How to get started in project management

One question I often get tagged into is “how do I get started in project management?” Whether you want to do it as a career or you’re looking for a way to help your favorite project, open source is a great answer. There are many large projects — both corporate and community-driven — that have a project manager. But there are innumerable small projects that could use the help. If you’re willing to step in and do the work well, you’ll make friends and showcase your skills.

Find something that needs doing

If you show up to a project and say “hi, do you need any project management help?” there’s a good chance you’ll get a polite refusal. “I’m a project manager, how can I help?” might get you an answer, but it’s more likely you’ll get a vague “I don’t know” or a “we don’t really need project management, thanks.” But if you show up with a specific task that you want to do, most projects will let you do it (sometimes with guidance or supervision).

The important thing, though, is to pick something valuable to the project. It can’t just be a thing you think the project should do. For example, I think it’s good for projects to have schedules, even if they’re somewhat vague and unreliable, because it expresses the project’s intent. If I show up and say “hey, I’m going to make you a schedule”, they’ll tell me to go away.

So how do you find what’s useful? One way is to look at the project’s documentation about how they do things and notice which things aren’t being done. If that doesn’t give you answer answers, the bug tracker is always full of opportunity. You can go through and find the bugs that were fixed in previous releases, the ones that belong in an upstream tracker, the ones that have been waiting on a reply from the reporter for six months, etc.

Another useful strategy is to watch for steps that get missed in processes. If, on release day, someone says “oh shoot, I forgot to update the website.” Update that documentation. If the documentation doesn’t exist, write a first draft. People love that stuff, and it’s genuinely helpful.

Establish credibility

Before you can jump right in and have free reign, you need to establish credibility. Open source projects run on trust, so if you haven’t built that trust, you’re going to be ineffective. Being present, reliable, and competent will build that trust over time. But there’s no shortcut: you have to put the time in. Chapter 3 of Program Management for Open Source Projects has a lot more advice for building trust in a project.

This post’s featured photo by airfocus on Unsplash.

Ben works on open source strategy at Docker and was previously the Fedora Program Manager. He is the author of Program Management for Open Source Projects. Ben is an Open Organization Ambassador and frequent conference speaker. His personal website is Funnel Fiasco.

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