Career Overview: Project Management

Posted by The Editors on December 3, 2012

Simply put, project management is all about setting and achieving reasonable and attainable goals. It is the process of planning, organizing, and overseeing how and when these goals are met. Unlike business managers who oversee a specific functional business area, project managers orchestrate all aspects of time-limited, discrete projects. For instance, a project manager who's overseeing the development of a new product or service may manage folks from departments as disparate as marketing, IT, and human resources.

Everyone practices project management to some degree: Farmers plan what, when, and how they're going to plant; how they're going to take care of their crops as they grow; and how and when they're going to harvest those crops. Parents plan what they're going to prepare for their children for dinner. (If they have strong project management skills, of course, they delegate things like setting and clearing the table to the kids.) And so on.

In business, project management is an art, a skill, and a demanding full-time job. Project managers (PMs) are key employees in such industries as construction, engineering, architecture, manufacturing, and real estate development, but many opportunities for PMs exist outside these areas. In high tech, biotech, or pharmaceuticals, for example, project managers are responsible for launching new products, developing new technologies, and managing alliance programs with strategic partners.

Large corporations such as insurance companies and banks may also hire PMs to manage the implementation of new standards or practices in their many branch offices. Internet companies often look for project managers to oversee site launches or the development of new applications.

Whether a project involves releasing a product, building out a new office site, or launching a rocket, PMs make sure everything comes together in a timely, cost-effective manner-and take the heat if it doesn't. Their high-profile, high-risk work demands multitasking ability, analytical thinking, and excellent communication skills.

What You'll Do
The project manager oversees the planning, implementing, quality control, and status reporting on a given project. He or she manages the project team, which typically consists of people from all the areas of the PM's organization. The project manager is responsible for precisely defining the scope of the project; preparing the project schedule, and updating that schedule as it evolves; proposing the project budget, and then managing the project so that it doesn't cause cost overruns; making sure the project team has the supplies and human resources necessary to get the project done on time and on budget; identifying and minimizing potential risks to the project timeline and budget; making sure that all project team members understand what their responsibilities are; communicating the project's progression to management; and ensuring the quality of the team's work and any supplies or materials used by the team.

In most cases, a project is planned down to the daily or even hourly level, and a formal schedule is developed using the Critical Path Method (CPM), a precedence-based technique that determines the sequence in which things must happen. Milestones punctuate most project schedules, indicating the required completion of various steps.

All project managers are familiar with at least one CPM scheduling software application, such as Microsoft Project, Primavera, Scitor Project Scheduler, AEC FastTrack, CA-SuperProject, or Kidasa Milestones. Many scheduling applications are tailored to specific industries or project types, but all use CPM precedence methodology. There is also a recent trend towards using the power of the Internet as a project management tool. A few Web-based solutions that are quickly gaining momentum include Autotask, eProject, and Basecamp.

Most scheduling programs also help allocate resources, another big part of a project manager's job. If you are running a software development project, for example, you have to know how many engineers will be available and how many hours they'll need to work. Likewise, if you're running a construction project involving cranes and excavators that must be leased on an hourly basis, you'll need to know when to have those machines on site to get the most work done for the least money. Balancing limited labor, materials, and other resources is a difficult task that earns a good project manager top dollar.

Who Does Well
Many project managers cite stress as the main downside to their jobs. PMs are responsible for their projects' successes or failures, which determine both their income and their status within a company and industry. In construction, if a project isn't brought in on time, the builder has to pay damages for each day's delay, and the project manager will lose a bonus-and possibly even his or her job.

For some, the black-and-white nature of project management work makes for a refreshing challenge. Delivering a project "on time and under budget" can provide great emotional rewards. The job offers the opportunity to lead, and new projects keep the work fresh. If you have an analytical mind, good people skills, and the willingness to rise or fall on the demonstrated success of your work, project management may be for you.


Educational requirements for project managers vary greatly according to the type of projects they manage. For construction projects, a civil engineering degree is usually required. High-tech PMs may need a degree in electrical engineering or computer science. And in most cases, the most successful project managers have some type of formal business training, such as an MBA. Project management has a direct effect on a company's bottom line, so a PM must be able to evaluate a project's financial repercussions from a corporate point of view.

Project managers also need strong leadership skills, the ability to set and stick to a schedule, multitasking ability, analytical thinking, strong communication skills, and an orientation toward getting things done.

Professional certification in project management is available through the Project Management Institute, which bestows the profession's most globally recognized and respected credential-certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP). To obtain the PMP credential, applicants must satisfy requirements involving education and experience, agree to a code of ethics, and pass the PMP certification examination. Many corporations require PMP certification for employment or advancement.

Job Outlook

In general, the field of project management is incredibly hot-but the outlook might be brightest for PMs in the biotech and high-tech arenas. As might be expected, project management opportunities depend on the number of projects taking place. When the economy is booming, demand for PMs is usually high. When the economy is slow, look for opportunities in hot industry sectors, where a lot of projects are taking place. A wide range of industries use PMs to handle everything from launching new products to leading restructuring efforts to converting MIS systems.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts excellent job growth for project managers in construction through 2014. Increasing complexity of construction projects could, however, drive demand slightly above average. The outlook is much stronger for product managers in industries with strong growth prospects, such as high tech and biotechnology.

Career Tracks

Very few people start in the field as full-fledged project managers. Most are offered an assistant position on a project management team and are assigned responsibility for one aspect of the work. As you gain experience, you may be assigned more and more tasks to manage, until you're ready to lead others in completing an entire project. Other newcomers start out with primarily technical jobs, creating, tracking, and updating the schedule using a software program; reviewing documents, and writing reports.

Project Coordinator
Project coordinator is an entry-level position that offers exposure to the work done by project managers. It's usually an administrative position involving a great deal of paperwork. You generate and distribute the reports that keep the project management team, owners, company staff, and others informed of a project's progress. You also schedule meetings and assist the management team in any way possible.

Project Scheduler
For larger projects, a project scheduler runs the software, inputting the information supplied by the management team and updating files as needed. This is a technical position that involves a great deal of computer work and little actual management.

Assistant Project Manager
Assistant PMs do not necessarily assist the project manager directly. Rather, they're usually assigned specific tasks to manage. They meet regularly with the PM to report progress and problems.

Project Manager
In this position, you may run a project yourself or lead a management team, delegating task management to assistants. PMs report to the "owner" of a project-whether that's a real estate developer, government agency, or your company's senior management. You oversee budget and schedule, and take responsibility for the project's proper completion.

Senior Project Manager
Many large organizations that tackle multiple projects at once (especially construction and engineering companies) employ a senior project manager. The senior project manager supervises a company's various project managers, coordinating the allocation of company resources, approving costs, and deciding which projects should take priority.

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