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How to become a project manager

Olga Drobysheva
Get a pre-made project plan based on this how-to guide.
From this story you will learn why you should (or shouldn't) become a Project Manager, what it involves and, most importantly, how to build a successful career in this role. There are a lot of resources around it, never stop exploring. 

However, this article can be a good start and reference point on the way. Save it, come back to it regularly, build your own plan based on this guide. 

Check what Project Manager job is and what it isn’t

Why I like being a Project manager? It's great working with a team of smart people, different people, creative people, being a part of creation process and seeing it all the way through from ideation to release. It’s great to be a part of an awesome team, but it’s often a PM who forms and builds that team. Apart from formal interactions it also starts to involve informal. It only helps to know your people well, know what they leave and breath, their goals and problems. Productive team is a happy team. However, don’t get too emotionally involved, don’t get sucked in other people’s issues.
It's not only people in your team that you interact with, it's also all the cross functional stakeholders involved. You get to work with people from all the different departments and learn a lot of different things from them. You also interact a lot with top management and clients. That's what makes the job interesting but also challenging sometimes.

Everyone comes with a question to Project Manager, if anything happens it’s sometimes a PM who needs to roll up the sleeves and get the hands dirty. It’s not always just ask giving. So you become alpha and omega in many ways during the project. Some PMs end up coming the first and leaving the last the work place, working crazy hours, always connected, plugged in, replying emails and messages at home, from holidays, etc. It’s not what the job is.
Project Manager’s job (beyond general responsibilities) is to make sure that this doesn’t happen both for themselves and their teams.

Another advantage of the job is that you never get bored. Every project is something new. You always learn new things and aspects.

Check what it takes to do the job

But those are all emotional aspects of the job. It’s important to have passion for what you do, to like your job (if you don’t, it’s going to be difficult to be a good PM), but there’s a formal aspect of the job.

This is what Project managers actually do throughout the project (not necessary in sequence, many events happen in parallel and in iterations)
1. Collect requirements, analyze business case to understand customer/project sponsor goals. Basically understand what needs to be achieved or resolved by the project. This will become project goal and objectives. In contrast to general idea, a (good) Project Manager rarely works alone.

2. Work out the solution. Again, I’m going to contradict to a popular opinion here: PMs don’t come up with solutions. Because they are not specialists (we’ll talk a bit later about it). They define strategy and direction, involve all the needed specialists, facilitate brainstorms and discussions, challenge the team to think outside the box, improve the initial idea, question for risks and opportunities.

3. Make sure all communications are set up and arranged. In bigger projects there can be particular requirements, even Mass Media involved, that’s where this becomes especially important. In general, for team communications the requirement are: simple to use, availability, robust, ability to save history, security.
4. Break down work into smaller workable items - tasks. Estimate tasks duration. Assess risks and come up with risk mitigation plan. Don’t do it alone either. Work with those who are actually going to do the job. Again motivate, challenge, question but never direct.

5. Sequence events — create project plan. This is the Stepping Stone of the whole project. And this is the responsibility and main duty of a Project Manager. It’s like putting together a puzzle, making sure all pieces fit, all dependencies are taken into account and there are no contradictions. Project plan is a living document, it’s adjusted and updated along the way through project cycles, as more information is received.

6.Resource the project: acquire a team, arrange procurement. Work with HR and Procurement department. In smaller projects or companies, it’s a PM who does it all. In this case it’s important for you to study related law and contracts.
7. Execute the project. It’s interesting that this part is commonly considered as the main Project Manager’s responsibility and probably the one that they spend the most time on. In fact in mature teams/companies, project teams are able to self-organize. There are even development managers and team leads to manage teams and development cycles. This process goes smoothly if a PM does the actual PM job - define, plan and organize the project.

8. Review deliverables, control quality, control and verify all the processes, course correct if needed. Again if requirements and acceptance criteria are well-defined, this stage shouldn’t be a problem. However, reality can be different. This is where Project Manager sometimes have to use creativity to find solutions and workarounds and facilitate team to do the same. The last thing that a PM can do is panic. It will destroy team’s trust and moral and may jeopardize the project.

9. During whole process — manage stakeholders and document everything. Stakeholder management is a whole science on its own. In short it means — keep everyone involved and informed, communicate well and on time with whom it may concern.

10. Once ready — deliver project or phase to the customer. Close project or phase, make sure that all documentation is updated. Hand over the project or phase. 

Learn about the skills you need

As you could guess from the above, Project Management skills include much more than formal project management knowledge. There are formal and informal skills or so cold hard and soft skills.

Soft Skills

Project manager should be a good communicator. It's important to be able to explain the project on different levels (executive meeting is quite different in style of communication from a team's update).

