Interested in becoming a project manager? Currently a project manager and want a gut check on how crazy and chaotic your work life should actually be? Let’s tackle the big questions about project management jobs with no-nonsense straightforward answers.
What does a project manager do?
At times, it feels like everything, like the project manager does everything.
But in a more literal sense, project managers run projects, and they run them better than anyone. Most projects require multiple participants (whether that be departments or even other companies), someone needs to be in charge and push the project along while managing the feedback from all other stakeholders. You’ll always be working with teams, multiple people across projects, so you’ll need to be good with dealing with people. You don’t have to like people necessarily (you don’t have to be a “people person”), but you do need to know how to communicate with them to get the job done.
Project managers bear most of the responsibility for the entire project. They need to make sure projects get completed on time, on budget, and within scope.
It’s a lot of pressure.
It’s also a lot of control.
If you like to be in control, then you’ll love this job. Are you that person in your friend group who always organizes everything? Plans the gatherings? Keeps everyone in line? Does the math on restaurant tab for everyone to split? Feel an inordinate amount of responsibility for all your friends in a given situation? Write a lot of lists? Well then you might like being a project manager.
Project Management Scenario Example
Project management can mean a lot of different things depending on who you talk to, let’s review and example here to make sure we’re on the same page.
Let’s take a simple project example: get new business cards printed.
Seems pretty straightforward right? Everyone has a business card. Let’s say you’re the project manager and your company has a new logo so now you need to get new business cards printed for everyone.
How would you go about it?
Here’s how we can break this project into steps:
Step #1: Get a Budget — First things first, you’ll need a budget from your boss for how much you can spend here.
Step #2: Put Together a Timeline — Figure when these cards need to be in the hands of all employees and work backwards from there. Plot out all the major milestones and dependencies on the timeline. Then share your timeline with your stakeholders and get approval
Step #3: Get a Design Quote — The business card needs to be designed. So you need to hire a graphic designer or agency for this. Let’s say you’re going to use the same agency that just designed your new logo (that’s pretty common). So you get a quote from them, let’s say it falls in your budget range, and they can hit your timeline, so you approve the quote. Time to get started.
Step #4: Design the Business Card — The agency needs to design the business card. They give you two different designs to choose from. You take those designs to your boss, get their feedback, and send the design feedback to the agency. The agency gives you a revised design and then you do the boss feedback dance all over again. Eventually your boss approves the design. Now you have a design. Time to get some print quotes.
Step #5: Get Business Card Printing Quotes — You take your design and send it off to different printers and ask them for quotes. And in return those printers ask you questions: what card stock should it be on? Do you want to review card stock samples? How should it be printed (Digital? Offset?)? How many “lots” of cards are needed (meaning how many people need cards)? Where do the cards need to be shipped to (One office? Multiple offices? Which cards to which offices)? When do you need the cards printed by? So you need to figure out the answers to all those, which likely means getting information from lots of other people on your team, as well as the agency. Let’s say you nail down the answers to all these questions, you get a solid quote from the printer (actually you’d probably quote multiple printers). You get it approved by the boss. You’re good to move to the next step.
Step #6: Setup the Print Files — Now you need the agency to prep the files for print. So you get them going on that. Meanwhile, you need to get everyone at your company’s contact information into one big organized Excel sheet. You need to give this Excel sheet to the printer so they can print different information on different cards. You need to get the info, then double-check everyone’s info is correct. Then you need to specify all the quantities on a per person level, the sales team needs more cards per person than the folks in engineering, so you’ve got to sort that all out.
Step #7: Manage the Printer — Ok, you’ve got the print files from the agency, you send them to the printer. Now you just need to make sure the printer has everything they need, and that they hit their print deadline. And also that they send the right cards to the right places (Bob Smith’s need to go to the Atlanta office, while Alice Jones’ need to go to Houston).
Step #8: Manage the Delivery — Now let’s say the printing went well (sometimes it doesn’t and you need to deal with it). But let’s say some people get their cards and realize their email addresses are wrong. Well you need to manage the reprints now.
Step #9: You’re Done — Nice job, you completed the project. Hope no one needs reprints.
Crazy how much goes into just managing a simple business card right?
Now imagine you need to manage building a new website, or a new software product, or even a skyscraper. This is why project management is such a tough job, even tasks that seem simple, when broken down into individual steps and dependencies to be managed, can be extremely complex.
Still want to be a project manager? Read on.
