What is your field? How did you get into it? What did you have to do to secure your first job?
I’m a Project Manager at Calm, a meditation app. Prior to my current role, I worked as a PM for transportation technology apps like Lyft and Scoop.
My first professional job out of college was at a small hospital consulting firm. I was an auditor and consultant, but I didn’t like the work very much. When I got the chance to join Lyft, I took it. At Lyft, I got the opportunity to become a Project Manager.
I broke into project management by doing the work before I had the title. I would ‘shepherd’ projects forward. I did this by helping teams and colleagues do the following:
- Define what objectives we are trying to achieve
- Define which teams/individuals need to be involved
- Define why the project is useful to the company
- Budget how much time & money we will need
- Keep teams accountable: track tasks/progress, schedule follow-up calls & meetings, set agendas, etc.
After doing this for a few months, I reached out to one of the Senior Project Managers at Lyft and asked to get coffee. I told him about my interest in becoming a Project Manager and asked what advice he had for getting the PMP Certification. Eventually, he needed to hire a new PM. I was at the top of his list because I’d shown I was already doing the work.
What attracted you to this type of role? Why do you enjoy it?
I like to build things and see results from my work. Teams and groups of people can accomplish much more than individuals can. I’ve found that project management allows me to harness the power of many different teams to achieve a common goal.
I enjoy my work because I like to take a vague objective and make it a sharply defined goal. Then, I focus on building out the ‘scaffolding’ to get from here to there.
Project Managers are extremely valuable to companies as ‘generalists’: they can pull experts and specialists together to work towards a common goal.
I’m never the smartest person in the room, but I get to work with brilliant people and help them be more productive by focusing their efforts on a bigger vision.
What would you do differently if you repeated the last 5 years? Is there anything you could’ve done differently to accelerate your path?
I would spend less time working on things that don’t interest me. I spent months and even years working on tasks and projects that I wasn’t passionate or interested in. There’s no good reason to do this – the world is full of opportunities, companies, and projects, so I would spend less time working on things that bore me and focus more on work I’m interested in.
Also, I wouldn’t work so hard on things that aren’t important. I bought into the idea that hard work is ALWAYS a good thing – this is wrong. Hard work is only useful when it focuses on something very productive and useful. Working hard on pointless, insignificant, or repetitive tasks is just not a good use of time. I learned this the hard way and by reading The 80/20 Principle, a book I recommend to everyone. Ironically, this has helped me to be much more productive, because now I can focus on the areas where I can have the most impact and eliminate needless busywork.
What advice would you give someone interested in transitioning to this career now?
The best way to break into project management is by doing it before you have the title or credentials. All companies have projects that need to be done, but no one has the time, bandwidth, resources, etc. By picking up these projects and pushing them forward, people notice and you gain the basic experience to tell whether you like the work or not.
When you’re starting out, take on any and all projects. You don’t need to officially be a Project Manager, have the PMP certification, or anything like that. If you just volunteer to lead and manage projects, you will build your experience and you will show your managers/colleagues that you are the right person for the job.
The two core skills a good project manager must have are:
- Organization: You must have a robust, reliable system to capture information and track tasks & projects. Without a strong organizational system, you will be stressed and less effective as a PM.
- For software, I like Airtable and Trello. There are many PM software options, and even Google Sheets/Excel can work.
- Don’t be afraid to switch systems and methods, but find something easy that you’ll actually use.
- The GTD System by David Allen is extremely helpful – the most important thing is to ‘capture’ all information.
- Communication: When I got the PMP certification, I was taught that communication is 90% of a Project Manager’s job. I think that’s accurate.
- Project Managers are valued because they make other people’s lives easier by communicating crucial information.
- You should be sending updates, clarifying information, anticipating questions or roadblocks, and asking questions frequently as PM. This will make you better at your job and will build trust and credibility with your teammates.
- My mentor told me “If someone comes to you and asks for an update, you aren’t doing your job as Project Manager. You should be proactively keeping them in the loop.” Good advice.
Any different advice for new grads or those with no prior experience?
Prioritize experience above everything else, including job title, salary, etc. The more experience you have, the more valuable you will be as a Project Manager. Focus on growth experiences even if it means working bad jobs, with bad bosses, at bad companies, on incompetent teams. Experiences like these will help you grow as a professional is going to help you succeed in your career.
If you are growing and learning in the field, the salary and title will come later.
Beyond this, same advice as above: Volunteer to lead and manage projects, even if you aren’t officially a PM or have any certification. You will build your experience and you will show your managers/colleagues that you are the right person for the job.
Any other thoughts or comments? Any useful links or resources?
You don’t need a PMP Certification to be an effective Project Manager, but it does help. If you decide to get the PMP Certification, I recommend the following steps:
- There is a 35-hour training requirement.
- You can cut corners and get a cheap/free training certification like I did, but you get what you pay for. I ended up having to spend a lot of time studying last-minute before the test since I didn’t have a strong grasp on the content from Udemy courses.
- I found some great online resources/websites that have PMP material to study for free online. These are easy to find, but mostly you want to be familiar with:
- PMP Process Groups
- PMP Knowledge Areas
- Don’t bother reading the PMBOK – it’s very dense and expensive, and the pertinent info is summarized online.
- Take as many mock/practice PMP tests as you can. This is the #1 thing you can do to pass the exam, and there are hundreds for free online.
- The PMP Test itself is ~$500. I didn’t check whether my company at the time, Lyft, would pay for it, but it’s worth asking your employer.
If you have any questions or want more specific advice, feel free to reach out to me and I’d be happy to chat.