Search for Experience

Not All Volunteer Opportunities Will Jump-Start A Career; The Freelance Interview Conundrum


By Lindsay Scott

I'm trying to get into a project management role. Will volunteer work help me break into the profession?

Trying to land your first project management job can be frustrating. No experience, no job—no job, no experience. It's a classic chicken-and-egg riddle that can leave you exasperated and desperate to gain experience of any kind.

There's no doubt that taking on volunteer project management work can boost self-esteem. That confidence alone can help sustain your efforts when you're looking for a paid project job. But even if volunteering feels like the only option available, you need to be realistic about what benefits these opportunities can deliver.

You need to make sure that you're doing it for the right reasons and not out of desperation: What problem are you trying to solve by volunteering? How will the volunteer opportunity grow your skills or lead to paid employment? Voluntary work might not open doors for you in this way—and here are a few reasons why.

Voluntary work often consists of completing informal project management tasks—the type of everyday skills that people use to get things done, such as planning a wedding. In voluntary roles, emphasizing outcomes is far more common than employing formal best practices to get there—robust planning techniques, risk management, stakeholder analysis and so on. You could end up feeling more frustrated than before you started, because it's not strengthening your skills and giving you the experience you need.

Plus, finding the right volunteer opportunity can be tricky. Nonprofit organizations often lack funds to advertise their volunteer openings, so you'll have to network in your local region to discover what's available.

So what alternatives to volunteer work can help build project management skills? First, increase your project management knowledge by reading books or blogs, or take it up a notch with formal training, such as pursuing your Certified Associate in Project Management (CAPM)®.

The second step is networking. Your professional and personal connections know your capabilities, and they (or their friends) can introduce you to project opportunities. Internally, you can scout opportunities that exist in your current organization. Is there an available support role on a project? Grab coffee or have lunch with a project manager in your firm who's willing share knowledge and alert you to internal project opportunities.

The bottom line: You need to take full ownership and make your own luck. Showing commitment, passion, energy and drive is how people today begin their careers in project management.

I'm a project management office consultant. When I interview for new engagements, I can't help but think the interviewers sometimes are looking for free advice based on some of their questions. What's the best way to deal with this?

I hear about this situation quite frequently. You get a scenario-based question in the interview that sounds a little too specific. Are they looking for insights into how you might manage that hypothetical problem to determine if you're the right hire? Or are they just fishing for free solutions to their real-life problem?



The best way to deal with such questions is to give high-level answers that avoid specifics. Tell them your answer is based on the scenario given and that you don't want to make too many assumptions about the little context you've been given in a brief interview.

If the interviewers keep pushing for more details, my friend, a project management office consultant, suggests this approach: Reveal a few of the killer questions you typically ask in this type of scenario to show them the direction you might take to solve the challenge. Or, take it a step further: Offer to come back on a short-term engagement to share a more precise solution. Or ask them to offer you the freelance position on the spot. Ultimately, it's about giving them enough information to win them over without giving away your hard-won expertise.

What free options would you recommend for maintaining my PMI certification?

There are a variety of ways to earn professional development units (PDUs) that cost nothing more than your time. Attending free seminars, meetups and lunch-and-learns can help you maintain your Project Management Professional (PMP)® certification, along with other PMI certifications. Try getting involved with your local PMI chapter to volunteer at events. And don't dismiss e-learning sites, because some have lots of free materials.

But nothing is more convenient than project management podcasts. All of them are free (some offer extra content through memberships) and are easy to find via web search or by using the podcast app on your smartphone. Plus, it's easy to listen to them during any downtime, such as lunch or your daily commute.

There are several I recommend. Projectified® with PMI podcast already features an impressive list of topics, ranging from digital transformation to artificial intelligence. There's also The PM Podcast, with more than 400 episodes to date, and Project Management Happy Hour, a more informal podcast (but there's a fee to take the quiz that earns PDUs). PM

img Lindsay Scott is the director of program and project management at Arras People in London, England.



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