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Certification Changed My Career

I had a keen sense that my professional future was dim. I was carrying the heavy weight of discontent. No one else could see it, but it felt like a choke hold on opportunities that lay out in front of me.

What’s a middle-aged professional supposed to do? I knew the work and excelled at managing projects. I was seen as a go-getter who could move mountains to accomplish goals. But, why wasn’t it enough for me? Instead of letters behind my name and credentials on the wall, I had found solace in the fact that I was good; very good at what I did.

Certification. I knew it bore no relevance to my job at the time; the organization I worked for didn’t even know it existed. But as I read through articles and combed websites in want of answers to my occupational future, I felt drawn in.

There is a parallel universe that exists to those who are certified. A language and culture that serve to exclude on the basis of ‘certified’ or ‘not certified.’ PMI’s PMBOK is so much more than a framework. It is akin to Tolkien’s Elvish language; albeit littered with familiar words that differ in meaning depending on which side you’re on. Perhaps it was the mystery of that framework that intrigued me? Or, the eerie sense that maybe I wasn’t an expert in managing projects; having little clue about the lettered profession.

So, I joined PMI, downloaded the PMBOK and ordered a paper copy. I bought a license for an online learning educator that offered project management training and, even though I knew project work, I was stunned by the knowledge I didn’t have. The framework language was so foreign to me that I questioned my journey to the PMP every day. Thoughts spun in my mind asking “is it even worth it?”

When I began my journey towards certification, it was frustrating. To have excelled in my work for years, only to find gaining the credential meant I had to submit my successes to a framework that seemed rigid; I could scarcely see my work within it. There were terms that I had known but, on the whole, working as a project manager and passing the PMP exam appeared unrelated.

As PMs, at the beginning of each project, we lay the ground rules by determining scope; identify stakeholders and sketching out a high-level roadmap of how we plan to accomplish the end goal. In this personal project my end goal was a PMP certification, and in order to achieve it, I quickly realized I had to become a student. I had to choose professional humility, setting aside what I understood of project managing to see things a different way.

At the time, I recognized this humility as humiliating. My own sense of accomplishment meant little, and my confidence in knowing enough already or having enough experience wasn’t enough. In the still, quiet part of my psyche, I had to accept the fact that I needed to learn and use my frustration to fuel the task that lay ahead.

After digesting the PMBOK guide, page by page and process group by knowledge area, I knew I needed to get certified! I was ashamed that I had never slowed my own project work down to learn and value PMI’s framework. As I came to understand it, strategies I had learned the hard way seemed simple. And, I thought of all the time I could have saved and energies better spent had I known them all along.

I was voracious and wanted more depth and breadth. What more had I missed too busy working? I wanted to be inspired by others instead of being the big fish in a small pond. I began to dream of becoming a small fish in the very large pond of PMI.

My local university offered a Master’s in Project Management, and I wanted in. I contacted the school and quickly enrolled; the outrageous cost aside. I remember my first day of class, the room filled with professionals like myself, successfully running projects who knew little to nothing of the world of PMI. It was like a support group for wayward professionals suffering from the same chronic illness. It felt like home.

Over the next many, many months, I drilled away at the inputs, outputs, tools and techniques of the trade. Certification grew to be the answer I had been looking for to legitimize and crystallize what I knew about project management. My humiliation lifted, and I discovered that I could understand the framework and relate it back to my experience. After all, it had been crafted by professionals, like myself, who had learned the hard way and wanted to help.

I applied to write the test and was accepted; thousands of hours of my project work distilled down into 500-word increments laid bare for all PMI to see. And then, it was time. I had studied as much as my brain could handle. I had written hundreds of practice tests and devised the best ‘dump’ sheet I could. All the advice I’d been given was correct. It was intimidating. It was humiliating. Herded like cattle into the room not trusted enough even to bring in a water bottle. I felt disadvantaged but determined.

My first 10 minutes of the four arduous hours were spent recreating my ‘dump’ sheet. Quickly it seemed futile as I scarcely had the time to refer to it. The questions whizzed by, my answers came fast in some cases and impossibly slow in others. I tried to keep a running tally of ones I thought were right but, with the clock ticking, I abandoned even that feeble attempt to be in control. And then the results. I’d passed. I scarcely cared how. I had ‘slain the beast’ and now could proudly add those three letters behind my name.

But how would my career change? How had it changed at that moment? All I had proven was that I could initiate, plan, execute, control and close the project of becoming certified.

With reflection and time, I came to realize that my career changed because I changed. Throughout the process, I learned that I was not alone, that there was always something to learn and that I was better when brought together with others who shared similar goals and aspirations. I had been carrying the heavy weight of discontent for my professional future because I had felt I was alone.

I had forgotten that to be good at something is not everything. But to be good together at something is even better. To me, PMI personifies this. Not because they know it all or have it all right, but because they are a means to a profession; the keepers of a body of knowledge that when shared, iterates for the better, in benefit to us all. Networked, we can move more mountains. Humbled, we can learn and grow to build a better credential.

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