Skills Needed to be a Project Manager
The skills needed to be a project manager can vary widely. Some skills that can make one project manager strong can make another one weak. That said, here are the baseline skills you’ll need (or need to develop):
- A Personal Organizational System — A PM needs to many a lot of moving pieces, sometimes a 100+ different tasks at a given time. A PM needs to have an organizational system in place to keep track of these different tasks that make up a project. Not just a way to keep a project organized externally (which is usually done via software), but a separate system for how PMs keep track of their tasks across multiple projects.
- Ability to Adapt — Most things won’t go according to plan. Deadlines will be missed, new direction will be given halfway through the project, budgets will change, resources you planned on having will become unavailable, you name it. If it can go wrong, it eventually will. While PMs need to plan against things going wrong, it’s equally important to have a framework with how to deal with change, and problem solve on the fly. Adaptation and improvisation skills are important, otherwise every little bump in the road will put your stress level through the roof.
- An Understanding of Change Management Concepts — If a project is happening, something is likely changing. In general, people resist change. So you’ll need to be empathetic to that sentiment, while also being successful in pushing the change forward.
- Expectation Manager — While PMs need great communication skills. Communication on it’s own is not enough. A PM needs to have a clear understanding that most communication is intended to manage expectations. Throughout the course of a project, expectations need to be continually adjusted. A seasoned PM will recognize the critical opportunities to do this, and they will do so early and often.
- Mediator — PMs need to advocate for stakeholder best interests, sometimes even when they stakeholder doesn’t understand what their best interest is. The PM usually finds themselves in the middle between managing stakeholder expectations and managing the production side’s realities. They need to gather feedback from both sides, and push forward the best solution possible.
- Consensus Gatherer — Part of managing expectations to ensuring the adequate consensus is gathered before moving things forward.
- Comfortable with Conflict — Project managers deal with conflict on the daily. This is just a normal part of a project manager’s day. If you avoid conflict, you’ll struggle as a project manager. It’s not that PM’s enjoy conflict or seek it, but they can deal with it positively without being pulled into the situation emotionally.
- Plays Five Steps Ahead — Part of managing expectations is about seeing the future. It’s about understanding how a decision made today will affect a project three months down the line. It’s also about predicting the reactions of your key stakeholders and managing around potential landmines that are a mile ahead of you. Project management is basically chess, if you find yourself playing checkers (just reacting with no plan) then you’re going to struggle.
- Quick Learner — It’s incredibly challenging to manage a project if you don’t understand the business or the product or whatever the end result is. It doesn’t mean you need to be an expert, but you need to find a way to effectively learn about what you’re managing. PMs are also going to make mistakes, it’s important they can quickly learn from them and adjust.
- A Solo Team Player — If you’re managing a project you’re going to be working with a team, so PMs need to be team players. However, PMs have a lot of autonomy and need to be motivated self starters who can thrive solo.
“Operations keeps the lights on, strategy provides a light at the end of the tunnel, but project management is the train engine that moves the organization forward.” ~ Joy Gumz
Traits of the Top 2% of Project Managers
Agency consultant David Baker has interviewed and studied project managers for over two decades. He has interviewed 2,900+ project managers during this time and has put together a list of the top traits he has the best of the best share. Here is the list:
- Command Natural Authority
- Possess quick sifting abilities, knowing what to note and what to ignore.
- Set, observe, and re-evaluate project priorities frequently.
- Ask good questions and listen to stakeholders.
- Do not use information as a weapon or a means of control.
- Adhere to predictable communication cadences, recognizing that it’s the only deliverable early in a project cycle.
- Possess domain expertise in project management as applied to a particular field.
- Exercise independent and fair consensus-building skills when conflict arises.
- Cultivate and rely on extensive informal networks inside and outside the firm to solve problems that arise.
- Look forward to going to work! They believe that project management is an exciting challenge that’s critical to success.
To get the full explanation behind each of these traits, please read David Baker’s article Top 10 Qualities of the Best Project Managers.
How to Start a Project Management Career
A full time project management job is not something someone can simply jump into. Try this instead:
- Internships — If you’re just starting out, internships can be a great way to begin experiencing the project management life.
- Volunteer to manage an extra project at work — Look for opportunities around the workplace where you could practice project management skills.
- Side projects — If your day job doesn’t allow for project management, try managing projects on the side. Maybe for a friend’s business, or a non-profit, or even your local little league, just get started somewhere.
