Quite good at a lot of things, but not an expert in anything? Think you're the only one who hasn't got your life together? Hey, me too! Want to hear about all my mistakes?

About me

Daniel M.
Social Research
United Kingdom

About this profile

Project Manager
Isotoma LTD
United Kingdom
Digital and IT services
Small business (0-49 employees)

About the job

What I do

I'm a Project Manager for a software and web development agency. As such, my work is three-fold: 1) managing relationships with clients, working with them to define their requirements, communicate progress, and act as their first port of call if they have any questions 2) organising the scheduling and finances of the projects I'm involved in, trying to keep things on schedule and on budget 3) working with teams of developers, testers, and designers to ensure everyone knows what they're meant to be doing and identifying potential problems.

Skills I use and how I developed them

I've always seen myself as a good all-rounder, and that plurality of skills has really helped me develop as a Project Manager. If you're someone who picks up new skills quickly, you're good at organising yourself and others, and have a strong sense of empathy, this might be a good role for you. If you only have one of those things, it should be empathy - it's much easier to learn the other two.

What I like most

The company I work for is very close-knit and non-hierarchical. We trust and value each other's expertise, and there's none of the politics and game-playing that can plague this industry. It's vital to me that the people I work with are people I respect on a personal as well as professional level - when you apply for jobs, I suggest that this is something you consider.

What I like least

The downside of working for small companies in relatively volatile industries is that you're more vulnerable to external events. I've experienced redundancy previously as major clients cancelled work following international political changes. It's worth baring this in mind when you think about where you want to work.

What surprised me most

My expectation was that, as someone who doesn't come from a computer science or development background, I would find the technical elements of the job overwhelming. In practice, this has not been nearly as much of an issue as I'd thought. This is because, even though as Project Manager you're a leader in the sense of 'you organise everyone and keep the lines of communication open', it's not expected that you actually know any more than the others on your team. I'm surrounded by experts, and I rely on *their* expertise to make decisions. Be honest about your limitations.

Finding and applying for the job

How I found out about the job

Personal contacts

The recruitment process

The good thing about applying to smaller companies is that they rarely have their own online application forms, with a cover letter and CV being sufficient. In this case I wrote a cover letter detailing some of the academic and charity-related projects I'd worked on, spoke about the aspects of the company that appealed to me, and why I felt I would be a good fit for their business.

I was invited to my first interview, which was with the company directors. They were interested in my rather 'eclectic' work history, which I took as a good sign. I used this opportunity to speak about my plurality of experiences, the reasons why I gave up on an academic career, what it was about project management that excited me, and to show my knowledge of the company by mentioning some of the products they'd worked on that I thought were cool.

The following day I was invited in for second interview, this time with one of the other project managers. This ended up being more of a chat about shared interests, and was acting more as confirmation that I would fit in with the company.

My career

My career goals when I graduated

Originally I had intended to to a PhD in Sociology and become an academic. I had no intention of going into business at this stage. After a couple of attempts I won funding for a PhD, but I ended up leaving the programme - I was worried about the way the academic job market was going, I was struggling to get my research off the ground, and my mental health was suffering. I loved teaching, but that wasn't going to get me through the programme, so leaving was the best choice.

My career history

After leaving the PhD programme I spent a number of years working part time retail jobs (including a notable stint at Ann Summers) as I searched for my next step. I took an unpaid position advising a new charity on social issues (which aligned with the research I had been doing in the Sociology department). After landing my first job at Isotoma (in a junior Project Management position) I worked for them for a year. Sadly I was made redundant, but the company directors put in a word for me with the recruiters at Sky. I became a Product Owner for skysports.com, working for a huge international organisation. I took the job out of necessity and curiosity, but in the end the values of the company did not align with my own, so I left after 6 months. Finally, after many months of fruitless applications, Isotoma approached me to see if I would return to them as a Project Manager, which I gratefully accepted.

What has helped my career to progress

Being honest with people about my limitations. My special talent, if such it is, is that when faced with a decision I listen to people smarter or with more domain expertise than me, and keep asking them questions until an answer presents itself.

General advice: control the things you can control, and don't worry about the things that you can't. Lots of people will try to make you worry about those things. Smile, nod, and don't worry about them.

Don't be afraid to change direction. I worked really hard to get funding for a PhD programme, and when it became clear it wasn't for me it was a really hard decision to quit. At times it looked to lots of people, myself included, that I had made the wrong decision, particularly when I was unemployed or working in unglamorous retail jobs trying to pay the rent. The same thing with my time at Sky - I was earning more money than ever, but I was miserable. Quitting meant being unemployed again, but it was the right decision. Don't be afraid of saying "this isn't for me" if you've given something your best shot and it still doesn't sit right.

Courses taken since graduation

I'm now a Certified Scrum Master, and this year I'll be taking my Certified Product Owner and APM project management qualifications. Some companies won't care if you have these or not, but for someone like me who had no formal background in management, these provide a lot of fundamentals or more broadly applicable concepts that I might not have picked up on the job. They're also invaluable if you want to apply for government work or large organisations.

How my studies have helped my career

Sociology provided me with a framework for understanding businesses in a way that I didn't fully appreciate while still in academia. All the discussions on social class, on gender inequalities, on the value of labour, they all came to life in a very direct and applicable way when I found myself in management roles. In some ways this has made me unsuitable for a lot of roles, as critical thinking is my default position now, but it also means I value the companies and colleagues that don't just tolerate but actively encourage a critical mindset.

What surprised me about my career so far

It's hard to think of what I have as a 'career' per se. I hope this encourages any students or graduates who read this that an ad hoc/shambolic approach to post-university employment is not necessarily something to be scared of, or a sign of failure. When you read some people's LinkedIn profiles it can read as a seamless transition from university to CEO of their own company. The reality is far more messy.

Where I hope to be in 5 years

If experience has taught me anything it's that trying to plan that far ahead is a fool's game. I want to keep growing in confidence as a Project Manager, find the optimum balance between responsibility and freedom, and maintain the trust and respect of my friends and colleagues. Longer term I'd quite like to find a way to not have to work at all, but spread my time between personal development and volunteering/advising on social issues.

My advice to students

My advice to students considering work

Today's job market is really really hard. Don't worry if your friends can somehow afford to do unpaid internships in Central London - that doesn't make you a failure. Spend as much time as possible during your actual degree trying out different careers by talking to people who do those jobs - go to conferences, send messages on LinkedIn, use the Alumni Office, work out how to network and do it. Most of all, don't be frustrated if things don't all come together straight away. It probably won't, and that's ok. Persevere.

Contacting me

If you want help getting an internship at a hedge fund, I can't help you. But if you think Project Management might be something you're interested in, or you're a Sociologist looking for ways to apply what you've learned, I'm happy to bounce some ideas back and forth. I don't pretend to have all the answers, but I think I'm pretty good at asking the right questions.

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