Career Path Of An IT Project Manager

You know, I started my career as a IT specialist in a large American IT services company (the company's acronym is three letters so you won't have a hard time guessing which company it is).

I went down to programming, developing Java scripts, pouring through J2EE class libraries and trying to connect to mainframes via CICS connectors. It was really fun for a number of years - being able to apply my technical know how to design real-world applications for companies around the world.

As I progressed to a development team lead, I started picking up project management skills like resource and effort estimation, communication and tine management skills. And over time, I progressed into the role of an IT project manager, in charge of development workstreams for different projects.

One of the questions that's often asked is "What's the career path of an IT project manager?" Are you doomed to do IT and development for the rest of your professional life? I know that using the word "doomed" implies that IT and development is a blue collar, low-end job.

1. The Evolution Of The IT Project Manager

Well, I'm sorry to have to say this (and I might offend those who are doing pure IT work as their profession) ... but gone are the days where IT is considered a premium skill. Look around us. Is it sexy to know Java development these days? Is it really something if you know .NET and C++?

In the late nineties and early 2000s, those WERE indeed premium skills. Headhunters were scrambling to have grab applicants who had those skill sets. The bourgeoning Internet economy and e-business side of things helped to fuel demand. Immense demand. I was really lucky to have rode that Internet boom time myself.

But fast forward a decade later. The same skills are now outsourced to India and China. The premium skills in demand are now strategic and visionary in nature, not your blue collar IT skills. So I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but carrying on with a full fledged career in IT for another decade will almost certainly guarantee your obsolescence in the job market.

Coming back to IT project management, it's the same thing. These days, companies like banks screen their candidates very, very carefully - the top-notch ones only want the cream of the crop. You're thinking of waltzing into the recruiting department of a bank and apply for a project management role? Think again - you won't get very far.

Companies now want that something extra - in particular, industry expertise and solution knowledge help a lot. For myself, I beefed my knowledge up with a part-time finance degree before I went full-time into project managing banking projects. This is critical - because it is only when you speak the same lingo as your users that you'll become more credible and hence are able to manage projects better.

2. Possible Career Paths

Given the above viewpoints, here is my list of the possible career paths for an IT project manager:

  • Management Consultant
  • CIO
  • Senior Business Analyst
  • Functional Project Manager
  • Entrepreneur
  • Business Consultant
  • IT Project Manager
  • University or Polytechnic Lecturer

Let's understand each of these career paths in turn.

3. Management Consultant

An IT project manager can transition to become a management consultant. This is in fact a very popular career path as project managers have the analytical and management capabilities seen in management consultants. The key point here are the pre-requisites for breaking into management consulting - into firms like McKinsey, Bain and Company or The Boston Consulting Group. You'll need to apply for and get into a prestigious MBA program in an Ivy League university to qualify for these firms.

Case study:I once applied to the Boston Consulting Group here in Singapore. I failed to get through the first round of interviews (their case studies were very nicely prepared in neat folders and such). However, after the interview, it got me thinking - if I don't have an Ivy League MBA (I don't) - then does it make sense to get into the company at all? I checked all the top partners in the firm and it appeared they all had Ivy League MBAs.

So I decided that if I want to get into management consulting, I'd go get such an MBA first. The problem is, if you're already an IT project manager with say, 7 or 8 years of project management experience, you might be too old for an MBA program. So my take is, if you want to break into management consulting from your current PM role, you should get a prestigious MBA and do it early, e.g. at most 5 years after your graduation

If you can't do the above, I'd not recommend this career path. Just my own opinion.

4. CIO

Some IT project managers I know - particularly those with 15 to 20 years experience - can apply for CIO jobs. They'd have great, broad expertise with application software, hardware, networks and the IT world. They'd have contacts in the vendor world and understand the intricacies of deploying new computer systems.

I think the upside of a CIO role is that it pays well. If you work in a European bank in Singapore as a CIO, for example, you can get paid anything from $240K to $500K. These days, banks are more cautious with pay, but a CIO role is still one of the best paid jobs in the world of IT.

The downside to a CIO role? Well, you have to deal with internal company politics. I've seen CIOs argue with COOs, CEOs, CFOs and such. You need to have a strong dose of "political savvy" to survive in the organization. And remember (and this is my own opinion only) - the CIO is seen as a "back office cost centre" in any company. In terms of the company hierarchy, I think they are at the absolute bottom of the food chain.

If there's a system problem with an operations user faces, who do they approach? They go to IT. If there's a network problem, IT is responsible. If the CEO or CFO have system problems - IT has to resolve it.

For me, I can't stand that - that's why I don't want to work in a bank. I choose to be able to "keep my head up" in the bank and NOT place myself at the bottom of the food chain. But the choice is yours, really - if you think the pay and position justifies the fact that you're on the receiving end of any system problem in the company, then the CIO position might be just what you want.

5. Senior Business Analyst

Another career option for an IT project manager is that of a Senior Business Analyst. Usually, if you're a IT project manager BUT you have knowledge of a particular industry or domain (e.g. having done multiple projects in that area) - you may be suited to be a Senior Business Analyst. These roles pay quite well - especially in banks. You get to do "functional" work and gather user requirements, run UAT and conduct training. Avoid all the heavy IT stuff and do the "business" side of things.

