So you want to become a project manager. What’s the ideal project manager career path? What skills do you need to learn, and do you need any kind of formal education for a career in project management?
First things first: What does a project manager actually do? In simplest terms, they’re tasked with ensuring projects are completed on time and within budget (and fulfill the project’s original goals). To accomplish that end, they must constantly monitor a project’s progress, negotiate with stakeholders and team members, troubleshoot problems, and make any necessary trade-offs in scheduling and resources.
As a job, it demands a good deal of “soft skills” such as empathy and communication. For project managers working in any technology context, there’s also a pressing need to grasp the project’s technical details; for example, if you’re spearheading the development of an iOS or Android app, you must understand the programming languages and frameworks that power those apps, the mobile development workflow, and so on.
With all that in mind, let’s explore a project manager’s possible career paths!
What Skills Does a Project Manager Need to Learn?
As we’ve covered before, there are certain skills that pop up in most job postings for project managers. (For this analysis, we’re relying on Lightcast, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings from across the country.) Those skills include:
- Project Management
- Communication Skills
- Organizational Skills
- Microsoft Office
- Microsoft Excel
- Project Planning and Development Skills
Learning how to budget, schedule, and plan is key to any project management job, no matter what the nature of the project. Solid problem-solving abilities are likewise critical. “Project management, supplier involvement, and team conflict resolution are all continuous negotiations. A good project manager can keep all stakeholders pleased and working toward a single goal,” James Angel, co-founder and CEO of DYL, recently told Dice.
When it comes to learning technical skills, some employers will prove willing to let you learn on the job, provided you have the basic project management skills; other companies may only consider you for the role if you already have those technical chops.
Project Manager Career Paths
Some project managers leap into their role from a completely different career track. For example, a software engineer given temporary oversight of a team might like the experience enough to make a permanent switch to project management.
If you’re jumping from another technology role to project management, though, you may need to adjust your mindset. While engineers and developers must be detail-oriented and willing to really dig into the nuances of a problem, project managers must take a more strategic, “top level” view of projects.
To learn the necessary skills, some tech professionals might opt to go back to school for a degree in project management, although others get by without that kind of commitment. “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,” Jon Quigley, principal at Value Transformation LLC, recently told Dice. “If you wish to manage technical projects, an associate’s degree can be helpful. A business degree is helpful, too. Managing technical projects can have trade-off situations, as all projects are constrained and come with hard decisions.”
For those who want to learn at a different pace, there are lots of options available. The Project Management Institute (PMI), for instance, offers lots of learning resources, certifications, and events. (Those who’re totally new to project management will want to check out a free PMI resource called Kickoff, which takes around 45 minutes to complete and teaches the basics of project management.) Coursera, Udemy, and other online learning portals also have virtual classes.
Whether you’re jumping careers or you’ve always worked as a project manager, it’s important to find experienced project managers who can mentor and advise you. Ask around your organization, identify project managers whose personalities align with yours, and ask if they’ll serve as an informal mentor. Ask them questions, but remember: any mentorship is a give-and-take relationship, and you’ll need to pay attention to their concerns and needs as much as they focus on yours.
Once you’ve learned the necessary skills and helped manage a few projects, you’ve hopefully racked up enough learning and experience to take the next step: applying for jobs. Your project manager resume should emphasize how you used your project management experience to help previous companies and teams succeed. During the project manager job interview, you’ll likely be asked about how you overcame project challenges, the types of technologies you’ve used, and your strategies for managing people.
Do I Need Project Management Certifications?
On your career journey, you’ll find potential employers that ask for project management certifications. While certifications aren’t strictly necessary for a project manager career, they can help you stand out in a crowded field of applicants. Some popular project management certifications include:
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.
Once you’ve obtained a certification, make sure to list it on your resume and other application materials, especially if it’s mentioned in the original job posting.
How Much Do Project Manager Jobs Pay?
PayScale data suggests tech-centric project managers make nearly $90,000 per year on average, climbing to roughly $129,000 annually. That’s pretty close to the average tech professional salary, which rose 6.9 percent between 2020 and 2021 to hit $104,566, according to the most recent Dice Tech Salary Report.
If you’re a project manager and want to boost your pay—or open up new career opportunities—consider learning a highly specialized skill. Project managers with an extensive background in complex artificial intelligence (A.I.) and machine learning projects, for example, are worth their weight in gold to companies that are devoting extensive resources to cutting-edge technologies.
Related Project Manager Jobs Resources: