Junior Project Manager Skillset and Toolbox
You are aware that you need to acquire new skills and learn how to handle new tools, but you are not sure exactly how and where to start. Good news - we are here to help and guide you from the very beginning of your journey.
Why is that? Because we have all been there.
In this article, we will:
- Tell you what are the most essential skills and tools a Junior PM should cover and be able to operate on a daily basis,
- Describe in detail to what extent you should be proficient with each one,
- Touch upon theoretical matters and knowledge which will be of use to you.
Use this article as a kind of a nutshell summary.
Most important Junior PM skills
Creative thinking and ability to face challenges
Let’s start with the “soft” skills. The first one is quite a vast topic, but the good news is that you can develop it in almost every area of life. As a Junior Project Manager, you will face new challenges almost every day and each one of them may require a dose of creative thinking on how to overcome them.
There’s not a single course, certificate or diploma that can prepare you for every possible problem you will face. Therefore, when confronting a new problem or challenge, it’s okay not to know the perfect answer or solution right away.
You need to have the attitude, though, not to give up and eventually find it.
Sometimes you will be able to do it on your own.
Other times you will need somebody’s help, and you need to know whom and how to ask. It is also possible that it will be out of your range - in such cases you need to master the escalation path, so informing the right people at the right time that something is going on.
When preparing for an interview, always prepare in advance a story about the biggest challenge you faced or problem you solved. It is an opportunity for you to show your attitude in difficult situations, which is one of the core indicators of an action-oriented PM.
Feedback (giving & receiving)
Working with feedback is the baseline of our day-to-day responsibilities. Teamwork is all about cooperation and exchanging feedback between teammates is a great way to improve the cooperation flow. Without pursuing this path, neither you nor your peers will ever know what to focus on to make the team better.
By giving feedback, we mean your way of constructing and highlighting what you think about working with other members of your team.
- If the feedback is positive, then how do you appreciate your peers?
- If the feedback is negative, then how do you communicate the tough message and conduct difficult conversations? Nobody likes these, that’s for sure, but without having them one can never improve.
By receiving feedback, we mean how you perform on the other side of the communication loop.
- If you receive positive feedback, do you accept the praise, or maybe you are overly self-critical and it’s difficult for you?
- If you receive negative feedback, how do you process it? Does it make you angry and you try to defend yourself, or do you accept the fact that somebody feels how they feel and you try to learn your lesson?
This one is directly connected to the feedback skill. You should know that listening to somebody is not the same thing as actively listening. It is very difficult to draw the right conclusions and, therefore, share valuable feedback without really focusing on what the other person has to say and why they think or feel that way.
You should practice active listening by talking to your peers and focusing on sincerely caring about their needs, same as you do when interacting with your best friends.
As a Project Manager most of the time you will be in the center of all communication. You will receive updates from your teammates on the status of the project, new requests from the client, and questions about the progress of the project team from your managers inside the company.
It will be your job to gather everything, process it, and share the result with the right people in the right structure. You need to understand who expects what kind of information, depending on their roles in the company. It is very easy to pass everything to everyone and overload them with data. It’s more challenging, though, to facilitate the communication flow in a way that every party receives only what’s relevant to them.
That’s a simple one - how can you expect everybody around you to be organized if you are not? You have to be an example of punctuality, meeting deadlines, and the guardian of everything the team has agreed to during the project. You need to manage your time in a way that everybody who needs your help receives it and you are not “dropping the ball” in the meantime.
Most important Junior PM tools
A calendar is the most important tool of personal organization you will use. Its job is to, on the one hand, visualize and summarize your responsibilities for a given day, week, or month, and on the other hand for your peers to see when you are available when scheduling a meeting you should take part in.
At Netguru we use Google Calendar for all the above, so you should feel confident with:
- Creating recurring meetings,
- Inviting others,
- Checking their availability,
- Writing agendas in an invitation,
- Creating different sub-calendars for different purposes and sharing them.
It is also worth understanding how different calendars (Apple, Outlook) sync with each other.
- Tip 1: use a calendar in your private life. Even if you don’t have that many meetings or responsibilities, learn the habit of checking it every day and planning your time with it.
- Tip 2: don’t use a paper calendar. I mean, if you are into it then sure, you can, but it won’t replace the digital one that you will always need to use in the end.
When you hear “spreadsheet”, you probably think Microsoft Excel - this is of course the most popular one. At Netguru, in 90% cases we use its Google counterpart - Google Sheets - as it's simpler to collaborate with others online.
The good news is that you don’t need to be an “Excel master” and program complex functions within spreadsheets - in the beginning it will just be enough if you are okay with tasks like:
- Creating a schedule,
- Creating a backlog of items with a section for comments,
- Filtering and sorting tables,
- Using basic functions like “=sum”, “=if…” or conditional formatting.
Understand how to think using spreadsheets to visualize either the problem you are trying to solve or the current status of your project, for example how to show the progress you have made and how much more work there is to be done.
Jira is our tool of choice for managing tasks, projects, and requirements. There, we keep track of everything that needs to be done to complete and deliver the project. Tasks or activities that different people are assigned to are called tickets. Each ticket should have an owner, so the person who is responsible for it.
As a PM, you probably won’t be receiving a lot of tickets, but you will be responsible for making sure that everyone else is - and that they’re delivering them as planned.. You will need to be fluent in both creating tickets, labeling them properly, and filtering them to see what has to be done this week and notice when your team is off the track.
