Where can I get Project Management Experience?

by Frank Turley, 2018-02-08

An interview with Kamil Mroz by Frank Turley

The audio version of this interview is available here.  

Frank: The goal of this interview is to help answer one of the most important questions we get from young aspiring project managers, which are: Where can I get experience? Which certification should I do? Where can I learn more about project management skills?

To help answer these questions, we have Kamil MROZ with us. Kamil is the ideal person to ask these questions to as he has got involved in project management about 4 years ago. He won the Young IPMA award in Belgium in 2013. He is involved in PM coaching, the role at JCI. And he is regularly invited to give talks on this topic. And he’s recently returned from the PMI® event in Holland, where he was a speaker on the topic Breaking into Project Management. So Kamil, it’s great to have you with us.

Kamil: Hi Frank, thanks so much for inviting me and I’m glad to be here to share these tips with the young aspiring project managers.

Frank: Let me start off with the first question. So, when did you decide that you want to know more about project management?

Kamil: So, when I was a student back in Canada, I was quite involved in student groups while was organizing conferences and extracurricular activities. And at that time, I didn’t really realize it because I wasn’t yet immersed in the methodologies and the theory of project management. But then, I was actually doing project management at a student level, that is, I was organizing events. And even though I was a student, I still has to determine what was my project’s scope, figure out a budget, and make sure that I generate a profit or breakeven. And if I didn’t breakeven, what was I going to do about it? How was I going to share the risks or mitigate the risks in XYZ fashion? And these are all classic project management concerns that I had as a student. And I’m really happy that I did it then in such a way that it was a friendlier learning environment. Because now, as a Project Management Specialist or Consultant, when I’m working with clients, a big mistake could cost me my job. And so I really it was theses initial extracurricular activities where I learned that, and I was good at, and I really enjoyed planning, organizing events and leading teams. And so, that’s how I got my start in project management.

Frank: Okay, So, you were using an ad hoc approach? Or common sense, I think at the time?

Kamil: It was an intuitive ad hoc approach. It was sort of just giving, I would say that experience practice you know. I didn’t really know what Theoretical Project Management was, but I knew about the fact that I had to deliver something to you know, I would say my clients who were my fellow students who were expecting to have that conference delivered on time, on budget, and within a certain quality expectation.

Frank: I think that’s how most people start actually with project management. So, what was your degree and did you first jobs allow you to acquire any project management experience?

Kamil: Well, I graduated in Biochemistry and Chemical Engineering from the University of Ottawa in Canada, and later on went to complete a Masters Degree in International Relations from the University of Kent in Brussels. Strictly speaking, in terms of the courses I did, there wasn’t a real focus on project management, nor did I really complete any Project Management Modules. And in my opinion, I think there’s still a gap in terms of the formal education system whether in universities or colleges, and the demand by the private and public sector for young people to actually understand project management as a practical combination of real world competencies. And so, because I didn’t really have this exposure, I wasn’t able to apply certain project management theory to my experiences as a student activist, you know. But this is something that I really encourage young people to do, to be volunteers student project managers in their free time. If they’re not learning about project management in the actual curriculums because like this, they’re able to really lead projects, gain experience, understand you know, what an event is all about in terms of you know, the iron triangle. And like that, when they get into the process of applying for a job, they’ve already demonstrated that they can perform and do something, and can potentially score that junior level project management position.

Frank: So, what certifications did you begin with them? And why did you choose them?

Kamil: So I like Francis Bacon said, ‘Knowledge is power’. And I recommend all young people to get certified. But when people start looking into the different certifications, especially young people that are out on the market, they can very quickly get lost. It’s a jungle out there. You have knowledge-based exams, experience-based certifications coming from different standards bodies, like APMG or AXELOS, PMI, IPMA, it’s confusing for a young person. And so, when I started the search for my first project management certification, I decided to do the PRINCE2® Foundation Course. I found it great company Belgium who provided evening training courses in a full self-study course to complement that and given the, with just the structure of the PRINCE2® Certification that is divided into 7 themes and 7 principles, and it’s very much process driven. It is quite easy to learn just because that structure makes it relatively simple and well organized.