That's where storytelling skills are handy. It's also important to be aware of different cultural aspects if you are working on an international project or with an international team. This sort of projects are very exciting and provide an invaluable experience, but they can be also complicated due to communications specifics, cultural differences and location constraints.
But it's not only brainstorming and coming up with creative solutions, hang out with cool people who talk about technology and new interesting stuff. It's also working a lot with documentation, time tables, schedules, assignments.
Project management is like collecting the puzzle and connecting multiple dots. It requires attention to detail, analytical and critical thinking, abstract thinking.
It's important to be responsible and accountable for decisions you make. And you make dozens of them every day. It's often important to make decisions fast. So decisiveness is an important skill. To make sure that the decision is right, you should be very well versed in the subject, have that 3D thinking I mentioned earlier together with outside of the box thinking.

It will also come handy when your team will get back to you with more questions than solutions, when something happens and you need to find workaround, when shit hits the fan and you need to take the shovel and sort it out. PM is alpha and omega when it comes to managing the team and project. You lead, you are on the front line but you also may require to roll up the sleaves and get your hands dirty .
It is relevant for working with the team. PM is definitely a team leader but also a team player. You cannot be isolated though you are still different from the rest of the team. You are a ship captain, you board the first and you leave the last. Success of the project also depends on the moral of the team, their motivation and productivity. People's skills become crucial here. Important part of working with people is communicational skills. It's important for work with the team but also for managing stakeholders. 

Hard skills

As to professional skills, PM is more of a generalist rather a specialist. You should know different aspects of the field, understand all related domains, including laws and legislation. But you don't need dive into details. There's a fine line for when you can say that level of knowledge is enough for a PM: it's when you know enough to sense there can be an issue or an opportunity, enough to understand connections between parts of the whole, but not enough to implement the actual solution.

Meaning you are not a specialist in the area. So, against a common opinion, Project manager doesn't need to know how to code to be a good PM. A coder in their turn, should have all the above skills (communications, leadership, decisiveness, psychologist, etc.) to be a good PM. It means always developing the width of your knowledge rather than depth.

Of course, a PM should develop themselves in the craft itself. Always learn different approaches and nuances of Project management. Never settle with one. Even though nowadays Agile is a thing it's still worth to learn other frameworks, like waterfall, extreme project management, etc. Within those learn different approaches to every step: how to crash the schedule, how to manage stakeholders better, how to manage and set up communications, what are risk management approaches, what are best ways of documenting and reporting project progress, etc.

Kickstart your career

So how do you start a career in Project Management? Most of us have become PMs accidentally. We were assigned or "promoted".

I'd suggest before setting on the journey, discover what are the processes and responsibilities associated with it (in general and in your organization), how much learning you'll need to do and how you can progress and develop.

Read along as I've put together a plan for you.

Get a degree

It is often recommended to get a relevant degree in IT (engineering) or business administration. And it is great if you can do it or did. However, don't get frustrated if you received your degree in totally different field and then decided to switch your career path.

Me, for example, my degree is in Linguistics and I’m successfully doing Project and Product Management for 10 years in IT. And even more, sometimes I observe with other Project Managers who got their IT/engineering background, they get too technical and too much fixated on coming up with detailed solutions instead of leaving it to development team. Plus it may limit you to a particular type of business. As we discussed earlier, Project Management is applied in various fields, so don't restrict your opportunities.

If the choice of what Bachelors to get is still in front of you, I'd recommend to go for more general knowledge domains like management and business administration. And then get necessary specific knowledge on the job, through courses and self-education.
I would say, having a Bachelor degree is important. It's not just about getting academic knowledge. Your years in Uni also teach you certain skills. Most importantly, it teaches you how to learn, how to acquire knowledge, which is very important for a Project Manager.
And it's also a standard requirement for all Project management jobs.
Some positions require more technical PM with "Bachelors in IT/engineering or relevant education", which ultimately means: You need to have IT degree OR a Bachelor's and get IT/programming courses, college certificate etc. 
Choice is yours what career line you'd like to pursuit: technical or more general Project Manager. There are a lot of great opportunities even without engineering background and I'm a living proof :) 

Get some work experience

Before you jump into formal Project Management education, work in the field.

There are two reasons. 
  • First, and the most important one, - figure out if it's really for you. Make sure you don't romanticise it. The job we do is great. But it's also a lot of responsibility, it can be stressful at times, and it can often get you out of your comfort zone. Make sure you can manage all that and you actually can enjoy it. To me there's nothing like the feeling of fulfilment and accomplishment once I resolved the issue or conflict, found a new solution, mitigation, way out of difficult situation when no one could see the light in the end of the tunnel. 

    Refer to skills section to see if it's something you have or could develop and generally would like to work on. 
  • Secondly, many of formal Project management certifications or University programs require up to 3 years work experience. You need to see how it works in real life first, get some self-education and then go for formal education to structure your knowledge. Sometimes it means that you’ll have to “unlearn” certain things. But you need to have a general idea about project management.

Constantly improve your skills and knowledge

This step really starts once you get on the job.

