6 PMs Reveal How They Got Their First Project Manager Jobs (And How You Can Too)
When talking about project manager jobs, questions abound from people looking to get into the field. Should I get a project manager certification? What are some project management skills I should be working on? What would my responsibilities even be?
But all of those questions are precursors to a much bigger question: How do I break into the field?
We asked six project managers how they got their first job, and what recommendations they would offer to people just starting out.
This is our fourth post in a five-part series on the role of project manager. In the previous post, we covered essential project management skills. In the next post, we asked project managers about their software of choice. This series has also covered project management responsibilities and certification. Thank you to our project managers for participating in this series!
How to get hired for project manager jobs?
Start applying project management principles
If you’re serious about becoming a project manager, the best thing to do is to study up. There are plenty of resources online about project management principles and how they can best be applied. Even if you’re not in a project management role, learning and applying these principles to your daily work is how you can get in the mindset of a project manager. That’s something that Alexander Nowak, a marketing and business strategy consultant who managed marketing projects for five years, recommends: “Do projects! Apply the principles, even if ‘behind the scenes’ into your current jobs. Self-manage yourself with these philosophies and working strategies, and adopt the tools out there.”
Elizabeth Harrin, who has over 20 years of experience managing projects and is the award-winning blogger behind RebelsGuidetoPM.com, agrees that prospective project managers should “look for opportunities to manage work in a structured way and use project management principles to support that.” However, this isn’t limited to someone’s professional life: “You can also build up your experience at home: if you are keen to learn the principles and tools, why not have a go with products like Microsoft Project, Trello or Asana to make a simple project plan for decorating a room or planning an overhaul in the garden, for example?”
Adopting a project-focused mentality is the best way to start your transition from a specialist towards a project management role.
Look for an organization you can thrive in
Working on your mindset and personal skills is just one part of the journey. In order to become a project manager, you also need to find somewhere you can thrive. “If you want to learn this field, find an organization that inspires you,” says Laurent DuBerger, an agile coach at Element AI and former project manager at GSoft “It’s much easier to learn in an environment you’re drawn to, where you’re motivated to work and feel inspired, than if you show up in an organization doing something against your values or something you find boring.” For DuBerger, an organization that inspires you and cares about your personal growth will also want to help you along this path, giving you opportunities to learn about project management and apply its principles.
For Cornelius Fichtner, president of OSP International, and host of The Project Management Podcast, this goes beyond finding the right company to work with: “Look for a project management organization in your area. There are global project management organizations like the Project Management Institute, the Association for Project Management, and others and many of them have local chapters.” Fichtner emphasized the importance of networking, especially in person. If you’re looking to become a project manager, rubbing elbows with people already in the field is a great step to take.
Become a resource
As described in our post on project management responsibilities, project managers are the last line of defense for their initiatives. Whether it’s a team member facing a blocker, a breakdown in communication, or even a personal conflict, project managers have to be involved in finding the solution. So if you’re thinking about becoming a project manager, a good place to start is in becoming that resource for your coworkers.
“Try being an example. Be that person people are comfortable to reach when they have a problem,” says Martin Thienpont, project manager at Valtech. That focus hits what may be the most important area of project management skills: people skills. Becoming a resource for the people you work with fosters leadership and emotional intelligence skills, which all project managers need.
Olivier Hebert, a Team Lead and Release Train Engineer at Desjardins agrees: “Make sure you understand why the project you are hired for is being done, and inspire others to embrace it. Be yourself.” Even if you’re only responsible for executing a certain aspect of a project, by doing this, you show you have the mindset and responsibility to become a project manager.
Be open to opportunities
Not all project managers start in that role. Many project managers start as a specialist, someone who executes on a specific task, before falling into the role. As Fichtner explains: “If you ask most project managers ‘when did you become a project manager?’ or ‘how did you become a project manager?’ they will all tell you that it was a pure accident. ‘I didn’t even know project management even existed.’” Specialists who begin the path to project management often begin by managing their own personal projects. They become aware of the field by way of the skills it fosters. It’s often only after that work has started that they’ll be offered project manager jobs.
When you’re with the right organization, this is something your employer can support you with: “Have an understanding with your employer that you’d like to be a project manager for a specific project. I believe organizations that want their people to grow are open to this,” says DuBerger. However, he also warns that someone specialized in a specific field who wants to be a project manager has to understand the weight of the transition they’re making: “This person has to be aware that their role will change. Say a developer wants to grow towards a project management role, that person has to be prepared to leave behind the role they were good at. So yes, it’s interesting, but it’s important to turn the page.”
If you want to become a project manager, working on the right skills and applying a PM mindset to your own projects will open the door to project management opportunities. Or you might even find yourself falling into the role without realizing it, and naturally grow into it.
How did our PMs get their first project manager jobs?
“It was an internal promotion from a purely administrative role into a project/team/program leadership role. It wasn’t strict PMing but outside of having formal authority, it was. The biggest reason I was considered for this role was previously taking on projects as the central coordinator role and proving myself in that capacity.”
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I left university so I joined a graduate training scheme that allowed me to test a number of different areas. I discovered a department called Business Re-engineering which is basically project management and process improvement. It felt like I had found something I could really enjoy. It was all about lists, making changes, organizing people, getting things done. I had no idea prior to that that I could find a job that would play to my natural strengths.”
“I started out as a software developer and I had to manage my own projects without knowing what I was doing. I became a management consultant. I had no idea that what I was really doing was managing these projects. And only after I joined [the logistics department of a] supermarket and I began reading up on project management, and people started talking about project management did I realize ‘oh man that’s actually what I’m doing.’ So my first project management job, I really fell into it by accident.”
“I was offered the opportunity to have the Scrum Master role when a position opened at a previous company I worked for (an internal move). I then did that for 4 years. The real position was in reality more one of Agile Project Manager. I was involved from the client pre-sales and kickoffs, to the facilitation of scrum teams delivering value, helping clients prioritize ‘their’ needs (yes, it’s part of the job too sometimes), along with some QA here and there.”
“I was blessed to get an opportunity to work as an intern in a well-known agency in Montreal that liked my work enough to hire me afterwards. From that point, I was able to learn a whole lot of new skills in various fields.”
“I was progressing on the technical path, when I had the opportunity to ally both my passion for technology and passion for people. I was lucky to have been mentored by a senior PM who helped me define my management style.”
Chase down the top project manager jobs
Project managers don’t always go by that name. Before they ever get the title, they’re usually reading up on project management and applying its principles to their own work to make it just that much easier. If you’re already doing that, the next step in your journey might just be to keep your eyes out for — or create your own — project management opportunities.
In the final post of this series, we’ll be talking to our project managers about the project management software they use, as well as what they think perfect project management software would look like. Until then…