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Ask a Project Manager #5: How Do I Land My First Project Management Job?

Posted by

Rachel Gertz

Published on

May 13th 2020

Digital PM trainer and Digital Project Management course instructor Rachel Gertz is our resident advice columnist for our 6-part Ask a Project Manager series, where we aim to get real, get deep, and get practical with your most burning questions about life and career in the creative industries. Have a question for her? Submit yours here. Today, Rachel dishes on what it takes to get your first role as a project manager.

Dear Rachel,

I’m just starting my career in Digital Project Management and I am so excited! I, unfortunately, don’t have multiple years of experience managing my own projects independently. I have a career in design and was a photographer but I’m actively looking to switch to project management. I’ve started to apply for creative and digital PM jobs but I’m not getting much pick-up yet.

Any advice on landing my first full-time PM job? What can I do to show I have the knowledge they are looking for?

Signed, Career Changer

Dear Career Changer,

It’s the perfect time to be considering a career switch into digital project management. Every week, more PM roles open up and new jobs hit the market. Project management is bracing for a talent shortage wider than the grin of a catfish with a stick of Mentos in its mouth. At the same time, it can feel pretty disheartening to try to land a job in digital project management if you don’t know how to position your skills and knowledge. Let’s walk through some typical scenarios and outline what your future employers are probably looking for. Then we’ll talk about some typical career paths and ways you can show off the shiny rubies you’re made of to your future company.

The skills your employers crave

So you want to land a job in digital project management (that is, projects based on digital assets instead of physical ones)? First, it’ll come as no surprise to you that those skills you have as a designer and photographer are aces. Booking photo shoots and setting expectations around scheduling and budgeting for design work involves the same skills as in any project management lifecycle. In fact, we consider digital project management a hat you wear as much as a role or title you keep. Now, I don’t know your particular skill or experience level or what kind of overlap they’d have, but I do know what employers are looking for when you upload your resume: experience, emotional intelligence, candor, and curiosity.

Experience (yup, the kicker)

No surprises here, but don’t be disheartened. When employers scour the pile of resumes they get for digital project managers, they’re often looking for one major thing: experience—and not just experience in any role, but as a dedicated project manager. More often than not, you’re going to see postings for PMs who have at least 3–5 years experience. These are classified as intermediate positions and they show that you’ve likely been handling tough situations in at least two to three different company settings and have a good 40–60+ projects under your belt. This shows you’ve encountered your fair share of changing environments and difficult people on your projects yet are still happy enough to keep running more. The reason most jobs ads require this much experience is because of the related risk that comes with running a project: you are solely accountable for its success or failure (even if the team screws up), and it’s up to you to anticipate these situations and respond gracefully and proactively. Even if you’re not managing people per se, you’re still a manager. This puts a lot of pressure on employers to get this hire right. One of the biggest mistakes an employer can make is hiring the wrong digital PM. I know you have related PM experience, so let me provide some hope and come full circle a little further down.

Hard skills

In short order, these are the heavyweight skills your employers are seeking when they scan your resume or sit you down for an interview.

  • Ability to manage deadlines and reduce delays
  • Ability to forecast risk and create backup plans to reduce it
  • Ability to scope, schedule, and budget projects accurately
  • Ability to run effective meetings
  • Ability to prioritize deliverables, projects, and stakeholder needs

Essential skills

Sometimes called soft skills, essential skills are what make up about 80% of your ability as a PM. They involve how you handle yourself and how you handle others and include things like emotional intelligence, teamwork, communication, problem solving, time management, and candor. We’ll touch on a few of the less obvious ones.

Emotional EQ

Your emotional intelligence is a primary factor in your employer’s decision to hire you. While they can’t easily scan for this on a resume, they’re looking for clues in the interview that give insight into how you manage your own and other people’s emotions and reactions. Here’s a list of things they want to be sure of:

  • Can you control your emotions and manage others’ to reduce environmental stress?
  • Are you able to positively influence and motivate others so you can get the project done?
  • Are you an active listener who pays attention to what teammates, clients, or execs are really asking for?

