All career roads lead to … project management?
Not quite. But when tracing the journeys of project and program managers, it's evident that there is more than one path into—or even back into—the profession. Some study it in college, moving from classroom to entry-level project role without skipping a beat. Others find it decades after exploring other occupations.
More people are expected to pivot into project management, given the relentless demand for project talent, particularly in project-intensive sectors such as manufacturing, construction and IT. Globally, employers will need an estimated 87.7 million individuals working in project management-oriented roles by 2027, according to PMI's most recent Project Management Job Growth and Talent Gap report. And as the pace and shape of work change, project man agers have incredible flexibility to carve a new path, move up the corporate ladder or make a dramatic midcareer shift—and still land on their feet.
The Industry Insider
Albert Ho had never considered a project management career. Instead, he started as a registered nurse at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. He relished the hands-on, rewarding nature of the work. In 2012 a project team asked him to be the clinical lead for testing Canada's first digital linen cart. The team deployed a technology-enabled cart with a badge scanner to better control access to linens throughout the hospital. Mr. Ho played a significant role in the project's planning and execution, including training employees.
“It surprised me, but I really enjoyed quality improvement projects,” he says. Project management, he realized, was his true calling.
So Mr. Ho volunteered for other projects at the hospital, including a six-month initiative to develop and deploy a transfer-of-accountability process for patients moving from the emergency department to different hospital units. At the same time, he began attending PMI events and networking with other project professionals.
Today, Mr. Ho is first and foremost a project manager. At William Osler Health Systems, he manages large-scale technical projects, including an ongoing rollout of an electronic referral platform on three hospital sites in Ontario, Canada. He believes his healthcare expertise gives him an added skill set.
“When I talk to frontline providers, they trust me because I speak their language,” he says. “Learning project management as a registered nurse has created new opportunities that I never imagined for my career.”
—Albert Ho, William Osler Health Systems, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Arham Faraaz, PMP, might have spent his whole career as an IT project manager in Bengaluru, India, working for major global tech firms including Oracle and Dell. But in 2011, Dell picked him as project lead for business intelligence projects at the company. The first project was a success and, on a personal level, it sparked something in Mr. Faraaz: “Leading that project inspired me,” he says.
A once low-key cubicle worker, he began speaking at Dell's development forums and offering to mentor team members. In 2013, he decided to focus on teaching, launching the Arham Faraaz Leadership Academy with a US$6,000 business grant. Over the next three years, he mentored hundreds of individuals on personal development and, once he passed his Project Management Professional (PMP)® exam in January 2016, he started mentoring aspiring project professionals.
When he ultimately decided to return to the corporate world—he's now a program manager at Sapient—he knew that mentoring would always be a passion. In addition to helping co-workers strengthen their project management skills, he creates an online video series for project professionals looking to strengthen their skills.
Mr. Faraaz feels grateful that project management is a flexible skill set that's allowed him to boomerang back into a global technology firm. “As a project lead, I knew when I walked away that I could always come back.”
—Arham Faraaz, PMP, Sapient, Bengaluru, India
Sometimes, project management careers really do have Hollywood endings. For Eric Morfin, PMP, the path from clinical lab to project management role to movie production studio is all about following his curiosity. He started in clinical research before finding and embracing project management—eventually specializing in the latter.
Then, in 2012, his life was upended by “a midlife crisis,” says Mr. Morfin, Poway, California, USA. After a divorce, he bought a boat and set sail without a particular plan in mind. He knew, whenever he did come ashore, that he could return to a role as project manager.
“And my project management skills came in very handy,” he says—from running risk analyses when the boat was damaged to using project management software to track time and distance traveled.
—Eric Morfin, PMP, Poway, California, USA
In 2016, Mr. Morfin finally came ashore for good. One of the great upsides of working in project management is that professionals can take a few years off without fear of starting back at the professional starting line, he says. Yet Mr. Morfin decided to bring his skills and experience to a new venture entirely: He launched the movie production company Riding the Tiger Productions.
The day-to-day duties may look vastly different, but the underlying skill set has plenty of crossover, he says. He's still running cost estimation models, mapping out communication strategies for various stakeholders and keeping a steady hand on the triple constraint.
The Risk Taker
“I wanted to be a spy and travel the world,” says Oliver Tulett, Rochester, England, of his early career ambitions. “It didn't quite work out that way.”
Yet Mr. Tulett's circuitous career path has frequently flirted with adrenaline—from a police officer working a street beat to a detective focused on gun crimes and counterterrorism. When an old colleague invited him to take a three-day project management training course, Mr. Tulett agreed on a lark.
At the start, “I felt totally out of my comfort zone,” he says. But by the end, he knew: “I finally found what I was looking for.”
Riding motorcycles as part of a protective duty might sound worlds apart from creating risk registers and documentation processes behind a corporate desk. But for Mr. Tulett, the two lifestyles share a common thread. “The greatest satisfaction, to me, is taking something chaotic and figuring out how to fix it,” he says.
—Oliver Tulett, FIS, Rochester, England
Today, he's focused on process improvement at global financial software solutions provider FIS, based in Belgium, discerning better ways to mature project management and identify and mitigate risks. “In many ways, that's what project management is all about,” he says. “And that's what I find so exciting.” PM
ON THE MAP
The road less traveled can be fraught with uncertainty and doubt. But having the right project management skills, certifications and attitude can yield ample opportunities. Here's how to prep for the leap ahead:
Tap your network. No one will know to share word of a new opportunity unless you ask, says Oliver Tulett, process improvement consultant, FIS, Rochester, England. When seeking new directions, he suggests targeting colleagues in the fields you want to work in. “The more people you talk to, the better positioned you will be to hear about the perfect next step,” he says.
Stretch your wings at work. Whether you want to move into a new industry or launch your own startup, the more diverse your portfolio and skill set, the easier it'll be. “Take risks whenever possible, and if you are offered a chance to lead a new project, do it,” says Albert Ho, project manager, William Osler Health Systems, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. “When you do something new, it's on your résumé forever.”
Have a backup plan. A giant leap can come with a pay cut if you have to take a less-senior position, warns Arham Faraaz, PMP, program manager, Sapient, Bengaluru, India. And, of course, there's always the possibility that the unknown, once it's known, doesn't feel like a fit. “Knowing I could get another IT project management job as a backup gave me the flexibility to take a risk,” he says.