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Finding work as a PM: Value of certification debatable

Project managers have a lot to think about when searching for jobs, says Bas de Baar. Certification and good communication skills may count for more than your work expertise, Bas admits, regrettably.

Bas de Baar
Bas de Baar

This year I had to deal a little more with recruiting firms than I normally do. It was a revelation. And an appalling one. The process of recruiting project managers seems almost reduced to the question, "Are you PRINCE2 certified?" I live in Europe, so I guess the American variant of this question is, "Are you PMP certified?" Who cares about a master's degree in PM? Who cares about your experience? Do you have the stamp of approval?

You might have guessed it. I am not PRINCE2 certified. Don't want to be. Don't believe in it. Don't believe in the method either. I am an outcast. My resume didn't get picked up in the first round of selections because it didn't have "PRINCE2" as a keyword in it. I have since explicitly added "No PRINCE2 certification" just to have my resume pop up when people are searching. Every single PM I know has gotten certified only because customers request it. They consider it more a personal marketing trick than something that makes them a better professional.

But there seems to be a need for a marketing trick, there seems to be a need to clearly distinguish a project manager from the rest of the crowd. The stereotype beauty queen is blonde and dumb, so if your hair is bleached and you think "Chicken of the Sea" is real chicken, you must be one heck of a beauty queen. In the contest for selecting the perfect project manager we have our own "What is your deepest wish?" question; it is "Are you certified?" and the right answer is not "World peace."

If you have 10 minutes, how do you judge a project manager?

I fully understand that it has come this far. Every day we need more and more project managers. Every single day more and more people stand up that call themselves project manager. If you need 700 gallons of PMs, you don't have the time to be thoughtful. "Just do me a truckload of those PRINCE2 ones. Everyone is talking about them, so they can't be bad." And it is not bad. It is not good either. It is not green or red for that matter. It has nothing to do with quality. Or color.

So if you have no clue and no time, you reduce your idea of what a PM is into one keyword. But what if you have a clue? What if you are a project professional? I asked visitors of my Web site a simple question: "If you have 10 minutes, how do you judge a project manager?" Although this was by no means a scientific experiment, it restored my confidence in the project world again.

The best summary of the responses is given by this statement: "If they just use jargon from the PMBok, I put them on the lower end of the scale. If they talk about the importance of stakeholders and people in general I put them on the high end of the scale. The PMBok hardly covers stakeholders, so they must have been in the trenches."

If one has only ten minutes, appearances do matter. The respondents hesitate to admit this, because it sounds very superficial, but it is true; people are looking for visual clues of competence, confidence and calmness. Clothes have some importance in the first impression. Most advice says to dress clean-cut, with taste, and similar to what your client is wearing.

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It is a clichè that a project manager should be a good communicator. So this is the area that gets to most attention. In the interaction the new PM should be a good listener. A good conversationalist doesn't dive immediately into "shop talk" but can converse with confidence and respect about life, the universe and many other topics. Under no circumstances should he or she have a loud, heated discussion about a topic. Knowledge and opinion is one thing, maintaining control and being respectful are considered far more important.

About the messages that are exchanged in the first ten minutes people are short: people are looking for words like "you," "we," "our," "team" and "support," and are absolutely allergic to buzzwords. Plain English please! Two bonus questions to test them:

  1. What has been your biggest project failure?

  2. A PM should have a good judgment of character. How would you judge me?
Number two is good for generating some sweat on the side of the aspiring PM.

About the author: Bas de Baar knows all about the wacky world of project management. He is a project manager in the publishing industry and is editor of a popular Web site devoted to project management, His venerated instructional book on sudden project management, Surprise! Now You're a Software Project Manager was published in September 2006 and is based on real-life experience.

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