Getting Your PMP: 5 Lessons Learned from a New PMP

So…you’re thinking about becoming a Project Management Professional (PMP)? There’s lots of reasons to do so. However, there are also a lot of other ways that you could spend your time. Therefore, my first lesson learned is to really think hard about whether the financial commitment (more about that below) and more importantly time commitment to study for the PMP is right for you at this time.

Lesson Learned #1: Do an “alternatives analysis” (i.e. consider how else you could spend your time) and think about whether now is the right time to pursue the PMP.

If you’re still reading, I am going to assume you are ready to make the leap! The next step is to take a look at the Project Management Institute’s (PMI) eligibility requirements. You will be asked to document everything so spend time upfront making sure you have the 4,500 hours leading and directing projects experience (note: this sounds more challenging than it is, you can and should count any time you’ve spent supporting a PM or in general helping with the project management of a project) and 35 hours of PM education (this can be undergraduate/graduate school classes, free online trainings, etc.). The important thing to note is that to qualify for PMI, they must have an exam at the end and a certificate given at the end of the course to serve as a receipt that you took it so be sure to save them!

Lesson Learned #2: Document everything in case you get audited.

Next, budget a solid 6-8 hours to do your application. It requires you to attribute all 4,500 of your hours to a process area and to a project, which can be burdensome (my recommendation, as much as possible, would be to limit the number of projects you list on the application to only your biggest ones that can get you to your threshold, as more projects mean more people to reach out to if audited). Additionally, AND THIS IS IMPORTANT, they also require you to write out your project contributions in 200-250 characters or less USING PMI-“ISM”s. This is critical. I did not spend adequate time writing my project contributions in the language PMI uses and I happened to be one of the lucky few who got “randomly” audited. This required me to send in ALL of my documentation, transcripts, and to get all of my managers from all of my previous projects to attest to my hours. After sending all that information (through the mail…) to PMI I received an e-mail a few days later saying that I had been rejected as my project contributions were not “correctly worded.” At that point I had been studying for 2-3 months and was frustrated. After that, I sat down with a current PMP and had her review my application and we changed it significantly. On the second submission, it was accepted. Therefore, my recommendation would be to apply shortly after beginning your study plan (you have up to 1 year to take the exam after you are accepted) and have a current PMP review your application before submitting!

Lesson Learned #3: Apply before (or shortly after) you begin your study plan and HAVE A CURRENT PMP REVIEW YOUR APPLICATION.

So at this point you’ve begun studying, submitted your application, and been accepted. Awesome! I created a 3-month study plan that typically featured 2-3 two hour study sessions during the week and then 1-2 sessions on the weekend or a 4 hour practice exam. I also was diligent in putting it into my Google calendar and sticking to it as much as possible. It’s important to note that everybody studies differently – what works for me may not for you, so take this as a suggestion. My main study strategy (in order) was to:

1.      Read the PMBOK 6th edition cover to cover, covering 1 chapter in each sitting. There are no exams at the end of each chapter, so I would find a free exam online and take that. While the digital version is free with PMI membership, I bought the book as I like to have a hard copy (also, a lot of the reviews say its unreadable because of the new printmarks - but it’s hardly noticeable and wasn’t at all distracting). Cost = $60

2.      Read the Rita Mulcahy PMP Exam Prep 9th edition cover to cover (I ended up reading this first, but in retrospect I think it would be more helpful to have done it 2nd) and take the exam at the end of each chapter. Cost = $76

3.      Every 3rd or 4th study session, I spent a study session only reviewing questions that I had missed.

4.      Once I finished reading the first book, I began to schedule practice exams about once every 2 weeks. I used the PM Prepcast exam simulator and it was AMAZING. The questions were extremely similar to the actual exam and even its interface is similar. I attribute a lot to this tool and I would highly recommend it. Cost = $139

5.      A few weeks out from the exam, I peppered in other topics and spent time reviewing some of the “core” concepts on their own, such as the ITTOs (Inputs, Tools & Techniques, and Outputs) – I’ve included a semi-helpful ITTO template I found online, the Rita process chart, memorizing the Planning processes, memorizing the EVM calculations.

