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Episode 147: How to Become a Project Manager

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The PDU Podcast

Josh Nankivel, PMPHere is a question that I have received from quite a number of podcast listeners in the past few years: How do I overcome the Catch 22 situation of getting into project management, that in order to get assigned a project you need to have experience as a PM. And in order to get some experience as a PM you first need to have a project assigned. Is there a way around this? Project manager coaching and mentoring is a starting point, but that doesn't address the question of experience and how to gain it.

This and may other questions about how someone who is interested in becoming a Project Manager can get started in our profession are at the center of my discussion today with Josh Nankivel. You will hear how both he and I started our careers as project managers, what books to read, what training to get and what websites and social media for project managers are great places to start.

There are so many ways to niche down in project management. Your goal, for example, might be a role of project manager in SAFe agile teams, but before you can make that move, you need to get the basics right and gain experience that will let you ultimately take on your dream job.

Josh is the man behind PM Student and PM Student eLearning, which you can find at

Episode Transcript

Below are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

Podcast Introduction

Cornelius Fichtner: This is The Project Management Podcast™. We bring project management to beginners and experts. Find us on the web at‑ or send your emails to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello and welcome to Episode #147. I am Cornelius Fichtner. This is The Project Management Podcast™, nice to have you with us.

Here is a question that I have received from quite a number of podcast listeners in the past few years: How do I overcome the Catch 22 situation of getting into project management? The problem is that in order to get assigned your first project, you need to have experience as a project manager. And in order to get some experience as a project manager, you first need to have your first project assigned. Is there a way to get around this?

This and many other questions about how someone who is interested in becoming a project manager can get started in our profession are at the center of my discussion today with Josh Nankivel from You will hear how both he and I started our careers as project managers, what books to read, what training to get and what websites are a great place to start.

But let me give you a possible answer right here for this Catch 22 question: Anything that you work on in your job can be managed through proper project management principles. So don't wait until someone assigns you a project. The next time your boss gives you an assignment, go ahead and begin managing it by applying solid project management principles. Not every assignment has obviously the same needs. So maybe on one assignment, you are able to use a project schedule and on the next you can keep an issues log and on the third you can do some rudimentary risk management. The trick is to understand what is needed and apply the right tools and techniques.

And now, the interview: My interview guest is Josh Nankivel, the man behind PM Student and PM Student eLearning, which you can find at His short biography on Twitter is "Helping new and aspiring project managers to reach their career goals including gaining experience, education, PMP® certification, and more!" Josh brings an entrepreneurial spirit to any project, with a background in technology and specific strengths in management, process engineering, and organizational improvement. He has extensive experience in managing projects in the aerospace industry as you will hear soon.

Enjoy the interview.

Podcast Interview

Female voice: The Project Management Podcast’s feature Interview: Today with Josh Nankivel from PM Student.

Cornelius Fichtner: Hello Josh and welcome back to The Project Management Podcast™.

Josh Nankivel: Great to be here, Cornelius.

Cornelius Fichtner: We want to help junior project managers in this interview to get started in project management, in particular, how to get training. But let’s start somewhere completely different to begin here because the Catch 22 for many folks who want to get into project management is that in order to get assigned a project, you need to have experience as a project manager, but they won’t give you a project unless you have that experience. So it’s really is Catch 22. You need it to have it and in order to have it, you need it. How do you overcome this conundrum?

Josh Nankivel: Yeah!  Well, I get a lot of questions about that Cornelius. Really, what it’s about is creating your own opportunity so volunteering is one of the big things that I’ve done in my career. When I say volunteering, I don’t just mean volunteering for charities or other organizations but even within your own company, branching out within your own role and taking on some additional responsibilities that will start being able to reach or expose to project management in your organization is a great way to do that so you can also do it for organizations that you may already be involved with in your community so civic organizations or your church or whatever things like that.

There are also a lot of project management organizations such as local PMI Chapters and those types of things. So if you ask about opportunities there, there are definitely opportunities in there.

The other thing about approaching organizations that I would say don’t’ necessarily go out and say: ‘Hey, do you have any volunteer organizations or opportunities?’ although that’s a good question really, the best way that I found is to go ahead and find something that you can contribute to the organization and put together a little proposal for what that would look like and submit it to the board.