- Get a mentor — Know someone who is an experienced PM? See if they’d be willing to mentor you, or at least buy them lunch once a month and ask them questions.
- Take courses –– There are online and on-campus courses available (listed below) that will help you learn the necessary foundation project management skills.
- Get a degree — There are multiple higher education degree options that focus on project management. While many smaller businesses might not require a degree specifically in project management, larger organizations may consider this.
Formal Project Management Education
Do project managers need formal education in project management?
It depends on the organizations you’re working for. Organizations of a certain size may require specific certifications, or even degrees, while most small organizations will not. For years project management has been seen as a largely “accidental profession.” It wasn’t what you set out to do, you probably didn’t go to college for it, yet here you are.
If you need to gain formal project management education, here are some options:
Project Management Professional (PMP) Prep Courses
- University of Massachusetts Lowell — UMass Lowell offers a PMP Exam Preparation class to help prepare students to take the PMP or CAPM exam. UMass Lowell is respected New England institution and a well respected national research university. They also offer a project management bootcamp.
- Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU) – SNHU offers a PMP Certification Exam Prep course. As a Registered Education Provider (R.E.P.) of PMI, SNHU helps project managers achieve and maintain Project Management Professional (PMP) and other PMI® professional credentials.
- Villanova University — Villanova’s PMP Exam Prep course offers customized study plans, flashcards, practice exams, progress reports and a resource center full of test-taking tips, and feedback links. Course can be completed at your convenience.
Project Management Certificates
- Certified Associate in Project Manage (CAPM) — The CAPM is ideal for people just starting their project management careers because there are less prerequisites compared to the PMP. This certification is from the Project Management Institute (PMI).
- Project Management Professional (PMP) Certification — This is probably the most widely-recognized certification for project managers. This certification is from the Project Management Institute, which has been recognized as a standard in the field for over 50 years.
- University of San Diego — USD offers a Project Management Certificate and is a PMI Registered Education Provider. Their certificate program aligns with the latest PMI global standards and methodologies. This certificate program is offered online and can be completed in 9-10 months.
Associates Degrees in Project Management
- Wake Tech — Offered online or on-campus, Wake Tech offers an Associates Degree in Applied Science in Project Management. Students within this degree program learn “to define, initiate, plan, execute, monitor, and control all aspects of a given project to bring the project to a positive end.”
- Forsyth Technical Community College — Forsyth offers an online Associates Degree in Applied Science in Project Management Technology. This degree path focuses more on technology and information systems than the more standard management aspect.
Bachelors Degrees in Project Management
There are many bachelor degree programs available that focus on project management. Many of these programs can be completed online and will provide a good foundational education for aspiring project managers. Here are several examples:
- Northeasten University — Bachelor of Science in Project Management. Northeastern is a well respected university in New England with a long track record of pairing real life work experience with classroom instruction (called their experiential learning model). This degree will help you be well positioned for a project management career.
- Wentworth Institute of Technology — Bachelor of Science in Project Management. This degree is designed for working professionals looking to advance their career in project management. Wentworth’s curriculum is aligned with the Project Management Book of Knowledge (PMBOK) that focuses on the critical aspects of project management.
- Ashford University — Bachelor of Arts in Project Management. This is available from the Forbes School of Business and Technology at Ashford University. This program is IACBE-accredited and can help prepare you for the PMP exam.
Masters Degrees in Project Management
- Drexel University — Drexel offers a Master of Science in Project Management. Drexel University’s Project Management program is approved by the Project Management Institute (PMI) as a Registered Education Provider (R.E.P.). R.E.P. status means that Drexel is now authorized by PMI to issue professional development units to meet education requirements needed by PMI credential holders.
- University of Denver — The University of Denver University College offers a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership with a concentration in Project Management. The curriculum aligns with the PMI body of knowledge and prepares students to take the PMP exam.
- University of Michigan — Offers a Master of Science in Program and Project Management. This program can be completed online or on-campus. Core courses are structured to give students a solid understanding of project management in order to pursue a professional career in the field.
Online Courses on Project Management
- Udemy — Udemy offers what seems like endless project management course options. From learning agile, to Microsoft Project to Risk Management, it’s all there.
- Coursera — WIth over 57,000 students already enrolled, Coursera’s Introduction to Project Management Principles and Practices Specialization provides a great foundation for project management.
- Master of Project Academy — Learn agile, scrum, and Microsoft Project in their 100% online training bundle, 70 hours worth of trainings.