So in terms of the financial investment, I spent approximately $260. While this number isn’t insignificant, a single PMP boot camp can easily run you close to $1,000. Again, everyone learns differently but I did talk to some people who did a boot camp and they didn’t feel it was worth the investment.  

Lesson Learned #4: Create a study plan (and stick to it).

So you’ve applied, been accepted, given up weekday nights and weekends to study and now you’re ready to take the exam! Some lessons learned to share about the day-of the exam.

1.      Take the day off from work. You don’t want to be stressed about some e-mail exchange right before heading into a 4-hour exam.

2.      Bring water, snacks, etc. to eat during your breaks. The exam is 4 hours straight and the clock doesn’t stop when you leave, but I found it helpful to take 2-3 breaks throughout.

3.      Get to the exam site ONE HOUR early. I made the mistake of getting there only a half-hour early, not realizing that they want you to begin going through security a half-hour before your appointment. I was rushed and I got off to a less than great start.

4.      The exam interface allows you to “Mark” questions that you can come back to later. I didn’t realize this option existed but found it to be helpful so that I didn’t “linger” too long on any one question (also, the PM Prepcast exam simulator has it, which I didn’t realize until after the exam). It also allows you to right-click the answers to strike-through the answer. Also, my personal strategy is to use a sheet of paper to hide the answers until I’ve read the question. After reading, I try to think about what the answer might be. Then, I slowly lower the paper and reveal the questions one by one. In my experience, limiting the information helps me focus.  

5.      Relax 😊

Lesson Learned #5: On the day of the exam, take the day off, bring snacks, get to the exam site early, know your own exam-taking preferences, and relax. 

Biking to all 19 Carnegie Library Branches - In One Day!

I left my house in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh at 10:30AM on Wednesday, 5/17/17 with a single purpose – to bike to all 19 Carnegie Library branches in a day. Not only that, but I wanted to go inside each branch and get a stamp for my Carnegie Library passport, which the Library produced last year to encourage patrons to visit other branches. The idea to bike each of them came from a classmate of mine at CMU, Laura Calloway, who calculated the shortest distance to travel to all of them – approximately 45 miles. What she neglected to mention is that there’s over 7,500 feet of elevation change along the route. It was a hot day, nearly 90 degrees, and the trip to the first few branches (Hazelwood, South Side) was extremely pleasant, as there are few things nicer than biking along the Monongahela River on the Three Rivers Heritage Trail; except maybe doing the entire Great Allegheny Passage, which I hope to be my next big adventure. At that moment on the route, biking the 335 miles from Pittsburgh to DC seemed like a great idea. Yet that feeling would soon fade.   

This route, while optimized for distance, did not appear to be optimized for topography. Climbing the South 18th Street hill from the South Side up to the Knoxville branch should have been my warning sign of the challenges yet to come. From there it was onto the very-soon-to-be demolished Carrick branch, the only one that I couldn’t visit that day as it is closed for renovation. Yet the scariest part of the day came from turning a corner onto Newett Street only to be met with a downhill that must have easily been 20% grade, followed very shortly thereafter with an uphill that, you guessed it, was also 20% grade. All things that go down must come up, I suppose. I now know why this stretch of Route 51 floods so regularly.  

The trip from there out to Mt. Washington was hilly, but enjoyable, as I was rewarded with what I believe to be the most amazing view of any city in the United States. I then proceeded on to the West End branch with its unique small house collection that a resident, who constructed each one, bequeathed to the library. Heading out to Sheraden and Woods Run, I was reminded at how unique each of Pittsburgh’s neighborhoods are. Circling back to Allegheny and the North Side, I crossed over the Roberto Clemente bridge and dodged rush hour traffic to visit the downtown branch.

