First steps to becoming a good project manager


A few days ago I had a pleasant surprise, a former co-worker reached out to me to talk and ask for advice - something that, whenever it happens, no matter how occasional, is flattering. She wanted to know more about the process of becoming PMP® certified - the most recognized certification in the world. Project Management Professional. The conversation - which was first over the phone and then a longer meeting in a café - started with a simple but very profound question: what is the most immediate goal, learning about the profession or getting certified as a project management professional? Is getting certified part of the first steps of a good project manager?

Here I share valuable tips if you want to take your first steps to become a good project manager and, of course, for all those who later wish to become certified as professionals.

Certification and learning are not the same thing

A common misconception is that a certification course is about learning about the profession itself. Many people link the process of "getting certified" to the process of "learning". And I'm not just talking about learning the standard terms or "good manners" that PMI promotes. I mean that many believe that a certification preparation course is a good course to learn about project management from scratch.

I can assure you that a "PMP Exam Preparation" course is not a course on project management. Therefore, this course should not be part of the first steps to become a good project manager. Much of the course content assumes that the participant has experience. That is, the course and exam content assumes that you have lived and understand the subtle difference between theory and application.

Becoming PMP certified doesn't make you a better project manager

The certification is designed to demonstrate knowledge and expertise in a specific domain. In the case of PMP, it is an international certification from an institution that works on a frequent basis with the ANSI and the ISO. In other words, PMI goes through a rigorous and strict process to define its standard and offer certification. The last P in PMP stands for "Professional" and, therefore, validates "experience" in the field. Not just knowledge.

You can learn things during a training course, but you won't have the time to apply, experience or appropriate that knowledge. However, you will not have the time to apply, experience or appropriate that knowledge. How many people do you know who, once certified, are magically considered better professionals? Does an athlete become better by winning an Olympic Gold Medal?

Let's not tell lies, it is the previous work, discipline and effort that deserves the medal. Becoming a project manager is a process, not a certification. Every profession takes time, and to achieve mastery, a lot of time.

There are a lot of pocket certifications on the market. Many PDFs with golden logos and charming names that contribute nothing to the profession. These pocket certifications are garbage and surely only enhance a mediocre market. Avoid falling into the temptation and facism.

Where do you start to become a good project manager?

This list is not an exact recipe. Of course, the process depends on experience and previous knowledge about project management. However, here I share a small list that can be very helpful.

Step 1: Learn about project management as a profession.

If you want to learn basic concepts and some theory, the best thing to do is to read some books. Don't be disbelieved by weird words and fancy sounding acronyms. Your first goal should be to discover that there is a world of practices and tools that exist to support you in your work - new or future. Remember, the idea is to understand the theory, know the jargon and appropriate some basic principles. Here I share with you a list of recommended books:

There are so many books I could recommend that I invite you to leave your suggestions and links to other books in the comments.

Beyond books

Another option other than books can be a course - formal or informal, face-to-face or virtual. Nowadays there are many alternatives for learning. The offer of face-to-face courses in business schools and universities is wide. The pandemic that began in 2020 also contributed to the massification of online content of excellent quality.

How to choose a good project management course?

I invite you, before registering in each program, to study and verify the curriculum vitae of the teachers. A good program is, in essence, the magic of a good group of teachers. Look for some recommendations among friends and references. The opinion of alumni is key.

Here are some basic e-learning courses to confidently take those first steps to becoming a good project manager:

For its part, the PMI -Project Management Institute- launched the initiative PM Edge. This is a wonderful initiative and not a structured program. It is a great resource for those starting out - unfortunately it is only available in English.

Step 2: Apply knowledge

Project management at work

If you have a job where you are actively involved in projects and can take on management tasks, take the plunge. The best way to consolidate knowledge is to apply it. My initial recommendation: apply it just as the literature says - by the book the connoisseurs would say. Learn each tool as it was designed.

It's not about swallowing whole, it's about learning the value of things, respecting the effort of the one who designed it - I invite you to read a little bit about the concept Shuhari of the martial arts.

Volunteering to apply project management

On the other hand, if project management is not possible in your job, you can always volunteer. Volunteering is full of vibrant options and hands are certainly needed. They wouldn't need volunteers otherwise.

Although it is not lucrative in terms of money, it is lucrative from a professional perspective. Volunteering is a source of contacts, opportunities and, in my case, great friends. Look for current volunteering options in your city, region or country. Visit the PMI volunteering or of the United Nations.

This advice is useful in everything you like. There are always associations or foundations that need volunteers and can help you to live the experience of what you are passionate about.

Step 3. Share experiences

There are different models to share experiences. Here you can choose one of them:

  • Attend events related to the profession. Several associations have Chapters around the world.
  • Participate in a mentoring program.
  • Join a discussion group, forum or professional networks in your profession. I know that some of them can be the focus of promotions and service offers, but there are also excellent discussion groups. In the particular case of project management there is a "social network" - or so they call it:

Step 4. Certify experience and knowledge

A few years ago I had an incipient debate with some academics about the importance of certification. The certifications, all of themhave very simple objectives:

For those who obtain the certification:

  • Demonstrate knowledge and/or experience in a particular domain.
  • Improve your professional profile.
  • Get better pay for your work - as an employee or contractor.
  • Access to new and/or better job opportunities.

To contractors of persons with certifications:

  • Simplify the selection and recruitment process.
  • Improve the person's chances of success in the position for which he/she was selected.

Here's a piece of advice, always look for a serious, endorsed certification that demonstrates your interest in professional growth. Here are three key elements to validate in any certification:

  1. What is the certifying entity issuing the certificate, did you know it, and does it have a global track record in the specific domain of knowledge?
  2. What is the international recognition of such certification, and are there third party endorsers of the process, such as ANSI or ISO?
  3. What academic support does it have, and is there a rigorous application process? Remember that the value of any certification is linked to the professionals who hold it. Those who excel in their performance will be good ambassadors. Otherwise you are just paying for a worthless document.

I hope this article helps you form a clearer idea of where to start. The steps to becoming a good project manager that I present are key. However, there are many things you can do to consolidate your career.

This learning process never ends, so it is not a point of arrival, it is a path. And like everything in life, moving forward alone can be very efficient, but moving forward in a team is much more fun and enriching. Look for partners and friends who have similar dreams. I offer to help if you consider it valuable.

In the end, you will understand that management is only possible thanks to the people and teams who work with you. That's the true path of a good project manager.


Alberto Dominguez
Alberto Dominguez

Leading teams from theory to real and sustainable delivery of innovative IT products and services.

Articles: 45

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