Project management is how you get things done using a set of skills, tools and techniques to meet the requirements of a project plan.
“It’s the leadership and coordination that brings a group of people together to achieve a unique goal,” says Eric Verzuh, president and founder of The Versatile Company, which offers training and consulting services.
The processes of project management fall into five groups, according to “A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge,” or PMBOK Guide, from Project Management Institute, the leading association for project management standards and certifications. These groups include initiating, planning, executing, monitoring and controlling, and closing the project.
Two common project management philosophies, or sets of ideas that help you solve problems, are waterfall and agile. Waterfall is a traditional approach that uses a single timeline and definitive project team roles. Agile is a newer, more flexible mindset that allows for adaptation throughout the project. One difference between the two is that waterfall aims to deliver the full product by the due date, while agile enables the product to be delivered in stages.
“Execution is paramount. But in order to execute, you have to have a good plan,” says Joseph Phillips, director of education for Instructing.com. “And this is what we call waterfall project management, where one phase waterfalls to the next.” By comparison, the agile mindset came from the software industry and lets you change and shift your priorities and actions, Phillips says. Out of agile comes two methodologies: scrum and kanban. Scrum is the most popular approach, using sprints – short, defined periods of time – to get things done in pieces. Kanban encourages the streamlining and organizing of tasks.
These project management philosophies are designed to work in many industries. “However, depending on the type of work you’re doing, you can do agile in arenas that we may have typically done waterfall,” Phillips says.
Methods and ideas you learn in project management online courses can be applied across fields, job titles and project types. Project management is not only a professional skill, but also a life skill, says Mike DePrisco, vice president, global experience and solutions at Project Management Institute.
“Whether you go into a field where you’re called a project manager, or you go into another field like HR, marketing, finances, journalism, and you work in projects, having an understanding and a basic knowledge of good project management is a good thing,” DePrisco says.
Project managers are responsible for keeping projects on task. “They clarify the goal,” Verzuh says. “What can we get done by the time it’s due for the money that we have?”
Every industry that has projects has project managers. They keep an eye on scope to limit distractions, make decisions and lead everyone involved in the project, who are called stakeholders. Decisions project managers make surround budgeting, scheduling, actual cost, cost performance index and total float, or slack, which is the opportunity for delay of a project’s deadline. They also manage team members and facilitate teamwork.
One challenge project managers face is picking the right project management methodology for the task at hand. Those who are well-versed in the different styles of project management and knowledgeable in those skills find success.
Project managers make a national average salary of $78,000, according to ZipRecruiter’s salary model. Jobs with a skill requirement of project management make a median of $84,895, and jobs with a project management professional, or PMP, certification as a skill requirement make a median of $120,877.
There isn’t one way to become a project manager. You can set yourself up for a project management path with a bachelor’s degree that leans on project-oriented coursework, though. Majors in areas like information technology, engineering, information services, financial services, construction and supply chain can prepare students for a master’s degree in project management, DePrisco says.
Think about the type of education you want with the skill set your resume needs and the possible returns on investment. Also consider time and cost. It could take weeks or years to become a project manager depending on the route you take. “In a matter of months, I can be PMP certified rather than going through a degree program,” Verzuh says.
But like in many industries, higher education is valued in a project management job candidate’s background.
“I think the master’s might give you some kind of good base knowledge,” says Richard Cheng, vice president of training and chief product owner at NextUp Solutions. “But the certifications give you more focused knowledge and specific techniques that you would use on the job today.”
When comparing certification and higher education options, consider that a PMP makes you job-ready, certifying you with the most current practices in the industry. Master’s degrees from university systems, which are often behind in the business world, can become outdated, Cheng says.
Those in the business of project management training note that unlike a master’s degree in project management, an MBA can take you in many different directions and is useful forever. The most desirable mix of credentials for a project manager is an MBA plus a PMP if you can afford this option.
“Having an MBA and a PMP makes you pretty marketable in terms of demonstrating a diverse set of skills and capabilities versus someone who might just have an MBA,” DePrisco says.
