Tell me about being a project manager
February 20, 2021 8:41 AM   Subscribe

I only have a very vague idea of what the options are for a career in project management. I'm aware that the PMP is a thing, although it seems like it requires quite a bit of actual experience before you're eligible. I'd love to hear about how folks ended up in project management and what your actual day-to-day work life is like.

Inspired by this wonderful thread from 2012.

I've poked around on the PMI website and their 2020 Jobs Report. I'm interested in learning more about people's actual experiences.

I'd love to hear about things like:

- What is your day-to-day like at work? What do you actually do most days?
- How did you become a project manager? What industry/field do you work in?
- Are you happy with your pay/benefits/work-life balance?
- Are you able to work remotely?
- If you did a career transition into project management, how did that go? Was it a good choice for you?
- Do you feel like there's a lot of opportunities? If you wanted to climb the ladder or find a better new job are those options for you?
- Do you feel valued at work?
posted by forkisbetter to Work & Money (10 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
FWIW, you can get certified as a PMP, and you can take courses on Agile/SCRUM as well.
posted by kschang at 9:06 AM on February 20, 2021

I’m not a project manager, but I’ve worked closely with them at two different companies in the software industry.

All of the PMs I’ve worked with that weren’t already PMs when they were hired started by doing what I was doing (configuration, BA, onboarding, testing, etc.) until their were good enough to lead their own projects (i.e., they didn’t need a PM watching over them anymore). Then as they got better at leading projects, they were given projects with other people to lead. This is by no means the only way in, but it’s easy and lets you see if you like it before jumping all the way in. Not everyone does.

I guess it depends on the industry but software PMs definitely do work remotely. That’s probably going to go even further in that direction now that we’ve seen how well remote works during the pandemic.

I think opportunities are reasonably plentiful. I’ve known several PMs who have gotten fired from the companies I was at for falling behind only to find PM jobs with bigger, more prestigious companies and better pay. Falling up is still a thing.

Most PMs I know do not feel particularly valued, or happy about their work-life balance. I strongly suspect that’s a function of the individual company, though. The company I used to work at was really hard on PMs (everyone really), and burnout was high.

Day-to-day is also highly dependent on your company. At my old company with the burnout, it wasn’t uncommon to have three Zoom calls scheduled in the same half hour. They’d spend eight hours a day on the phone and have to either stay late to work on project plans/staid updates/etc or try to multitask that stuff while on the phone. My new company doesn’t do that, but they still spend a significant chunk of their day on the phone.

I think the big difference in roles is internal vs external. It seems to be a lot less stressful to lead a project composed of your company’s employees doing something for the benefit of your company is a lot calmer than projects involving clients or vendors. Those are like herding cats. A lot of times you’ll be working with another PM on the client/vendor side who has completely different expectations than you do. That’s definitely something to ask about in an interview.

I think I’d analogize it to going to law school. If you tell a lawyer you’re thinking about law school, they’ll mock you and try to talk you out of it. And yet, most lawyers like practicing law. Being a PM is similar. If you tell a PM you’re thinking about it as a career, they’ll ask what you’re smoking, but they’re not looking for other jobs or anything. They like the job even though they also hate it.
posted by kevinbelt at 9:10 AM on February 20, 2021 [1 favorite]

I got into project management by having one of the jobs that project managers manage, and then ending up managing bits and bobs when nobody else was available, until I was doing it full time.

Day to day it involves
- meeting quickly with the team every day, to check that nobody's stuck on anything and everybody has a good idea what to do
- liaising with a million other teams to make sure my team get what they need
- talking with the customers about what they need
- periodically looking back over how things are going and figuring out if we could improve how we work somehow
- periodically looking towards the long term to check that the problem we're solving is really the most important problem
- talking to people on similar teams, to check that what we're doing aligns with them and we're not accidentally duplicating work or making each other's lives harder

In other words, Zoom all day.

