Christian Soto

How to Break Into Project Management—and Succeed

By Rachel Bertsche

Four practitioners early in their career share their stories.

PM Network March 2015

Young job candidates hammered by the still-lingering effects of the global economic crisis have been flocking to a booming profession: project management. Three in five hiring managers say interest in project management careers among younger job applicants has grown over the past decade, according to PMI’s Pulse of the Profession® In-Depth Study: Talent Management.

Fortunately, a growing number of opportunities await them: Between 2010 and 2020, 15.7 million new project management roles will be created globally across seven project-intensive industries, according to PMI’s Project Management Talent Gap Report. Still, younger candidates wanting to break into the field must learn how to convince hiring managers they’ve got what it takes—and how to distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack.

Four early-career project practitioners share how they began their careers, offering practical insights from the frontlines.

 
Bhanu Vadlakonda, CAPM, 29 years old

Position: Project management officer, BNP Paribas, a bank and financial services company in Singapore

Hitting the Books: It took Mr. Vadlakonda two years to break into project management. He graduated from college with an IT degree and says it was hard, at first, to persuade his higher-ups to consider him for project management roles. “I always wanted a project management career, but my supervisor at the time didn’t encourage it. I was told, ‘You were a technical graduate, so you have to work in a technical environment for a period and move to a project management career eventually,’” he says.

“My passion helped me more than anything else,” says Mr. Vadlakonda, who did what students do well— he studied. “I got my Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)® certification, I kept learning, and eventually got my first job in project management at UBS.” That position, a front office credit desk support analyst, was partly technical and partly project management, he says, but it got his foot in the door.

Helping Out: Studying project management helped Mr. Vadlakonda land his first job in the field—but it wasn’t enough on its own. He also volunteered. Determined to move into project management, he started volunteering with the technology division of his local PMI chapter—gaining valuable experience along the way. “When I started interviewing for project positions, my volunteer experience stood out.” An interviewer at Citi who eventually became his manager drilled him on his volunteer tasks. “They weren’t huge tasks, just coordinating people and projects, but it showed that I knew how to communicate and how project management works.”

"When I started interviewing for project positions, my volunteer experience stood out. They weren’t huge tasks, but it showed that I knew how to communicate and how project management works."
—Bhanu Vadlakonda, CAPM

After he landed the position in Citi’s project management office (PMO), Mr. Vadlakonda’s manager told him it was his volunteer experience, more than his professional background, that earned him the job. “He thought to himself, ‘Even if he’s a new guy and less experienced, he must be passionate about project management because he doesn’t even get paid and still does it.’”

Making the Most of Social Media: To keep his network growing, Mr. Vadlakonda connects on LinkedIn with each new person he meets at professional events. He also participates in LinkedIn project management groups, joins in discussion threads and reads project management blogs. “Whenever I get a connection suggestion from LinkedIn, I look at people’s profiles and send them an invite explaining my career, asking about theirs and offering ways we could potentially help each other,” he says.

Cristian Soto, 28 years old

Position: Mobile financial services project specialist, Millicom International Cellular, a telecommunications and media company in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia

Speaking Up: In 2011, Mr. Soto was interviewing for a quality assurance position when the interviewer asked him about his other interests. “I told her I wanted to go into project management one day,” he says. “She was very surprised” to hear him express interest in a different field, “but it turned out they had an opening for a chief project officer assistant.” The organization hadn’t yet begun interviewing for the position. Mr. Soto became an early candidate for the job—and eventually got it. The experience taught him that, even when interviewing for entry-level positions, being clear about your ultimate professional objective can help bring long-term goals into the near term.

Best Networking Tip: Attend conferences and listen closely to the speakers, but make sure to arrive early and stay late. “Make time before and after every conference you attend to talk to people— that’s more important to your career than whatever topic the speech or presentation is about,” Mr. Soto says. “It’s very important to network with people who have more project management experience and thus more knowledge than you.” Not only can you learn from these connections, he says, but they might remember you when a position opens up in their organization.

"When I started interviewing for project positions, my volunteer experience stood out. They weren’t huge tasks, but it showed that I knew how to communicate and how project management works."
—Bhanu Vadlakonda, CAPM

It worked for Mr. Soto. He landed the interview for his current job through his networking connections.

Standing Out: Before any class, interview or networking event, Mr. Soto does his research. “When you network, you need to have something to talk about,” he says. “I read the Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) twice, and I’ve read all the standards from PMI. You need to be able to show your project management knowledge when you network, so you need to read more than the people you’re talking with to overcome the lack of experience.”

Learning as much as you can on your own, before a class or conference, is the most efficient use of your time, Mr. Soto says. “Then you can ask specific questions, and good questions always make you look better and enjoy the class.”

