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Three Keys to Project Management Success

A multi-award-winning project manager discusses the best way to enter the field and achieve your goals

Project Management at the University of Chicago

“When I started in my professional career, there was no formal mentorship program for project managers,” says Prasad S. Kodukula, PhD, PMP®, PgMP®, DASM®.

Kodukula was recently recognized as a 2020 PMI® Fellow, the Project Management Institute’s most prestigious distinction (and before that, with a 2016 PMI® Eric Jennett Project Management Excellence Award and a 2010 PMI® Distinguished Contribution Award, making him a rare project-management triple crown winner). He began his project management career in the mid-eighties, after earning his PhD in environmental engineering and working as a technical specialist. Now—in addition to his work as a speaker, coach, author, inventor, and entrepreneur—he teaches in the Project Management certificate programs at the University of Chicago and mentors at the PMI Chicagoland Chapter.

“At the Chicagoland Chapter, mentorship is very formal,” Kodukula says of the top-rated mentorship program at PMI in which he has participated for the past five years. “The program runs two eighteen-week long sessions every year. In each session, the Chapter’s Mentor Leadership Team pairs mentors with mentees and ensures every pair is a good fit. The idea is that a mentor who has held management and leadership positions can help someone new to the field grow and develop professionally.”

In his years as a mentor, Kodukula has honed his skills coaching young project management professionals. Here he offers some advice to those seeking to enter the field.

Have a goal

Before joining the PMI Chicagoland Chapter’s mentoring program, one of Kodukula’s mentees worked as a taxi driver and music producer.

“You can achieve anything if you start with a goal that is specific and realistic and give it your 100%,” Kodukula says. “This young man wanted to be a professional project manager, although he only had entrepreneurial and voluntary project management experience. How do you become a project manager after driving a taxi for five years?”

Among the first steps in becoming a professional project manager is gaining certification as a Project Management Professional (PMP®) from PMI, a process that requires passing a lengthy and difficult exam.

“He was really driven to become a project manager, so he got a scholarship to take a course to prepare for the PMP® certification exam because he couldn’t afford the fee,” Kodukula explains. “He studied hard for months, but a few days before the exam, he was on the [Chicago] Red Line [train] going home and got attacked—a mugger gouged both of his eyes. Thankfully there was no permanent damage to the eyes but they got pretty bruised. He was in pain for several days and couldn’t open his eyes for two weeks. He then had to study by listening to the audio of his PMP course on Udemy. He was devastated that he may not be able to take his exam for a long time. But he decided he was not going to let that incident stop him. As planned, he took the exam and passed! It’s all about having the will to achieve your goal.”

Make a plan 

The next suggestion Kodukula gives his mentees is to make a plan. “We specifically train them to put together a plan,” he explains. “They develop the plan themselves, but we coach them. If getting a job is the goal, going about it starts with making a plan to help you get there. The plan may include preparing the resume, getting on LinkedIn, networking, practicing for the interviews, and so on.”

Many of the experienced mentors at PMI®-Chicagoland and the Career Services office at the University of Chicago provide job-seekers with resume reviews and practice interviews. Kodukula suggests that aspiring project managers avail themselves of these opportunities.

“I have gone through so many resumes in my life, and even people with fifteen years of experience have resumes not done in a professional manner. Bad formatting, blatant grammar mistakes, things that can easily be avoided with attention to detail, etc. And then. . . you'd be surprised at how people stumble during interviews. Everybody knows that one thing you're often asked in an interview is, ‘Tell me about yourself.’ And it’s amazing how many candidates are so inarticulate in answering this question. 

“It’s all about preparation, preparation, and preparation,” he adds.

Increase your EQ

Most project managers, Kodukula explains, start in a technical position. “When you become a project manager, your technical skills are not going to be as important, so you need excellent people skills. They have different names: people skills, soft skills, and emotional intelligence, etc. But I call them success skills, because these are the skills that make you successful in today’s business environment.”

One of the reasons Kodukula knew his cab-driving mentee had promise was because of his high EQ, that is, emotional intelligence quotient,” He adds, “I wasn’t surprised at all when he told me that he was offered a project manager job at a large insurance company right here in Chicago even before completing his eighteen-week mentoring program, which he joined seeking help in getting a job as a project manager.”

But these skills do not come naturally to everyone—and for those people, there are courses, books, videos, mentors, and other resources. “You can learn how to communicate better, how to listen better, how to deal with conflict, how to build a high-performing team, and so forth,” Kodukula says.

“As a teacher, my number one goal is to inspire my students to do better and to be the best that they can be. Whether I am teaching in a classroom or I'm mentoring one on one, I want to inspire them about project management and help them achieve their goals in whatever little way I can.”