Project Manager in Construction: Informational Interview Report

[Thanks to EH for sharing his informational interview report on how to become a project manager in the construction industry.]


My current career goal is to work for a commercial general contractor starting out as a project engineer and then working my way up to become a project manager where I can run my own project sites. After enough years of experience, I intend to utilize the knowledge I have learned while working under an employer and start my own residential general contractor business in the Bay Area.

My main goal for the information interview was to understand more of what my career as a construction manager will be like entering into the commercial industry since I grew up only learning some of the knowledge on residential construction.

The following are the questions I asked of a project manager for a leading national construction firm, along with his responses.

What got you into construction?

My dad was a small time carpenter and so I was always into the idea of building things. I went to Cal Poly SLO and majored in Construction Management, and the rest was history.

What do you dislike and like about being in construction?

There isn’t much to dislike about being in construction if you got a good team and a supportive company to back you whenever. However there always comes a time when you have to deal with ignorant subcontractors who perform their job horribly and then want more money to fix it when it was initially their shitty work. Then there are the clients who can be frustrating to deal with over finances but through all the problems with subcontractors and clients, and just people in this industry alone, is to remain calm and keep a cool leveled head always because as big as this industry is, it is also very small and word travels fast.

The commute to and from home also sucks but that comes with the perks of working in the Bay Area.

How long did it take you to be promoted to Project Manager from Project Engineer?

It took me about 4-5 years to become a PM, but that varies between project to project. There are project engineers who get promoted in 2-3 years if they are put on a hospital job and can show their capabilities or any other project where they can shine quickly.

What is a typical day in your daily life at work?

There really isn’t a typical day because each day is different. There are different challenges, scenarios, and new issues needing to be solved every day. But a brief look at what a typical day for me would be heading into the office, checking my emails, then maybe go into a few meetings and then have to go travel my project sites around the Bay Area. Then probably more meetings and by then, the day is coming to an end.

What are your responsibilities as a project manager?

Currently, I am working on three (3) projects that are special projects. They are all oversee by one of my engineers so I am able to chase more bigger projects. I currently oversee the finance for all the projects, making sure all the costs are allocated in the right area and that we are making money. Other responsibilities include going to the city planner to get plans approved and stamped, attending OAC (owner architect contractor) meetings, subcontractor meetings, and sometimes there are trainings that PMs need to attend.

What skills are required for your job?

You have to have good communication in this line of work, there are so many interactions in one day, you can’t not know how to socialize. Our line of work is as much communication as it is construction. In my opinion, you got to have patience and tolerance of matters because there will always be someone who tries to say something against you and it can get frustrating but you got to keep a leveled mind. You got to be innovative because we are always looking for new faster, better ways to get the job done. The rest are skills that can be taught and honed on the job as you perform it more and more.

Why did you choose to be a Project Manager instead of a Superintendent?

Well, for me personally, I think being a PM just fits me more as a person and my lifestyle because I live out in Walnut Creek and commute everyday to work for about 2 or more hours. I got a family and a young boy I got to pick up from school and drop off so being a PM kind of gives me more ability to do things. As oppose to being a Super, many of the guys don’t live close to where they work and commute long hours so they leave home around 3 AM and start their day early but they get off around 3 PM as well. Also being a Super, many old school traditional guys grew up through the trades and not much are college educated so with that in mind, for me to be a Super would have taken longer to be promoted because that position is a job that grows in value the older you become, attaining knowledge from each project. Being a PM allows me to come in a little later than the Super and PE, and ultimately provides me with the skills to work for any other large company if I choose to spin off to another career and no longer want to do construction. I can work for Google or any startup and be a project manager there.

What are 3 things that you enjoy most about working at your company/organization?

It’s got to be the people, the culture, the flat organization we have. By flat organization, I mean there is no structure ladder in this company, everyone is equal and can do the same tasks someone who is lower rank does such as a project engineer makes their own destiny in the company, the PM will not be delegating assignments to him constantly.

Where do you see the construction industry going in next 5-10 years?

Well, currently there’s enough projects to keep everyone busy for the next 5-7 years so its definitely going to be good for a while, but it is unpredictable. We are always looking for the next big thing so we fill our backlogs with ton of work. I believe tenant improvements will be the next big thing as a lot of techies and startups are coming into the Bay Area staking their flag and buying old warehouses and buildings to renovate.

How do you guys get your projects since it is so competitive and busy in the Bay Area currently?

We have a lot of repeat clients and sometimes word travels and we get the job that way too, from mouth of a former client. We hard bid some big jobs sometimes as well.

Do you have any advice to someone new like myself entering this industry?

Be open minded and always find a culture that fits, you don’t want to work for a company that treats you like you are just a number and don’t care about your well being. If you enjoy what you do, the days go by fast, but always remember to work hard and be open up to learn new things.

Would it be alright to contact you through phone call or email for further questions?

Sure thing, and keep in mind that in construction, there is no such thing as a dumb question.

Discussion and What I Learned

I thought the information of being promoted to PM taking him 4-5 years was interesting because from all my recent interviews with companies during my time of trying to see if a company was the right fit for me, many PMs or superintendents said they got promoted between 2-3 years. But I assume each company varies and each division within a company displays certain skills more than another. A project engineer in the Special Projects Division will likely be promoted quicker because they work on smaller projects where the teams are smaller and responsibilities are bigger. Therefore one can show their skill set and capabilities more than an engineer working on a huge project that has a larger team where each member is delegated a certain part of the project to oversee as oppose to the entire project.

The interview helped create a positive impression or reassurance for me since I have signed on to work for this construction company once I graduate. I look forward to it because I believe I have the traits in me to persevere and thrive to become a PM in 2-3 years.

I think I been exposed enough to the industry and have spoken to many members of the construction industry from many other companies to have an idea of what is to come once I begin my career as a construction manager. However, I do wish that I asked what would my interviewee be doing if he had not chosen construction as his career.

I emailed and called to leave a voice message after the interview to thank my interviewee for his time and useful advice.