When you were a little kid, you probably said things like “I want to be an (astronaut, or a cowboy, or a princess) when I grow up.”
Or, if you were like me, you said, “I want to be Luke Skywalker when I grow up.”
But there are plenty of cool jobs out there that are actually real, including one that can allow you to help launch a space shuttle, build a skyscraper, or design a world-changing app.
The job I’m talking about is project manager.
What is a project manager?
Project managers plan, lead teams, keep projects on time and within budget, and are ultimately responsible for the success, or failure, of a project.
Sounds pretty cool, right?
Well it is, but like almost anything worthwhile, becoming a project manager also takes some work. But after reading this piece you’ll know how to build your background, grow your skills, and get hired as a real-life project manager.
1. How to become a project manager: Getting started
If you think that you’d like to become a project manager, I’m guessing it’s because you already have strong organizational skills and natural leadership abilities.
If so, you’re already off to a good start, because you can treat your career like one big project and use those skills to get it done. Now if you’re just starting out, good for you
These first few steps apply to any career, but I’ll go over them briefly anyway: work hard to get good grades in school, eat healthy, get plenty of fresh air and exercise, stay out of trouble, and don’t post anything ridiculous on social media that will come back to bite you in the bottom when you’re looking for a job.
2. Gain informal “project management” experience
You don’t become a project manager by opening up a project management stand, or offering to manage projects on Craigslist. You become a project manager by managing projects. And you can find projects all over the place.
Projects happen everyday in the wild, so do what you enjoy and be ready to apply your organizational and leadership skills when the situation presents itself.
If you’re interested in military service (veterans make great project managers), join your R.O.T.C. Or, if you’re a veteran in a different career, consider that your military experience may be almost all you need to transition into a career as a project manager. If you want to design video games, join a video game developers club. Did you know that many video games teach fundamental project management skills?
That way, you can eventually be a project manager AND work in a field that you love.
3. Work on your people skills
Okay, maybe some projects ended up being “good enough” even with an aloof PM, but only because someone else picked up the slack and handled all the interpersonal workings that make a project go. And that person probably got promoted over the antisocial PM in the future.
The point is: projects are made up of people, so project managers must put as much effort into knowing, coaching, and communicating with their people as they spend on the technical side of things.
4. Learn how to use the tools of the project management trade
Soft skills can get you pretty far, and may even be enough to land your first bona-fide project manager position, but, eventually, you’re going to need to show off some technical skills.
If that sounds difficult, fear not. Project management software is designed to assist project managers and their teams with things like collaboration, budgeting, scheduling, and more. Some of the most popular tools available include Microsoft Project, Atlassian, and Basecamp, just to name a few.
Learning how to use new software may sound daunting, but this is 2017, and most good project management software is user friendly and includes plenty of support. There are also lots of online resources available. For example, check out all of these Microsoft Project courses offered by Microsoft.
A Capterra study concluded that “organizations are completing their projects on time and on budget and with higher quality when implementing project management software.” So knowing how to use it is a big plus on your resume.
Beyond software, project managers also need to be skilled in things like:
- Contract management
- Risk management
5. Get certified
The value of a project management certification is a hot topic of debate in the project management community, but there is a near consensus that it can’t hurt your career.
The Project Management Professional certification is the most popular and widely-recognized project management certification. The PMP certification is for working project managers who already have lots of experience, but there are other options out there for those with less experience. For example, the CAPM (Certified Associate in Project Management).
Good news: We have found some great courses to prepare you to pass your project management certification.
6. Put yourself out there
Now that you’ve gained some non-project management experience, worked on your interpersonal skills, learned how to use some project management tools, and maybe even earned a certification, you’re ready to start applying for jobs. Job applications are never easy, whether you’re trying to become a zookeeper or a project manager, but if you have thoroughly checked off steps 1-5, you should be ready and confident.
Go get’em, tiger!
Appendix: Where do you look for project manager jobs?
While Indeed.com lists more than 60,000 project manager jobs open at the time this was written, research also suggests that many project managers ascend to their roles without even planning to become a project manager in the first place.
According to Gartner analysis on project manager career paths:
Without quite being assigned the role, or accepting it, an individual steps into a planning, leading and tracking role for which he or she may not be well-equipped or authorized. Individuals are often known by word of mouth as having coordinated some past projects and are occasionally tapped to do so again. From here, it is not far to a point where ‘… and project manager’ is appended to their real job title, first informally, and later, more formally.—Project Manager Career Paths Are Critical to Strengthening Your PM Workforce, by Matt Light
So whether you’re just starting out or in the middle of your career, whether you’re working at a construction company or a tech firm, it’s more important to have project management skills than to have the project manager name tag. You could find yourself with “…and project manager” attached to the back of your title before you even know it.
The final step
The more time you spend in project management, the more you’ll hear the term “agile,” which is the overarching mindset that virtually all of modern project management is built upon. Being agile means being flexible, adapting to changing conditions, and working in iterations.
So you can be agile in your approach to your project management career by periodically looking back over these steps to make sure you’re staying on the right path. Been spending too much time with your head down in your office? Get out there with your team to see how they’re doing, or pick up an old hobby. Notice that your new hires are throwing around terminology that sounds like a different language? Take a course in a tool you’re unfamiliar with, or consider adding a new certification or refreshing an old one.
The best part? Every skill you hone during these six steps (except for maybe the certifications) can be applied to just about any career, and can even help you become a better person in general.
Think about it: time management, organizational skills, leadership qualities. Who wouldn’t benefit from those characteristics?
If you’re a project manager who started off without a plan, I want to know your advice for someone who is trying to get their first job. Send them to me on Twitter @CapterraAC, or continue the discussion in the comments. And if you’re hungry for more project management career talk, check out these pieces:
- The 10 Most Common Project Management Interview Questions
- How Much Do Project Managers Make?
- PMP vs. PRINCE2: Which Is Right For You?
- The Top 5 Highest Paying PMP Jobs
Looking for Project Management software? Check out Capterra's list of the best Project Management software solutions.