On a most basic level, project managers are tasked with ensuring projects are completed on time and within budget (and fulfill the project’s original goals). But that simple description belies a good deal of complexity: project managers must constantly negotiate and influence stakeholders, both on the team and throughout the broader organization, while making trade-offs in scheduling, resources, and more. It’s a complex role, but with the right training, anyone can become a project manager.
For starters, a good project manager must understand the project details inside and out. In a tech-industry context, this often means a deep knowledge of the technology powering an organization’s products and services. Then there’s the human aspect: all good project managers have excellent “soft skills,” including communication and empathy.
But what makes a truly great project manager? Do you need specific education or certifications? What skills are critical for success? We spoke to several experts to discover what it takes to start a career in project management and remain successful for the duration of your career.
What education does a project manager need?
Our experts were split on whether education is necessary; most concede any education is valuable for a project manager. Vasiliy Moiseev, project manager at Usetech, tells Dice: “Education in management comes in handy here. Often, project managers are those who have an economic or marketing education, but I prefer the direction of ‘management.’”
A business management degree may come in handy, adds Jon Quigley, principal at Value Transformation LLC. However, he advises those transitioning from tech roles to management to avoid getting too caught up in the details of projects. While paying attention to specific lines of code can only benefit you as a software developer, for example, a project manager must always maintain a strategic view (“the 35,000-foot perspective,” in corporate-speak).
“I think you can become a project manager without much formal education, but it might take you a while before you will be managing big or technical projects. I think you can assist project managers and learn from them along the way,” Quigley says. “If you wish to manage technical projects, an associate’s degree can be helpful. A business degree is helpful, too. Managing technical project can have trade-off situations, most project as all projects are constrained and come with hard decisions.”
In Quigley’s experience, “it does not hurt to have technical background; for example, an embedded software engineer can transition to project manager … If you are a tech person that believes the job of the engineering belongs with the engineers, you might be successful as a project manager. These technical experiences can help us ask good questions, understand technical risks impacts, and help navigate the trade-off situations.”
Tomas Pozniak, project manager team lead at The Software House, says a degree may be helpful, but it doesn’t always have to be a business or technical one. “Some of the greatest project managers I have seen hold degrees in English, Art, Science, or the Culinary Arts. What matters most is personality type. I have a computer science degree, but it still comes down to character in the end. It's a mixture of being naturally organized, creative, proactive, good with people, and focused. These kinds of people can be found with all kinds of education behind their belts.”
What are the key skills every project manager should have?
Lucy Hurst, Managing Director at Sherbet Donkey Media, gives us her top five skills for project managers:
- Communication: Make sure that everyone knows what is going on and the deadlines that are set for each project. Have frequent catch-up meetings to make sure that everyone is on the same page.
- Organization: Make sure that everyone is on track. Being organized is key.
- Time Management: Keep everyone working on the same time scales.
- Problem-solving: You need to think fast and sort things out.
- Leadership: You must mentor and lead people through their project journey.
According to Lightcast (formerly Emsi Burning Glass), which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country, here are the project manager skills pop up most often in job postings:
- Project Management
- Communication Skills
- Organizational Skills
- Microsoft Office
- Microsoft Excel
- Project Planning and Development Skills
Quigley says project managers should be skeptical and inquisitive about the project they’re leading. A good project manager always serves as the second set of eyes on a project. During job interviews for project managers, recruiters and hiring managers will frequently ask how you’ve overcome previous project challenges and how you’ve rallied your teams—showing that you’re willing to adjust your thinking in response to new information can position you as an adept, flexible manager.
What training do project managers need?
Those without much project management experience can learn a lot by reading. “I would advise a person unfamiliar with project management to begin immersion in this specialty with books on project management. ‘Project Management for The Unofficial Project Manager’ by Kory Kogon, Suzette Blakemore, and James Wood, ‘Project Management Case Studies’ by Harold Kerzner, and ‘Alpha Project Managers’ by Andy Crowe are great resources,” Moiseev says.
Hurst advises aspiring project managers to consider taking leadership training classes: “[A project manager is] someone that all staff members will look to for answers, and they need to be able to relay these answers in the appropriate ways.”
Quigley notes online courses are also handy: “Online training can help you learn. I am a big fan of self-directed learning and there are plenty of outlets that can help close the gap on what a person knows and wants to know. There are low-cost (some free) project management online training that might be helpful. This includes question banks to help ascertain your level of knowledge acquisition.”
Pozniak advocates for diversity. “Aspiring project managers shouldn't just stick to one methodology—they should get experience in as many as they can. It helps your brain open to more ideas and solutions that work. I think that when it comes to training, only extensive and diverse experience counts.”
Once a project manager has a few years of experience, they can begin racking up certifications that demonstrate their proficiency. Here are some of the more popular ones:
Project Management Professional (PMP): This popular certification is offered by the Project Management Institute. Requirements include a four-year degree, 35 hours of project management education/training or CAPM certification (see below), and three years of leading projects.
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.
As part of the training for certifications, organizations such as the Project Management Institute will guide you to training resources and classes you can use to expand your knowledge.
How much do project managers earn?
PayScale data shows that tech-centric project managers can make nearly $90,000 per year on average, with a range reaching $129,000 annually. That’s roughly aligned with the average technologist salary, which rose 6.9 percent between 2020 and 2021 to hit $104,566, according to the most recent Dice Tech Salary Report.
Emsi Burning Glass puts the overall median salary for project managers somewhat lower, at $77,584 per year. Education, experience, and mastering certain skills will only increase that—especially if those skills are highly specialized, such as machine learning and artificial intelligence (A.I.).