Many people want to become project managers but struggle with the first step. A quick search will reveal some great advice on how to secure your first entry-level project management job. But there is another way. I will share with you the story of my first project and how I ended up becoming a project manager. The majority of the article is about how I got bitten by the project management bug and decided that all I wanted to do was deliver projects. I hope that you can take away how I did it and see how you could also start in project management.
My First Project
While serving in the Royal Air Force as an engineer, I decided I would like to learn to fly so I went to the local flying school. When I arrived at the flying school, I was really excited to see all the people learning to fly in small two-seater planes. I could not wait to get started. However, I got disappointed when I knew that it would cost £150 each lesson per week.
There was no way I could afford. So with my head down I drove back to the air base which was RAF Cosford. I stopped near the runway and thought to myself that this is madness. Being in the RAF, I live on an airfield yet cost was preventing me from learning to fly. Then I had a thought why not learn to fly here at the RAF base. Surely someone could show me how to fly even if in return I buy them a few beers. The idea for a flying club at RAF Cosford was born.
At this point, I started to talking to everyone that would listen (and to some who would not) about my idea. The goal is to set up a flying club at RAF Cosford where engineers like me could learn to fly at a reduced cost using the RAF facilities. I spoke to the head of Air Traffic control about my idea to see if there was a technical reason for why it could not work. Once he said no there would not be I asked if he would publicly back the project as technically possible. Thankfully he said yes and became a fantastic supporter of the project. I then went to speak to the person in charge of operational flying at the air base and asked him the same question. He also backed the project with his support.
With these two key people supporting the project I went to see the station commander (what the RAF call the base commander) to pitch my idea of a low cost flying club for engineers. He was amazing in that he said “If you can do it I will back you 100%” Great. Then just as I left, I cheekily asked if I could have somewhere to store the planes when I get them. At that point, I was given half an aircraft hangar, and suddenly I had a place to set up from.
When I was talking to anyone, who would listen I ended up speaking to someone who had their own plane. He was enthusiastic about the idea and wanted to come on board; help gets the club set up and importantly we could use his plane. Now the project went from I to we and we had a plane and a hangar to store it. We then found someone who was a qualified flying instructor who lived nearby. We agreed in return for his time to teach people to fly we would pay him £25 per hour.
At this point, I realised that if I was to make the lessons affordable I had to stay below £100 per hour and with £25 gone I only had £75 left. The challenge I had was the cost of the fuel would use the rest of the money, and there were still landing fees to paid. This would push the costs up to around £150 per hour suddenly the idea was not looking so great.
However, I then found out that landing fees did not apply to military air bases if the club held a wavier. I set about applying for the waiver, and within a few weeks, the club did not have to pay landing fees. Result. We were on as we could offer flying lessons for under £100. With the club up and running word spread and I ended up speaking to someone else who had a four-seater plane. He told me that he had to pay £3000 a year just to store his aircraft on another airfield. I said “I have a hangar here that you can use for free all year round. In return can we use the aircraft for lessons when you are not using it? A deal was struck, and we now had two planes.
With the club set up and thriving, I was all set to start my flying lessons. However, fate had different ideas for me. Having seen the success of the flying club, I was put forward for a flying scholarship. Every year the RAF would hold a competition for those serving in the junior ranks who have done something exceptional. The winner is awarded a flying scholarship which would lead to being able to fly.
The competition was held at RAF Cranwell by the same people who select the next generation of future RAF leaders. The problem was there is only one award per year and to say the competition was fierce would be an understatement. There were people who had achieved great sporting success in the RAF and those that had raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity. This was going to be tough, but I just gave honest answers and did my best at all the tests.
At the end of the two-day competition, I was told that I would not be getting the scholarship. Apparently, my hand eye co-ordination was not the best and learning to fly for me would be very difficult. I was gutted but still determined that I would go back and learn to fly at my own cost. Instead, I was asked if I would like to be promoted. I was offered the opportunity to stay and be trained as an engineering officer in the RAF. I decided to take up the offer. After all, it would mean more money for my flying lessons and so moved to RAF Cranwell.
During the training, I realised that setting up the flying club has caused me to be bitten by the project management bug. I did not know it back then, but I had just managed and delivered my first project. While I had enjoyed my time in the RAF, I realised I needed to move full time into delivering projects.
I left the RAF at the end of 2003 and within six months had started a degree in Project Management. I always look back fondly at my first project as it gave me the confidence to say if I can do that I can do any project. Oh, and by the way, learning to fly is still on my to-do list.Rather than waiting for permission you should just go and do it Click To Tweet
How You Can Do It Too
One thing I have found is sometimes rather than waiting for permission you should just go and do it. Rather than polishing your CV and applying for countless project management jobs, look at the job you are in now. Talk to your boss and other people across your organisation and find projects that need doing. Then just start doing those projects, but remember to do the job you are being paid to do.
Doing an extra couple of hours is worth it in the long run when you are making a difference to the organisation. You never know it may lead to you being offered a full-time project management role in your organisation. If you do not have a job at the moment, then you could look at your local community. Are there any projects that need doing for local charities.
Giving up a little bit of your time demonstrates that you can successfully deliver projects to a potential employer. There are always far more projects that need doing than there are people to deliver them.