I'm fully remote and unlikely to go back in the office more than one day every few weeks. I'm in the software industry, I like the job, the work life balance is good and the career prospects seem promising.
posted by quacks like a duck at 9:37 AM on February 20, 2021

Recently retired Sr Project Manager here. I started as a technical writer, back in the day when software had a book of instructions that came with the installation media, as well as on-line help. After doing that for about 4-5 years, I realized that I’d been managing projects all along - I had to cajole/interview SME’s and programmers to understand the software so I could write about it, had to manage print prep and actual printing/delivery of books so they were ready to go when the product shipped.
I was still a technical writer when my then-manager gave me an actual project. I didn’t really know where to start, so I got out the corporate ‘book of project management’, which was based on PMI principles, layered with our industry’s needs.
I was unsuccessful in that first project in that it didn’t ship, but I told the manager we needed to pull the plug since the vendor had not been truthful about software capabilities, so in my mind that was a type of success.
I kept at it, started studying and took a ‘cram course’ for the PMP, and passed (this was after about 3.5 years of project management experience, not including what I’d done as a technical writer).
Day-to-day varied so *much* with the job. My entire career was spent in technology - software development, client services, and infrastructure. The last several years I was fortunate enough to work with mature teams who knew what they were doing, and just needed some prodding to stay on the right path. My primary responsibilities were removal of roadblocks - which often meant either using my connections in the company to find someone who could help, or failing that, escalate to the appropriate executive or (sometime) senior executive.
Status reports are a part of the job - how big a part really depends on the culture of the company. I’ve worked places where I spent 10-15 hours a week on them, usually late in the days leading up to the due date; don’t go there - if you end up in a company like this, find another job. The sensible approach is one where you spend maybe an hour updating the previous status report, unless there is something that needs management attention.
I nearly always had at least 2 projects, usually three, and as many as five. Obviously not all projects get the same priority.
So - communication skills (especially ‘upward’) and interpersonal skills are the primary things you’ll use, but the foundational skills of understanding risk, budget, timelines etc. are also necessary. That’s all excellent preparation for management, but there are additional things you’d need. The other path upward is via Program Management - where you manage project managers working on a collection of related projects (a program). I never went there either, although came close in a couple of my projects.
I really enjoyed my last several years of my career - and that had a lot to do with the company culture. We had excellent work/life balance, and were allowed to work remotely at least a couple of days a week. The company I worked for was global, so team members were often remote - this made it even easier to work remotely, ultimately. The pay was excellent too - it’s hard work, and not everyone is good at it, so the rewards are outsized to the job, IMO.
Regarding upward mobility - if you want to become a middle manager or such, there *can* be a path. After all, you’re managing diverse teams with all the accountability and none of the authority - you have to project that, and motivate teams to do what you need them to, often in the face of competing priorities. I never wanted to go up the ladder, but if you want to, you’ll need to find a boss/mentor who will help you and help promote you within the company.
Didn’t mean to write a novel - I hope this is helpful.
posted by dbmcd at 9:37 AM on February 20, 2021

I'm not a PM, but the PM on my software development team is one of the people I work most closely with. Others have already given very good, well-detailed responses, but I will add: a job as a PM is often (though not always) a job full of meetings. My PM showed me his calendar for Thursday this past week and it was back-to-back meetings for the entire day. The thing is, at my office, Thursdays are supposed to be "no meeting" days so we can focus on our work. But attending meetings is his work. From what I've seen, he spends most of his time in meetings, then communicates the decisions and expectations from the meetings to the rest of the team. He also leads many of my team's meetings. (His role is technically PM, but it often crosses over to Scrum Master as well, even though there is a separate SM.)

My team develops an internal system that is part of the whole in supporting a public-facing website and different stakeholders in the company bring us different projects. We rarely work with anyone outside of our company, but when we do, they are usually a vendor and we are the client. For our internal stakeholders, sometimes we are the focal point of the project, sometimes we are one piece of the project, and sometimes we're not really involved we just need to be aware of the project so we can anticipate any impact the project has on our system. The PM manages expectations, makes sure we meet our deadlines, and often acts as a mediator between our team and other teams. Not to suggest arguments that need mediating, more that he fills the role of bridging the gap.

