Projects have existed since the dawn of mankind. And most of mankind’s project managers did not have their PMP certification. But over the past three decades, these three letters have had a large hold on the project management industry.

Some consider The Project Management Professional (PMP) certification to be project management’s “golden ticket.” PMP-certified project managers reportedly earn an average of 16 percent more than their non-certified peers. They are also more likely to use a proven framework like Scrum or Waterfall that yields more effective project delivery.

But “project manager” is narrow in this context. The PMP certification was built to teach engineering teams in niche industries how to manage the five stages of a project lifecycle. Research shows that tomorrow’s project manager will need a more diverse skill set.

A Gartner report published last year found that the project and portfolio manager (PPM) role will be unrecognizable by 2020. The report’s author, Michael Hanford, introduced the first graduate-level project management course at Drexel University. He wrote that this digital shift means that project managers will take a more active role in high-level business planning – and the PMP certification won’t be enough to prepare them:

“In the face of transformational efforts, the ability to control and manage the introduction and impact of change will be a business-critical skill set — far more than being PMP- or PRINCE2-certified in a collection of practices that are rapidly becoming irrelevant.”

Let’s say you’re an experienced project manager at a SaaS startup with 50 employees. You feel ready for the next stage in your career and want to prove that you can lead time, budget, and stakeholder management for strategic projects. Is getting PMP-certified worth it?

To answer this question, we need to ask three more:

  1. Which type of project manager was the PMP made for?
  2. Does the PMP exam meet today’s small business needs?
  3. Do project management recruiters value the PMP?

PMP crash course

In the early 1900s, Henry Gantt – a mechanical engineer who worked in shipbuilding during World War One – built a new way to boost productivity. His self-named Gantt charts were used to track progress on large-scale construction projects like the Hoover Dam and the Eisenhower highway network. Gantt charts remain one of the most popular tools to track progress on projects.

But using a project management tool is different than using a project management process. That’s where the PMP certification comes in.

In the 1950s, project management came to be known as its own distinct discipline with heavy use in aerospace, construction, and defense industries. Less than two decades later, the Project Management Institute (PMI) was founded as a nonprofit at the Georgia Institute of Technology. PMI’s first credential – the PMP certification – was launched in 1984. 716,000 project managers are PMP-certified as of 2016.

“[The] PMP was initially designed for large engineering projects in the defense and construction industries,” explains Scott Berkun, author of bestselling books such as Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management. “While there certainly are many PMs who work in these fields, the test itself only verifies knowledge, not skills.”

Playing politics

Project managers in businesses with less than 100 employees work differently than those at businesses with more than 1,000 employees. Hanford says that project managers in small businesses have some advantages.

They’re not burdened by big-business bureaucracy and can make decisions at a faster pace. They’re also less likely to be silo-ed in standalone departments. Berkun adds that these are big distinctions. He believes that the PMP exam assesses ability to manage politics within big businesses – an experience that PMs in most small businesses don’t have.

“The larger the organization, the more that politics and coalition building become important in getting anything done,” Berkun explains. “In a small organization, a PM likely spends much of their time with engineers and makers who actually build things.

“In larger organizations, a PM might be several relationships away from people doing the actual work. PMP provides some frameworks for how to think about the challenges, and helps them ask the question, ‘Does my situation fit this model? Or this remedy?’ But since the PMP exam doesn’t give real world experience making project decisions, it can’t truly prepare someone to solve any problems at all.”

“Is PMP certification right for me?”

Who’s eligible for PMP certification? PMI’s website says, “If you’re an experienced project manager responsible for all aspects of project delivery, leading and directing cross-functional teams, then the PMP is the right choice for you.” And the PMP Handbook says:

“PMI’s certification and credentials are distinguished by their global development and application, which makes them transferable across industries and geographic borders. The strength of PMI’s credentials is that they are portable and not tied to any single method, standard, or organization.”

This certification isn’t for beginners. PMI’s website says that prospective PMP students must have 4,500 – 7,500 hours leading and directing projects as well as 35 hours of project management education. And the certification exam asks candidates to answer 200 questions in under four hours.

This means that folks who get PMP-certified already have extensive experience. They might be more likely to implement frameworks like Scrum and Waterfall once certified. But they must bring their own knowledge of these frameworks to the PMP exam. Unlike a course, which teaches new knowledge, studying for the PMP exam won’t teach knowledge that project managers don’t already have.

GetApp contacted PMI’s chatbot to ask if the PMP has a curriculum. It replied that there’s no syllabus since the PMP is not a course. Instead, we were directed to an Exam Content Outline, which shows that all questions fall within five domains of project planning:


GetApp also asked the PMI chatbot how often the PMP exam’s content is updated. We got this response from a rep named Richard:

“PMI conducts Role Delineation Studies for each credential every five to seven years. A third party, independent of PMI, conducts the study, which includes volunteer project management professionals from around the world.”

PMP-certified project managers must earn 60 professional development units every three years to keep it. But PMI’s website is unclear about how to track and achieve this.

Do recruiters care?

The PMP certification is billed as a way to advance careers. But there’s not much point in taking the exam if recruiters don’t feel that the content matches what their clients need.

Lindsay Scott is Co-Founder and Director of Programme and Project Management Recruitment at Arras People, a London-based agency that recruits project managers across 24 sectors. When asked if the PMP certification is equally valuable across all these sectors, she gave a different answer than what PMI says.

“No, the PMP is not equally valuable across industries and team sizes,” Scott said. “This is mainly due to context (the type of organization and the environment in which the projects are being delivered). Also, when we consider smaller businesses, accreditations are much less important than actual real life experience.

“Bottom line: [a small business wants] a project manager who fits in well with the team, delivers projects in the ethos that the business wants, [and] is able to be flexible in how that project is delivered without being rigid about following a certain body of knowledge.”

Glyn Matthews is a technical project lead at Softkinetic in Brussels, Belgium. He advises project managers to pursue certifications if they and their businesses are equally invested. Even in that case, he says to review all options before choosing which certification is right for you.

As an engineer who had experience with project management frameworks but was new to the career, Matthews chose to pursue PMI’s CAPM certification. He says it was the best fit for his own experience and company budget – and advises you to do the same assessment.

The final verdict

Will the PMP certification take your career to the next level? Our research shows that it’s not a must-have. The exam content isn’t updated often enough to keep pace with today’s small business needs. That’s a problem since the nature of projects is rapidly changing.

The shift to digital – coupled with changes in company culture and a more rapid-fire pace of work – means that today’s projects are more complex and have more stakeholders. The result? Today’s project managers need a diverse set of soft skills to succeed.

The project management role is becoming more social as it moves beyond IT departments. PMP certification helps – but confidence to own bigger projects and manage teams is the secret to grow your career.

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