Kamil Mroz, 27 years old

Position: Engineer, NNE Pharmaplan, an engineering and consulting company in the life science industry in Brussels, Belgium

Learning Before Doing: As a 21-year-old university student in Canada, Mr. Mroz initiated and led Quo Vadis, a conference to empower young leaders in the Polish-Canadian community. “It was project management at a student level,” Mr. Mroz says. “If you’re organizing an event, even as a student, you have to choose a revenue model and figure out how you’re going to generate profit or break even. And if you don’t break even, what are you going to do? Are you going to share the risk with another organization? Are you going to mitigate it in XYZ fashion?”

"My mentor taught me that I need to delegate tasks and empower my team in order to take some of the pressure off myself."
—Kamil Mroz

These are classic project management concerns, he says, but in a more friendly learning environment than working for a client, where big mistakes could cost you your job. “It was through extracurricular activities like Quo Vadis that I learned I’m pretty good at—and really enjoy—planning, organizing events and leading teams,” he says. “And that experience came in handy when I started applying for jobs.”

Most Valuable Connection: While organizing the Quo Vadis conference, Mr. Mroz connected with a project manager who lent his expertise and served as a mentor. “A mentor doesn’t have to be somebody formal that you see on a rigid basis,” he says. “It could be someone you meet for coffee informally, with whom you run through the difficult decisions you’re facing in your career.” Mr. Mroz says he still consults his mentor, who advises him on planning his project management future.

Best Advice from His Mentor: It’s not all about you. “Young project managers often want to take on a lot of responsibility in order to prove themselves,” Mr. Mroz says. “You want to control everything. You want to be the person making all the decisions and doing all the work. My mentor taught me that I need to delegate tasks and empower my team in order to take some of the pressure off myself.”

Paige Vigil, 26 years old

Position: Senior software project manager, The Nerdery, a developer-driven interactive production company in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

Putting Vacation Time to Work: During college, Ms. Vigil took internships that gave her hands-on project management experience, even though it wasn’t called project management. During one school break, she worked as a production management intern at Hubbard Broadcasting, an ABC television affiliate in St. Paul, Minnesota, USA. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was managing small projects every day,” she says. “I helped produce a show on the hottest new restaurants and events in Minneapolis, so I had to discover a topic, interview the people, coordinate the shoots, stay on top of the budget.” The internship, along with another at MTV/ Viacom, made her realize she wanted to become a project manager. “I learned through my internships that I was passionate about building client relationships and delivering tangible results.”

Tip for Would-Be Interns: Specialize—find your project management niche. “If you want to be an interactive software project manager, maybe there’s an internship available with a company that specializes in interactive software,” she says. “Become an expert in that field. Learn, for example, how an iOS application gets submitted to the app store. That way, when a project manager opportunity comes up, you already know how interactive technologies work.”

"I learned through my internships that I was passionate about building client relationships and delivering tangible results."
—Paige Vigil

Best Lesson From Her First Project Management Job: Don’t be a hero. “In project management, we have a tendency to work through issues ourselves,” she says. This is especially true, Ms. Vigil says, of younger project practitioners still trying to prove themselves. “It’s so important to raise your hand when you are experiencing issues with your project to put some visibility on it. Other, more experienced people are always willing to help and say, ‘Here’s what has worked for me.’”

Study Guide

Even students who have a year or two before they head into the workforce can take steps now to make themselves more attractive to employers when the time comes.

Join the Club. “It’s never too early to start investing in your future,” says Kamil Mroz, engineer, NNE Pharmaplan, Brussels, Belgium. “The most important thing you can do as a young person who wants to get into project management is to get involved in student activities.”

When students take on leadership roles in campus organizations, they schedule meetings, organize events and coordinate conferences—learning fundamental skills around managing stakeholders, schedules and budgets.

“You’ll learn about yourself, you’ll learn about your peers, and you’ll learn where in the scope of project management you might be the best fit,” Mr. Mroz says. “Then you can bring value to your profession because you can relate your work back to something you’ve already done as a student.”

Get Competitive. Project management competitions can help aspiring project practitioners make a name for themselves. The Intercollegiate Project Management Triathlon, the Enactus competitions and PMI Western Michigan Chapter’s THE Project all give student leaders the chance to create a project plan and show off their management skills in front of experienced practitioners.

Make Connections.To get a head start on networking, would-be project managers should get involved with their local PMI chapters. They’ll get face time with local project managers, connect with potential mentors and find opportunities to volunteer—while bulking up their résumés.

Study Up.The PMI Educational Foundation (pmief.org) offers free learning resources for students that reinforce project management terminology, skills and techniques. The site also offers info on scholarships and grants, a newsletter and inspiring stories from the project front lines.

Dive Deep. For more insight, advice and actionable tips on empowering your career right from the start, head to PMI’s Career Central at pmi.org/professional-development/career-central.aspx.

Originally Published in the March 2015 PM Network