Government Job Profile: Project Manager

Plan, Hold People Accountable, Communicate and Communicate Some More

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Just about any article or book about project management has its own definition of what project management is. While many of those definitions would suffice to provide a foundational idea of project management, the Project Management Institute, or PMI, defines project management as "the application of knowledge, skills, tools, and techniques to project activities to meet the project requirements."

That’s a nice academic definition, but what do project managers do? Simply put, they manage projects. Perhaps this is too simply put, but that is what they do. Within ethical boundaries, they do whatever is necessary to accomplish the goals of the project.

PMI defines a project as “a temporary group activity designed to produce a unique product, service or result.” The word unique is the key work in this definition. Everyday tasks do not comprise projects. Activities that make up a project no longer take place once the project is over.

Project managers organize resources—such as time, money and people—to make projects successful. Once one project is done, project managers move onto another project.​

What Project Managers Do

If a project manager's job is to organize resources to make projects successful, how does this happen?

Project managers plan projects. They sit down with project sponsors to establish the goals of the project. They take these goals and flesh them out in a project charter. The project charter is the document that formalizes the beginning of a project. The project charter outlines high-level expectation of the project like milestones, budget, and timeframes. The exact components of project charters vary by organization.

The project manager and project sponsor discuss who they want on the project team. The project manager and sponsor strategize about how they will get these people on the project. The project sponsor should have the organizational position and clout to approach high-level managers to obtain personnel resources for the project.

These staff members will not report to the project manager formally, but they will be responsible to the project manager for completing assigned project tasks. This is perhaps the most difficult thing about managing projects: the project manager does not have full managerial authority over project team members. These people have other assignments and priorities outside the project. If personal problems arise, project managers try to handle them with the project team member, but if those problems persist, the project manager may have to go to the team member’s manager to reach a resolution.

Once a project manager knows his or her resources for a project, the project manager develops a project plan and a work breakdown structure, or WBS. The WBS divides the milestones of the project into manageable chunks that can be assigned to one person. A task does not have to be completed by just one person, but one person must be responsible for the task. As a project manager develops the WBS, he considers which tasks are dependent upon one another. He sequences tasks appropriately. He also considers the strengths, weaknesses and other commitments of project team members.

Most of a project manager’s job is communication. In the planning phase, the project manager and sponsor are in constant communication. At the kickoff meeting, the project manager sets the tone for the entire project. Once the project has started, the project manager communicates with project team members, project sponsors, and stakeholders. Stakeholders can be both inside and outside the organization. The project manager holds regular meetings with the project team and meets with individual team members as necessary.

The project manager also meets with the project sponsor regularly to ensure the project is going as the project sponsor expects. As the project draws to a close, the project manager must communicate to make sure everything comes together. After the has closed, the project manager documents and communicates lessons learned from the project.

Government organizations tend to put project managers to use in large efforts with information technology components like major software upgrades and hardware refreshes. Smaller information technology projects are more likely to have formal project management structures than smaller projects without technological implications. Project managers for these smaller, non-technical projects may be staff who have no training in project management and who are expected to muddle through the work.

Many people fall into project management from being forced to muddle through. They come from all sorts of backgrounds. Whether they are police officers, contract managers, curriculum specialists, public information officers or something else, they start as subject matter experts who have organizational skills and wind up as project managers. Once they gain a little experience and training, they find they enjoy managing projects. They seek out more opportunities to manage projects, training to enhance their skills and perhaps certifications to give themselves more credibility and job opportunities.

Characteristics of Project Managers

There are several characteristics common among successful project managers. With these traits, project managers are well on their way toward accomplishing their projects' goals.

Project managers must be trustworthy. In order for stakeholders and project team members to trust a project will go well, they must trust the project manager. Whether things are going well or not so well, the project manager must be open and honest about what is going on with the project. Such candor enhances a project manager's trustworthiness. People know they will get reliable information no matter what is happening in the project.

Project managers tend to be extroverted. Extroversion is a good quality for project managers to have because they are constantly communicating. Whether communicating with the project sponsor, stakeholders or team members, project managers must make the most of opportunities to disseminate and gather information. Introverted project managers can be successful; however, they must force themselves outside their comfort zone.

Planning is critical to success in project management. Project managers must be planners not merely to establish a good plan but to follow a plan and to know when that plan needs to change. Project managers stick to a plan until it no longer meets the project’s needs. Then, they make adjustments on the fly to ensure the project’s goals will be met. They communicate the changes to the necessary audiences.

Project managers are not always experts in the subject matters of their projects. On larger projects, there is practically no way a project manager can be an expert on all the aspects of the project. This is why teams are so important. To combat a project manager’s lack of subject matter expertise, project managers must be data-oriented. They must press their team members to give them verifiable data to prove projects are progressing as they should. When critical decisions about time, quality and scope arise, project managers need data to determine what needs to be done.

Because project managers need data, they should be analytical. They must be able to cut through bias and emotion to find relevant information and apply it to the decision making process.

Certifications Project Managers Can Earn

As project management has blossomed into its own distinct discipline, the value of certifications has increased. In fact, many job postings in both the public and private sectors show employers require or prefer new hires to be credentialed. People with long work histories in project management may not need certifications, but those new to this line of work must pursue them. As more people enter the field of project management, the more people will need to distinguish themselves as competent.

In the US, the most prevalent certification for project managers is the Project Management Professional, or PMP®, offered by PMI. To obtain a PMP® credential, a project manager meet educational, experience and training requirements. These requirements can be met in one of two ways. First, a project manager must have a high school degree, five years of experience with 7,500 hours of managing projects and 35 hours of relevant training. Second, a project manager must have a bachelor’s degree, three years of experience with 4,500 hours managing projects and 35 hours of relevant training.

After meeting these requirements, a project manager must apply with PMI and take an exam. This exam is based on the Project Management Body of Knowledge, or PMBOK®.

In all, PMI offers nine project management certifications. The PMP® and the easier to obtain Certified Associate in Project Management or CAPM®, are PMI’s two general certifications. Their other seven certifications deal with specific aspects of project management—such as business analysis, scheduling and risk management—or particular project management methodologies—such as Agile and OPM3.

Salaries Project Managers Earn

As with almost any job that exists in both the public and private sector, those who work for the government can expect to earn a little less than their private sector counterparts. Government organization tends to have better benefits packages than private companies.

Project managers early in their careers make less than those who have more experience. As project managers gain experience, they can command higher salaries.