Candor

Candor is about transparency and frankness even when under a project vice grip. It’s pivotal as an experienced PM. Here’s what employers want to be confident about:

  • When things are going badly, can you be open and honest about what is happening? Can you state your opinion and provide a fix?
  • Can you work with other personalities and challenge them to open up to support the project?
  • Are you willing to take responsibility for things when they go wrong while creating a blameless environment for others that focuses on continuous improvement?

This article on blameless post-mortems is a gem.

Curiosity

Curious PMs are thoughtful and intentional. They look for patterns and systems and try to solve complex problems. They know that project management is not about moving tasks around. It’s about connecting the details with the bigger picture. Employers want assurance about the following:

  • Can you explain a complex PM task or feature to someone who has never done it before (e.g., how would you explain how to prioritize tasks on a project?)
  • Can you provide examples of how you’ve improved your workflow and gotten rid of waste or fixed broken pieces?
  • Can you think about and plan for different scenarios to reduce negative risk during your projects?

To sneak a peek at what employers want at a glance, take a look at our digital project management/producer hiring guide.

The typical project management career path

If you’ve cultivated all of the above skills, and have the experience to back it up, that’s great! Let’s talk a little bit about the career path of a PM and how you can ultimately land yourself a full-time role.

Adjacent paths

Most people who end up being digital project managers land here by accident. Up until recently when the ‘digital’ part of project management was recognized as unique to a project management job in forestry, government, or finance, digital didn’t have its own training or specializations. Digital workers weren’t even exposed to the 47+ traditional project lifecycle documents, sponsorship roles, or the outputs associated with the project lifecycle. So life found a way. Snap your fingers to 2020, and many folks who have freelance, event planning, writing, research, design, and development backgrounds, find they are great at running projects, and move into a formalized digital PM role from there, which bodes well for you, Career Changer.

Keep in mind that falling into digital PM also means picking up some bad habits along the way. Often, novice PMs aren’t familiar with things like:

  • Stakeholder management
  • Conflict resolution
  • Communication styles and channels
  • Risk and issue management
  • Knowing how money is made and spent and how it impact their budgets

This is why we highly recommend training rather than jumping in with two cold feet. We’re finding that increasingly, skills and practice aren’t enough: PMs need to be educated in the principles of people skills, business, and projects since employers are looking for hires who will confidently represent their company.

Onto the pathway:

Junior roles

If you fall into PM, you can bet your boots you’ll probably land in a junior role at the bottom of the ladder, unless you can demonstrate the skills above (or your organization is open to taking risks and mentoring folks new to PM in intermediate roles). Less likely.

Once you score that digital PM position, you’re usually working in office admin (non project-focused work like billing or event management), as a coordinator (task management), or as a junior project manager (similar to coordinator, perhaps more project setup and some introductory relationship management stuff). These folks typically have 1–2 years of experience and are much more tactical than strategic.

Intermediate roles

As you move up the ladder, you may find that you love working in Agile processes and want to become certified as a ScrumMaster (CSM) removing task or environmental barriers to the team. That, or you continue deepening your experience as a digital project manager taking on more complex or difficult projects.

Senior roles

Once you have at least 5–7 years of experience, you can call yourself a senior digital project manager. You may manage an entire portfolio of projects or even become a program manager. You might specialize in strategy and manage implementation as well as project management—this role is called a digital producer. Or you might want to become a team lead in your own design discipline and coach your teammates on their design practice. Maybe you even decide you want to be a Product Manager or Owner (CSPO) managing the entire lifecycle of the things your team builds.

From here, you can branch into other management, business, or product roles, or even consider re-starting your own business. Some of the best business owners I know started as PMs. There are so many paths within digital project management. It’s a good idea to set your sights on which branch you’d like to follow so you can start positioning yourself right away.

Check out our Team Roles document if you want a more detailed summary of how digital roles on a team are set up.

Tips for practice and breaking into PM

Walk the walk, talk the talk

So let’s say you have built all of these hard and essential skills over your career and you know exactly which path you’d like to go down. It’s time to show off those rubies: all the things you already know and do that demonstrate your affinity as a project manager.