Project Manager Salaries
A project manager’s salary can vary widely from state to state, as well as their previous experience. We found the following benchmark salaries for project management positions on authoritative salary measurement websites:
- According to Salary.com: $74,782
- According to Glassdoor: $75,474
- According to Indeed: $81,313
- According to PayScale: $73,555
- According to LinkedIn: $75,000
If you find yourself managing IT projects, you can expect even higher salaries.
Career Burnout — The Elephant in the Room
Here’s the thing. Being a project manager can be a burnout job. It’s extremely challenging and stressful. You’re constantly under deadlines, and needing to herd multiple stakeholders with different agendas. This career requires a specific personality type, full of resilience, organization, adaptation, and self-starting drive.
Productivity Systems — You Must Manage Yourself First
Yes, a project manager’s job is to manage other projects via other people, however the biggest challenge might be managing yourself. Most first year project managers really struggle with how to stay organized, how to schedule their days, and ultimately how to achieve a level of productivity that lets them keep up with their workload.
The real goal here is how can you structure a productive work day that is repeatable? Most people are productive in spikes, they need really buckle down to get something down, and that never scales. Or worse, people are just reactive to their inboxes.
You need to find a way to build productivity into your everyday. Your project management game is based on how you consistently and repeatedly manage your days. If you don’t have an intentional system for how your days should work, you’ll be at the whim of everyone else’s priorities.
Now routines and schedules might sound boring and mundane, but it helps to think of it more like this:
“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.” — Annie Dillard
There are lots of productivity approaches out there, what’s important is that you are intentional about how you run your days (vs. being reaction-based).
- Pomodoro — The Pomodoro technique is focused on breaking your work day into intervals, typically 25 minute intervals, and working on dedicated projects during those intervals. This requires planning your work day ahead of time and then having the discipline to execute the 25 intervals (aka pomodoros) without distraction.
- Time Boxing — This technique is simply breaking your entire day and week into boxes of time dedicated to projects, and then sticking to those dedicated times. You could theoretically use pomodoros to execute your time boxes (depending on the time required). The most important part of time boxing is giving a task/to-do it’s time and then dropping it and moving on, even if it’s not finished. You can always come back to it later. When planning your days, it helps to have an understanding of your biological prime time.
- Getting Things Done — This is David Allen’s approach to “stress-free productivity.” His approach centers on a pragmatic approach to productivity focused on managing the “open loops” in our lives. GTD is really an organizational system to help you capture all your ToDos in one place, prioritize your ToDos, and then get them all done.
The internet is littered with posts about productivity systems, what’s most important is you find a routine that you can execute every day. Consistency is key.
Project Management Methodologies
Waterfall — This is the methodology most folks are familiar with. It’s been around for decades, possibly centuries. It’s a linear approach to projects based on dependencies. I can’t do B until I complete A, and I can’t do C until I complete B, etc. One project phase can’t start until another one ends. This makes planning incredibly important because an entire project can be stalled out because one portion of the project is lagging.
Agile — Agile on other hand seeks to break projects down into small pieces and execute those small project pieces independently in what are called “sprints.” This allows the project to stay flexible and adapt as needed. This project management methodology generally allows you to respond to change vs. needing to follow a structured plan (waterfall). Agile is an overall methodology that can be applied in a variety of different ways (outlined below).
- Scrum — This is an agile methodology (one of many) used in product development. Scrum puts forth a framework for how to approach the project, but is not necessarily instructive in how to execute it. You basically plan out your sprints based on what’s in the backlog, have daily scrum meetings (sometimes called “stand ups”), and once the sprint is over, conduct sprint reviews (sometimes called “retrospectives”.
- Kan Ban — This approach starts with visualization of the work. The general concept was originally created by Toyota in order reduce waste on the factory floor. For that reason, a Kan Ban system is setup similar to a factory floor where each area has a specific job (welding in section #1, and painting in section #8, etc), and a project progresses through each section becoming closer to finished along the way. One of the differences of Kan Ban and Scrum is that Kan Ban focuses on a “Just in Time” (JIT) Inventory approach where you only have on hand exactly what you need, exactly when you need it. This allows you put different tasks on hold at different stages until you need them, without worrying about shipping or not. However you do want to limit how much “work” you have in progress and Kan Ban generally puts a limit to the “Work in Progress” stage. To best understand Kan Ban, read more about Toyota’s creation of it here.
