This feature first appeared in the Spring 2014 edition of Certification Magazine.
The field of project management has gained momentum over the past several years. The rising popularity of project management comes as no surprise. In 2001, the Project Management Institute in its PMI Project Management Fact Book estimated annual spending on projects inside the United States at $2.3 trillion (roughly one-fourth of U.S. GDP at the time). Extrapolated globally, that figure ballooned to $10 trillion (based on a then gross world product of $40.7 trillion). Then, and now, the numbers suggest that there are a whole lot of projects going on. With projects consuming a fourth of GWP, it stands to reason that someone — almost certainly many someones — must be in charge of those projects. Enter the project manager.
Traditional Managers vs. Project Managers: What’s the Difference?
Traditional managers typically have control over, and responsibility for, the activities of a particular team, department, division, or perhaps even an entire business. Such responsibilities are generally ongoing and part of the daily business operations. Managers keep the business wheels well-oiled and running smoothly on a day-to-day basis. The skills managers bring to a corporation or other venture are required regardless of the current project or projects.
By their very nature, projects are temporary. They have a definite beginning and end. Each project is a unique endeavor. Project managers, then, are pinch hitters, brought in to ensure the overall success of the entire project. The scope of their responsibility is typically a single project. It’s the project manager who is charged with the task of turning corporate vision and strategy into reality.
Project managers are managers, leaders, negotiators and mediators, generally mixed with a liberal dash of Houdini. The work they do, however, requires more than a magic wand. What is frequently seen as pulling a rabbit out of a hat is really the result of careful planning and execution on the part of a skilled project manager. Project managers manage all aspects of a given project including (but not limited to): planning, scheduling, cost, risk analysis and mitigation, quality and change control. In addition, it’s the project manager who must manage — and resolve— sometimes competing stakeholder expectations.
Experts in communication and soft management skills, project managers are often called upon to manage, lead and direct the teams responsible for doing project work, without having any direct authority over such teams. Managing without direct authority is no small feat. Try it sometime!
I’m Hooked! What skills do I need?
For those undaunted (and perhaps even exhilarated) at the thought of becoming the driving force behind executing a complex vision, from drawing board to finished product, project management offers an appealing career path. One of the mantras of a project manager is, “Plan the work and work the plan.” The same is true when making a career change. Successful project managers learn what skills they will need to flourish and prepare themselves accordingly. As you transition to a project management career, keep the following in mind:
Technical savvy — Know your field! Successful project managers don’t necessarily need to be subject matter experts on every project that they oversee, but knowledge is power. While project management principles can be applied to any project with some measure of success, knowledge about the subject matter makes the project manager’s job easier. It enables you to more quickly create accurate plans and schedules, recognize and mitigate risk, and more readily understand downstream impacts to the critical path that might impact project success.
To put it in perspective, all medical doctors do a surgical rotation during medical school. That doesn’t mean, however, that I would want a podiatrist performing complex heart surgery. I’d seek the assistance of a trained cardiovascular surgeon because I expect that person to have the skills and expertise necessary to quickly deal with the intricate nuances — including unforeseen events — involved in heart surgery.
Soft management skills — Know your people! Project managers lead and work with multiple stakeholders, team members, managers, executives, clients and more, who often have competing interests and manage without authority. As a result, soft management skills, or the ability to guide individuals in such areas as prioritization, teamwork and positive attitude, are an essential component of the successful project manager’s toolbox.
Communication — One of the single most important assets a project manager must possess is excellent communication skills, both written and verbal. Poor communication can often lead to the downfall of a once healthy project. It’s essential that project managers be not just good, but great communicators. Remember, it’s the responsibility of the information sender to ensure that a message is not only acknowledged, but understood by the recipient!
Experience — Because every project is unique, each project comes complete with its own set of challenges, risks and issues. The more experience you gain, the better you become at managing and responding to the needs of each project. If you’ve never worked in the project management field before, consider shadowing an experienced project manager, or working as an assistant project manager, before venturing out on your own. The experience you gain and lessons you learn may very well be the key to your future success.
Education — There are a number of benefits, particularly for new project managers, of formal project management training or certification. Such training can provide valuable insight into the daily tasks that a project manager must perform. For example, how do you prepare a project charter? What are the best methods for change control and management? How does the triple constraint — cost, scope and schedule — impact the success of the project? Formal training can assist a prospective project manager in quickly gaining the skills and knowledge necessary to ensure future success.
Certification — Do project managers need to be certified? And if so, then which certification should newcomers chose? It’s rare to find a project management job post where certification isn’t a required or preferred candidate skill, so it’s likely that certification (or lack thereof) may well be one of the key factors in determining whether you get the job you want. While there are numerous project management certifications available, the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential offered by the Project Management Institute is considered by many to be the holy grail of project management certifications.
Other excellent project management certifications include CompTIA’s Project+ and the Master Project Manager (MPM) credential administered by the American Academy of Project Managers. It’s worth noting that many project management certifications require a combination of both experience and education for certification.
Wait a minute! I thought project managers were just for IT or construction?
One of my friends recently expressed surprise when she found out I, as a project manager, was currently managing the development and release of a book. Why? She thought all project managers worked in either construction or IT. Not true! The reality is that opportunities for project managers are limited only by the imagination of those creating the project. Project managers are found just about anywhere you might think to look for them — from software development to construction (everything from bridges to wells and irrigation systems); to energy technology (solar, wind and other green energies); to publishing; to even building space stations. The possibilities are limitless!
Project managers make how much?
Despite the fact that project management can be challenging and demanding, it can also be quiet rewarding, and project managers can expect to command a strong salary. The latest salary research shows that project management salaries often start in the low six-figure range in the United States, with PMP credential holders making an average of $10,000 per year more than their non-certified counterparts. According to PayScale.com, average salary for certified senior IT project managers ranges between $80,000 and $139,000, with the average salary for IT Program Managers ranging as high as $150,000.
It’s important to note, of course, that not all project managers earn the same amount. As in all professional fields, there are a number of factors that influence final compensation including location, size and complexity of projects managed, field of specialization (construction, IT, publishing, and so forth), and individual levels of education and experience.
It’s also good to remember that, while project managers typically earn a healthy salary, they have a responsibility level commensurate with their compensation. The project manager maintains the “big” picture and converts corporate strategy into action. When barriers to the success of a project arise, it’s the project manager who ensures those barriers are removed and enables the team to remain focused and high-performing. The project manager is responsible to deliver the project on time, on budget and within scope. At the end of the day, it’s the project manager who is ultimately responsible for the overall success — or failure — of the project. It’s not a good place for the timid, but if you’re looking for a career that’s exciting, challenging, in demand, and constantly growing and changing, then you just may have a future in project management.