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6 Things I didn’t know about being a project manager

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Image credit: Calixto on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/calixto/4750966108

I decided to be a project manager. Admittedly, it wasn’t until I started working that I knew such a job existed, but when I realised I did, I knew it was for me. However, even though I thought I knew what I was letting myself in for there were still some things I didn’t know about being a project manager before throwing myself into the job.

Here are 6 things I learned about being a project manager – things I didn’t know back in 2000 when I started out.

1. It would always be different

Admittedly, part of the attraction of working with projects is that I would be working on different things. What I hadn’t appreciated is that each project would be so different. Even within the same company the project team, deliverables, departments I was delivering for and the skills required would be very different.

It’s a job that is never the same, and that’s a massive benefit.

2. The technology would change

I suppose I should have seen this coming, but back in 2000 I thought I was learning MS Project and that would be enough. Since I started managing projects, social media and online tools have become a much larger part of a project manager’s repertoire.

The technology required to do our jobs, and the understanding of the technology in use by other departments and our customers, is a much larger part of project management than I ever expected (not that I thought about it that much at the time).

3. There is no need to specialise (but I could if I wanted to)

I began project managing in insurance. More specifically than that, insurance IT. Insurance an industry with a specific language (more on vocabulary below) and there was a point where I thought that I would need to stay in the industry. I thought I had some special knowledge – in reality, I did, but that’s not to say that moving industry is impossible. You can learn the special knowledge of other industries, and my shift to healthcare was relatively easy.

If you want to specialise in a particular type of project management or an industry, you can. I love IT, and I can’t see myself moving into marketing projects or anything else at the moment. But every industry uses IT, so IT project management is a very transferable skill – if I wanted to shift industries again, I could.

4. There is a complete vocabulary to learn

Vocab is something that creeps up on you. You learn it through professional study, training courses, talking to colleagues, surfing the internet, reading project management blogs like this one. Because you don’t know that you are learning it, you suddenly wake up one day and realise that you speak project management.

Many jobs have specialist jargon, so in that respect project management is no different. At the time I started out, I didn’t realise how much language specific to my job I would pick up, and how it would become a part of the way I think and communicate.

5. It is a life skill

Project management is not just a job, it’s a life skill. You can use a project plan for pretty much anything, from moving house to planning a wedding.

When you have project management skills, I think you become more organised, more structured in the way you approach tasks and more able to take on responsibility for co-ordinating groups. That’s why I think project management should be taught in schools.

6. No one would understand my job

The final thing I didn’t realise about being a project manager is that no one would understand what I do all day. And that’s not just family and friends. People at work (those who are not project managers) often don’t get what it is that I do. From the outside, project managers look like the people who tell everyone else what to do. That’s part of it (although there isn’t much ‘telling’, at least, not the way I do it). It is far more about relationship building to get things done, but doesn’t that sound like buzz words? My job is to make it easy for other people to do their jobs, and if that doesn’t sound like a non-job then I don’t know what does.

I still struggle to explain what a project manager does, but I think big projects like the Olympics, the Jubilee and a Royal Wedding have perhaps made people a bit more aware about what managing a project is all about.

What about you – what things did you not know before becoming a project manager? Let us know in the comments.

38 comments… add one

  • Bonnie 20/02/2013, 3:40 pm

    All great points, especially #6. Two things I did not know before I became a project manager: how much it reminds me of parenting and how much it is about helping people deal with change.

    • Elizabeth 20/02/2013, 6:33 pm

      Bonnie, these are excellent additions. I’ve only been a parent for 2 weeks and at the moment it isn’t much like project management – but I have a feeling it will turn out that way.

      • Pmpad 21/02/2013, 11:52 am

        Interesting comparison. If we go back to the definition of project I guess there are two fundamental aspects that allow to associate parenting with project management:

        1) our devotion and education as parents bring unique results. A must for a project.

        2) like for a project by definition, parenting has a start and an end. We won’t be able to live with our children forever unfortunately :-(.
        Ok..one could tell me that this bullet should be further elaborated as parenting includes routine tasks which can’t be considered project management regardless the cycle is time constrained.. PMBOK fans will forgive me.

