, motivated people who show initiative and who don’t give up when things get rough. In fact, it’s very hard to find such kind of people, because these qualities can only be assessed “on the job” and not by credentials like project management certifications. You therefore have a huge advantage if this description fits you!
Essential skills of a project manager
When it comes to honing your skills for project management, focus on these skills:
- Managing people
- Communicate well
- Plan, coordinate and execute many (complex) tasks
- Dealing with pressure and stress
How to gain project experience
Now you may ask: “How can I build up project management experience if I’m not a project manager yet?”
That’s a good question!
The key is to look for opportunities at your current company.
There are two main ways:
- Lead a small project in your department
- Support an ongoing project as deputy project manager (that’s what I did)
Your first step should be to discuss your plan with your manager. He may not like it at the beginning, because he knows you won’t stay in your current job for long. But if he’s a good boss, he will support the growth of his employees.
Option 1: Lead a project in your department
See if there are any projects coming up in your department which you could lead. It could be something in your current field of work, but it doesn’t have to be!
For example, if you are an engineer and your boss is looking for somebody who can implement a new KPI and controlling system to monitor costs, this would be an excellent opportunity.
Will it be easy? No!
Will you learn a lot from it? Definitely!
Option 2: Start your own project
You could even propose a new project which you lead besides your main job. Of course this cannot be anything major in terms of time commitment, but even from small projects you can learn a ton of things.
What could be the focus of your project? Well, in every area there are things that need to be improved. In software development, teams often struggle to standardize code or to keep documentation up-to-date. In finance this could be small process changes to speed up month-end closing. Think about how your project could help make processes faster and more reliable.
Make a project proposal to your manager, and check if you can get support from within your team. Of course it’s doesn’t make sense if you have to do all the work by yourself.
Option 3: Become an assistant project manager
This is a GREAT way to gain project experience. You are not directly in the “hot seat” of the project manager, but still you work together with the manager in charge and support him in his daily work. Also, you are the first point of contact if he is not in the office.
You can learn massively from working with a senior project manager and observing his style. And you don’t have the burden of full project responsibility, which may be a lot at the beginning.
How do you do this?
Look for interesting projects in your company and find out who is the . Schedule a meeting with its project manager and let him know about your plans. Project managers are usually overworked people who work long hours every day, so they are always grateful for support.
To make the collaboration easy, there are a few points you should clarify upfront:
- How you will support
- Your time commitment
- Regular communication
How exactly you will support:
Have a clear agreement with the responsible project manager on the type of work you will do. The work should be interesting and serve as a good learning experience for you, and of course it should be something that falls into the category of project management work. Will the work always be interesting and fun? Definitely not. But you should be able to learn a lot and improve your skills.
Here are some examples of jobs you could take over:
- Following up on tasks
- Organizing meetings
- Writing meeting minutes
- Creating slideshow presentations
- Writing project proposals
Ensuring that tasks are being completed on time is a core activity for every project manager. It involves calling up people and enquiring about the status of their task. Sometimes you must really push people to get something done, so it’s not an easy job. However, you will learn a lot from it by enduring uncomfortable situations and leading difficult conversations.
Another excellent opportunity for building up status as a project manager is to take care of the minutes. The person assembling the minutes has a lot of power! The actions and deadlines that go into the minutes are written in stone. Second, there is no faster way to understand a project than by participating in project meetings and keeping record of decisions.
How much time you can commit:
This is a question you cannot decide on yourself for as long as you’re still in your original job. Your boss has to agree to all resource commitments and you cannot simply work for another project without his approval. Well, at least not if you don’t want to put in extra time in addition to your job.
How you will communicate:
Communicating well with team members is crucial for project success. This also applies to communication within the project management. I recommend you arrange a meeting once a week or bi-weekly to catch up with each other. This gives you also the chance to discuss your questions.
See what projects are run in other departments
If there is no such possibility, talk to managers of other departments and see what projects are coming up. Have a chat with them over coffee or invite them for lunch. The key thing is to let others know as much as possible that you have serious plans to becoming a project manager.
Once the time is right and assuming you have left a good impression, chances are good that you will be offered a project manager job. It takes patience, of course!
My story: How I became a project manager
My first job was a technical role in IT (SAP). I really loved my work. I got to travel and I was working in an amazing team.
But 3 years in, I didn’t experience anything new. The same projects, the same issues, the same people. Being an eager learner, I wanted to grow and learn something new.
When I approached my manager, he offered me an assistant project manager role in a project that had just been kicked off. I was really excited, not only because of the opportunity to get into project management, but also because I could bite my teeth on new technology.
Initially I could only dedicate a few hours each week to the project. I did all the legwork, like following up with people who were involved in the project. Also, I prepared presentations and I organized status meetings.
After some months I was doing most of the coordination work. I knew every aspect of the project and I did most of the talking with team members and stakeholders.
Once the project manager stepped down I took full ownership of the project and brought it to completion. My first project was a real challenge and I learned many lessons.
With more experience, I took over larger projects, among them several global enterprise software rollouts in countries like India, Mexico and Turkey with large distributed teams.
Do you have any further questions?
I hope this article has given you some new ideas how you can realize your goal of becoming a project manager. If you have further questions, submit them in the comments and I’ll get back to you!
Want to learn everything about project management? Read my project management blog.