Project Management

Nine options for improving your project management skills

A career in project management is the goal of a TechRepublic member who is asking columnist Tom Mochal for advice. Here are nine strategies you can use to jump-start a career in project management.

TechRepublic columnist Tom Mochal receives dozens of e-mails each week from members with questions about project management problems. Mochal shares member questions—and the answers he provides—in a column each month. So often, IT pros tell TechRepublic that they receive the most insight when they learn about real-life situations that other IT pros are facing.

Question: How can I expand my project management knowledge?
I have been a project manager for the past three years. I have now reached a point where I wish to learn as much as possible about project management and make it the focal point of my career. I enrolled in a program to receive a diploma in project management and have researched information on the Web. I am eager to learn more. Can you advise me on how to expand my knowledge and experience?–Ashker

Answer: Here are nine options to try
I congratulate you on your desire to take a proactive approach to your career.

Many people tend to take things for granted, especially while they are young. They have a decent job that pays a decent salary. Then one day they start to realize they don’t have the right background or skills to really get where they want to go. Sometimes, after you have been in the business for a number of years, you look back with regret at not being more aggressive in proactively managing your career.

You have a head start on most people. You have some experience under your belt, and you are interested in getting more. Consider the following options for future growth.
  1. Gain experience. Continue to look for opportunities to gain project management experience. Depending on your job situation, you may find these opportunities to be readily available, or you may have to be alert and dig around a little. Since project events can be unpredictable, and since you are dealing with people, much of what you will learn and remember is based on prior experience.
  2. Increase your responsibility. In addition to continuing to gain project management experience, you also want to try to manage larger and larger projects, or multiple smaller ones. The complexities involved with managing larger projects will stretch your skills and your limits.
  3. Be successful. I suppose it goes without saying that if you have opportunities to be a project manager, you need to take advantage of them. This means you have to find a way to be successful. I knew of an experienced technical person who wanted to be a project manager. The problem was that the person failed miserably on his first project management assignment. This wasn’t so much of a training issue as it was a mindset issue. The person enjoyed the technical side of the project and was not able to focus on the work required for project management. Needless to say, the organization was not ready to give him another opportunity soon.
  4. Formal training. If you have some level of experience, I think training can be an effective way to learn additional project management techniques and practices. This can be instructor-led or self-taught training. Many classes contain exercises where you can practice the skills you are learning.
  5. Find a mentor or coach. In addition to formal training, you might try to identify a person from your company, or someone else you know that is a successful project manager. If you can find the right person, ask them if they will provide ongoing coaching to you on what things they do to be successful. The coach has limited value if you are not actively managing a project, since one of the major benefits is to ask questions based on real situations that you are encountering today.
  6. Join professional organizations. Search out what project management associations are available in your area. The largest is the Project Management Institute (PMI), which has chapters all over the world. These organizations provide an opportunity to network with other project managers, as well as sponsor training and other professional development classes. PMI also sponsors a project management professional (PMP) certification that is recognized more and more as a sign that the individual is experienced and possesses an advanced understanding of project management processes and techniques.
  7. Dig deep into the Web. If you enter ”project management” into any of the major Internet search engines, you will find hundred of links. Many of these are for people selling training, services, or software, but there are some very good Web sites that focus on project management. TechRepublic is a good example of a Web site that publishes content, templates, and discussion every week that is of value to a project manager.
  8. Learn about related topics. When you think of project management, you normally think about the planning and controlling aspects of the job. Don’t forget that to be truly successful, you have to have good soft skills as well. This includes good written and verbal communication ability, as well as good listening, conflict resolution, and performance management skills. If you can manage issues, scope, risk, and quality in a perfect manner, but no one on your team can stand you, then you probably are not going to be successful. These skills need to grow and improve as well as you progress though your career.
  9. Read books and magazines. There are hundreds of books available on general project management and specific subsets. Find time to read some when you can. Authors each have a way of describing aspects of project management that are different than others, and they can provide perspectives that you may not have thought about before.

Interested in project management certification?
Certifications aren't just for techies anymore. Download this list of certifications for project managers to learn how these programs can help you improve and expand your IT project management skills.

These are all ideas to consider as you try to gather more experience and learning.

Final thoughts
Based on your circumstances, you may or may not be able to do some or all of them. For instance, if you do not have a current project to work on, it may be hard to find a coach who you can rely on for assistance. Formal training may not be offered in your area or may be more than your company can afford. However, books and magazines can be fairly inexpensive, and of course, it doesn’t cost you anything to utilize the content that is available on the Web.

But the key is to be doing multiple things. If you really want to specialize in project management as a profession, you will want to be working on gathering experience, as well as gaining knowledge and contacts.

The payback is not measured in terms of days but in terms of years. Over time, you will find that you have more experience, more fundamental knowledge, more contacts, and more successes than your peers. When the need arises for an experienced, seasoned, successful project manager, who is your company going to look for? Well, of course, they are looking for the best.

They are looking for you!

Do you have a project management question for Tom?
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