So when I finished my PRINCE2 Foundation Course, I then went on to do the practitioner course and I wanted to do it very shortly after completing the foundation course because it was still fresh in my mind, and I recommend young people to do that. Like if they do the foundation, don’t wait too long to the practitioner because you’ll forget a lot of these stuff that you initially learned in the foundation course and you may have to go and re-study it. And I think that’s a really great start for a simple junior project management certification base, you know.

Frank: Good. So, I think you’ve done the PMI certification as well, have you?

Kamil: Not yet.

Frank: Not yet, okay. It’s a plan for the future?

Kamil: If I am able to find the time, yes. Maybe this year.

Frank: Okay. What advice would you give to people now who wish to get into project management? So, which certifications to begin with?

Kamil: So, if you’re interested in looking and doing a certification, I would say that you should understand that there are really 2-key types out there. The first one is the knowledge-based certifications and the second one is the experience-based certifications. So the knowledge-based certification means that you don’t really any project management experience to be able to write these certifications. They’re primarily based on a book of knowledge, a theory that then needs to write a test in order to get it. And the second type is the experience-based certification, which requires the candidate to have X amount of years and X amount of project management education hours in order to submit an application to be able to then write the certification. PMP is an example of that. And so, for young people, I would say that because naturally, young professionals may not qualify for the experience-based certifications. I would encourage them to start with something simple like Prince2 or like this CAMP, offered by the project management institute. Whereby, without having those years of experience, you’re able to get a certification, which could be a good starting point for you career.

Frank: I mentioned at the beginning that you won the IPMA Young award in 2013, can you tell me a bit more about this award? And why you won it?

Kamil: Sure. In 2013, I was lucky enough to be selected as a top 3 Young Project Manager globally, considered by IPMA. When I went to Croatia, for the awards ceremony, I received in fact, the 1st prize, which was a great honor that allowed me to work with certain project management professionals, and speak at conferences and be sort of an authority on the topic of Project Management for Young Professionals. And the project that I submitted that was selected, in fact was not something from my professional life. It was in fact a volunteer project that I organized with an organization that is a community organization called Junior Chamber International. And it was a project helping young unemployed youth to find work in Brussels and in Europe.

Frank: Oh great! What is the most common question you get from people who aspire to be project managers?

Kamil: One of the most common questions that I get from young people is that, they want to get involved in project management, but they just don’t get a chance at work. That is, their boss maybe reluctant to give them a project management position. Or, they don’t have trust enough in them as a professional to give them those opportunities. And so, what I tell these young people is to get involved in volunteer project management. That is, join a volunteer organization, take on a project to lead, be the project manager, gain the necessary experience through that project that you can then leverage with your boss to convince them that you are trustworthy to lead a project at work. And that volunteer project management experience can also allow you to gain the necessary hours required to do an experience-based exam. And so, you won’t have to wait around to sort of hope that your boss will give you project management hours.

Frank: That’s great.

Kamil: It’s a very proactive way to try to push your career forward as a project manager. That is, you volunteer project manager and leverage those experiences at work, but also leverage the hours that you’ve done as a volunteer for the experience-based exams.

Frank: Okay, good. Any other questions then that you get asked?

Kamil: Sure. Maybe, I think we’ve already touched that. It was the one about the certification process. That’s quite a common one. And when doing a certification, not only take into account the 2 types of certifications that are out there, but also I think this is an opportunity for the older project managers to sort of mentor the younger ones in a way like when they’re considering their project management certification that I really encourage the older project managers to share with the younger project managers the specific milestones in the specific certifications or experiences that have defined their career in a certain manner. So, with that young person, while they’re looking to becoming a certified project manager, they also know what are the likely outcomes that the certification they have on their career, and in which direction, career wise will it lead. And so, I always tell the young people to start what they have in mind. So, start the certification knowing where it will lead you and try to find a mentor and an established project manager to bounce off some ideas and see if certain certifications or experiences happened that were critical to, allowing them to get to a specific area, whether it is portfolio management, program management, or maybe process improvement like Lean Six Sigma. Just try to map that out with your mentor when, like before you actually start the process of a particular certification.