I know you’ve handled your own clients as a photographer and designer, and I’m sure you’ve dealt with bridezillas and nightmare children and moms and models and clients that are late or difficult or demanding. So in my books, if you handled those gracefully, you could claim that as relevant experience on your LinkedIn profile or personal site.

What to highlight on your resume

Stick to a format that outlines what you did, how it impacted the project, process, or people, and see if you can tie it back to a hard number. This will reinforce your ability to manage complex or multifaceted projects. You might say you have:

  • Set healthy boundaries with 45 design and photography clients that resulted in at least 53% increase in additional project phases over three years
  • Scoped, scheduled, budgeted effectively for over 50+ commercial projects of varying sizes and complexity to earn over $xxx,xxx in revenue
  • Successfully reset expectations around 50+ project scope, revisions, and deliverable formats to ensure budgets were tight with 90% confidence.

Join a Slack group, or find a hackathon

Now that events are going online at full tilt, you might be able to join a design or development Slack channel, and offer up your project management services on a hackathon project or with a not-for-profit group. There are literally thousands of these speckled all over the internet, depending on your niche, and plenty of people would love to work with a project manager so they don’t have to manage the work themselves. Just ask.

Transition into a split role

Try partnering up with a bigger photography or design company and offer half your time in your designated craft and the other half as a project manager. Smaller organizations under 20 or 30 people will be more open to bringing you on because having a hire with multiple skills allows them to keep you at full capacity when work shifts or gets light. Larger more established companies often have stiffer procedures and hire for a narrower skillset. An option like this will give you practice in establishing PM processes while gradually increasing the complexity and size of the projects you handle.

Highlight your PM work in your case studies

Instead of putting all the glamour on your photography and design projects, share the process behind them. Talk about how you set up your projects, the hacks you used to automate your process, the ways in which you supported your stakeholders, and the outcomes you achieved (like fewer project delays, faster launches, happier clients, or repeat business). Don’t forget to update your title on your website and update your services. Being a great business owner/freelancer goes a long way to highlight your project management craft and highlighting the crossover is pivotal. This will perk up potential employers and they’ll see you’re a ruby in the rough.

Well, Career Changer: you’ve got some work ahead of you, but there is no better time to start. Despite the chaos of our changing work landscape (and being stuck at home for the forseeable future), you have all the tools at your disposal. Part of what makes the digital project management role so appealing is that much of it ties back to the stuff you can’t automate: the human, squishy stuff that makes you great at anticipating the needs of your team, clients, and customers. At the same time, great PMs balance these essential skills with the hard skills of managing the scope, schedule, and budgets of projects while tying that big and little picture together.

If you’re great at the soft stuff and the hard, you have at least 3–5 years of experience (the goal posts are wide), and have followed some of these tips and tricks for honing your focus and getting your name out there, I expect that very soon you should be able to add a nice little Digital Project Management title pin to the hat you already wear. Go get ’em.

Your PM pal,

Rachel

If you’re a little shaky on some of the hard and essential skills, or just want to deepen your practice, explore the SuperHi Digital Project Management course or reach out and we can evaluate your path and match you with additional training options. Training can help you avoid many of the bad project management habits you pick up while in the trenches and open up job opportunities.

Ask a Project Manager #1: What Should Developers Know About Project Management?
Ask a Project Manager #2: How Do I Navigate Internal Politics to Get The Right Things Done?
Ask a Project Manager #3: I Don’t Have a Project Manager and I Really Need One!
Ask a Project Manager #4: How Do I Make Sure My Team Adheres to Deadlines?

Rachel Gertz is Co-founder of and a Dig­i­tal PM Train­er at Loud­er Than Ten. She trains appren­tices in dig­i­tal project man­age­ment so they can work full time while learn­ing to keep their com­pa­nies hap­py, healthy, and ready for the future. Rachel works on rais­ing tides that float all boats to ele­vate the tech­nol­o­gy industry. If you have any creative career questions you’d like answered, you can ask Rachel here.

Illustration by Tom Redfern