Hot skills alert: Tips for landing a plum project manager's job

As companies continue to invest heavily in new projects, those IT staffers with project management skills are hot commodities. Here's how to get started.

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Karen Klein had a typical entrance into the project management profession, evolving into the role after working her way up the IT ranks.

"It took a while to figure out that I was managing projects, managing task lists, risks and scheduling," she says.

With that experience under her belt, Klein charged ahead. She attended seminars on project management, sought out mentors in the field and read as much as she could on the topic. She then moved into full-time project management jobs, and she has now held such positions for much of her 20-plus-year career.

It's a common pathway, she says. "In small to midsize companies, the lines tend to get blurred and anyone who has the skills to manage projects ends up managing them," Klein explains.

Project management is one of the hottest skills in IT today. In Computerworld's 2015 Forecast survey, project management expertise was identified as the second-most sought-after skill, trailing only programming/application development. Some 35% of the 194 IT executives who participated in the survey said their hiring plans called for recruiting people with the ability to lead projects.

Researchers and IT leaders say companies are investing heavily in new projects as they work to stay competitive in the expanding economy and catch up on initiatives that were sidelined during the Great Recession.

"The market for project managers is quite high. It's a need we constantly work on 24/7," says Felix Fermin, a recruiting manager at IT recruiting firm Mondo.

He says annual salary ranges are typically $50,000 to $60,000 for entry-level project coordinator positions, $70,000 to $100,000 for project managers and $100,000 to $125,000 for senior project managers. Program directors and people in other top project management posts can earn $125,000 and up.

The strong demand for project managers isn't a temporary blip. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the number of jobs for IT managers, including project managers, will grow 15% from 2012 to 2022.

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John Reed

"The market has increased, and we don't see that slowing down," says John Reed, senior executive director of IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology. "There are a lot of projects out there, and more and more companies have decided that we're better off having a skilled project manager versus someone who learns as they go."

What's needed: Cool head, soft voice

A project manager's job is challenging, with duties that require a mix of business, technical and leadership skills. Typical responsibilities include developing project charters, defining a project's scope and outlining objectives. Project managers must develop and maintain schedules and ensure that milestones are met. They often have to calculate estimates of ROI, get approvals of business cases and craft persuasive justifications for projects.

"It's the type of role where you're working across organizations," says Patty Coffey, a partner in the IT search division at staffing firm WinterWyman.

Moreover, project managers must shoulder a tremendous amount of responsibility but usually have no authority over the teams they rely on, so they must have strong communication and team-building skills to ensure that people perform as required.

"It requires a cool head, a soft voice. You really have to motivate. It goes back to fundamental management: Can you manage, communicate, negotiate?" Coffey says.

Because of the demands of the job, and because the success or failure of major initiatives may be riding on the expertise that project managers bring to the table, Coffey and others say companies are particular about hiring; they want to see the right mix of skills and experience.

So if you're looking for your first project manager's job, you need to ensure that you have the kind of mix that gets noticed.

For a start, Coffey recommends building a resume through your current position -- "that's the quickest way to transition into a project manager's job," she says.

Volunteer for tasks that get you on a project team, even if it's just playing a small role, she says. And aim for positions and duties that will bring you into contact with both the technology and business sides; a gig as a business analyst, who serves as a liaison between the two groups, is often a steppingstone to project management.

Coffey also recommends seeking out roles and duties that will give you experience negotiating, multitasking, collaborating and working directly with vendors.

Crafting the plan to get you there

Jeff J. Jacobs, CIO of the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), a nonprofit computer service and research organization serving libraries, says successful project managers have three distinct areas of expertise: They excel in technology, process and people. He says they generally have a background in IT but then make a deliberate move into project management, often taking the time to invest in developing the specific skills required to do the job by earning the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential, attending conferences and building experiences.

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Jeff J. Jacobs

Jacobs' work with employees provides a road map for others aiming for a career in project management.

Jacobs has helped two staff members interested in becoming project managers by developing action plans outlining specific steps to move them toward their goals. That first has joined a local project managers group and has taken a three-day training course. He's also working on Six Sigma and ITIL v3 certifications and is handling small projects.

The other employee, a junior-level software developer, was attracted to project management in part by the opportunity to work on something new with every project. With Jacobs' approval, she plans to carve out 5% of her work time to shadow product managers and another 10% to shadow business analysts to gain broader perspectives on how the business works.

"You have to have a plan. The plan should be incremental, and unique to each person. And you have to execute on the plan," Jacobs says.

Rona Borre, CEO of Instant Alliance, a Chicago-based IT staffing and recruiting firm, recommends finding roles that will help hone your oral and written communication skills. Take on tasks in which you can gain experience with scheduling and risk management, too.

"It doesn't matter what the project is. Get involved with whatever you can at your company or your department to show this. Then add on. Work with schedule management software to stay on track and track risks, run status meetings, get involved in writing business cases and use cases," she says.

Starting in a junior role in a project management office is another path to a full-fledged project manager's job. Some companies hire less experienced people, sometimes even right out of college, and then train them, recruiters say.

Some recruiters and CIOs recommend earning project-management-related certifications or working toward the PMP credential.

Getting that big-picture view

Chase Guthrie, customer executive at Avanade, a Microsoft-focused consultancy, says he started on the path to project manager first as a software developer then via team leadership roles, where there was "a key requirement to understand the financial and performance management of the team."

"Through a series of courses and workshops, I was able to develop a more robust understanding of the key metrics and skills necessary to be successful in the role," he says.

Guthrie says there are certain skills and qualities that you'll need in order to enter and then move up in the project management profession. First is trust. "You need to trust your team to execute to the level of excellence you expect -- and they need to trust you to provide the necessary guidance when required," he says. You also need to be the type of person who can lead by example -- not someone who prefers to sit on the sidelines.

Moreover, you have to be able to meet deadlines and set clear expectations and goals -- realistic goals that are based on what your teams can deliver. And you must always act with dignity and respect.

As companies increase the number of projects they have queued up, recruiters and CIOs say project managers will have plenty of opportunities to either move up into higher positions or move on to more complex and more important initiatives.

How well you handle the challenges that inevitably arise in nearly every project will play a big role in determining whether you're able to take advantage of those opportunities and advance in the project manager's profession.

"A combination of financial and performance management [expertise], and a strong background of managing different situations and issues are necessary traits," Guthrie says.

Guthrie points out, too, the importance of being honest and upfront at all times, especially when projects hit obstacles and teams are facing challenges. "Integrity will get you a lot farther than trying to come up with a creative positive spin to every event," he says.

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