So, you want to be a Project Manager?

Oftentimes we’re approached by folks who are looking to transfer into digital project management from another discipline (event planning, office management, booking and scheduling), but they’re not sure how to make the jump. The truth about project management is that many of the best PMs out there simply fell into their role by doing jobs with similar responsibilities and skill sets. There’s typically not a clear career path that takes a person into project management; it’s a combination of your education, work experience, and general character traits.

We’ll hear from three project managers about the varied paths they took to get into project management, the skills that got them there, and what training they’ve received along the way.  

Christine Holcombe,
Whole Foods Market

I started out twelve years ago as a high school English teacher with Teach For America in Houston. Although the work was fulfilling, the work/life balance was brutal, and I had to be at school every day at 6:45am. I started pursuing my master’s degree the UT School of Information with the hopes of becoming a school librarian (fulfilling work, better work/life balance, and I wouldn’t have to get to school until 7:30). However, all of that changed when I took an introduction to usability course with Dr. Randolph Bias.

In Dr. Bais’ class, I learned the fundamentals of usability research and was introduced to my future boss, David Richard, when he was a guest speaker in my class. David mentioned he was looking for a student intern, and I ended up securing an internship with his consulting firm, Design For Use, as a UX Researcher.

I was David’s first hire at Design For Use, so in addition to managing the research component for our projects, I unwittingly became the defacto project manager. I started off taking charge of scheduling and communications with clients, and as we added more employees, my responsibilities grew to include managing project budget, time tracking, milestone achievement, and status reporting.

It wasn’t until I had been managing projects for about a year that David recommended we change my title to Project Manager. “What’s a Project Manager?” I asked. Once he realized I wasn’t kidding, he explained that the majority of my responsibilities were related more to Project Management than User Research. I had never heard of, let alone considered the role of Project Manager as a profession, yet suddenly here I was.

With David’s encouragement, I purused formal workshops and training relating to Project Management, and began to take my role more seriously as a legitimate career. After attending the inaugural Digital Project Management Summit in Philly in 2013, I met Dina Fitzpatrick and we started Kickass PM.

Christine's Tips

  • Follow up: If I hadn’t reached out to David after he was a speaker in my class, I never would have started down this career path.

  • Leverage a related skill: I started working as a UX Researcher, which opened doors for me in the digital/tech industry.

  • Continued learning: Professional development events like the DPM Summit and Kickass PM have helped me learn new tools and make connections with people who have made me a stronger Project Manager

Tracy Hennessy,

Back in High School I was that person always juggling tons of activities at once. My calendar was filled with water polo games, Model UN tournaments, student government meetings, and hostessing a few nights a week. Keeping such an active lifestyle meant I had to track every detail of my schedule in order to keep up with it all.

In college I managed to stay equally busy. For my senior project I worked with the Aerospace Engineering department at my school to help coordinate a large international conference hosted at a hotel in the area. My role was a combination of event planning and project management - making sure that the rest of the department was interviewing and selecting presenters according to a schedule I’d created, while also working with sponsors and volunteers to execute the event according to our shared vision. This unique experience gave me the opportunity to work alongside engineers while also tracking a healthy budget, managing schedules, and assigning tasks for all of the conference volunteers and attendees.

Post-college, I started working as a program coordinator at a business management software company. ‘Coordinator’ was a loose term to describe ‘do whatever needs to be done to move our product forward.’ Since we had an extremely small team in my section of the business, sometimes this meant quality assurance, customer support, sales, or managing a team in India working on a mobile application. Although I didn’t realize at the time that what I was doing for our mobile app was actually ‘project management,’ it quickly took over as my primary focus and my main love.

A few years later I moved to Austin where I worked at an agency building mobile applications for brands such as Nike, Disney, Verizon and Clover. I earned my CSM and eventually got my PMP. After a a few years in project management, my love for getting my hands dirty in the project vision, and desire to be more involved in what we were making, helped me transition from Project Manager to Product Manager. I continued to work as a Product Manager in the digital agency space until I landed in my current role as Product Management Director at Handsome.

Tracy's Tips:

  • Everything Is A Project: A lot of people don’t think they have the experience to be a project manager because they’ve never had PM as part of their official title. My advice is to take a step back and realize that you’ve likely managed a ton of projects in your career; whether it’s a school project, working on a specific work assignment, or anything else with a definitive starting point, ending point, and some type of defined scope.

  • Value Your Soft Skills: Being a member of lots of clubs and organizations gave me the practice in dealing with a wide variety of people and personalities, which is a super valuable skill when managing a cross-functional team.

  • Tacos Go Far In Keeping A Team Happy: Never underestimate the power of a good breakfast taco or baked good to keep your team happy and healthy. Team morale can make or break a project, so don’t forget to keep an eye on the emotional health of your team.

Shahin Murray,

I have an undergraduate degree in business with a focus on Business Information Systems, or working with technology teams. I also have my master’s degree in Arts Entertainment and Media Management, which is essentially another business degree with a focus on working with creative teams. I wasn’t sure what exactly I was going to do after graduate school. I thought something in the field of online marketing dealing with SEO would have been my best fit, but I wasn’t able to drum up any opportunities.

Eventually I attended a career fair at my university, and was able to generate some hot leads for open positions in Chicago. I was stood out from most people who attended that fair because of my advanced degree. I got introduced to a company called Nansen who said they were looking for a project manager. I thought my interview with them went really well, but they eventually turned me away citing “not enough experience.”

Based on the chemistry and cultural fit I felt during my interview, I appealed to them the next day and agreed that while I did not have enough experience, I had the determination to take whatever was handed to me. I asked them to allow me on the team for three month unpaid internship. At the end of the internship we could reevaluate whether I was too inexperienced for the position, or at the very least I would have generated some experience for my resume. Luckily, they agreed to my proposal.

Once I met with the team again, they decided it didn’t make sense to have me as an intern if I was working directly with clients, and they’d go ahead and bring me on as an employee!

Shahin's Tips:

  • Use your degree: Even though I don’t have a degree in project management specifically, the knowledge and skills I acquired with my undergrad and master’s degrees can both be leveraged towards project management.  

  • Network and attend career fairs: Not every networking event or career fair is going to yield a good match, but it does get you increased exposure to opportunities you wouldn’t know about otherwise.

  • Market yourself: I secured my position at Nansen by placing a bet on myself and winning. Offering to work unpaid for three months was risky, but my faith in my ability is what ultimately landed me the position.