Breaking into Project Management
This is my site Written by Alora on January 13, 2009 – 1:57 pm

One of the questions I am most frequently asked is, “What do I need to do to make a career change into project management?” That question sometimes comes from people in similar or related fields, like IT Management, or from fields you might not normally expect, like teaching. Most often, though, this question is posed to me by people who have already experienced a degree of success in their field and are either looking for something new, or looking to build on what they’ve done in the past and see project management as a way to accomplish that goal.

And particularly at a time when so many people are suddenly finding themselves facing (potential) layoffs, it is often the opportunity to explore making a change. So for people thinking about making this change, I have a few stock recommendations to make:

Project Management Institute1. Join The Project Management Institute
Not only join it, but list it on your resume as a Professional Affiliation. Joining PMI provides value in several areas: it bolsters your credibility to be a member of the organization that is regarded as the standard-bearer for the industry; membership automatically subscribes you to PMI’s regular publications, which are great learning tools for practitioners; it provides networking opportunities via local chapters in your area or field-specific Special Interest Groups (SIGs); and it provides discounts on training materials, events and certification tests. All in all, someone who is trying to break into project management cannot afford not to join PMI. Of course, as with anything else, it is not just enough to join PMI, but to actually take advantages of the resources they have to offer.

And an added bonus, if you are a student at all, you are eligible for the student discount on membership, which brings the cost down to a very affordable $30 per year.

Study2. Start Studying
Increasingly, local community colleges are offering courses in project management as part of their business programs. If that’s not an option for you, then look online for programs that cover project management basics to get you started. Beyond that, be sure you are reading the publications PMI sends you, and find online blogs and publications specific to project management that you can make a habit of reading. (See the Project Management section of my links page for specific examples.) Like all disciplines there is a special “language” project managers use. In order to convince someone that you can walk the walk, you must first show them that you know enough to talk the talk. So find a mentor you can learn from, attend networking events (which you should always be doing, anyway) so that you can hear about other people’s experiences, and give yourself the chance to start working on your elevator pitch. It’ll take time and tweaking to get it right, so better to practice over cocktails than to wait until you’re in a job interview.

Certification3. Get Certified
Almost anyone breaking into project management is immediately faced with the daunting discovery that getting a PMP requires years of work experience in the field before you are eligible to take the test. Yet a surprising number of people do not realize that the CAPM, the Certified Associate Project Manager, test does not require anywhere near the same experience (not to mention that it’s an easier and shorter test) – in fact, your experience can be as a member of a project team instead of the leader. And don’t worry about finding CAPM-specific study and training resources. Use those designed for the PMP. The test is made up from the same database of questions used to construct the PMP, there are just fewer of them, and they are basically limited to the text of the PMBOK, instead of relying on as many scenario-based questions.

(Quick note here: the current PMBOK standard is version 3.0. The newest version just came out at the first of the year, and is version 4.0. If you expect to take your test prior to this summer, you will want to target 3.0 before it is phased out. But if you do not expect to get to the test before the second half of the year, then get the materials to prep for the 4.0 test. There are enough changes in terminology that you’ll be better off if you are sure to prep for the version of the test you will be taking.)

And while the CAPM is definitely the “junior” certification, it demonstrates both your commitment to your transition as well as a basic grasp of project management fundamentals. Even better, the nation-wide salary average between CAPMs and PMPs is actually very small.

Re-write Resume4. Re-write Your Resume
As I’ve said before, throughout my career I have been a project manager, even though there were many times that was not actually my title. So part of what my resume has to reflect is that I have gained project experience in each role that I have held. It is entirely reasonable to assume, that if you have spent a decade in most any professional field, you have probably developed more project management experience than you may realize. What’s even more important to understand is that, as soon as you start studying and learning about the formal steps involved in project management, that you’ll begin to recognize patterns in your previous projects that help you understand why some failed and others succeeded.

So start a list: list each position you’ve held, and then under that, list each specific project that you actually managed or participated in. Remember: a project is a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product or service. So an IT Manager who built out a NOC in a data center, or a teacher who developed and rolled out a new curriculum across a school district, or an office manager to developed and deployed a new hire on-boarding process, or an HR specialist who crafted and launched a new benefits program are all examples of project leaders, and in almost no case would that person have previously held a job with “project manager” in the title.

Once you have this list, use it to start building a functional resume. Even if you don’t end up using this in a job hunt, it will be a worthwhile exercise for you to understand just how much project management experience you really do have. (Though, in reality, it is not at all uncommon for project managers to use functional resumes, specifically because it is a great way to focus our readers to the experience we most want them to see.)

A cautionary note: project management is most often associated with two very specialized fields: information technology and construction. And while these two fields are highly specialized, they are most definitely not the only ones that use project management and hire project managers (or hire managers with project management expertise). Business Process Improvement projects are one of the most common types of non-IT/construction projects that managers execute, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that if you’ve never lead a team through testing use cases for deploying a CRM that you do not have any project management experience. It comes in all forms, and — along with managing people and daily operations — is usually one of the fundamental requirements of any manager, in any position.

One last word of advice: as the economy terrifies (or forces) companies into laying off their staff, the market is awash with highly experienced project managers, including the always-bright-and-shiny PMPs. If what you really want is to get into the field, then don’t get discouraged. Your expertise in another field is something you want to use to your advantage, not hide from. Businesses seek out employees that can provide value, and while there is great value in effective project management, the trick is to show how several years in a specific field or industry can help make you a better project manager. Maybe it means finding the ideal niche market, e.g. a teacher leaving a school district to work as a project manager for an educational software firm or textbook publishing house; or a career HR Benefits professional leaving in-house back office functions to work at as a project manager for Charles Scwabb; etc.

There are lots of options, but as you work on re-branding yourself, don’t put so much effort into demonstrating project management experience that you short-change the rest of your experience.

  • johnpeltier

    Hi Alora! This is really helpful – what do you think of the Project+ certification, as an alternate starter step to the CAPM?

  • Alora

    John: Any certification is better than no certification, but the thing the CAPM has over the Project+ is name recognition. Especially when you are starting out, having a certification issued by PMI is an edge that other certifications can’t provide. So the value is really a matter of what you most need:

    If you are unemployed and sending out resumes, then you need the best name brand you can find, which would be the CAPM by PMI.

    If you have a job already, and are making a planned transition within your existing organization, then a less well-known brand probably won’t matter as much, because it’s less critical to “sell” yourself than it is to demonstrate to your current employer that you are making a commitment and acquiring the necessary skills to help ensure your success.

    It’s all about what you need out of the certification. A resume is a specialized piece of marketing material designed to reflect your personal brand, and pique someone’s interest in you. If your main objective is to make this document look as polished and helpful as possible, then go with the best known brand.