- Prince2 — Originating from the British Government, this methodology (an acronym for PRojects IN Controlled Environments), this methodology starts with an overall project plan and is then broken down into smaller projects to be executed. Prince2 provides great control over resources in order to minimize the associated project risk.
Critical Path — This is really a modeling approach to project management (as opposed to a project management methodology). Basically it seeks to figure out what is the least amount of time a project can be completed in with the least amount of “slack” (or “float” which is how long you can delay a task before it details the larger project). The technique to figuring out the critical path is based on four steps:
- A list of the required tasks need to complete the project
- The work hours needed to complete each task
- Task dependencies — This happens when one task can’t be completed until another one is finished.
- Milestones — What are the project milestones? And what are the associated deliverables at those milestones?
By understanding these four steps, a project manager can effectively see the longest possible path of the project and thus plan for the shortest path instead.
Project Management Books for Beginners
If you’re just starting out in project management, it always helps to build a foundation of knowledge. Check out these books for project management beginners:
- Project Management for Non-Project Managers by Jack Ferraro
- Project Management Absolute Beginner’s Guide by Greg Horine
- Project Management for Humans: Helping People Get Things Done by Brett Harned (Author), Greg Storey (foreword) (Author), Deb Aoki (Illustrator)
- Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management by Scott Berkun
- The Lazy Project Manager: How to be Twice as Productive and Still Leave the Office Early by Peter Taylor
These non-project management books are worth reading to help you get a grip on your day and your routine (because if you can’t manage your day, good luck with managing your projects).
- Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind by Jocelyn K. Glei
- It Doesn’t Have to be Crazy at Work by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson
- The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
Project Management Tools/Software
It’s important to be familiar with the tools of the trade. Here’s a list of project management software that is commonly used by professionals:
Basecamp — If you work in project management, you’ve most likely used Basecamp. It’s a simple straightforward task (ToDo) management software. It’s worth noting, Basecamp is for managing projects, not people. So you have a good view into where projects are, but not necessarily people’s capacity. The software helps you keep all project related conversation documented within dedicated discussion threads which saves you having to manage hundreds of project-related emails scattered across inboxes.
Trello — Trello takes a Kan Ban board-based approach of visualizing project stages. It’s great for giving you an idea of exactly what stage a project is in. There are a lot of creative ways to use the boards that can help you manage based on your project’s specific needs.
Wrike — Trello, Workzone, and Basecamp are simple, straightforward project management software. They keep it simple, and generally that’s helpful. However, some types of projects have some daunting complexity and require a software with more features. Wrike is a more comprehensive software with a lot more features. In addition to the basic project management functions of tracking and managing ToDos or tasks, Wrike also lets you manage timelines, track creative feedback, and even produces project status reports.
Workzone — This is a pretty straightforward project management software. All the normal stuff: visual projects with a timeline, view team capacity, view project completion percentage, collaborate on projects and have a nice paper trail in one central place.
Monday.com — Allows you to plan timelines, track projects, review team capacity. It gives you a nice visual of your projects/people/capacity. The UI is modern and easy to use. You’ve probably seen their ads, they’re relentless.
Smartsheet — Smartsheet does a lot. A lot. Too much? Up to you. You can create, track, and manage any type of project within it’s software and then see different reporting views depending on your needs. You can also view project dashboards, create Gantt charts, collect forms, manage resources, setup reminders, setup automations, and many other features. It’s actually quite daunting, but you probably know someone who loves it (and only uses like two of the features, it’s one of those…).
Asana — Asana combines some of the best features from other project management softwares such as task tracking and priority level of tasks, and then allows you link associated tasks together across a timeline. It also provides a Kan Ban board view of the tasks so you can get instant project status reports. It has most of the critical features needed to track projects but manages to keep the software feeling light. Everything you need, nothing you don’t, nice modern UI.
Additional software used to run successful projects:
- DropBox / Google Drive — Need to keep files somewhere.
- Google Docs / Google Sheets / Google Slides — Places to collaborate and share work.
- Evernote – A place to keep all your notes organized and accessible.
- Forecast – Production scheduling software
- Harvest – Time tracking software
- Microsoft Project — Gantt chart level: extreme.
- Slack / Skype / Google Hangouts — For all the chatting between teams.
- GoToMeeting / Zoom — For phone/video conferencing needs.
Ready to Get Started?
Project management can be an awesome career. It’s complex, stressful, and moves quick, but if you can get a solid foundation in place for how you approach your days and how you approach problems, you’re going to do just fine. Go get ‘em!