        One thing however admittedly conflicts with the mandatory requirements that allow to speak about “project” according to the literature: the budget we have, which I like to think is our love for sons.
        Being a father I can say that is limitless, while a project will never benefit of such a huge budget :-)

        Cheers
        Thomas

        • Elizabeth 21/02/2013, 2:18 pm

          Routine tasks are often included in programmes, maybe we could say parenting is more like programme management? Great thoughts on this topic, thanks for sharing them.

          • Pmpad 21/02/2013, 2:40 pm

            I think that’s correct as a program literally foresees a benefit in running more than one project contemporary under the same umbrella. And in parenting we definitely have several projects to manage at the same time for a common outcome: sons happiness!

            Thanks to you for replying.

  • Yulia 20/02/2013, 4:41 pm

    Great post. I am currently willing to move to PM position, and your post was helpful to get better picture. as I still doubt whether I will like it or not. Hope I will find more info here. And its true about #6 – my friends and family dont get what will be my job :)

    • Elizabeth 20/02/2013, 6:32 pm

      Yulia, I hope you will enjoy PM, it can be a great job in the right company. Why not try it and if you don’t like it, you can move to a different post – you’ll never know unless you give it a go!

  • Don Kim 20/02/2013, 9:10 pm

    For me the problems isn’t having to explain what a project manager does, but rather that people sometimes have a myopic view of the role. The usual archetypal roles that get conjured up are scheduler, task master and the usual person who must get a project done “on time and under budget”. The other misconception I run into is the outdated idea that project managers work exclusively in construction, engineering or IT.

    It’s not that these ideas are wrong, but rather it is too narrow and stereotypical. The role has and can be expanded quite a bit as indicated in your post.

    • Elizabeth 21/02/2013, 2:20 pm

      I think part of the problem is also that the job has expanded a lot, and that you now see job adverts for ‘project managers’ earning £20k doing mainly admin and upwards of £80k doing full project management and strategic thinking. Without clarity on what a PM actually does, it’s no wonder people get confused about our jobs!

  • Olga Mizinova 26/02/2013, 12:55 pm

    Great article Elizabeth, keep up the good posting, I alway enjoy reading your articles.
    Now, on the point: I only have a year experience in Project Management, but what was really difficult for me to learn was to say “I don’t know”. I’ve always thought that I should know the answer for every question regarding the project, but my mentor showed me that my job is to find the answer, not to know it right away.

    BR,
    Olga

    • Pmpad 27/02/2013, 3:54 pm

      Hi Olga,

      I feel obliged to quote a little excerpt of my page “What does a project manager do” which provocatively sounds “No matters where the project manager is, it is expected s/he is always – real time – aware of what is going on in the project”. :-)

      At the beginning of my career I also thought to be measured on my knowledge and ability to reply real-time to everything.

      Instead, over the years I learned that what is important are three things:

      1) set the right expectations to my interlocutors. If I do not have personally a reply, I do not invent it to show confidence. It is risky, counterproductive. I just take the firm commitment to provide that by a date.

      2) improve my behavioral skills to drive individuals to provide the answers which I do not have and I need to have. My confidence needs to be the confidence in obtaining a reply from others, more the awareness to have an encyclopedia in my mind.

      3) accept the fact that a project manager may spend days in preparing boring charts and flagging a to do list in the quiet of a comfortable office, and all of a sudden be catapulted in the middle of a crisis to be managed in record time.
      We need to live with that, and keep self control as much as possible.

      Cheers

    • Elizabeth 2/03/2013, 11:45 am

      Olga, that’s exactly right. And it helps build a lot more credibility if you tell people you don’t know the answer when you don’t. The best thing to do, as you have no doubt found out, is to be honest, say you don’t know and then go and find out the answer and get back to them. People will value your honesty and also your ability to follow up. I hope you are enjoying project management – it is a great job!

  • Andrew Ball 1/03/2013, 6:09 pm

    Good post Elizabeth, I’ve dipped in and out of project management in the past 20 years and I’ve worked with every type of bad PM: the teflon (wo)man, the spiv, the bully, the hero and those who try (and fail) to do PM by numbers.

