Crossing over


If variety is the spice of life, it can also be the recipe for a successful career in project management. As more professionals worldwide embark on the project management path, so grows the competition in the job market.

To set themselves apart from the pack, some project managers rely on micro-specialization and years of advanced technical training. But a growing number of project managers are keen to avoid any pigeonholes. Instead, they find it can be more financially and intellectually rewarding to become what might be called a polymath project manager, that rare breed of manager whose knowledge and expertise—and hence employability—span several fields and disciplines.

“A good project manager really should move from industry to industry,” says Jack Ferraro, PMP, CEO of MyProjectAdvisor, a project management services firm in Manassas, Va., USA.

And he's not afraid to take his own advice. After managing projects in the legal, pharmaceutical, healthcare and consumer lending industries, he's now planning to work on an enterprise resource planning (ERP) integration project with a financial reporting software package to streamline financial reporting processes for a retail organization.

The road to becoming a well-rounded project manager is not always smooth, however. “The learning curve is manageable when project managers continuously build a strong base of knowledge, skill and experience, and learn techniques to quickly acquire needed subject-matter expertise, then convert that into trusted relationships with customers and team members,” Mr. Ferraro says, adding that crossover cases are still the exception, not the rule.

Back to the Classroom

Many project managers start their careers already equipped with a specific technical knowledge base, perhaps as a result of an academic degree in engineering, computer science, management, finance or architecture.

As an electrical engineer, Luis Augusto dos Santos, PMP, associated consultant with São Paulo, Brazil-based PGP5 Consulting and the head of PMI‘s São Paulo, Brazil, Chapter, has landed information system projects for companies in the food and chemicals industries. But he's now on to something new—working on a master's degree in healthcare IT in the hopes of breaking into the hospital sector.

But formal degree programs aren't always an option, as they require significant time and financial resources that individuals or corporations may not be willing to sacrifice. There's a world of available options to help project managers receive the training and education needed to cross over.


Some universities now offer online master's and bachelor's degree programs. For example, Villanova University, Villanova, Pa., USA, offers “Anytime Training”—online courses for degree credits, including in project management and business analysis.

Similarly, the University of Maryland's A. James Clark School of Engineering, College Park, Md., USA, offers an Online Master of Engineering Program in project management, designed for people in engineering, design, IT, communications, construction, architecture and other technical disciplines, as well as shorter certificate programs.

In-person and online training programs are viable options as well. PMI SeminarsWorld® courses are offered in cities across the globe to provide project managers with both specific application training and networking opportunities. eSeminarsWorldSM, the online alternative to SeminarsWorld, continually offers new courses that allow professionals to engage with expert instructors, as well as interact with peers. Many other organizations, like the International Institute for Learning Inc. (IIL), offer live and online courses in subjects such as business analysis and project management for IT professionals.

Where's the Money?

It also helps to gain an awareness of market trends, as well as build a base of finance and business knowledge. Project managers should keep up on business developments and take note of where big project spending is headed. Doing so allows them to understand the specific skills required to be at the center of a market boom.

Plenty of examples serve as inspiration, including all those project managers a decade ago who established themselves among the brigades of Y2K compliance consultants. These days, amid soaring oil prices, just look to the throngs of project managers currently working to erect corn-ethanol plants in the U.S. Midwest or biodiesel plants in Europe.

Project managers also can consider switching from old economic mainstays, such as construction and consumer lending, to newer fields like IT. “There's no question that IT is in a prolonged boom, and the basics can often be learned rather quickly, so a lot of people are successfully switching to IT,” says Gary R. Heerkens, PMP, president of Management Solutions Group, an organizational consulting firm and project management education provider in Rochester, N.Y., USA.

In addition, learning the basics of corporate finance can help project managers gain a competitive edge. That means honing skills like writing a business case, carrying out financial analyses such as cost and revenue flow models, and demonstrating an ability to play “point person” between financial and technical staff.

It's Not All Technical

For those who look with trepidation at the prospect of learning an entirely new technical discipline, the good news is that people skills can be just as important as technical knowledge when it comes to landing plum assignments.

Nelson Rosamilha, PMP, principal project manager for telecom company Telcordia Technologies in São Paulo, Brazil, has used his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures, patience and good diplomacy to land projects installing business and operational support systems for companies in nine countries across the globe. “Project managers, especially in Latin America, have huge opportunities for travel, and once you land one international assignment, it's often easier to land more,” says Mr. Rosamilha, who also serves as the director of technical studies for the PMI São Paulo, Brazil Chapter. “Cultural awareness plays a fundamental role.”

Networking with those in the field can assist project managers looking to transfer career focuses, as well. Much of Mr. Rosamilha's work came through his former job with Ra'anana, Israel-based Amdocs, a software and service provider for billing and customer management.

Project management conferences and other industry events also allow personal networking and the exchange of ideas. Increasingly, however, interfacing online can be the first step toward a crossover. Mr. Ferraro is “doing a lot of e-mail and online networking” with those who have prior experience in the type of projects he'd like to tackle.

Mr. Ferraro, for whom ERP is a relatively new field, has recently been devouring trade publications devoted to the subject, looking over “tons of articles and some case studies,” and networking with successful ERP project managers to gain a better understanding of the field. Finding a mentor within the workplace can be valuable, as well.

And to make a crossover possible, “the project manager needs to have a great deal of curiosity and the willingness to be open to new experiences,” says Ralf Friedrich, PMP, a Frankfurt, Germany-based senior trainer and coach with IIL. In the past, he has managed projects ranging from factory relocations to establishing a project management office and carrying out crisis management for a cell phone development project. “The rest will follow—learning new skills, adapting to the industry jargon and leading projects successfully,” he says.

But above all, patience is a virtue. “It usually takes a project manager two to three years to become really proficient in a given discipline, since every area has its own challenges and even its own vocabulary,” says Andy Crowe, PMP, CEO of Velociteach and author of The Alpha Project Managers: What the Top 2% Know That Everyone Else Does Not [Velociteach, 2006].

“Project managers looking for a change must have confidence in their abilities and thirst for new knowledge,” Mr. Ferraro says.


Joshua Schneyer is a freelance writer based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He has worked as a correspondent for several news media organizations, covering events ranging from election campaigns to meetings of the OPEC oil cartel.

<< << MAY 2007



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