Becoming a Technical Project Manager
Over on Reddit, someone asked about moving into a project manager role from their current job. I have some experience with this, so I wrote up a quick reply, and decided to share it here as well. Post copied below, with some slight edits, clarifications, and adjustments for a more general audience.
I’m an engineering manager at Uber. My previous jobs were an operations manager at Google, and before that a technology consultant at Deloitte. The latter is probably the closest to pure project management, although my current gig involves quite a bit of team and project management as well.
There are a few steps you can take, and some things you should consider as you try to move into project management. First, you should get in the mindset of framing your current work in terms of projects. Can you explain the planning, estimation, execution, and wrap-up of the projects? Did you identify your stakeholders and work with them throughout the project phases to ensure the project was successful? Did you define success criteria so that you knew when you were “done” and that the project met its goals?
These are several of the most important things a PM does. If you feel like you’re doing this work now, and you can describe the things you’ve worked on in these terms/processes, you’re basically already a PM and really just looking for a new company that will give you the appropriate job title. This can often make for a much easier transition. In fact, I might even recommend listing yourself as a project manager on your resume if you fit this description (although it is important to make sure you aren’t misrepresenting your experience/background, so be careful not to embellish.)
Another thing to think about is certifications. I’ve previously completed Certified Scrum Master (CSM) and Project Management Professional (PMP) certs, as well as ITILv3 Foundations and perhaps a few others at some point in the past that are slipping my mind. In my experience, most of these are a huge waste of time if your goal is actual skill development, but some companies look for them as strong signals of your experience and “seriousness” in the project management domain. PMP, in particular, is probably the most widely valued by companies. In my humble opinion, it is a waste of time in terms of making you a better PM, but it might help you get certain kinds of jobs. Perhaps its best quality is that in order to receive the certification you must have a certain number of hours doing professional project management, and presumably PMI (the organization that administers the PMP cert) goes to some lengths to verify your claims of professional experience.
All that being said, some companies are into certs. While this is a bit of a lazy generalization, it’s probably safe to assume that the more corporate a company is, the more likely that company will care about your certifications. For example, management consulting firms love them (because they often tie to what rate they can bill you out at, and are more widely respected within that industry.) Similarly, I’d expect companies like Oracle, Microsoft, etc. to weight certifications more heavily than less traditional organizations such as Facebook, Google, or Uber.
If you want to work in high tech, I wouldn’t worry much about certs and instead I’d focus on technical literacy. Basically, however technical you are, go become more technical. Read some books. Write some code. Think about systems design. Understand how something works at least at the system level. Could you explain to me what types of systems are required to run something like Facebook? Do you understand the basics of how a search engine like Google works? These might sound like tough questions, because they are. But, there is a pretty high technical bar even for non-technical PMs at a place like Google. You need to have the respect of the engineers you work with in order to be effective, and you can really never be too technical. Your ability to talk the talk and at least sometimes walk the walk will carry you a long way compared to being a pure project manager in a technology company.
Clear communication is also very important. I’ve basically built my career on being able to understand extremely complex technical concepts in enough detail to communicate them clearly to all stakeholders, and then to advise on making technical decisions while relying on my engineers so as to avoid getting lost/mired in the technical details.