How to Take Charge of Your Project Management Skills with Tony Johnson

by Mirek Burnejko

Tony JohnsonThis is an interview with Tony Johnson. Tony was working as a Project Manager in the biggest IT companies and started Crosswind PM, which helps people to grow their project management career.

This a long interview. But each word gives you an amazing value and knowledge. Tony is a real expert (PMI-RMP, PMI-ACP, PMP, PgMP) and his company create the best training materials for Project Managers.

In this interview you will learn:

  • Why PMP is the most important certification for Project Managers?
  • Do Project Managers need IT certifications?
  • Do Project Managers need the MBA title?


IT Certification Master: Hi Tony. It is a pleasure to have you here. Tell us something what are you doing right now and what was your first IT job.

Tony Johnson: Right now I am working on 2 new product lines related to agile certification and small business. I actually started working in audio engineering and electrical engineering, so exposure to IT systems came as a result of needing to keep my projects going. As a result I took more of a liking to it. My first full IT job was kind of hybrid position at Motorola when we were building the CDMA and GSM networks. The engineering groups I worked with made various boards and I worked with the test departments which were pretty heavy IT to ensure we had set up what was needed to make sure things kept running. The service department knew if I called them, it was actually a severity 00 and the lower their numbers went were 1. Thus I only called when the sky was falling and it was something I didn’t know yet.

ICM: We’re here today to talk about certifications for Project Managers. What was your first PM certification and what was the hardest one to achieve?

TJ: The first was the PMP certification. That was the one that put me in the “real” PM’s room. That comment might offend someone, but if someone is a hard-core PM and not yet a PMP, then I suggest you just get it done and you shouldn’t have someone question you about it again. The PMP felt like the hardest at the time since it was the first, but looking back at it, I overstudied and shouldn’t have sweat it as badly as I did. Again that was from massive overstudy. The hardest one was the PgMP. A PhD told me once they looked at that as PMI’s PhD. I can’t agree with that 100%, but if not, it’s the closest thing PMI has to a PhD so far. That test had my head still spinning for three days after the test. To install a shameless plug here, I hadn’t finished my book for the PgMP exam yet, so if I had it wouldn’t have been as bad, but it is still a very intense process. You have the peer review, the exam, then the multi-rater assessment. All three of those must be cleared before becoming a PgMP.

ICM: Which certification gave you the best benefits in your career?

TJ: I would have to say the PMP opened the most doors. That pretty much puts you in a room that separates the people who try to do project management and those that should have a solid foundation to apply tools when the going gets tough.

As an author and trainer the PgMP (Program Management Professional) opened a great deal of doors because not that many people have it and it’s a great differentiator. I think the PMI-RMP (Risk Management) was a good eye opener to really see risk at a portfolio, program and project level.

ICM: Which of these certifications is an essence that every PM should have?

TJ: The PMP, as it all starts there. If you don’t have the experience to quality for it yet, then do the CAPM until you have the experience for the PMP.

ICM: Do you think a Project Managers NEED certifications or maybe these certifications are only for a resume?

TJ: I think if you do the certification from an approach to ensure you have a solid foundation of knowledge and experience on the subject that is key. Just passing a test might get you a job, but good luck keeping it. I remember one of the first onsite classes we did years ago. It came as a result of a woman who had taken our weekend class before the onsite. About 6 weeks into the weekly onsite class I looked up our alumni to thank her. She was telling me how nice it was there now. She said should could literally tell what class we were on each week. For example when they would get to requirements on a project, after we covered scope, they would all want to use a work breakdown structure (WBS) that they had never used before. To me this is a perfect example of applying a solid fountain of knowledge, and following it up with a certification.

ICM: There are few companies that have own Project Management certifications. Do you think PMI is the leader? Do our industry needs certifications from other like Project+, PRINCE2 or certifications from IPMA, APMG or BCS/ISEB ?

TJ: Some people love or hate PMI, but the bottom line is they are the gold standard on this. I had a student ask me recently about going after a non PMI certification after getting his PMP. I told him with his background, I thought PMI’s Risk certification would be a better compliment to his PMP. Regarding specific companies making their own certifications it comes down to what you can do with it from a credibility standpoint. If you look at the six sigma area. I don’t claim to be a big expert in that area, but industry people I have spoken with basically say if you are a company X, Y, Z, etc. internal trained Six Sigma Black Belt of Master Black belt that likely could have more credibility than a training company that offers the topics in public classes. I will say in the case of six sigma, short of ASQ, there hasn’t really been a public company that has taken “ownership” of the credentials like PMI has the PMP and more.

