General managers are expected to understand project management principles, but carving out a career in project management requires special skills that can be the bridge to more senior roles.
There’s a special relationship between IT and project management. IT products and services, whether infrastructure, software development or desktop services, tend to be built and delivered in granular pieces, or projects. This means that IT professionals are uniquely positioned to carve out a career in project management or use it as a bridge to more senior roles or to other sectors.
The opportunity to learn on the job may explain why only a small percentage of students on programme management degree courses come from the IT world. Brian Weiss, vice president of the Project Management Institute thinks there’s some synergy between the IT project management contingent and the gifted cadre at the top of their game: “Few of them chose project management as a profession – it found them”.
Add to this the fact that we’re living in interesting times in the business world where no company has time on their hands to get products to market. “The board expects its general managers to know the principles of project delivery and execution and not just to delegate,” confirms Weiss. All of which makes the role of project manager more mainstream – and desirable - as a career move.
Deciding to take on the mantle of project manager is nonetheless a big step and not to be taken without investigation.
What type of person should you be?
If you are a shy retiring type, or if you need authority to get things done, think again. Conversely, if you can respond to challenge rather than react, if you can focus on the outcome you want rather than the distractions along the way – you’re the right material. You need to be someone who’s passionate about the potential of IT, can innovate on the spot and relishes change. And to make this happen you need bags of enthusiasm because, in this role, you have to take so many people with you.
Panellist’s view: Making change happen has to be in your DNA. If you’re someone who has finite enthusiasm and who doesn’t like uncertainty, best banish any thoughts of being project manager now.
What’s the best first job?
Many graduates make the mistake of thinking it’s something they can do straight from university. Project management is all about pulling disparate strands together and making good calls, which requires judgement and experience. A good entry-level job should start to build a foundation of knowledge and provide a handle on an area of technical expertise. Database analyst, business analyst and application developer are solid - and typical - starting roles. Acquiring experience of managing third party suppliers is also a must for today’s project manager.
Panellist’s view: Project management definitely isn’t a first job. A typical route is to take responsibility for project delivery, then run bigger and multiple projects.
What are the recommended professional qualifications and institutes?
There are 82 first degree courses in project management in the UK but you’ll find very few veterans of the IT world who got into the profession this way. Once involved in project delivery, however, some training and certification does not go amiss. It’s hard to prepare for something you don’t know is going to happen– but having a system of formal training and informal networks can help you deal with it.
Prince2, the UK government’s PM method, is ubiquitous in the software world. It offers basic ‘how-to’ building blocks plus it is very delivery-focussed. MSP comes from the same government stable but focuses on programme management. Internationally, the Project Management Institute is a giant, offering five main certification options spanning project management professional to risk management professional. The International Project Management Association's (IPMA) four-level certification programme is another option. A further range of accreditation options come from the UK’s Association of Project Managers, starting at elementary certification through to the more comprehensive APMP qualification.
Panellist’s view: Online communities can be as valuable as becoming a member of an institution. Linked-in, Yahoo and Google groups are very open and accepting. I use the forums to discuss the best ways of mentoring junior project managers. All the hot topics are discussed.
What additional skills are useful?
Anything that will help you burnish your already outstanding people and negotiation skills will reap dividends in this role. Degree courses or certification exams tend to contain people management, supplier management and customer engagement elements. These will teach theory about human behaviours, how different people respond to instruction and how to adapt communication. How you negotiate requirements with users and negotiate or renegotiate the terms of deals with suppliers are the things that make or break a project. For this reason, general management courses in conflict management and negotiation will come in very useful, too.
Panellist’s view: Project management is all about relationship building and influencing. People management is therefore worthy of special focus.
What are the job prospects?
Like all other IT job disciplines, project management took a hit in the last two years in terms of numbers of vacancies and salary levels, both for permanent and contract staff. However, recruiters report that good project managers with the right experience can still command £800 a day or £70,000 plus a year. Vacancies are occurring across the spread of sectors but tend to fall into niches that are doing well: electronics, defence and professional services are among those niches prospering.
A survey by GM Russam on the UK interim market, where project and programme managers tend to thrive, found that activity levels had increased by 11% over six months. On average, daily pay rates were unchanged: an average daily take-home pay of £592 in June 2010 matched December’s daily wage slip in 2009.
Panellist’s view: Certification is a useful thing to have on your CV and Prince2 seems to have won the marketing battle in the UK. But it is experience that really counts and what your previous job or assignment was.
What is the career progression?
The sky’s the limit for good project managers as it’s is a competence that all businesses now covet in their executive management team. Project management is no longer the preserve of a specialist who sits in the corner but a skill that everyone is expected to acquire. With executives now expected to do their share of plate-spinning, senior management is an attractive and attainable promotion. It won’t come as a surprise that there aren’t many CIOs around who haven’t been project manager at some stage of their career.
Another destination for the project manager with itchy feet is the Project Office, which many enterprises are setting up as a centralised way of managing project resource and delivery. A role here enables continued specialisation but at a more senior level. Project assurance is another opportunity where a seasoned PM acts as a hired hand to sniff out trouble from a hundred paces.
Panellist’s view: In the past, people may have chosen sales and marketing or finance as the preferred route to the board. Now project management is the de facto discipline of senior executives.
Our project management panel
Steve Barron, programme director for the MSc project management at Lancaster University Management School
David Dunning, operations director at Corporate Project Solutions
Melanie Franklin, CEO of Maven Training, former programme manager in investment banking
Mick Hides, senior recruitment consultant, Arras People
Julian Holmes, co-founder of UPMentors, former project manager with Capgemini and IBM
Adam Thilthorpe, director of professionalism at the BCS
Brian Weiss, vice-president product management, PMI, former director of global information products and services, Hay Group