project management career

How to Start a Project Management Career with Zero Experience

Are you thinking about taking a leap and jumping into project management career? From my experience, it has truly been a rewarding path. One that I continue to invest in, and learn everything I can about the best project management practices.

So how did my journey in project management start?

About eight years ago, I was trying to get into project management. I was in college, getting an education, since that seemed like the logical thing to do. When the time came to apply for jobs, I noticed that pretty much every role required some level of experience. How could I apply for an entry level job when I didn’t have the 2–3 years of experience the roles require?

There are plenty of project managers out there who have gotten started somehow. But how? I was frustrated and discouraged. It had been six months and I was turning down roles because I didn’t like them, they didn’t pay what I thought I was worthy of, or didn’t have a project management title that I felt I had worked to earn (oh my young & naive expectations).

During an interview, I was asked about my experience. Luckily for me, I had worked in a family business, as well as volunteered, so I knew how to leverage those skills and relate them to the role of an operations analyst. I talked about the skills and how they would help me work with the clients. Even though I didn’t have a “project manager” title in the past, I could still mention my skills. And suddenly, it appeared to me that I had more experience than I thought.

Desperate to make more and start my career, I accepted the role as an operations analyst, which didn’t have any of the things I thought I wanted in a role. However, what it did have was experience doing PM-like work and it was with a company I felt I could grow for my entire career. Being an operations coordinator meant helping small self-storage facilities set up their accounts (between 20-40 at a time) based on the needs of their business and provide training and support. Other duties included reporting and account retention and intended working with other cross-functional teams.

Read more: PMI Named Top Skills for Digital Project Managers

While the work was challenging, I knew I wanted more hands-on experience running projects. I explained to my boss during my review that I really enjoyed what I was learning in class and was hoping that there was other work that allowed me to manage and lead. She found a few internal projects for me to work on with different team members. She also reached out to the company’s project management team and began having me sit in on their meetings and act as a liaison between the company’s PM team and our department. I was thrilled she was really trying to help me grow, but I did wish it had all happened sooner.

Eventually, I was in search of a new role outside the company. My desire for a more focused project management role was the leading factor. I also realized that the company was large, and moving up within the organization would take way too long for my liking. Plus, PM’ing wasn’t huge here. If that is the type of work I wanted to do, I had to move on.

I found another company and received an offer as a Project Manager. The offer promised a bigger salary than before and had great benefits. In my new role, I was officially a “Project Manager.” Finally. My techniques in the interview process were just like before, and they worked again.

I spent the next few years working for this private company, but unlike before, I consistently got huge wake-up calls when it came to what it takes to live, breathe, and be a PM. As an implementation project manager, I helped clients replace their archaic & outdated paper systems (in most cases) with a cloud-based compliance system. This role meant working with many cross-functional teams on the client side and internally to deliver results.

Reliving these 4 years, where on earth do I begin?

I spent the first year or so getting familiar with my role, the company, and the software. As an implementation manager, the role was much more “involved” than a traditional project manager role. About a year in, I got a small raise. My boss started asking questions about my decision to start an MBA education and what type of projects I enjoyed (cookie cutter, small, straightforward projects vs. complex projects, requiring extensive critical thinking). I answered the former but ended up with the latter when realizing that I was good at problem solving and collaboration. Moreover, if I wanted to be a standout, I needed to take the road less traveled. The hard one.

I think that’s what she wanted to hear, and probably what she saw in me all along. I started getting more out-of-the-box projects, but nothing I felt was too crazy. When some game-changing projects were about to begin, it was time to speak up. I started insisting on complex projects. If you want examples of some complex projects I managed and worked through many of the challenges, check out my article and video series here.

But soon the stress began to get to me. I was working full-time and going to school at night, getting more training in business and project management. However, it didn’t go unnoticed. By now I had received a 20% raise and was feeling pretty good.

Read on: 13 Words to Complete a Project Manager’s Resume

Going into year two I received more insane projects, and it felt amazing to knock them out of the park, though they often came at a cost of my time. There were days I was at work by 7 am, only to leave at 11 pm, and return bright and early the following morning. Also, days where I encountered something new and stressed about unfamiliar territory and keeping everything afloat. I really had to lean on my boss (who is a great mentor and friend to me) to help me navigate the waters and really refine my skills. I like to think she is a big reason behind why I am often told that I am good at what I do.

Another year, I was promoted to a Senior Project Manager.

I decided to start studying for my PMP because my earning potential would soon outgrow the company. It was about that time I really turned on my self-study. It was also about that time when my new supervisor of the year left and I officially became a co-team lead. It was rough for a bit because I was responsible for the staff, my own workload and getting the PMP.

Life started to take a major turn just before my four-year anniversary with the company. I wanted to be in business for myself, and so I started working on my own company with my boyfriend. I made the decision to freelance full-time and leave my role. It turned out to be the best decision. The PMP certification came in handy and I was being offered roles where my hourly rate was doubled.

In as little as 6 years, my hourly rate had doubled twice.

And that is what I want for everyone reading this. I’m 27 years old and making more than people 10+ my age with twice the experience that I have. It is possible. Here’s how:

Transferable skills

Assess your current skills and showcase them. If you want to become a project coordinator or project manager, it is important to display skills that a project manager has. Even if you’ve never had a “project manager” title.

If you can show how your current skills translate to skills a project manager needs, you suddenly have more experience than you thought. Be sure it’s on your resume, too.

Good examples of transferable skills are organization, leading teams, communication, planning meetings, etc.

Please note that I am not suggesting just listing these on a resume, but being able to speak to how you have experience in these areas from previous roles.

Ask to be on new projects

Often times, even if you are not currently a project manager, companies have project management roles or ongoing projects where you can join as a resource. This is a great way to experience and get foot in the door.

When I worked at U-Haul as an Operations Analyst, I managed a number of small storage facility account setups. They were projects, but in comparison to what PMI considers a project, nothing majorly complex (e.g. no project documents, limited stakeholders, typically no harsh timelines or budgets). It gave me exposure.

Meanwhile, I talked to my manager. I expressed that I was getting training (next point) but wanted more experience in project management. She gave me some projects to lead within our department and invited me to the U-Haul project meetings that expanded organization wide so I could see how things were done and act as a liaison and take back any key information our team needed. Boom! Experience and exposure.

Get training

If you are looking to make a career out of project management, get training. It can be a degree, certificate, or a few intros to project management classes. New skills open up new opportunities. Plus, certifications through Project Management Institute (PMI) require 23-35 hours of educational contact in project management depending on the certification.

Get a mentor

I remember seeing this advice when I was getting started. For me, it came naturally in the workplace when I found someone who believed in me and what I was capable of. This happened to my business partner too.

A mentor doesn’t have to be limited to your workplace. You really just need someone that wants to see you succeed, and can help you get there.

Now that I have shared my path, it’s my hope that your journey into project management can be a lot smoother of a ride than mine was. Good luck!

Illustration: Copyright © Oksana Drachkovska

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