A Case for Agency Project Managers to Get Their PMP
Consider your credentials
Depending on your industry, you may or may not be aware of the Project Management Institute (PMI) or their Project Management Professional (PMP) credential. Working in the software agency space, it wasn’t particularly on my radar either. ScrumMaster certification sure, but nothing quite so broad and traditional as a PMP. Like many project managers/producers in the tech industry, I just didn’t consider that the kinds of certifications PMs get in big companies had anything to do with my job. After all, I don’t even have cubical walls to hang a certificate on.
I was wrong for reasons I’ll outline below, but suffice it to say that the study of project management is universal. Having experience with a particular industry or category of projects is certainly valuable, but so is a solid framework of best practices that informs a way of thinking. Earning my PMP began as a sort of cynical checking of a professional development box, but by the time I sat for the exam, I was a believer.
Getting the goods
Before I dive into my case for you getting your PMP, let’s get the nuts and bolts out of the way.
PMP is, as I mentioned, a credential. It’s attained by completing an intense 4-hour exam comprised of 200 multiple choice questions running the gamut of hard and soft project management skills. Most of the exam’s content is taken from PMI’s doorstop-of-a-book The Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK). I know, catchy name. To even take the exam, you must apply and get approval from the PMI. The application takes about 20 hours to compile, requiring you to detail 4500 hours of project management experience and 35 professional development hours (PDUs). Of the applications that aren’t outright rejected, approximately 10% are randomly audited. The application process is no joke.
After getting approval from the PMI, there are of course fees to pay. PMI membership, the exam itself, and associated study materials can add up quickly. If you want to take an exam prep boot camp (more on that later), you should be prepared to be all-in at about $1500. Again, all of this is before you even take the exam.
That’s a lot of hurdles, and already a significant investment of time and money. Studying for the exam is also a long and taxing affair. In my case, I read two exam prep books cover to cover, made a ton of flashcards, and drilled formulas and knowledge areas for a little over 2 months. All the while I was attending a month-long boot camp class put on by Portland State University and referencing the PMBOK constantly. I’ve never studied that hard for anything in my life. I’ll go over some exam prep recommendations toward the end.
Displays of discipline
The PMI makes a couple fairly significant assumptions about project management that might explain the disconnect many agency project managers might have with their materials. The narrative throughout the PMBOK casts the project manager in a large organization captaining projects with million dollar budgets, year-plus timelines, and hundreds of stakeholders. These mythical projects have unlimited capacities for planning, and were born of good strategic decision making. Further, the project manager holds all the power to perfectly execute these projects.
If none of that sounds like any project you’ve ever worked on, you’re not alone. The scale, the appetite for planning and strategy, the level of authority...it’s pretty unrealistic for most of us. But it is still an incredibly useful framework! PMI isn’t actually trying to exclude non-Fortune 500 project managers with these assumptions. Instead, they’re describing a model that accommodates projects of any size, providing project managers with all tools they could possibly need. That’s why the PMBOK is a guide. It’s a reference that project managers can use to adopt only the processes and artifacts that make sense for their projects.
Several years ago, I did a brief gig with Nike. One of their core principles has always stuck with me: “Master the fundamentals.” Studying for the PMP exposes you to the fundamentals of project management in a direct and instantly applicable way. That was hugely beneficial for me navigating through some tricky project management challenges in the last few months. I understood the tools in my toolbox much better and could apply them with greater confidence. That has only increased now that I’m certified.
There’s another perhaps less tangible benefit to going through this intense experience. Making this commitment, getting your application approved, studying like crazy, and passing the exam is a clear indication that you’re passionate about your profession. It says to your colleagues and to you that you have the discipline and the drive to take on a tough challenge so that you can elevate your craft. The PMI takes this credential seriously as well; they view certified PMPs as mentors and authorities in the skill of project management. Many organizations feel the same way, so the potential benefit to your career is huge. My LinkedIn page has certainly gotten busier since I passed the exam.
Training to test
All that is great, but you still have to pass the exam. As I mentioned earlier, it’s 4 hours at a testing center where you’ll be given some scratch paper and a pencil if you’re lucky. Nothing from the outside is allowed into the testing room. I was wanded, had my glasses checked, and had to roll up my pant legs and sleeves to show I wasn’t hiding any crib notes. That process repeated every time I left the room to use the bathroom or get some water. Super intense, and definitely not what most people would consider ideal testing conditions.
The best way to overcome that pressure and anxiety is to be prepared. Not just knowing the material, but understanding the purpose and application. The PMBOK divides project management into 5 process groups and 10 knowledge areas. There are a total of 47 processes spanning these two categorizations, each with a set of inputs, tools and techniques, and outputs (or ITTOs as my boot camp instructor liked to say). There are over 600 ITTOs, so clearly memorization isn’t realistic. There are also a bunch of formulas, organization types, motivational theories, quality pioneers, procurement contracts, and a ton more information. That’s a lot to study and understand. Here are a few tips to get you started:
I recommend starting with the application (https://www.pmi.org/certifications/process). Some of my boot camp cohort hadn’t started theirs yet, which I didn’t really understand. You get a 12 month window to take the exam after your application is approved, so why waste money on classes before you know you can even take it?
Take a boot camp if you can afford it. It’s completely possible to pass the exam without a formal class, and if you have the time and discipline to take on all the studying yourself, more power to you. I think the biggest value of a boot camp class, other than being a great way to meet the PDU requirement needed to sit for the exam, is to help align your thinking to PMI’s mindset. On top of those unrealistic project assumptions, PMI throws a lot of jargon into the mix which isn’t always the most intuitive. It’ll just take longer to grok on your own.
Get the latest edition of the PMBOK, but don’t read it cover-to-cover. It’s dense and not especially user-friendly. It’s meant to be a reference, not a narrative. Use it to clarify concepts and as an index.
Invest in some exam prep books. There are a half-dozen popular ones, but I chose two: Rita Mulcahy’s PMP Exam Prep (https://smile.amazon.com/dp/1932735658) and Andy Crowe’s The PMP Exam: How to Pass on Your First Try (https://smile.amazon.com/dp/098276085X). They’re fairly similar, but offer different perspectives and a bunch of practice exams.
Speaking of practice exams, make them your primary study tool. Start with short exams so you can get a feel for the kind of questions the real exam will ask, and then transition to full length exams that replicate the real deal. Not only will these help you cement the material, but you’ll get a sense for your pacing. It’s critical to understand how many questions in a row your patience can handle, how often you need to take breaks, and how to maintain focus. Oliver Lehmann’s site (http://www.oliverlehmann.com/sample-questions-pmp-self-tests.html) is a treasure trove of practice exam questions. If the practice exam seems too easy, it probably is.
In general, make sure that the materials and tests you use are based on the correct version of the PMBOK guide. At the time of this writing, 5th edition is about to be replaced, but the exam will continue to be based off of 5th edition until summer 2017.
Open to opportunity
I know the process and preparation sounds daunting, but it’s completely achievable and I think a really smart investment in your professional development. Even if advancement isn’t a concern for you, becoming a better project manager certainly should be. This journey will deepen your skillset, give you a set of really useful tools, and arm you with a flexible framework to tackle practically any project. All the while you’ll prove to yourself that you have the discipline and perseverance to overcome a tough challenge. I highly encourage even agency project managers to take the plunge.