Another aspect of his job is if questions come up in our team, he will handle finding the answer. This is often in regards to expectations. For example, if another team asked us to set up a new method of payment and when researching the method of payment, we find they do not allow partial refunds, we will need to know how the stakeholder wants that handled. The PM will contact the stakeholder, and perhaps the company behind the method of payment, and find out for us.

When he's not chasing down answers or in meetings, I think a lot of his time is spent on timelines, both building new ones and checking where we are on old ones. He also researches new potential projects. Research is learn the new idea/company/technology, start asking questions about how things work, try to anticipate complications, and work out a rough timeline for completing the project. And prioritize it against other projects based on how the company normally prioritizes work (ie. which is more important--cutting costs or increasing income). For the timeline, it's possible he figures out "ideal," "realistic," and "worst case."

I know at my company, my team is currently involved in at least 2-3 projects at the moment and the PM is working on early stages of another 3-4 projects. So he's looking at a half dozen projects every day.

Obviously, it's very different at every company. We use the scrum process, or some weird modified form of it at least, and like I mentioned, our PM is also a part-time Scrum Master. Our stakeholders are internal probably 99.9% of the time, whereas many PM's need to manage expectations for external stakeholders, which is very different from Sue down the hall being reminded that it will take 2 weeks to add her new request just like during the last project.
posted by Meldanthral at 9:42 AM on February 20, 2021

I got into project management by having one of the jobs that project managers manage, and then ending up managing bits and bobs when nobody else was available, until I was doing it full time.

This is far and away the most common path I have seen (and is pretty close to what my own path was like). At least in my field, you need to have an adequate (not amazing, but at least sufficient) technical grounding in the work you are managing, in addition to formal or informal training in how to PM. I couldn't do the work without the technical grounding, no matter how amazing my project management skills were. However, that may be different in other fields or for types of projects where a PM's function might be primarily managerial.

From what I've seen, he spends most of his time in meetings, then communicates the decisions and expectations from the meetings to the rest of the team.

This is definitely a big part of it -- internal team meetings, internal company meetings, external meetings, meetings about meetings... Other pieces that consume a lot of time and energy are project tracking (ie, budgets and timelines), progress reporting, invoicing, QA/QC on everything the team is producing, buffering unrealistic client or company expectations, and handling staff turnover.

We are all working fully remotely at the moment but I expect a partial return to in-person meetings later this year. Particularly with client-facing roles, there will be a need and expectation for in-person, whether or not someone is based at home or in the office.

There isn't much expectation of having a PMP my field, so I haven't seen the need. Some agencies and companies expect the credential, however. I'd suggest only getting it if you are confident that your employer will pick up the tab for maintaining the certification, or if you are sure that it will result in high enough pay to be worth paying that cost yourself.
posted by Dip Flash at 10:33 AM on February 20, 2021

I'm a fairly senior PM in the market research field. I have absolutely no formal qualifications! I started as an office admin and then developed field-specific project management skills through informal training from other PMs at my job. Eventually I transitioned into full time project management and I've been doing that for the past ten years.

I spend most of my days communicating between various project stakeholders (account managers, researchers, end clients, vendors, internal teams), creating and sharing project documents, doing QA on a wide range of project assets, assisting with pricing on proposals, consulting on upcoming project designs, and managing project budgets.

I'm usually running between 6-10 projects simultaneously. Generally, my projects are of short duration (6-12 weeks start to finish) so they're all cycling through different phases of ramp up through wrap up. I'm usually pretty busy, but my work is varied and interesting. I'm paid fairly well, although it's nothing compared to PMs who work in the tech industry. On the other hand, my work life balance is solid. I mainly work a 40 hour week, although it's not always standard hours (especially when I'm running international projects). I worked from home multiple days a week for a long time and, following a company acquisition, I moved to fully remote three years ago. It suits me very well; most of the folks I work with are spread out across the globe anyhow, so there's absolutely no reason for me to work from an office.

I do feel valued at my company! I sometimes get pinched on timelines or budgets by account managers, but mostly, they view me as a valuable asset to their projects and they try not to screw me over. I do have a bit of room for advancement, since I don't have any direct reports yet. Moving into a management role would be an option for me, at some point, I suspect, especially if I could still maintain an active project load.