Although you do not need a certification to work as a project manager, it helps, and might be a qualification for certain jobs. If you are serious about becoming a project manager, the best way to certify your knowledge is with a PMP, which experts consider the gold standard of project management certifications around the world.
Project managers need to be able to think analytically and put together the big picture, Verzuh says. Data gathering, decision-making, problem-solving, brainstorming, conflict resolution, negotiation, communication and organization are other skills good project managers have.
“The value of the PMP is that it validates your experience and knowledge,” Phillips says, “(though) having a PMP does not necessarily mean you’re a great project manager.”
The most recognized project management certification is the PMP. Other popular certifications include the certified associate in project management, or CAPM, the certified scrummaster, or CSM, and the PMI agile certified practitioner, or PMI-ACP.
Skills index data from ZipRecruiter show sought-after skills on the market include project management, PMP, Microsoft project, project planning, project coordination, Atlassian (software product development) and Apache Maven (software project management), to name a few, says Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter.
You can learn about these topics and become more skilled at using these tools with a certification.
“The CAPM is a good certification for individuals that are looking to understand and demonstrate their understanding of core project management knowledge, terminology (and) some of the effective processes related to project management,” DePrisco says. “It is ideally suited for an individual who is early in their career.”
The CAPM has less stringent exam requirements than the PMP. When screening individuals to qualify for the PMP, DePrisco says, PMI looks for years of experience, demonstrated knowledge, and applicability of that knowledge to projects and program leadership.
You can get a project management certification online – the PMP, CAPM and PMI-ACP can be proctored in-person or online. To best prepare for certification, look for training courses that come from a respected certifying body, Cheng says.
PMI and Scrum Alliance, the most recognized certifying body for agile, have registered education providers. REPs are certified to offer professional development units, or PDUs, which are the hours that count toward education requirements. Project management courses that display the PMI logo on training materials are up to PMI training standards, and CSM courses must be taught by certified scrum trainers, who are certified by Scrum Alliance.
“We have about 1,500 education providers that are affiliated with PMI, and to affiliate with PMI, you have to meet a certain level of quality and rigor in your exam preparation courses,” DePrisco says.
Requirements to sit for the PMP certification exam are:
- A four-year degree
- At least three years of experience leading projects
- 35 hours of project management education or CAPM certification
If your highest level of education is a high school diploma, you need at least five years of experience leading projects as well as the 35 hours of training or CAPM certification to take the exam. You can complete training hours through hundreds of PMI-certified online courses. A PMI-certified course uses study materials that draw from the techniques and skills in the PMBOK Guide and PMP Examination Content Outline.
Depending on the course you choose, studying for the PMP can take days or months. With in-person training, you complete the education hour requirements in three to four days, DePrisco says.
Online courses for project management can take as long as you want, but Phillips recommends his students keep under four weeks to get the most out of his self-paced online training. Online courses are especially convenient to continue your professional development if you are under a stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus.
Formats of online courses include self-paced recorded lectures, live lectures and group discussions via video chat. Find the most engaging format for you to make the material stick.
Courses are full of complex practice questions that test PMP exam objectives, Phillips says. He uses process-driven questions to test what students think project managers should do in various scenarios.
“Let’s say you have a risk that comes into fruition. How would you best manage that risk depending on where you are in the project (and) what the risk is? Is time more important than money, or vice versa?” Phillips says.
The cost and quality of online courses for project management and PMP prep vary. Some are free, though many cost a few hundred dollars to $1,000 or $2,000. Once you have the education hours and meet the requirements, you can apply to take the PMP.
For PMI members, the exam costs $405. For nonmembers, it’s $555. The four-hour exam has 200 multiple-choice questions.
The learning doesn’t stop once you are certified. “Every one of our certifications requires a continued professional development aspect to it where you have to continue to learn over a three-year period to maintain your certification in good standing,” DePrisco says.