Don’t start your task management journey with Jira. It is a huge and complex tool. Firstly, try Trello. Trello is as simple a task management tool as one can be.
- Create a project board in Trello,
- Write down tasks that need to be done,
- Assign deadlines,
- Assign labels (e.g. Big or Small, Maintenance or Development, Front-end or Back-end)
- Play with changing the status (e.g. To do, In progress, Done).
Good news is that Trello (and most other tools) are completely suitable to use in not only software development, but in every project of your life. Planning a vacation or a wedding? Try doing it in Trello.
As we already stated, communication is the core of our job. Without passing and sharing information, we would be blind and deaf. So, the 2 most important tools in this area are Slack and email.
Slack is “just” a communicator, like Messenger, but tailored for business. And almost all of our work communication happens here. Discussions, questions, summaries, plans etc. Slack is not only for us though - we encourage our clients to be in our Slack channels and take active part in daily communication with the team. It would be good for you to understand:
- How this tools works,
- How to manage channels,
- How to handle mentioning and what’s most important - how to organize communication, so you are not overwhelmed by it.
Email is the tricky part here - we’d rather not use it, but sometimes it’s impossible to communicate with everyone using slack, and then email is an alternative channel. Also, some clients prefer to use email as a source of reports, summaries etc. Here it would be helpful if you were fluent with:
- How to manage and organize your inbox,
- Label emails,
- Send them to multiple people,
- Write them in a nice and well-structured form.
When managing a team and project you will be a part of lots of arrangements between the team, the client and different stakeholders. It is heavily recommended that you have your own note flow including both an app for it (like Google Keep, Apple Notes or Evernote) and habits.
You should be fluent with:
- How to quickly create a note and write down the most important findings from an unexpected call with the client,
- How to organize multiple notes from one project across months of development so in the future you can easily find anything noted in the past,
- How to write down what's important and what's actionable.
Tip: like with a calendar, don’t use an “analog” notepad as your only source. You may like it, but it will be impossible to easily share your notes with peers or a client or modify them in the future. Find a digital (and preferably online) tool that will back up your notes wherever you are.
In the past called G Suite, Google Workspace is a set of tools that we use in our daily work. Having already covered Gmail and Google Spreadsheets, let’s just mention Google Meet that we use to facilitate our online meetings, Google Docs that we use to e.g. write project business requirements or articles like this one, Google Drive which we use to store data, and Google Slides which is an alternative to PowerPoint.
Basically, be familiar with every one of those tools and learn how to share or comment materials like docs or presentations across them with different users.
Key theory for a Junior Project Manager
“Is it possible to become a Junior Project Manager in IT without any technical knowledge?” - the ever-lasting question that was probably asked by almost every one of us in the beginning. The answer is yes - however, you need to be armed with at least some basic management knowledge. Good news here though - no need for an advanced degree in management.
Google and do your research about what Agile is in software development. You will find out that Agile is a set of principles that you need to follow if you want to be, well, agile, in a software development environment.
But if you dig deeper, then you will find out that it can be treated as more than an IT “philosophy” and try to set such a mindset for yourself. Don’t learn all the principles or methodologies by heart.
Read those principles and try to come up with your own answer to “what does it mean to be agile?” Use examples from your own life during the interview. It will be far more valuable than quoting a definition.
Scrum (and different management frameworks)
Scrum is a very specific set of rules for a framework we want to work in with our project and clients. When learning about Scrum, you will need to memorize a lot more than just what Scrum is. Understand:
- The roles that play part in the Scrum process,
- The flow of Scrum rituals,
- Memorize artifacts that the Scrum team produces.
But also read about Scrum pros & cons. The rule of thumb is that this framework is not perfect. But none is - frameworks like Scrum or Waterfall are just tools we may or may not use in a given context. Each one has strengths and weaknesses, and you should be aware of them to make a conscious choice when deciding which framework to use with your project.
We mentioned Waterfall - read about this one too. Try to understand where it plays its part well and why most of the time we recommend not to use it. Understand the differences and be able to summarize them with your own words.
Software development process, actors and technology overview
As stated above, you don’t need technical knowledge to be a PM in IT… but it doesn’t hurt to have some. It will be far easier for you to onboard in a new role in a new company if you understand the basics about how the software development process and machine works. By that we mean things like:
- How to differentiate front-end from back-end,
- What is the role of a QA Engineer,
- What is a digital database,
- What is the difference between mobile and web,
- What is RWD,
- Who is a DevOps engineer,
- Why it’s better to create graphic designs first and code them later,
- What is the difference between UX and UI.
Also, it will be very useful for you to understand how software is created:
- What is a code repository (like Github),
- What purpose it is created for,
- How it’s used by developers,
- How a webpage works (like the code is put on a server and you reach it via its domain).
Nobody will expect you to be a technical master or a CTO-level specialist in those topics, but it will be far easier to understand the needs and challenges of your peers if you understand such things.
What does it mean to be a Project Manager at Netguru?
So, that’s it. The “TL;DR” version of what every Junior PM should cover in terms of skill, tools, and theory to face the challenge of starting a career in IT. The above list is obviously not complete and set in stone, but we don’t want to overwhelm you with too much information from the beginning. Just start your journey here and see where it leads you.
Knowing that, you may also want to ask a different question - “What does it mean to be Project Manager at Netguru?”. For that we have prepared for you something extra - a quick and handy info pack about your potential career at Netguru. From it you will learn what kind of support you can expect from us, what the interview process looks like, and more!