Being a project manager can mean many things--it all depends on what industry you're talking about. In the dot-com and advertising worlds, project managers are in charge of writers, editors, developers, designers and advertising teams and are called upon whenever a company wants to a site, add a new service or upgrade old systems. A big part of being a project manager requires the ability to understand the intricacies of a particular project and to micromanage a creative team to complete a project on time and within budget constraints.
While the project manager manages the day-to-day progress of the project, he is also the "first arbiter of quality." In short, the project manager is responsible for making sure the project is a success. The project manager sees everything going on inside and in between the many teams on a project; and is therefore expected to know when things have gone awry. He is responsible for identifying the problem--such as a lack of commonality between departmental visions or that the project has simply gotten off track--and creating a solution.
It's no easy feat navigating the choppy waters between upper management and the creative team and still producing quality results on time. The ultimate success or failure of a project falls to the project manager; regardless of who makes a mistake, the project manager is the one held responsible for it in the end. So, a project manager has to always remain on his feet, both literally and figuratively.
Walk the walk
Although the office environment may at times be a bit chaotic (especially in a start-up environment), project managers often have their own offices close to the creative or design teams that they supervise. One contact in a web consulting/design firm said: "My basic premise of project management is the theory of management by walking around, so I spend a large part of the day speaking with the various people on my projects…I find that there are always issues and I try to take care of them as soon as I receive them."
Many times, project managers have to put in more than 40 hours a week, depending on the status of the project on which they are working and the pressures they are under to complete it. If a project manager does happen to find himself with some extra time during the day, it means he is probably not doing his job well.
Talk the talk
Project managers need to be able to coordinate between departments with very different specialties, each with its own lingo. The technical team, for example, will have a different way of talking about the project than the business stakeholders. One project manager describes the ability to communicate with all departments as being "multilingual" and "translating" between departments.
Coordinating with the different departments can also be problematic because project managers are not direct managers of the teams whose work goes into the project and usually don't have the hands-on technical skills and experience of the technical and creative teams.
Being on the outside has its perks. By not being a part of one particular team or section of the project, the project manager is, in fact, a part of all the teams and sections on the project. The project manager can be involved in any stage in which he takes an interest, and this offers many possibilities, including career advancement.
In order to keep track of these often disparate elements, project managers must be super-organized. At all meetings project managers attend, they are expected to take detailed notes. Each project manager has his or her own way of keeping track of all the details of a project. In the words of one project manager, it doesn't really matter what system is used, "a good project manager rarely has to go back to their notes."
Educational requirements vary greatly for project managers depending on in which industry they work. Those who work for high-tech startups are usually expected to have a degree in a related field and/or some prior history in computer science or engineering. The Project Manager Institute (PMI) also offers a certification for project management. PMI is a good starting point to learn about industry trends and other professional developments. Regardless of industry, however, it is common for project managers to have a bachelor's degree in accounting or business administration, and those with an MBA will probably find it much easier to score that ever-elusive high-paying job.
Starting out as a full-blown project manager is unusual and difficult. Most project managers start as assistants, helping the project manager oversee his/her projects, and then transition to a smaller company as a project manager or to business school. After that first straight project manager job (often classified as junior project manager), one advances to a senior project manager position. One gains more projects and those projects become more challenging and intricate as one climbs the ranks.
Being a project manager can also open other doors. Project managers get a taste for all parts and stages of a project, and often decide that they want to learn more about a specific one. This can lead to an unforeseen career as anything from a Java expert to upper management.
Project managers bring the ideas of the creative design team to life. One project manager describes it as a "very fun and interesting field." Working well and "building personal relationships" with people--both the clients and your team--is "key." Another project manager says project managers have the "ability to work on issues that will make the efforts of the staff easier and better in the long run. You feel like you make a difference."
However, being a project manager isn't just about working with the team. "You are responsible for defining requirements, scheduling, budget, and reporting to management on the progress of the project," says a NYC project manager. Says another, "The worst part of being a project manager--depending on the technology available--is scheduling meetings." Advises another project manager from Texas, "Learn to handle stress and take one day at a time." And if something goes wrong, projects managers take the blame--the buck stops with them. "Your job is closely tied to the project. If the project is cancelled, you may be out of work." But while project management can feel thankless--even if the project is a success, the project manager shares the credit with all of the teams that went into the success--in the words of one project manager, "rest assured, a project manager's individual efforts rarely go unnoticed."
In the end, project managers love the challenge and variety of the work. "You are not just doing the same thing over and over. Every project is new and challenging."
In charge of a group of creative people; Given credit when a project is successful; Variety of projects
Long hours; High pressure environment
Detail-oriented; Good communicator; Assertive; Analytical
Disorganized; Introverted; A follower; Anxious
Average about 40 to 60 per week
Median compensation (base + bonuses), project manager I: $65,272; Project manager II: $83,384; Project manager III: $98,901
Bachelor's degree; MBA; Strong leadership skills; Strong communication and multi-tasking skills