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How to Become an IT Project Manager

By , Mary Kyle - Source: Toms IT Pro

Project management can be an exciting and dynamic career. Successful project managers need a unique combination of both soft and technical skills. Learn more about how you can join the ranks of project management professionals.

The Project Management Job

Project management is an exciting career path with infinite possibilities. Each project is unique and brings a new set of challenges — there are no "cookie cutter" days in project management. Plus, there's something intensely satisfying about taking the merest whisper of a "what if" and watching it evolve into a fully developed concept, and, finally, into a tangible product or service that others can touch, feel and use.

The process of taking an idea and creating a fully functioning product does not happen in a vacuum. It takes money, time, resources (dedicated resources), business and marketing analysis, planning, risk mitigation activities, scheduling and much more. Projects also need sponsors and people who want to see the product or service become a reality. Most importantly, projects need leaders to organize all the moving parts and help them come together in a unified whole. Project managers fulfil that leadership role.

MORE: Best IT Certifications for the Management Track

Specific responsibilities may vary depending on factors such as the scope of the individual project, organizational preferences and project management methodology (Waterfall, Agile, Scrum, Six Sigma or Kanban, for example) utilized. In traditional Waterfall-type environments, the project scope is defined at the beginning of a project. As a result, project managers typically engage in all five phases of the projects they work on — this includes initiation, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and of course, project close out. It's the job of the project manager to ensure that projects are delivered on time, on budget, on schedule and as defined in the project scope.

In Agile-type project management methodologies, the project scope is not defined at the beginning. Project activities are conducted in shorter cycles, which may be referred to as "sprints." The role of project manager may look different in these types of environments. Often, Agile teams are self-directed, and project management responsibilities are shared among team members. Scrum methodology uses a ScrumMaster rather than a traditional project manager who manages the process rather than the project, and who plans sprints and clears roadblocks.

Key Skills for Project Managers

To ensure success, project managers need a variety of skills. A thorough understanding of the technical aspects of the project is a huge plus, and experience plays a huge role. But success isn't built on experience and education alone. Project managers also need a variety of soft skills in their toolboxes to ensure effective leadership. While the following list of items is not exhaustive, you'll find that most successful project managers excel in the following areas:

  • Communication: One of the most important skills a project manager can possess is the ability to communicate effectively. Lack of effective communication has derailed many projects.
  • Organizational skills: Project managers need superb organizational skills. After all, it's not just their personal tasks that they're managing but those of an entire project and project team.
  • Problem solvers: Problems can and will arise. In these instances, it's the project manager who takes the lead in identifying a path to resolve the current crisis and mitigate project risks.
  • Negotiation: While this skill may not be as intuitive as the others, the ability to negotiate effectively is a huge benefit in project management. It's not uncommon to find project team members assigned to multiple projects, which may result in competing deadlines. Project managers are often required to take the lead in negotiating for the availability of required resources, scheduling conflicts, resolving conflicts or disputes, and so forth.
  • Leadership: True leaders never browbeat others into following. True leaders inspire and invite you to follow them on a journey of discovery and innovation. Project managers should manage in such a way as to inspire the team to want to follow, even when following may mean longer hours under uncomfortable conditions to meet project requirements.

Project Management Education And Certification

While you will always find those who make an argument that experience matters more than education, successful project managers should build a personal portfolio that includes both formal academic education as well as certifications geared to the type of project management methodology they typically practice. While a degree is not necessarily required to become an IT project manager, you'll find few employers willing to hire individuals without one.

By way of example, we conducted an informal job search of several popular job boards and reviewed real-world requirements of prospective employers. In addition to experience, all required some type of certification. Except for a single post, all employers required at least a bachelor-level degree in computer science, information management systems, information technology or some similar field.

In addition to technical degrees and project management certifications, academic degrees in project management are increasing in popularity. Those interested in pursuing a degree in project management will find numerous programs available. Examples of a few of the degreed project management programs we found included Colorado Technical University's Bachelor of Science in Business Administration: Project Management (BSBA-PM), Ashford University's Bachelor of Arts in Project Management, while Colorado State University's Global Campus offers a Bachelor of Project Management degree.

Numerous online universities, such as DeVry and Capella, offer degree programs in project management or will create customized degree programs. Those interested in seeking graduate degrees in project management may want to look at the George Washington University Masters in Project Management. George Washington University also offers a master's certificate program in project management, and allows students who complete that program to apply those credits to their degree program.

When it comes to certification, there are simply too many to mention in this article, but there are a few clear favorites among practitioners and employers alike. Our three top recommendations include the CompTIA Project+ credential, the Project Management Institute (PMI) Certified Associate in Project Management, and PMI's coveted Project Management Professional (PMP) credential.

If you are just launching your career as a project manager, CompTIA's Project+ is an excellent starting point. Geared to practitioners working with small to medium-sized projects, a single exam is required to earn this credential. While there are no formal prerequisites, CompTIA recommends that candidates possess at least one year of project management experience or equivalent education before attempting the exam.

From there, serious candidates can progress to PMI's Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM). The CAPM is a stepping stone to the more senior PMP credential.

With more than 700,000 certified professionals worldwide, PMI's PMP credential is one of the most recognized and highly coveted project management credentials around. For IT professionals seeking to enjoy a long, successful career in project management, the PMP is a must-have credential. The PMP is for experienced project managers who possess advanced skills. To obtain the PMP, candidates must undergo a rigorous exam and possess a combination of education, documented project management experience and project management education.

IT professionals working in organizations who have adopted Scrum or Agile project management methodologies should add certifications to their portfolio that validate skills related to those areas. Our top recommendations are the PMI Agile Certified Practitioner (PMI-ACP) and the ScrumAlliance Certified Scrum Master (CSM).

According to PMI, the PMI-ACP is the organization's fastest growing certification. The certification covers several Agile-type methodologies, including Scrum, Kanban, Lean and more. A single exam, plus a combination of Agile training, general project management and Agile-specific project management experience is also required.

The Certified Scrum Master is an excellent starting point for those seeking to incorporate the Scrum "servant leader" project management methodology. An entry-level credential, candidates must complete a two-day training event plus pass the associated exam to earn the credential.

MORE: Check out our Best Project Management Certifications.

Is Project Management Right For You?

Project management is a challenging field. Project managers must see the big picture but drive to the details. They need strong analytical skills and the ability to think outside the box to spur a project on (or bring it back) within the established parameters.

In determining if project management is for you, ask yourself these key questions. Do you like the same routine every day or do you enjoy the unexpected? If you like routine, project management is probably not the best fit. Do you enjoy a challenge and problem solving? If so, then this might be a nice fit. If you're unsure if project management is right for you or want to learn more, seek out other project managers in your organization and talk with them. You'll find that most are happy to share their perspectives with you and many will allow you to shadow them. Take the opportunity to see them in action and you'll be much better-equipped to decide if you'd like to join their ranks.

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