Frank: That’s good. And so, you mentioned volunteer organizations a few times now, what about people who have almost zero experience in project management? They might be a little bit apprehensive about contacting an organization. So, how can they convince a volunteer organization to hire them? Or should they be worried if when they ask?

Kamil: They shouldn’t be worried at all. I’ve worked for many volunteer organizations over the last 10 years. And to be honest with you, volunteer organizations are always looking for young, ambitious people to help staff their projects. Just because volunteer organizations inherently suffer from scarcity of resources because you don’t pay anybody’s salary and it’s sometimes difficult to get the right people on board. And so, there’s always an opportunity to take the lead within a volunteer organization especially if you’re somebody who you know, who wants to do something good for the community. And so, don’t hesitate. Contact the local volunteer organization like JCI or AIESEC, or The Rotary Club. Trust me they’ll take you with open arms.

Frank: Oh great! Is it easy to find a volunteer organization? And where’s the best place to start looking for one?

Kamil: I think you should first determine what you want to do, and what you want to get out of that volunteer organization because there needs to be an alignment of values with you and with the organization that you decide to join, because like, if you just join any volunteer organization, you may not be motivated by the activities that they have, or the mission statement that they’re trying to realize, and through their activities. And so just, you know first of all, know what you want to do. Do you want to join a young professionals organization you know, or do you want to join a pure community group, trying to do good you know, for the homeless or to help our young people. You have to figure out what’s the best fit for you. Once you figured that out, then just a simple Google or chatting with people, you can probably find a great organization.

Frank: So I suppose a local chamber of commerce or a local sports club is also a good idea.

Kamil: Indeed, yeah. Same principle.

Frank: What kind of skills can people learn in these volunteer organizations? Or can expect to learn?

Kamil: So I’ve been participating in PM conferences, and speaking at different summits and congresses over the last 2-3 years. And every time I go to these conferences, I realize that project management is more and more shifting towards leadership and a strong set of soft skills to be able to push your projects to successful completion. And so, let me tell you something that in these volunteer organizations, because you know, a volunteer project is scarce in resources. You don’t pay anybody’s salary. It is really an exercise in soft skills and emotional intelligence to be able to successfully motivate your project team members and drive that project to success especially when you have like public and private stakeholders, government you know, a really complex subset of stakeholders. And so, through this volunteer project, you definitely become a really good project manager in terms of soft skills.

Frank: And you also do coaching at JCI, can you tell me a bit more about that? And just remind us again what JCI is.

Kamil: Sure. So JCI is an organization, a membership-based organization for young people. And the goal is to help empower young people to create positive change in society. And we do this through projects in the community that are based on 4 central pillars, community, internationalism, entrepreneurship, and social and networking. And so, JCI works with young people. Mentors them and coaches them to be able to execute community projects as effectively as possible. I’ve helped a lot of young people myself, I’ve been a mentor. And it’s an organization that I recommend young people to join if you want to practice this notion of volunteer project management. Not only that, but you will very quickly find mentors, not too much older than you, who will want to help you gain the necessary skills to make that project a success. So I very much recommend it.

Frank: All right, that’s great! Okay, well that was all my questions I have for you, Kamil. So, that was very, very good. Thank you. So I’m sure that we can do this again with a bit more focused questions on practicing project management? But for now, thanks a lot. And success with your further presentations, which you’re giving on this topic.

Kamil: Thank you so much, It was a pleasure to be here with you and I hope that your listeners will learn something valuable and can take that away to help push their project management career forward.

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