I honestly don't know how my PM skills would transfer into other fields, since I'm pretty industry specialized. I've considered getting some professional development under my belt to make myself more versatile, but I'm also pretty content where I am, so I haven't done it yet.
posted by merriment at 2:26 PM on February 20, 2021

I’ve had a bunch of project management jobs, and I’ve hated them all. I never jumped through the hoops to get certified, and it never was an issue. Basically being a project manager means having meetings all the time, harassing people who actually do the work by asking them to sit in meetings to make decisions and assist with planning (rather than do their actual work), getting shit on by directors/managers when said work is/is not done, and not having the authority yourself to reallocate work on the workers’ plates because you are not their real manager (and you are often competing with other project managers for time on your project(s)). Basically you are the person who is held accountable for the success or failure of a project without having the authority to decide or do anything.

Sometimes you have bosses or leadership who really want you to track out every single detail in a complicated Microsoft Project plan. Sometimes you’re the only person taking notes in a meeting, and then they disagree with what you’ve written when you send out the meeting minutes. Sometimes you have bosses who want you to write out endless progress reports in a specific format. Sometimes you send out a progress report and no one reads it. Sometimes you send out a progress report and a director/manager disagrees with what you’ve written and forces you to rewrite that part of the report and send it out to everyone again. Sometimes you put the status of a project as red but you are told that is politically unacceptable, so you have to apologize and change it to yellow even though you fucking know the project is imploding.

I switched to an Agile software development team that only works on one product, and I am a business analyst/developer now. I am much happier. I do not plan to get sucked into project management work again.
posted by Maarika at 5:25 PM on February 20, 2021 [5 favorites]

I am a project manager, fell into the role from being a research assistant and then the actual PM on the project left so I was "promoted" overnight and that led to another research project and then a somewhat of a sideways move into IT project management, all in the context of higher education. I'm in the UK so it's all PRINCE2 (Projects in Controlled Environments framework although C should stand for "chaotic"..)

My day to day for the past year since lockdown involves staring at a screen and talking to black boxes, it is a blur of Teams meetings. Unfortunately my experience has been more like Maarika's, some of it could be down to public sector context where we are permanently understaffed and don't have the technical resource to complete the projects that we get left, right and centre from the faculties; especially right now where the university had to transition to online-only learning very quickly and it is disaster mode all the time.

In theory, my job is to set up the project, and then set up the tools to monitor and control progress, in practice, it's very much about trying to be the person who gets in there first to get the resource and then pleading, begging, nagging to get people to do the work when they don't want to, don't have the time and senior management make technical decisions that they have no business making, which then means what we deliver doesn't make that much sense for users but it is the PM's role to magically make this work.

I am looking to get out, not sure to what yet.
posted by coffee_monster at 10:55 PM on February 20, 2021

Senior PM here from the engineering consulting world. There are a lot of commonalities from the previous answers. Project management is about managing people and expectations and realities. It can be tough having to influence rather than direct, meaning that you often don't have direct authority and have to convince people to perform work or change opinions / perspectives. It can be one of the most frustrating and pressure-filled roles at times, and also one of the most rewarding when things are going well. Most of my clients are in the life-sciences realm, so the projects tend to be very technical in nature and often concerning manufacturing facilities and construction & build-outs. I came into the role by having previously done technical engineering roles (i.e. the types of people I now manage) and realized that I was better at the "politics and people" than I was at the engineering. Project management is unique in that every company, client, and industry has its own politics and nuances, so the job is constantly evolving and you're adapting to the need of each project. I always maintain that it's the PM that needs to change for each project, and not the other way around. I greatly enjoy what I do, and I also will be quite happy when it's time to call it a day and move onto something far less stressful. I'm happy to share my experiences on a call or direct message if you like. I try and do a lot of coaching and mentoring as part of my aim to give back to all those who helped me as I grew into my career, so I am happy to share any knowledge or stories if it would be helpful.
posted by galimatias at 9:43 AM on February 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

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