Over a three-year period, PMP holders must earn 60 hours of PDUs. You can earn PDUs from writing a book, volunteering at a chapter event, going to a speaker event or conference, or taking leadership training, for example.
Requirements to sit for the CAPM certification exam are:
- Secondary degree – high school diploma, associate degree or global equivalent
- 23 hours of project management education
The CAPM is for individuals who are early in their careers or just starting in project management and may not meet the more stringent requirements for the PMP. A CAPM certification on your resume shows that you understand project management and the tools to manage large projects.
CAPM prep online courses should be PMI-certified, using PMBOK and the CAPM Exam Content Outline as references. Cost and duration of online CAPM prep courses vary.
The CAPM outline covers 13 learning objectives including introduction to project management; project environment; role of the project manager; and management of project integration, scope, cost, quality, resources, communication, risk, procurement and stakeholders.
Once you meet the requirements, you can apply to take the CAPM. For PMI members, the exam costs $235. For nonmembers, it’s $300. The three-hour exam has 150 multiple-choice questions.
To maintain your CAPM certification, PMI requires you to retake the test every five years.
Requirements to sit for the CSM exam are:
- Attend a course taught by a certified scrum trainer, in-person or live online
- Or receive coaching from a certified agile coach
“CSM is essentially the PMP of the agile world,” Cheng says.
Scrum Alliance offers a two-day, 16-hour in-person training course to qualify for the CSM exam. Another option is a live online 14-hour course with a certified trainer.
When you take the two-day CSM training course via Scrum Alliance, you receive a two-year membership and online account with the organization, access to the CSM exam, and training materials such as a workbook, online resources and presentations. The course price through Scrum Alliance includes the exam fee and generally costs between $700 and $1,300, depending on the trainer.
The CSM requires a one-hour, 50-question exam. To maintain the certification, you must earn 20 hours of scrum education units, or SEUs, similar to PDUs, to renew your certification every two years. Additionally, there’s an administrative fee of $100 every two-year term.
CSM learning objectives, outlined by Scrum Alliance, fall into five categories: lean, agile and scrum; scrum master core competencies; service to the development team; service to the product owner; and service to the organization.
A CSM certification signifies that you understand scrum values, practices and applications, and can help a scrum team function. Like other project management certifications, a CSM demonstrates your ability to facilitate teamwork and limit distractions to complete a successful project.
“Scrum is a type of agile; it’s the most popular approach. Agile has a lot of different flavors, different approaches,” Phillips says.
Scrum is something you can implement, Cheng says. A term borrowed from rugby, a scrum is a huddle.
“In scrum, we huddle up every day for 15 minutes, and we talk about three things: what did you do yesterday, what are you going to do today and are there any impediments that are preventing you from moving forward,” Phillips says.
In the agile world, PMI offers the PMI-ACP, a certification for those who use agile frameworks and methodologies within their job, DePrisco says. “It’s more of a generalist type of a certification versus an acknowledgment for understanding one particular methodology, and it gives that individual more tools in their toolbelt from which they can leverage in their work environment,” DePrisco says.
The courses Cheng teaches were all in-person before stay-at-home orders went into effect. While his company NextUp Solutions pivots to online, Scrum Alliance is doing the same.
Cheng’s courses have varying formats, offering students different ways to engage. “It’s a mix of some lecture, some videos, some Q&A, small group discussions, some large group discussions, different exercises, activities and simulations,” he says.
A practice question for the CSM involves laying out IT scenarios that a project manager might come across and seeing how students would solve it. “Does that scenario and (that) decision made align with our agile values and principles or conflict with our agile values and principles?” Cheng says.
Don’t just collect certifications, Phillips says. “Get certified in something you’re going to enjoy and that you want to work in.”
Decide which certification makes the most sense for your career path. A credential to show for your technical education vouches for your ability to manage projects and deliver for stakeholders.
“The actual learning is the path toward certification,” Cheng says. “The certification itself is marketing.”
The letters on your resume speak to your knowledge, but the way you apply the skills will help you achieve success.