I'd suggest first to go with self-educations.
Read articles (like this one), books, focus both on professional and soft skills. Ask your colleagues that already have experience about how they do certain things. Ask them to recommend good reads on Project management [see mine in Appendix]. And just google it. Search for the terms you don't fully understand, for management approaches and different processes, any question that comes to your mind. Qui quaerit, reperit (my linguistic background kicks in).
Focus on the following knowledge areas for a better, well-rounded professional growth:
Formal Project Management knowledge. No brainer. You can do without it.
General management and leadership. General management teaches organisational processes, finance, how to deal with people. Leadership will teach you how to motivate and inspire people, make them more productive, gain trust and build teams. All that ensures project success.

Specialised knowledge. Mostly on-the-job training. It will include knowledge about the field that project is related to. For example, you are creating a software for medical institutions. You should have knowledge about software development and about how medical institutions work (which you can learn while collecting requirements and planning).

Personal development and soft skills. We discussed those soft skills earlier. It is possible to develop them. There are a lot of resources in personal development area for that. Don’t be afraid or too conservative to use them.

Once you feel like self-study is not enough, go for courses. It normally happens on your second year of work. Start with smaller, shorter courses and programs. They will help you to structure your knowledge. There are a lot of options from short courses to higher degrees online:

Open College Courses

Distant Learning Courses

Free Online Courses from EdX

Choose your PM certification and decide whether you need it

What about certificates? Every PM reaches the point when we start thinking to get a cert. Especially those that became PMs when higher education in Project Management didn’t exist at all.

Honestly I think that certificates become less and less relevant. My last employer didn't even look in my PMP and scrum certs. However, I should say that experience and knowledge I acquired through those trainings and exams is very useful.
Which certificate to choose? Depends on where you work and what projects you are working on. All certificate and approaches are different and the knowledge they are giving is best applied in different situations.
Let’s review few most popular ones.

Project Management Professional

provided by

It's worth mentioning that PMP is taken as a base for ISO 2000 - standards around project management. Even though PMP is often associated with waterfall Project Management, corporate environments and larger projects and used as an opposite to lightweight Agile, it's actually agnostic to scheduling style or field. PMP talks about project management in general as a framework that can be applied in every environment.

The hardest to get. Requires few days training (I recommend to go for it instead of online course) by a certified provider as hours should be accounted. A lot of reading and self-study. Four hour computer based exam with 200 questions (and they are not easy) in a certified location. Nobody knows the exact criteria to pass.


Provided by

Remember that the critical difference between PMP framework and Agile is that the latter is not a Project management framework but a development approach. A project that has contractual obligations and deadlines can be agile only to certain extend. Scrum in its turn is more of a Product than project management framework.
It doesn't mean that I wouldn't recommend studying Agile. Vice versa, I think it's a great tool in knowledgeable hands.
Relatively easiest to get (also depending which tier you choose). Scrum master exam is online based, 100 questions. Enough time to google some answers (if you a cheating type). 


Developed by UK government, Prince2 is a project management methodology (not a framework) which limits its application and flexibility. Though methodology itself is considered quite flexible on its own and useful in some situations: gives more control over resources, works well in defined org structure, controlled environment. May not work well in smaller companies or with changing requirements.

If you are planning to work in UK, with UK or countries influence by UK business culture, worth take a shot.
Exams are considered as medium difficulty (based on my colleagues’ feedback). One hour exam, 75 multiple choice questions. 

To sum up

Project Management is a complex but never boring profession. It has a lot of opportunities and options depending on your personality and preferences. It helps and sometimes forces you to never stop your development. It’s technical and creative and multi-facet. It requires a lot of time and concentration but it rewards as well.
Never stop developing and growing, always look for advancement, more interesting, bigger projects and you’ll be rewarded.

Reading List

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, Patrick Lencioni

Death by Meeting: A Leadership Fable...About Solving the Most Painful Problem in Business, Patrick Lencioni
The Deadline: A Novel about Project Management, Tom DeMarcoThe Lean Startup: How Today's Entrepreneurs Use Continuous Innovation to Create Radically Successful Businesses,  Eric RiesScrum.orgPMBoKMaking Things Happen: Mastering Project Management, Scott Berkun The Lazy Project Manager: How to Be Twice As Productive and Still Leave the Office Early, Peter Taylor The Plugged-In Manager: Get in Tune with Your People, Technology, and Organization to Thrive, Terri L. GriffithRework, Jason FriedCulture eats strategy for lunch, Curt Coffman, Kathie Sorensen  Visual Teams: Graphic Tools for Commitment, Innovation, and High Performance, David SibbetVisual Meetings: How Graphics, Sticky Notes and Idea Mapping Can Transform Group Productivity, David Sibbet Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ, Daniel GolemanTeamwork 101: What Every Leader Needs to Know, John C MaxwellManagement, Peter F DruckerThe 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change,  Stephen R. Covey The Miracle Morning: The Not-So-Obvious Secret Guaranteed to Transform Your Life (Before 8AM), Hal ElrodFor girls (and guys):Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, Sheryl SandbergThrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder, Ariana Huffington
Story by
Olga Drobysheva