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Getting Started in Project Management

Project Management Fundamentals

Working in project management is one of the most popular choices there is for making a living. Take a look around the job advising boards and salary checking websites and project management consistently comes up in the top five.

For the last 16 years I’ve been working in project management recruitment and there has not been one day that goes by that I don’t get a call or enquiry from someone looking to get a foothold in a project management job.

The problem is – how do you get started in project management? Organisations are looking for people with experience, and if you don’t have experience, how do you gain it if no one is willing to give you a chance?

In this article I share the top five things you need to be thinking about and doing to get started in a project management career.

1. Why Project Management?

The first question I often ask when someone is trying to get into project management is, “Why project management?” It’s a loaded question and one I’m asking to see where your thought processes are with working in project management.

Often people have preconceived ideas about project management – what a project is, what a project manager does etc. They also have an idea that they have already got the transferable skills that they believe would lend themselves well to working in project management.

I often find that their understanding of project management is lacking so the first thing I advise people to do is learn the fundamentals of project management.

It does three things. It gives people a good grounding in project management approaches, processes and tools. It also makes them think differently about the work experience they have already accumulated to date (they often find that they were ‘doing’ project management in some form but weren’t able to articulate it). Finally, it introduces the project management terminology – they start talking the project management speak (what’s a schedule? what’s a PID? and so on)

Should you invest in a project management fundamentals course even if you’re not sure it would lead to a job in project management? Yes because it’s useful regardless of what job you do – you WILL use the principles of project management in whatever job you do because its a brilliant way to organise work and get stuff done.

There’s a course here to look at – Managing Projects take a look at the syllabus – it’s these competency areas you need to know about.

2. What Role in Project Management?

I’m still at the asking questions stage when anyone asks me about getting into project management. The next is – which role are you thinking about? Almost always it’s Project Manager.

It’s very rare for people with no previous experience in project management, with some fundamentals training under their belt (and definitely not with just PRINCE2) to walk into a project manager position. It’s another loaded question I’m asking because I want to understand what people’s expectations are of getting into a project management position.

I’m also keen to understand if they have an understanding of the wider project management roles that exist because it’s some of these roles that are the first stepping stone into project management.

3. Stepping Stone Roles

Project support roles are not the only way into project management. Often people think because the project support roles like Project Administrator and Project Co-ordinator are the bottom rung of the project management career ladder, they may be, however these roles also need some experience. The types of people who make good project administrators are people like business administrator, PAs, any kind of role that you would find in an office, supporting someone or a team.

But what if your background isn’t this type of role?

The stepping stone roles into project management for you depend very much on what experience you are already bringing to the table. If you’ve got a finance background for example, a project supporting role in a PMO which is heavy on the finance side might be the right stepping stone for you.

Experience in data analytics? Again a PMO role might be the right step. Good at planning? Worked in strategy? Manage a voluntary group? Whatever your works experience is to date – that’s what decides your entry-level stepping stone into project management. That’s why it’s so difficult to advise anyone about getting into project management without really understanding what their background and skillsets to date are.

So do you know what types of roles there are available in project management and which ones you think would suit your background, experience to date and what would you doing? Take the time to research, ask questions, getting better informed about your potential first stepping stone.

4. Gain the Experience

We’re back to the chicken and egg situation – how do you gain the experience when someone won’t give you a chance in a project management role?

There are a number of different routes to take – this free e-book download from PapercutPM is a fantastic resource to give you lots of ideas – 52 Tips to Break Into Project Management.

I always believe it is worth exploring the potential opportunities of where you currently work before taking the decision to find a new project position elsewhere. Here’s some tips:

  • Discover where recognised projects are undertaken in your company and look to build links with those departments through networking with staff taking an interest in their activities and how they impact the role you have
  • Get talking to colleagues in other departments across the business – you’ll be surprised just how much you don’t know about the business you’re in and where good opportunities might be for you
  • Talk to the HR representative in your organisation and find out how you can be informed of new jobs coming up in different departments.
  • Talk to your line manager – find out if there are any “special” projects coming up in the department or organisation what you might be considered for. You’ll need to be ready with your credentials – “why should they consider you for this?”
  • Within your current role volunteer to take on additional work to lead or work with in activities that deliver a change
  • Think about your current role – are you already carrying out some elements of your role in a project management fashion? If so, could you perform this role in a more structured and true project management way? Your line manager would be very interested to see how the department could perform better at its projects – regardless of how “informal” these projects are today – by better management. Talk to your manager about the possibilities of putting this into practice – but make sure you do your homework first
  • Start to talk in terms of delivery, cost, resources and time to get things done – think project

5. Immerse Yourself in Project Management

Get yourself out there and find out more about project management from the people who live and breathe it everyday. When I speak to people looking to get into project management I’m looking for the dedication and passion for making it happen because you’ll need it if you really want to pursue a career in this area.

I’ll ask you things like, “are you in any project management Linkedin groups?”, “have you been to a project management related seminar?”, “what was the last project management book or blog you read?”.

Are you really interested in project management? Do you know what the latest challenge areas are for project management in an organisation? Do you know what a good project manager looks like? Or a good project?

Get informed, be curious, ask questions and learn. This is what is needed in a good project management practitioner and making a start in these behaviours will do a couple of things.

First you’ll be holding better conversations with people when you’re trying to take those first stepping-stones – you’ll be able to better articulate why you really want to work in project management and what role you think you will perform best in and why. Second, it will either spur you on to find that role, give you the resilience you need to get into a new industry – or, it’ll help you decide that project management is not for you.

Either way, you’re going to have fun learning, meeting some new people, listening to some great management concepts and ideas, picking up new approaches to work and using project management in your day-to-day life.

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About Lindsay Scott

Lindsay Scott
Lindsay Scott is Director of PMO Learning, the PMO training specialist and Arras People the programme and project management recruitment specialists. Lindsay is the project management careers columnist for PMI's Network magazine and co-editor of the Gower Handbook of People in Project Management. Lindsay created and hosts The PMO Conference and hosts the monthly PMO Flashmobs

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