    When I started I didn’t know what made a good PM but now I think I do, it’s still quite hard to nail down and write into a job specification but you definitely know it when you see it. Good PMs are easier to spot by the things they don’t do. As a general rule they don’t panic, they don’t scream and shout, they don’t shoot from the hip, they don’t make snap judgements, they don’t manage by numbers and they don’t do their dirty washing in public. They do have strong values, they are consistent, they know when to take control and when to back off, they get to know their teams and how to get the best out of them, they energise, enable and support and they deliver great results.

    It’s a profession to be proud of.

    • Elizabeth 2/03/2013, 11:46 am

      Andrew, looking at what we don’t do is a good way of defining the value that project managers bring to a situation. I think you have hit the nail on the head – not panicking, being discreet, weighing up the evidence and making considered decisions are definitely core skills for project managers.

  • Martin Lüdicke 4/03/2013, 10:37 am

    Nice post. #6 is so true – but as well so close to ‘everybody claims to understand my job much better than I do’. Project marketing and self marketing are quite important.

    • Elizabeth 5/03/2013, 8:22 am

      Martin, thanks for this insight! Being a project manager is a pretty thankless job. If the project goes well, people say ‘what did we need you for?’. If it goes badly, you get all the blame. We can’t win…

  • Brian 4/03/2013, 9:20 pm

    It took me a few failed projects whilst I was learning my trade that the P in PM stands for “People” and it’s through managing people that we get work done and the project delivered. Project complexity is directly linked to the number or people relationships involved in delivering change. If you master managing people you can manage any complexity of project. Simples.

    • Elizabeth 5/03/2013, 8:21 am

      Brian, that’s a good way of looking at the acronym ‘PM’. Projects are delivered through others, and this is one of the main challenges with project management as a job. It’s been overlooked in the methodologies (in my opinion) for a long time, but PMI has now introduced stakeholder management as a knowledge area and PRINCE2 also has more focus on tailoring the approach and better relationships, so hopefully things are changing with the standards to keep up with what practitioners have known for ages!

  • Jim 21/03/2013, 5:20 pm

    I didn’t know that I would learn more from a failed project, about myself, my role, the project itself and the team (and the rest) then I would by the project successes.
    In short and its not a cliche, but you truely learn more from your mistakes.

    • Elizabeth 25/03/2013, 6:46 pm

      Agreed: I don’t think we talk about project failure openly enough, which is a shame as we can certainly learn a lot from it.

  • Aamer Inam 25/03/2013, 5:39 am

    Great Read Elizabeth , When you do your 100% being a project manager and look at every activity of every phase in terms of its importance , value and priority doing this every other day on a project makes you realize that you are doing a specific job , that has a clear objective , and you find a way to get this done through the power and commitment of your crew . I learnt from the post that a good PM is the one who adopts to ever changing technologies to meet project objectives , though no one understand what PM does but we see this as a major driver behind the workforce that can keep them upright to the project challenges ,over coming them and ultimately making it a success as a whole unit. So no matter what if any one else realize it during the project or not , end of the day , results will pop up and let every one know what an organization can achieve making best use of available resources in a diligent way !

    • Elizabeth 25/03/2013, 6:45 pm

      I hope you’re right! In my experience people don’t always recognise the value a PM adds, but we certainly do create results and should be judged on those. Thanks for your comment.

  • Aamer Inam 24/04/2013, 10:31 am

    Great post Elizabeth ! I would like to add that as Project Manager you got to be vocal enough , making prudent judgement (a kind of collective prudence ) and have enough courage to uncover road blocks on time for quick and graceful resolve.

    • Elizabeth 27/04/2013, 9:06 am

      Courage is a really good point. You do need a certain amount of corporate bravery to make it as a project manager, because you need to be the ‘honest broker’ betweent the people doing the work and the people getting the benefits, and as you no doubt know, they don’t always see eye to eye!

  • Kelly C. 1/11/2013, 7:45 pm

    I didn’t realize that it would ruin my ability to look at people without seeing their deliverables floating around them. It is like they become walking opportunities for updates.