I'd recommend this kind of role to those who have tried out IT project management but feel it is not their cup of tea. And especially if they have an interest in the business side of systems and applications.

A caveat here is that if you work in an end-user environment, a BA role may also be considered "at the bottom of the food chain". When I was working in the bank, I helped to gather business requirements for a system implementation and also ran the UAT. However, once the system went live, I became "system support". Any problems with the new system - I had to handle. And to me, that sucks. Which is another reason why I don't fancy am in-house BA kind of role.

I'd say expect a pay package of about $100K to $200k for this kind of role in an European bank here in Singapore.

6. Functional Project Manager

A "functional" project manager is also sometimes called a business manager in some companies. The role is a little similar to that of a Senior Business Analyst, except that the focus is more on project governance, execution, monitoring and change control. There will be some functional domain knowledge needed, but not as much as the business analyst.

This kind of role also pays well (better than a Senior Business Analyst). I'd say the range is something like $200K to $350K for an experienced project manager in an European bank in Singapore.

And there's another alternative to being a functional project manager in a bank. Many consulting firms (like my employer) also look for functional project managers with industry and / or solution expertise to run projects.

I'd caution you, however, that a consulting environment is MUCH more intense and you will work your butt off. In terms of the reward-to-pay ratio, it will be lower than an equivalent PM role in a bank. But you get to avoid being at the "bottom of the food chain" and - to some extent - the internal politics.

7. Entrepreneur

IT project managers could also consider becoming entrepreneurs. There are many options here:

  • Set up a services company to run projects for clients
  • Run specific parts of the SDLC for clients (e.g. UAT only)
  • Conduct training for project management

or and any other creative services you can think of.

The upside, as with any entrepreneurial venture, is the freedom in your work, since you own the company. You will still have to work hard, but you do have a say in what clients you wish to service and which you do not. You'll feel a lot more motivation in the day-to-day work since the effort you put in is directly related to the success of your company (this may not be true when you work for others, as you might already realize).

The downside? Well, it's insecurity. For many of my entrepreneurial friends, they tell me their greatest fear is not been able to get the next pay cheque to pay their employees. It's something you get used to when you work for yourself - and for many, it's a worthwhile exchange for the amount of freedom and ownership you get on the job.

8. Software Consultant

Some project managers I know like a particular software solution, so after doing several projects of that nature, they end up joining the software vendor. These vendors tend to have project management and also business analyst roles (usually also known as Business Consultants) - so you can join them if you're TRULY sure you are interested in the software solution.

I put that last caveat there because these software vendor companies (there are MANY of them) pay very well BUT you have to (1) work your butt off and (2) deal with insecurity. Insecurity? Insecurity because many of these companies get bought over by bigger, more established firms.

Case study: I worked closely with a software vendor company specializing in private banking core systems. The system was very good in portfolio management and analysis - so good, that it attracted a buy out from a larger core banking software company.

The takeover was successful, but many of the original consultants I knew left after the merger - due to cultural differences and also the loss of an "entrepreneurial spirit" in the merged entity.

So the lesson learnt here is to watch out for extremely small software firms you are thinking of joining. If they get bought out, or worse, dissolved, will you be able to handle it?

9. IT Project Manager

There are yet others I know who don't transition out of their IT project management careers at all. Perhaps they stay put in the same company, or leave to join another firm in a similar role. This is of course a valid career option, but do note - like I mentioned before - you HAVE to watch for skills obsolescence. IT project management in and of itself is not a highly demanded skill set in developed countries these days - so you must take that into account.

10. Lecturer In University Or Polytechnic

In Singapore, a very popular option for project managers is to transition into teaching. The local universities love teaching staff who have industry experience and often look for adjunct (part-time) lecturers in specific topics (e.g. IT, computer systems, project management). The local polytechnic also offer the same.

For the universities, if you want to become a full-time lecturer, you probably need a PhD to qualify. For the polytechnics, a Masters degree would suffice. Pay-wise, you would expect to have a lower pay package than if you were in industry (I suspect maybe a 30% to 40% pay cut). Check out the open positions in the schools' websites to find out more.

Wrapping Up ...

I hope the above has given you some good insight into the career paths open to IT project managers. If you look at the list, there are quite a number of options to choose from. I guess that in general, if you're looking for an upward move with increased challenge and pay - you should look at management consulting, CIO or functional project management roles in an end-user company, consulting firm or software vendor company.

If you want to make a lateral move, you may consider senior business analyst roles in the same companies. For those who want better work-life balance, taking up a teaching post in the local university or polytechnic is a good idea. And for those you want to strike it out on their own, there's always the entrepreneurial path.

That's all I have for now. Until next time, good luck in your career planning and job hunts! Do feel free to drop me a note if you have any questions. I can help you with the job scene here in Singapore - especially with respect to project management and business analyst roles in banks, financial institutions, consulting firms and software vendor companies.

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