Project management is a terrific field to get involved in. It is the perfect job for detail-oriented obsessive compulsives. The work is incredibly varied, challenging, and rewarding. This post will outline some tricks to getting hired as a project manager so that you can join this incredible field.
Lots of people don’t mean to become project managers. Take Mike, of Stranger Things. (Haven’t seen Stranger Things? It’s a Netflix Original filled with 80s-horror goodness. It’s well worth your time when you have an extra second).
Mike, the charming young nerd, pictured above, is out looking for his friend Will when he stumbles upon a mysterious girl creatively named “Eleven” (El for short) for the tattooed numbers on her wrist. Will’s disappearance and El’s sudden appearance seem to be related.
Soon, Mike sets out on his mission — which is a project. The project is time constrained in that Will can only survive for so long without rescue. There are clear stakeholders: Will, Will’s mother, the team members (Lucas and Dustin), El, and Mike. While the project remains within scope (saving Will), it grows in complexity, adding new stakeholders.
Even though he’s only 11-years-old, Mike is juggling all the variables. He’s agile in his approach to finding Will, actively pivoting when circumstances change. Mike manages risk, helps his team communicate, and organizes how his team moves forward.
(Of course, he gathered many these skills as his friend group’s Dungeon Master, but that’s a post for another time.)
Mike is an accidental project manager.
And if Mike were to continue gathering project management experience, maybe get a certification or two, and kept DMing, he’d be an excellent purposeful project manager once he’s ready to enter the workforce.
Of course, you wouldn’t think of Mike as a project manager without this guided explanation. Most viewers simply view him as the protagonist of a campy, horror TV show who is little more than a concerned friend.
Mike has to be sold as a project manager.
See the bolded parts above? Those are all project management terms that could be included in a resume. They could all be expanded on in an interview (I refrained for the sake of spoilers).
Here, I’ve primed you to think of Mike as a project manager.
And that’s what you’re going to have to do for your interviewers when looking for a project management job.
I realize many of you are reading this article with the intention of becoming project managers or are looking for information on the profession as a whole. The truth is, you have probably managed projects in the past, and you can draw from that experience to gauge if project management is right for you as a profession.
Want more specific suggestions?
I spoke with a group of hiring managers who have been in charge of interviewing and hiring project managers. I asked them for their tips and insights to getting hired as a project manager and distilled their thoughts into four sections.
Curious? Read on.
Tricks to Getting Hired as a Project Manager
1. Your other experience does matter.
Even if you haven’t had “project manager” as a prior title, you shouldn’t count yourself out for a position you’re interested in.
Let me give you an example.
I reached out to Mickey Swortzel, CFO and co-founder of New Eagle, a tech company in Ann Arbor, MI. She has hired many project managers, but one stood out in her mind.
In 2012, I hired a woman who had no direct project management experience but had 15+ years of work experience in a variety of industries. Her experience was attractive because in each of her previous positions she stepped into the organization and found a new opportunity for cost reduction or revenue and/or market exposure. In addition, she was promoted to a managerial position within a short time. These previous positions indicated the ability for her to be a good project manager.
That woman is still happily at New Eagle well over four years later. Mickey attributes her project manager’s success to her “ability to communicate well, organize, and be creative in her problem solving.”
Swortzel also emphasizes, “These are traits someone cannot receive through certification.”
The takeaway? When constructing your resume and cover letter, emphasize how your previous work experience has given you tangible experience for the project management job you’re applying for. You might even beat out PMPs (certified Project Management Professionals) applying for the same position.
2. Soft skills are often more important than hard skills.
“Top-notch project managers know how to speak to developers and executives.”
That’s Bruce Harpham, the founder of Project Management Hacks. He advocates for project managers to invest in their communications skills — going as far to say that they should join Toastmasters. “While you can study presentation technique to a degree by reading books and observing great presenters,” he says, “there is no substitute for personal experience.”
Harpham doesn’t stop at public speaking.
“Influence and persuasion are critically important because a project manager has to coordinate people from different departments. I look for above average communication skills – in writing and speaking.”
Project managers don’t just communicate with internal clients. Markus Seebauer of Gateway Translations has hired two client-facing project managers since November. He is in the IT and software translation industry, making him particularly sensitive to misinterpretations. He says that he looks for the “ability to communicate clearly to avoid misunderstandings with clients or translators.”
Of course, soft skills don’t stop at communication. Seebauer also emphasizes social intelligence, empathy, and intuition.
More importantly, he finds critical thinking to be key. He says, “The translation industry is very deadline-driven, and our PMs constantly have to find creative ways to deliver quality on time and in less than ideal circumstances.”
Can’t solve problems creatively?
Maybe look at another career.
The takeaway? While it might be tempting to overemphasize technical skills when applying for a project management role, reel back and focus on soft skills. Organization, communication, and creativity are just as important to being a project manager as hard skills.