    • Elizabeth 1/11/2013, 8:38 pm

      Ha! That’s funny, but sadly true. Every time I pass someone I have to prompt myself to start with the small talk and pleasantries before launching into the, “So, how’s that task coming along?”

  • Dasha Golubeva 7/11/2013, 9:50 am

    Elizabeth, I think this post would be especially helpful for those people who are just starting their PM journey. I really like your definition of PM job in paragraph 6.

    • Elizabeth 7/11/2013, 7:43 pm

      Thanks, Dasha. I’ve read lots of definitions about what a PM does but I’ve never found one that I feel I can use as my ‘elevator pitch’ and I still struggle to come up with something short and pithy myself, so that’s as good as I can do for now.

  • Mike Russell 20/11/2013, 1:07 am

    Great post Elizabeth, even for us boys. I think the main piece of project management that resonated with me is the constant change that the job brings. I love the diversity of projects I have been able to work on over the years and wouldn’t go back and skip a single one, even those that were difficult and didn’t meet deadline.

    Mike
    http://execprojectmanager.com

    • Elizabeth 21/11/2013, 8:06 pm

      It is certainly the kind of job that changes as the work environment changes – what I was doing 10 years ago isn’t what I’m doing now, for example. Business needs evolve and we have to move with the times!

  • Katy Brouwer 22/11/2013, 7:15 pm

    Hi Elizabeth,
    My professor, Geoff Crane, referred me to your blog and I’m really enjoying it. As someone who is planning on entering the project world soon, it is nice to know that there are resources to help us.
    I look forward to reading more of your material!
    Katy

    • Elizabeth 24/11/2013, 6:14 pm

      Katy, you won’t regret project management as a career choice – it’s great! And there is so much out there to help new and aspiring project managers. Glad you found this article of interest and I hope you’ll stick around and read some of the others too. Say hello to Geoff for me!

  • Terri 17/12/2013, 5:01 am

    I’ve just recently made the career transition to a Project Manager and will be starting in a month. I’m just a year out of college and relatively young compared to my future colleagues. Your post about Imposter Syndrome really helped ease my anxiety a bit. Great blog!

    • Elizabeth 17/12/2013, 11:25 am

      Terri – great choice of career! Best wishes for your new job when you start and don’t worry about being young. There’s a lot to be said for the multi-generational workplace and it can be a creative place for everyone.

  • ProjectManagementHub 28/01/2014, 2:39 pm

    Totally agree, project management is a lifeskill we can apply to any circumstance in our life apart from work. From organizing parties for our kids, planning for the 50th wedding of your parents, or planning the daily meals of your family, there is always this desire to be organized and make each project sucessful.

    “Project Management should be taught in schools”- I agree 100%. But even though it is not, In my case I’m so lucky I have handful of organizations way back in college, so I think my project management skills was honed and developed with my extra curricular activities. By volunteering in my organization’s various projects I had the chance to get my hands dirty on how it is to manage people, to coordinate tasks, and make sure goals are met.

    Fiona
    http://www.projectmanagementhub.net/

    • Elizabeth 28/01/2014, 3:21 pm

      Thanks, Fiona. Volunteering is an alternative way to get exposure to project management practices without it having to be formally taught – provided, of course, that you have someone on site who can help you understand what needs to be done! But it isn’t rocket science, after all.

  • Kathryn 1/08/2014, 3:37 pm

    I have just graduated from university and began a job as a project manager at a multimedia digital company two weeks ago. Two comments in this article stood out for me. The amount of technology and softwares we would have to know (I’m two weeks in and still trying to wrap my head around all of it!), and nobody understands what my actual job is (and I don’t actually have a clue how to explain it to them!)

    My parents, sisters and friends have no idea: they have concluded that I get paid for bossing people around a lot – which really isn’t the case!

    This blog is brilliant, I’m definitely going to become an avid reader!

    • Elizabeth 3/08/2014, 8:57 am

      Hi Kathryn – welcome! I heard someone say recently that project management was ‘getting new things done with a group of people’ and that’s the best way I’ve heard of to describe project management in a while. You could try that!

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