Primer: Project Management Certification

By David F. Carr Print this article Print

How can someone obtain certification as a project manager, and does it really matter?

What is it? The most widely recognized project management certification, the Project Management Professional (PMP) credential, recognizes an individual for a combination of formal study and practical project management experience. View the PDF and take the quiz -- Turn off pop-up blockers!

Typically, PMP certification equates to a college degree, three years of project management experience, 35 hours of formal project management training, and passing a four-hour test focused on competency in project management principles. Those who don't have a college degree can become PMPs if they have five years of project management experience, plus all the other requirements.

The PMP program was designed by the Project Management Institute (PMI) and tests knowledge of a set of best practices known as the Project Management Body of Knowledge. The core text is known as the PMBOK Guide. PMI also offers an entry-level certification, the Certified Associate in Project Management, and recently introduced a Program Management Professional certification covering skills related to coordinating multiple projects.

Other certification programs include CompTIA's IT Project+ and the British government's PRINCE2, which is more widely recognized overseas (like the set of best practices enumerated in the Information Technology Infrastructure Library, PRINCE started out as an initiative to improve the management of computer systems— the acronym stands for Projects in Controlled Environments).

What does the PMP test cover? PMPs are required to have a thorough knowledge of the phases and aspects of project management covered in the PBMOK Guide, from initiating and planning a project to managing scope, time, costs, quality, hiring, communication and procurement.

How much does it (or should it) count for?

Freelance project manager Tom Welch lists a string of credentials after his name, including an M.B.A., but PMP is the one he lists first. "It opens quite a few doors," he says, "although it doesn't hold as much weight as it did five or six years ago, when it was new and very few people had it." Where specific expertise is required—for example, in implementing SAP systems—"that trumps not having a PMP," Welch says.

"As a hiring manager, when I look at an individual with that PMP behind their name, that gives them an edge on a candidate who does not have that," says Sue Stuefen, director of project management for Forsythe Solutions Group, an informationtechnology consultancy. "It gives me some assurance that they understand the underlying project management processes and have proven work experience."

On the other hand, Stuefen herself does not have a PMP certification. But she has been through what she considers to be equivalent training in the context of working for companies certified under the Software Engineering Institute's Capability Maturity Model, which assesses the competency of the organization rather than the individual. In fact, she worked as an auditor evaluating CMM capabilities.

Although Stuefen respects PMP certification, she believes it shouldn't be an absolute requirement for hiring a project manager. "If you do that, you're discounting individuals who have exposure to other industry standards, such as CMM or a Big 5 [consulting firm] project management approach," she points out. "Certainly, if you have someone coming to you with 20 years or more experience, why would you want to discount those kinds of candidates?"

Similarly, if a candidate studied project management as part of a Stanford M.B.A. program, "I'm not so sure I would be forcing them to get a PMP if they didn't want to," says Gartner analyst Matt Hotle. Then there is the question of book learning versus experience. "I know PMPs who couldn't manage their way out of a wet paper bag," Hotle says. "There's a big difference between knowing what to do and knowing how to do it."

What else should you look for? Ideally, someone who has both the theoretical grounding in skills such as estimating costs and schedules, and the experience putting them into practice, Hotle says. "They have to be able to demonstrate success at delivering projects."

There are plenty of other questions to ask, agrees Welch: "I'd look at the complexity of the projects they've managed, and the budget levels, and relevant experience to the project at hand."

This article was originally published on 2012-05-04
David F. Carr David F. Carr is the Technology Editor for Baseline Magazine, a Ziff Davis publication focused on information technology and its management, with an emphasis on measurable, bottom-line results. He wrote two of Baseline's cover stories focused on the role of technology in disaster recovery, one focused on the response to the tsunami in Indonesia and another on the City of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.David has been the author or co-author of many Baseline Case Dissections on corporate technology successes and failures (such as the role of Kmart's inept supply chain implementation in its decline versus Wal-Mart or the successful use of technology to create new market opportunities for office furniture maker Herman Miller). He has also written about the FAA's halting attempts to modernize air traffic control, and in 2003 he traveled to Sierra Leone and Liberia to report on the role of technology in United Nations peacekeeping.David joined Baseline prior to the launch of the magazine in 2001 and helped define popular elements of the magazine such as Gotcha!, which offers cautionary tales about technology pitfalls and how to avoid them.
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