Getting started in project management can be tough. When starting out, there are many questions and challenges to face, and they are different based on your particular background and situation.

People who struggle with this come from various backgrounds:

  • Project Newbies. You might be a recent graduate or switching careers. If you have no experience whatsoever with working on or managing projects, it can seem almost impossible to get your foot in the door.
  • Technical Gurus. You have been on project teams and been “in the trenches” getting things done. Now it seems that managing these projects is your calling, but you have to go through a paradigm shift and learn new skills to make the transition.
  • People Managers.You have been managing people and are good at it. Now you want to expand your horizons and switch from the day-to-day management of functional teams to the dynamic environment of delivering unique projects.

You might be trying to break into project management, or you may be an “Accidental Project Manager” who looked up one day and asked, “What have I gotten myself into?” A project fell in your lap somehow. How do you get good at managing it, now that it is a thorn in your side great opportunity in your life?

The questions I get most from these groups center on expanding knowledge, gaining experience, and planning your career path. Answers change based on individual circumstances. Your personality attributes and background play heavily into the path forward.

Hard and Soft Skills

Natural aptitudes vary from person to person, but you can acquire a level of competency for nearly all project management skills through education and experience.

Hard skills refer to competency with the tools and techniques of formal project management. If you’re analytical by nature, hard skills are relatively easy for you to acquire and master. Soft skills or “people skills” include competency in communication and relationships with other people. Outgoing “people persons” have a natural aptitude to be comfortable in this arena, but can also engage in many ineffective approaches when lacking in knowledge and experience. Don’t confuse personal attributes with soft skills. I can’t influence personal attributes and aptitudes, but I can teach soft skills.

Building Knowledge

Regardless of which group you belong to, you’ll need to expand your knowledge base.

Technical gurus will likely pick up the hard skills quickly, but many of the soft skills practices of managing people effectively or maneuvering through organizational politics may be somewhat new. People managers, on the other hand, will understand soft skill nuances in project environments while many of the hard skills will be new territory. Project newbies may be familiar with some of the theories in project management, but are going to need a lot of real-world knowledge, experience, and coaching to land that first job and formulate their project manager career path.

Some great sources of real-world project management education include:

  • Blogs/Podcasts. Use sites like http://blogsearch.google.com to find them.
  • Books. Focus on the basics first; follow the cutting edge later.
  • Join project management organizations such as MPUG or PMI.
  • Training. Focus on gaining useful knowledge, certifications come later!

Finding a Mentor and Gaining Experience

A mentor can be a huge boon to your career goals if you can find one. You can find mentors by networking locally or online, but be sure you approach them in the right way and offer benefit to them in exchange for their wisdom. Your goal should be to offer valuable assistance to potential mentors, with the hope (but not expectation) they will reciprocate by sharing their lessons learned.

Do not just ask to “shadow” them. What value are you offering them Ask if there are tasks (mundane as they may be) that you could do for them, to free their time up. If you’re a project team member, ask if you can help compile the status report or take meeting minutes during project meetings.

Donate your time; this is in addition to your current responsibilities. Whether volunteering for another organization or within your own company, this is a great way to gain experience. Within your own organization you should let it be known you’re interested in project management — not just through words but by your daily actions.

What You Need To Grow

Is the organization you work for now a good environment for your desired career path?

Does your company make money by delivering successful projects, and/or do they respect project management as a formal discipline worth investing in? If so, you will likely see opportunities for entry-level positions in project management that provide specialization such as:

  • Project controller
  • Project coordinator
  • Project assistant
  • Project analyst
  • Project scheduler
  • Junior project manager
  • Assistant project manager

Other organizations may have a progression of technical or management roles through which you can pass and eventually start managing your own projects. Whatever your situation, put yourself into the best environment possible, and plan out your career path ahead of time so you have a roadmap with goals to follow.

Oh, and when you get there, make sure to mentor somebody else!