Project managers have one of the most vital roles in tech: they’re responsible for ensuring projects stay on schedule and within set budgets. Those who aspire to become project managers have multiple pathways for achieving their goal—but which pathway will work best for them?
The Project Management Institute (PMI) has noted that demand for project managers is continually on the rise. It’s also a desirable position among younger workers: earlier this year, The Muse surveyed 900 new graduates about their job outlook, and found that 16.2 percent wanted to go into project management, right behind education (17 percent) and data analytics (18.2 percent).
With all that in mind, what do successful project management career paths look like? We spoke to a selection of experts to get all the details.
Any Career Path Hinges on Your Skills
Whatever your choices about a career in project management, those who succeed in the role not only balance out “big picture” thinking with an affinity for detail, but can also combine technical and “soft skills” in a way that allows them to effectively guide teams.
Before you apply for project management jobs, make sure your communication skills are top-notch. Some people are naturally gifted communicators, while others could benefit from asking for feedback from their managers, mentors, and co-workers. Or as longtime project manager Molly Beran puts it: “The dirty secret of project management is that it all boils down to people and relationships. So, great project managers will develop their skills in relationship-building, first and foremost. This includes learning how to meet new people and quickly establishing rapport and trust with them. Additionally, learning how to manage conflict in ways that are constructive and move a group forward are paramount in managing relationships.”
Project management courses will often address the “soft skills” component of the job. You’ll also need to become as comfortable as possible with the pacing and pressures of a typical project lifecycle. CTO Shai Shandi suggests a “keen sense of ‘good enough for now’” is critical for project managers: “PMs fall into a trap of long-range planning. In complex projects these plans often fall apart and the replanning effort is greater than the original planning effort.”
Follow-through likewise matters—and that’s a skill often difficult to master for newer project managers. “I’ve saved many a project from disaster simply by remembering to follow-up with someone and holding them accountable to providing me with an answer,” Beran says.
For project managers working in a technology context, technical know-how is vital. If you want to land a job and progress in a project management career, you’ll need a keen technical understanding of a project’s inner workings. On top of that, you must explain those technical concepts in an easy-to-grasp way to stakeholders outside of the core teams, including executives and investors. Brantlee Underhill, Managing Director at the Project Management Institute, tells Dice: “A strong project manager has a combination of power and technical skills, as well as business acumen that they hone over time through opportunities for advancement and continuing education to improve their craft.”
Do You Need Special Training or Education to Become a Project Manager?
“Project managers don’t need to pursue a specific college degree,” Underhill says. “There are some universities and colleges that offer undergraduate and graduate project management degrees, which is a helpful way to stand out amongst other job candidates, but not a must-have.”
Some project managers might earn an undergraduate degree in business, engineering, or IT before pursuing a project management track. However, many project managers start in a completely different career before jumping into project management. Having a project manager “teach you the ropes” at your current company is a perfectly viable way to learn about the role and see if it’s right for you.
“Some accomplished project managers do not have a traditional, four-year college degree,” Underhill adds. “Anyone who has the desire, motivation, and passion for project management can succeed in their role, especially when they pursue advanced certification and continuous learning opportunities as they progress in their career.”
Accredited universities across the United States have degree programs for project management. For those who like to engage in online learning, Google and Coursera have an online certification program for project management, as does the Harvard Extension School. The Google program costs $39 per month, with expected completion in roughly six months’ time. Harvard’s course is $3,100 for four certifications (for what it calls “graduation credit”) and you must complete the courses within three years.
Those who have begun the project management track can also consider certifications, which will demonstrate to recruiters and hiring managers that you have the necessary skills to succeed in the role. The most widely recognized project management certification is the PMP certification from the PMI, which requires a four-year degree and at least 36 months experience. The course is free, but the cost to take the certification exam ranges from $405 to $555.
Here are some additional certifications that project managers find useful; all require different levels of experience:
Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM): New to project management? CAPM (also managed by the Project Management Institute) is a way for project-management newbies to validate skills ahead of earning the PMP.
Certified Project Director: This certification focuses on the more complicated aspects of project management, including budgeting for large projects. It is conducted by the Global Association for Quality Management.
Certified Project Management Practitioner (CPMP): This certification, overseen by the EC-Council, indexes management skills, including technical abilities.
Certified ScrumMaster (CSM): Overseen by The Scrum Alliance, this certification covers project managers’ knowledge of Agile, Scrum, and so on.
Professional Scrum Master (PSM): Overseen by Scrum.org, this certification covers the skills and knowledge of Agile, Scrum, and the role of the Scrum Master. There are three levels of certifications for PSM.
Project Manager Career Paths
Underhill says: “When it comes to deciding on a career path, many project professionals start by focusing on their passion points, whether that is technology, design, engineering, construction, finance, publishing, law, or any other sector where project professionals drive business outcomes. These are just a few paths a project manager can take, all of which allow for excellent career growth.”
For example, if you’re interested in healthcare, there are lots of companies looking for project managers who can wrangle a complicated project in that arena. “I think there are more likely 300-500 career paths a project manager can take,” adds Beran, noting many project managers set up their own project management teams at larger companies, or simply choose to mentor those who want to become project managers themselves.
How Far Can a Project Manager Career Go?
You may not want to lead projects forever, but all our experts agree a great project manager is setting themselves up for an expanded leadership role. “One of the most attractive aspects of a career in project management is that you don’t have to reach a specific level in your career or number of years in the workforce to take on a leadership role within a team or organization,” Underhill says. “Project managers are natural leaders, as they are the key drivers behind project success and, ultimately, organizational success.”
When a project manager has been in their role for a certain length of time, there is a natural progression that results in leadership roles within organizations, Underhill adds: “And because project managers gain a plethora of skills across industries and sectors, their experience lends itself well to leadership roles in operations, customer relations, strategy, innovation, and more, further proving that a career in project management sets professionals up for success for the long haul.”