3. But hard skills are certainly still important.
Bruce Harpham believes that there are a few hard skills that potential project managers should focus on. He says, “In technology, average to above-expert skills with Excel and PowerPoint are valuable. The ability to take in data, assess it, and define a plan is helpful. Also, the ability to make high-quality estimates and weigh risk is valuable.”
He then adds learning how to use project management software — notably Microsoft Project — makes a candidate more attractive. He likely calls out MS Project because it is, by a large margin, the most popular project management software.
Markus Seebauer adds that flawless English, “computer literacy,” and “IT knowledge” are hard skills that he looks for.
Jacob Aliet Ondiek, a project manager for the Kenya Revenue Authority, gets particular about the hard skills that he looks for when hiring project managers. He emphasizes project assessment, monitoring, and reporting, in addition to budgeting, scheduling, planning, contract management, procurement, and risk management.
Ondiek notes that these nine hard skills are often found on project manager job postings. The more boxes you can check off, the better your chances are of getting hired.
The takeaway? Invest in learning how to budget, schedule, and plan projects. There are lots of free online courses that can help you do this — for example, you can take “Managing Project Risks and Changes” through UC-Irvine on Coursera or “Financial Decision Rules for Project Evaluation Financial Decision Rules for Project Evaluation” through the University of Michigan on edX. Take advantage of free online resources — there’s no reason to overpay to learn these hard skills!
4. Certification matters… sometimes.
Our research has found that getting certified as a Project Management Professional, or PMP, does have a positive effect on one’s career as a project manager.
While only 34.6% of project managers have a PMP certification, they tend to be better balanced in their approach to project management.
For example, our research shows that,
Among those with a PMP certification, their biggest obstacles are evenly split between completing projects on budget (33%), on time (33%), and in scope (33%).
The story is different for those without PMP certification. Of project managers who are in the process of getting their PMP certification, 19% said budget was their biggest obstacle, 31% said time, and 50% said project scope. And as for project managers with no certification, 27% said budget was their biggest obstacle, 41% said time, and 25% said project scope.
The reason for the discrepancy? Four in five certified PMPs use a formal project management method. Less than a quarter of non-certified project managers can say the same. Certified PMPs have been trained in efficiency, and it shows.
While it’s clear that getting PMP certification is a solid investment for project managers to be effective at their jobs (especially since certified PMPs get paid more than non-certified managers on average), hiring managers don’t always look for a certification.
For example, when Seebauer evaluates candidates, certifications matter little to “not at all.” He adds, “I see how such a theoretical foundation would matter” as a half-hearted clarification.
Mickey Swortzel tends to agree. She explains,
I recently hired a college student as a marketing intern and gave her the responsibility to manage an event for us. Once again, her soft skills provided all the resources she needed to successfully accomplish the project. She too possess the communication, administration, and creative problem-solving skills that tend to be overlooked as soft skills but are imperative for a good project manager, regardless of the education and certifications they may or may not have.
Bruce Harpham has a different opinion. “The PMP adds value in skills and income,” he says. “However,” he continues, “Many people have it so it has become a standard expectation for most project management roles.”
He then recommends certifications outside of the PMP: “ITIL or vendor-specific specifications (e.g. Oracle and Microsoft) may be relevant in some cases.”
Lee Fisher, an HR Manager at Wooden Blinds Direct, takes an entirely different approach. He has found that hiring consultants have benefited his organization more than any particular certification.
He states, “We needed someone who could really work the numbers and make cost savings where necessary, but also re-allocate cash to growth areas. The company chose a business consultant with a strong background in the banking sector, who had a great knowledge of cash flow. However, this also meant that the consultant would take risks to which the company had never ventured into as such.”
In other words, a background in consulting might be just as valuable as a PMP certificate to getting your foot in the door.
The takeaway? While PMP certifications are advertised as a career gateway, they don’t mean much to the hiring managers that I spoke with for this article. Instead, PMP certifications matter more to being efficient at one’s job. When you’re ready to prep for the certification exam, consider these fantastic online project management courses to prepare yourself.
While this piece did emphasize how to use prior work experience to break into managing projects, recent grads shouldn’t despair. For example, Lee Fisher loves hiring young adults straight from college. He says,
Our company does consider graduates, especially in the IT / Web development sector. It is often found that graduates can be far more beneficial in the workplace. In this sector, most have grown up around the technology and are up to date with new software, programming techniques, and the really geeky stuff the older generation may not even consider. The bonus is that you can offer a reasonable wage to someone on graduate level and gain all this new knowledge without dramatically putting a dent in the wages budget.
Those new to the workforce would do well to get certified and learn some of the above-mentioned hard skills to make themselves more competitive.
Or they could become adept monster hunters. I’d be happy to hire a successful monster hunter any time.
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