What's The Career Path of A Project Manager?

One question that I get from many existing project managers and project managers to-be (i.e. business analysts or test managers) is this:

What's the career path of a project manager?

I'd like to give you an opinion within this article. We'll take a look at the conventional career path of a project manager, as well as a non-conventional one.

I'll also want to talk briefly about obtaining project management certifications and whether it boosts your credibility as a PM. I'll round off with some views on project management jobs out there.

Again, I'll give my views more from a “system implementation” project manager point of view - but many of these thoughts apply equally well to other types of projects.

1. The Conventional Career Path of A Project Manager

The conventional career path of a project manager is shown in the following diagram:

project manager career path 1 Conventional career path of a project manager

A few points to take away from the graphic above.

Business Analyst to Project Manager

A very natural candidate for a project manager role is the business analyst. I would say that after 5 years as a business analyst (in a vendor (e.g. consulting firm) or an end-user environment (e.g. a bank)), you'll be in good stead to become a junior PM. It's important to go through the business analyst track for a number of years because it grounds you in the fundamentals of projects - requirements, data analysis, testing and so forth.

Case Study: Here's a good example of a business analyst who moved to a project management role - myself! I started my career as a business analyst in the year 2002. I was involved in gathering requirements for a government statutory board which was rolling out a new backend system here in Singapore.

That project was complex - I was tasked to gather process maps, use cases, report and interface requirements for more than 50 sub-systems (this statutory board is one of the major ones and its systems affects ALL Singaporeans' income).

I learnt about object-oriented design, use cases and workshop facilitation. I'd hold workshops in front of senior stakeholders (sometimes 30 in a room) and being a young 29 year-old that is one heck of a learning experience.

I went on to do similar BA and junior PM roles for an insurance client and an investment bank, several years later. By 2008, I had enough experience to join an investment bank as a senior project manager and that was where I started picking up formal PM skills.

Software Designer to Project Manager

Some of my friends who are software designers and architects have also moved on (after about 5 years) to become a project manager. I do find that it is less common for software designers to become project managers. Many of them stay on to be senior software designers. I think it is because many of these designers like solutioning so much they prefer to leave the business user and stakeholder management to the business analyst and PMs.

Test Manager to Project Manager

As I will explain below, a Test Manager has one of the most fitting skill sets to step into project management. If you've run testing for 3 to 4 years, you're more than ready to take on a mid-level project manager role. That being said, there is some transitioning to do, because a Test Manager may not be exposed so much to senior stakeholders and may need to build communication skills and confidence to update them at project steering committee meetings.

So far we've talked about moving into a project manager role. What about roles after project management? There are two common ones I can think of, as follows:

Project Manager to Chief Operating Officer

A project manager, especially one say, with 10 years of experience implementing projects for one industry like banking or insurance, is very well suited to become Chief Operating Officer (COO) of the institution. This is because in his or her work, the PM would have worked with the C-level, all departments and also all levels of the organisation (senior to junior staff).

He or she, more than anyone else in a particular department, can see the “operational ins and outs” of the company. It'd be good to get a MBA or business degree if you aspire to become COO too, especially if your base degree is in a technical area, like engineering or accounting. And hey, expect a huge jump in pay if you make it to COO level too :)

Project Manager to Sales / Senior Delivery Role

The PM to COO track is suited for an end-user environment, i.e. a bank, a consumer goods company, etc. But what about in a vendor environment? In a vendor, there is usually no dedicated “COO” role.

In a vendor environment, after being a project manager delivering projects for a number of years, you'd normally aim for sales or a senior delivery role. In my line of work, vendor firms usually fall into two categories - software vendors (e.g. Temenos, SAS, Murex) or consultancies (e.g. IBM, Accenture, PWC, HP).

In software vendors, the sales role is usually termed something like "Business Development Director" or "Account Manager", while the senior delivery role is usually "Senior Project Manager" or "Head of Professional Services". Click here to find out more about a Project Manager's career path, For consultancies, sales roles would either be the Director or Partner levels, while senior delivery work belongs to roles like "Senior Project Manager", "Principal", or "Senior Managing Consultant".

Case Study: Let's look at my current company. It's a global management consulting firm specializing in IT strategy and large-scale system implementation programmes. For me, the eventual career path is to be a Partner (I'm not there yet) and that also means I need to develop sales skills as well.

An alternative career path is to stay in project management and delivery - which means I'll end up in a Director level role and have project director responsibilities in different projects.

2. The Non-Conventional Career Path of A Project Manager

Now, I'll talk a bit about “non-conventional” career paths for a project manager. Project managers usually start off as business analysts, software designers or test managers. But there are some who cross from a “Business-As-Usual” (BAU) role into project management.

Business-As-Usual Role to Project Manager

Let me give you an example. One of my colleagues used to be from the “operations” department in a global bank. Over three years, what he did was the day-to-day trade confirmations and settlement with counterparties for any trades a client placed with the Relationship Manager. That kind of work is operational, meaning that day-to-day, his roles and responsibilities do not change much.

One of his contributions in his role was to be a tester in the rollout of a system enhancement. He ran test scripts and gave feedback on the quality of the software and documented bugs in the system.

This little stint got my friend interested in broader project work ...