michael Chan, PMP, now 44, knew from the time he was in college that he wanted to go into telecommunications. Even then, he was fascinated with the industry, curious about such things as how a telephone works and how phone bills are calculated. A project management career was the furthest thing from his mind.
However, when he was hired more than 15 years ago to work in the telecom business unit of Hewlett-Packard Singapore, he got his first introduction to the profession. He worked on project teams and gradually was given more responsibility, both in terms of his own duties, as well as in mentoring and managing junior team members.
“It wasn't my original intent to be a project manager,” Mr. Chan says. “I was thinking more along the line of wanting to be a very good computer programmer.” But after his initial exposure to project management, he actively looked for opportunities to grow in the project management role as he realized the opportunities are almost unlimited. “The telecom industry is a very specialized field,” says Mr. Chan, who now works for Convergys in Singapore. “This means that companies often are willing to pay above market price to get the right people, so it is a good way to make a living.” To get ahead, project managers must learn to market their specialized skills.
Nowadays there is demand that every project has to run like any other business, so project failure is not an option. Hence, project managers with domain expertise have been in great demand.
—Umesh Ursekar, Managing Consultant, U3 Infotech Pte Ltd., Singapore
Mr. Chan's career follows the path of many others who wind up in project management, says M.J. Hall, Ph.D., who taught for 16 years at the Defense Acquisition University of the U.S. Department of Defense, and now is an independent consultant with Gambrough Group in North Carolina, USA.
Dr. Hall, who is vice chair for professional development in the PMI Aerospace & Defense Specific Interest Group, says many people already are professionals in their chosen field, then add project management skills. However, based on the demand for project management skills and the proliferation of project management degree programs, that career path may be changing. PMI has identified 125 universities worldwide that offer project management degrees, primarily at the graduate level, according to Mike Price, Ph.D., PMI’s manager of accreditation programs. “This number is growing,” he says.
Yet Dr. Hall contends, “You've really got to understand the technical programs that you're managing. It's important that young people focus on skills and become subject-matter experts in a functional discipline as quickly as possible. Simultaneously they need to gain skills in the project management area. The technical skills provide the depth and context. The project management skills provide the breadth.”
To determine what domain to specialize in, young project managers should look for a field first and foremost that they find fascinating, says Michelle Shores, who is director of information technology for the PMI’s Healthcare Specific Interest Group and president of MergeCare in Honolulu, Hawaii, USA. “Find your passion. Find something about it you can specialize in that separates you from the rest. That is where your value is going to be perceived.”
Having expertise in a particular field helps to reassure project stakeholders, senior managers, and a project manager with domain knowledge should be able to avoid any major slippage during the project. “Nowadays there is demand that every project has to run like any other business, so project failure is not an option,” says Umesh Ursekar, managing consultant for professional services with U3 Infotech Pte Ltd. in Singapore. “Hence, project managers with domain expertise have been in great demand.”
It can be difficult to transfer expertise in one area to another, says Marc Hirshfield, PMP, MBA. His specialty is health care IT, and he spent seven years working for Siemens Medical before starting a practice for project managers with Vitalize Consulting Solutions Inc., Kennett Square, Pa., USA. “While I believe strong project managers can operate well across domains, if someone asked me to tackle an IT system in the financial arena not health care based, I would take it on, but request guidance from a mentor,” Mr. Hirshfield says.
Mr. Chan echoes his views. “By specializing in telecom, I moved faster in the telecom industry. I am quite marketable in the same industry, as a banking project manager would normally not be able to take the job away from me. These are the benefits, but if you think about it a level deeper, this is also the disadvantage as it also means that I can't easily go to become a project manager for the banking industry.”
Mr. Chan believes his telecom specialization has given him faster upward movement in his field, but that a generalist would have an easier time of moving horizontally to other industries.
William Moylan, PMP, Ph.D., an instructor in construction management at Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Mich., USA, cautions against project managers becoming so specialized—and their field of vision so narrow—that they lock themselves out of certain areas in their industry, particularly as industries change over time.
For example, if those in the construction industry decide to just focus on structural design, they could cut themselves out of design/build projects later on down the line. “We end up limiting ourselves for what the real opportunities can be,” Prof. Moylan says.
The booming aerospace industry of the 1960s subsequently suffered cutbacks, yet some electronic technology developed for the industry now is being used in oil refineries. Or robotics used in manufacturing now are being used in construction, says Prof. Moylan, adding, “We don't know what will be in the future.”
That desire to keep opportunities open is one that drives Brian Donovan, senior project manager in the business excellence department of Abbott Diagnostics. Although he specializes in IT consulting and software validation in the pharmaceutical industry, he believes project managers should specialize “but maintain your generalist outlook because you reach across project areas.”
He also sees a danger in specializing too much with technical skills. Project managers “will become seen more as a technical expert and perpetual individual contributor. They won't exactly be on the executive fast track.”
Michael McLaughlin, a principal with Deloitte Consulting LLP in San Francisco, Calif., USA, says people constantly should readdress their options. “You don't really ever make that specialist decision once and forever. Every couple of years you should take a step back and decide which path is the right one to take.” To best advance, he advises that a person build a skill set that includes all elements of the business he or she is interested in—from technical know-how and people skills to financial knowledge and leadership abilities. “How your skills look 10 years down the road is really what you should be looking at.”
Mr. McLaughlin advises that during their early years, project managers should work on a variety of projects, while building relationships and networks. Even if someone is interested in being a marketing project manager, he or she also should learn about business operations, finance and other areas to get a well-rounded view of the organization.
The most effective project managers “are the ones that have the broader sense of what happens in an organization,” Mr. McLaughlin says. “It's hard to create new opportunities if you're too narrow.”