And that’s exactly how I did a project for the students of PM SIG for PMI. I took a look at their website. I didn’t like it. And so I put together a proposal for how we would go about implementing a project to redesign the website and not only that but also for me to be able to include members of the organization in this project and we have this structure that I set up where I would start off as the Project Manager and put everything together. And then every month, we would switch off who is the acting project manager. So it was an opportunity people within your organization to get some experience managing a project as well. And there was a virtual environment with volunteers which is always more difficult than if you have somebody reporting to you.

The other thing that I’d say if you’re doing physical, if you’re volunteering in your community in some way, shape or form, organizing events is a great way to get this experience because when you do organize some type of fund raising event or whatever it is, you’re going to have a lot people, logistics, a lot of different things to juggle and so you can really put some of those skills into practice.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah! Let me make a couple of comments to what you have just said. Let’s begin with opportunity because I spoke to Tom Mochal from TenStep recently. We talked about how do you move from being a senior project manager into program management, he basically the said the same thing as you said.

He said, the first thing you need is opportunity. You can’t sit here as a project manager and expect somebody to call you up and say: “Hey, I want to make you a program manager.” And similarly when you start out as a junior project manager or as someone who wants to get into project management, you can’t just sit there and hope: “Well, one of these days, someone is going to notice what I can offer and they will give me a project management position.” You have to make your own opportunities. If that means taking a radical step and quitting your job and going to a new company and letting them employ you as a junior project manager or finding a department within your current organization where they do a lot of projects and you can get involved, well then take that step. Create your own opportunities.

Josh Nankivel: Absolutely.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah, and second...yup, go ahead!

Josh Nankivel: I was just going to add to your statements about finding a role where you can grow as a project manager because if you’re looking to look at a different organization than the one that you are in, some questions that you might ask yourself about the organization is how did they make their money first of all. Did they make their money by running projects? Because if they do and they have been in business for a while, it’s probably a pretty good bet that they are placing some value on formal project management and then even if they’re not making their money specifically from doing projects, there’s also evidence that they value formal PM that you can look for and some of that is in terms of the job descriptions that are given.

If you’ll take a look at the job descriptions and match the title to the description, does it seem like that’s a good fit or are they posting something as a business analyst or something like that when you read the description? It’s really a project management position.

You can be a team member on a project and work your way into project management from that angle or being a lead. If you look for titles like project or business analyst, project coordinator, project controller, project scheduler, project assistant, junior project manager, those are some things to look for as well.

Cornelius Fichtner: Yeah! The second comment I was going to make to your opening statement is the one, volunteer in your local either PMI Chapter or whatever professional organization you have.

As a former Chapter President, I can tell you that somebody who comes up to me and gives me a proposal and tells me: ‘Here, I have an idea how I can make the chapter better’ is something that would blow me away because that happens so rarely. So having somebody who doesn’t just come up to you and say: ‘Hi! I’m here, I want to help.’ versus ‘Hi! I’m here, I’d like to help and this is how I think I can contribute. This is my idea on how to move our organization forward much, much better.’ And I can always guarantee that you’re going to get the job unless it runs contradictory to the strategic plans that the board of governors has for the chapter at the moment.

You mentioned finding a company that does projects professionally might be a good place to get started to find your first project. That’s in fact how I happened to get my first projects. I was working as a software developer in a paper mill and I was given small software development tasks and they became bigger and bigger projects and I moved on from there and I found myself a consulting company where I worked and I was again handed both projects and software development tasks and from there, I grew into managing these projects. How did you personally get assigned your first real project?

Above are the first few pages of the transcript. The complete PDF transcript is available to Premium subscribers only.

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Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner
Cornelius Fichtner, PMP, CSM, is the host and the author at The Project Management Podcast. He has welcomed hundreds of guests and project management experts to the podcast and has helped over 60,0000 students prepare for their PMP® Exam. He has authored dozens of articles on and PM World 360. He speaks at conferences around the world about project management, agile methodology, PMOs, and Project Business. Follow him on Twitter and connect with him on LinkedIn.

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