If you’re wondering about the project manager career path, understanding the world of projects is the first step toward learning what a project manager does.

What is a project?

We use the word project quite casually in everyday life. For example, I often say that work is the biggest project in a human life. By this I mean that, as adults, we’re going to spend more time working than we will with our children or spouse; but, that’s not how we use the word project in the workplace. Here’s a good definition of project from the Project Management Institute:

A project is a collection of non-routine tasks, where the execution of this collection of tasks has a defined beginning and end, and where the collection is designed to accomplish a singular, primary goal.

What is project management?

Project management is, “the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements.”

What is a Project Manager?

A project manager is accountable to achieve the goals of a project. Most importantly, project managers achieve project goals by managing and leading other people. These other people are members of the project team.

What are project teams?

Along your project manager career path, you’ll likely first work as a member of a project team. Project teams vary in size and composition. They can include everyone from a project’s executive sponsor, client representatives and other stakeholders who might not be involved in the day-to-day work of executing the project. But, it’s more likely that the project team will consist of the Project Manager and everyone she needs to get the day-to-day project work done. The Harvard Business Review has done an excellent job of describing critical project team roles.

What is a PMP?

Although anyone can call themselves a project manager, part of the project manager career path is  deciding if you’re going to become certified by the Project Management Institute as a Project Management Professional (PMP). Some organizations prefer to hire PMP’s, while others don’t require any specific project management certification.

What are project management skills?

Project management skills usually fall into these three, broad categories: content knowledge, management, and leadership. Project managers also need an adequate understanding of project management itself. Let’s take a closer look.

Content knowledge

Let’s imagine a project is to design a new mobile computing application. That application is going to help people find the freshest fruits and vegetables for sale in their city. In this example, the content of the project includes coding and digital graphic design. But it also includes knowledge of fruits and vegetables, knowledge of consumer behavior, and knowledge of the local city. This project’s manager should have one or more of these bodies of knowledge. Without any of these, a project manager would find managing this project difficult.

Management and leadership skills

Management and leadership are very different things. Here are the definitions I like:

What is management?

Management is the sourcing, scheduling, and efficient application of resources.

What is leadership?

Leadership is the act of inspiring others to accomplish a goal in the manner desired by the leader. That’s the definition I learned in the military, and it served me well in my 25-year corporate career.

Project management knowledge

Someone can understand the content of a project, and be a great manager and leader, but still be a bad project manager. Why? Because there are specific ways content knowledge, and management and leadership skills, are applied to achieve project goals. All of this is introduced in the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK, pronounced: pem-bok), published by the Project Management Institute. Even if you choose not to become certified as a PMP, this book is invaluable and widely available.

Project management career paths

Now that you know more about project management and project managers, let’s look at some popular project manager career paths. And, don’t forget what career path means: it’s the jobs we take on our way to reaching our career goal. Our goal here is to become a project manager.

Engineering project manager career path

Most engineering projects start at conceptual design and end when the design is ready for construction or assembly. Not all engineering project managers are engineers, but all understand engineering. They understand

  • What must be designed
  • Which engineering disciplines must be involved
  • How engineering and design should proceed
  • When engineering and design is completed

Prior to becoming engineering project managers, they likely worked at engineering firms as design engineers, technicians or technologists, or in other project roles.

Construction project manager career path

Managing a construction project is very different that managing an engineering project. While engineering can happen anywhere, construction happens exactly where something is being built. And, construction project managers have usually held construction jobs, such as laborers or trades people. If you’re already working in construction, then you’re in the right place to acquire the knowledge and experience to become a construction project manager.

IT project manager career path

Information technology (IT) project managers come from very diverse backgrounds. They might have spent years coding, or they might have used information technology in other roles. If you want to become an IT project manager, you’ll usually need to

  • Get a job working anywhere in IT, and then try to progress into a project management role
  • Get a job that relies heavily on IT, and then try to get involved in upgrades or new technology implementation projects

3 ways most people become project managers

1. Work where projects happen

Working where projects happen is, luckily, most places, but not everywhere. Being part of a project, or at least being able to observe the project happening, is valuable experience that might help you get a project management job.

2. Work where project management happens

There are non-project management jobs in many organizations, including engineering, construction, and information technology companies. Working for a project manager is usually how people become project managers.

3. Get some project management training

Project management used to be a specialized skill only expected of senior professionals. But now, some project management knowledge and skill has become a job requirement for almost everyone. Many colleges and universities provide continuing education programs in project management. Completing one of these programs and adding it to your resume might be all it takes to start managing projects in your current organization, or get you an entry-level project management job somewhere else.

Don’t want to be a project manager?

But maybe, after reading this article, you no longer want to be a project manager. If so, that’s great! An important part of finding the right job, is knowing what the wrong job might be. Our dissatisfaction with our current work is often what enables us to find the work that we were always meant to do.