ICM: I see, especially in my country, that many Project Managers achieve MBA. Do you think a good PM should end a MBA school?

TJ: Back when I was first exposed to things in engineering, the MBA was what you did to differentiate yourself to get into the business or management side of things. Soon after getting the MBA I learned about the PMP and really started to get into that. The MBA curriculum really exposed me to senior management business and process. That was a nice compliment to the PMP.

Now it’s not uncommon to see an MBA program have a project management concentration, but that still doesn’t make up for a PMP in my view.

ICM: My favorite question. What was your the biggest project and how your skills helped you?

TJ: I am going to answer this with two projects actually. I would say our product line update for the Fourth Edition PMBOK Guide was our biggest one to date. From a program management perspective it involved close to 100 inter-related projects. I would say that my portfolio management, program management, risk management and agile program management skills were very helpful. They really helped me see how all the pieces of this complex puzzle really fit together and how to deliver it as effectively as possible. We were shipping some products within ten days of the PMBOK Guide being available so I think it would be hard to argue with the approach.

The other project, if you can call it that, just started within the last month with the sudden passing of my mother.

She was visiting Texas for my son’s birthday and got sick from food poisoning and passed away on his birthday, which was Easter Sunday. Needless to say the shock, the suddenness and me being an only child didn’t help, I was involved in so many aspects of things from the paramedics, what the ER did, the coroner, letting family across the US know about mom passing, the autopsy, getting mom home to Kansas (from Texas) when the autopsy was done, planning a funeral and visitation, getting a singer and guitarist for the funeral, writing an obituary, representing the family, helping get in sync with my father as we started the next phases of our lives and more. This sounds funny, or eerie, but the way my brain was working was when something came up, was it related to scope, time, cost, quality, people (HR), communication, risk, outsourcing (procurement), stakeholders, or pulling it all together (integration). I think it’s fair to say that this approach wouldn’t have worked for someone who was just trying to pass a test and not have as a priority a solid foundation of knowledge in this area.

ICM: Let’s imagine I want to start a new career as a Project Manager. Should I take Project+, PRINCE2 Foundation or read 100 times PMBOK? What is the best start to find a job as a PM?

TJ: I did the Project + certification. It’s a good starting point, the CAPM is as well. I would say if you wanted to get into the field, find an opportunity to follow someone’s lead and see how they do it. When I was 15 years old, I started working with 5 guys named Ronnie, Max, Jim, Tom and Steve. These guys were older than me and ran a band called… Crosswind. Their goal was to put the name on as much of this planet as possible. They showed me a number of things including, you never stop when doing something, you pay attention to all the details going on around you, and you work as a team. Today I have fulfilled their vision on all 7 continents and 67 countries using the skills they taught me and more along the way. I also suggest you read up in a good book on how to see the details of how someone can do things in the area of project management.

All due respect to the PMBOK Guide, but one version, the cost chapter was about 8-12 pages. Our PMP book’s cost chapter had over 64+ pages. Some say that is overkill, but if you need to get into the details it’s there and someone might need more exposure to a subject than the PMBOK Guide itself can provide, although the PMBOK Guide is still a good wide-reaching reference source.

A book with solid knowledge for building a foundation, not playing games with you. For example, we see a lot of our alumni, hold onto their book after they become certified because it’ s a great reference for the daily work as a project manager.

ICM: 13 years ago you founded Crosswind. In simple words, you shape Project Managers. What is the most important (one) skill for a PM and why your trainings help with developing this skill?

TJ: The biggest skill would be to know all the pieces that exist in your environment and how they can interact with each other. If you don’t do this, it will eat you up. In the upcoming Fifth Ed. PMBOK Guide, there is a new knowledge area called Stakeholder. I think this knowledge area really pulls this together very well.

ICM: What is the biggest mistake Project Managers make during a preparation to CAPM or PMP?

TJ: I see people writing in to places on the internet asking other people studying for the exams how do you this, or what is that? This is your career you are investing in. Make that investment and get someone you can contact as needed for clarification on things. The majority of these types of questions I see, are answered when people take our classes from an expert such as myself or one of our trainers, for example. I would assume a lot of these questions are answered in other classes as well. Also, look at PMI.org, it’s there for a reason.

ICM: Thank you so much. Tell us where we can find you and what is the best place to find information about your trainings.

TJ: You can find out more about us at CroswindPM and CroswindLearning. Also, I am open to LinkedIn and Facebook friend requests.

Crosswind PMP

[This is part of the Interviews with IT Pros Series]