By this point it was 4:00pm and I was exhausted. The hills on the Southside and the Northside (isn’t there any side that is void of hills?) took a toll on this cycling novice. However, I set out with a single mission in mind: to visit each branch when it was open. Thankfully for me, most of the branches have generous hours on Wednesday: 10:00AM-8:00PM. However, there was one branch that closed at 5:00PM and thus became my motivation for keeping on pace. Therefore, I hurriedly passed through the Hill District and Main Library branch in order to make it on time. But I’m so glad that I did, because it was absolutely the branch that I enjoyed the most. The branch was the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

Unlike the other branches, the Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped gets most of its funding from the state of PA in order to provide free Braille and audio resources for patrons across the state. But they don’t rely on Audible or your favorite audiobook app to do it – no, they have volunteer voice actors who actually read each book and volunteer editors who edit each one. Equipped with two soundproof studios onsite in an old Studebaker factory, they have all of the equipment needed to do it (and do it well, might I add, as they had me test it out and do a 2-minute recording myself). They also have a service where people can call a trained staff person there and receive recommendations of what books they may like to read, based on what they’ve read in the past. Think of it like a human Amazon.

While I could have stayed there for hours, they unfortunately closed about 20 minutes after I got there. From there, I headed to the Lawrenceville branch before heading east to East Liberty and Homewood for the home stretch. I neglected to mention that this entire trip was completed on a 1986 Peugeot bike, with lever gears and rubber brake pads (which by this point were well-worn through). Frankly, I was surprised that, over 40 miles in, I hadn’t yet had to replace a flat or do any other maintenance on the bike. But wouldn’t you know – with exactly one mile left to go – I discovered that my back tire had gone flat. Thankfully, it seemed to be a slow leak, so I put some air in it and made my way to my very last branch, my local Squirrel Hill branch. And with that - I was complete.

Some observations:

  • Librarians are the kindest people on Earth. I can’t count the number of times I was offered water and other conveniences along the way. They are beyond helpful when it comes to finding books and that same level of commitment extends to all situations.
  • Divided by topography, each neighborhood takes on a character of its own and I found each branch to be an expression of that character. Their location was almost always set in a prominent position at the crossroads of the neighborhood. Yet in some cases that wasn’t the case. For some of the older locations, like Lawrenceville and South Side, their location doesn’t necessarily match where the “heart” of the neighborhood is now – a testament to the change in neighborhoods. For example, Lawrenceville’s branch is located on Fisk Street, not Butler, and South Side is located right next to the off-ramp of the Birmingham Bridge, which it preceded by almost 80 years.
  • All in all, I’d highly recommend this trip to anyone with an interest in seeing and experiencing Pittsburgh through its neighborhoods and through an institution that is one of the finest in the country. Like all good journeys, it wasn’t always easy and requires determination along the way, but you’ll be rewarded with a uniquely Pittsburgh experience.

Reflections from a SUDS Founder

Since graduating a few weeks ago, I've had some time to think and reflect on my time spent helping to found and build SUDS over the course of two years.  

In August 2015, I founded Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDS) at Carnegie Mellon University.  It began as a student group dedicated to promoting the study of urban science, open data, and civic hacking. Since its launch, we’ve grown to over 400 members across every discipline, including computer science, architecture, machine learning, public policy, and even physics.

While I didn’t know if anyone else would join at the time (I didn’t even know the term “smart cities”), I knew that there was groundswell of interest in the convergence of data science and local government, as evidenced by programs like CMU’s MS in Public Policy and Management - Data Analytics track, NYU CUSP’s MS in Applied Urban Science, and University of Chicago’s MS in Computational Analytics and Public Policy (MSCAPP), none of which existed (at least in name) 5 years ago.   

Therefore, I’d like to share a few lessons that we’ve learned at SUDS about how cities and students can work together. The general theme is an unsurprising one: partnerships. In this case, a partnership with local government, community organizations, and the university.  

Local Government

We’ve been lucky in Pittsburgh to have an exceptional Innovation & Performance (I&P) department that added SUDS into their Inclusive Innovation Roadmap and helped give our organization credibility and a process for self-evaluation.  We now meet regularly with I&P to provide updates, which keep us honest and helps to provide structure – which is essential given the tendency for student groups to become nebulous and experience high turnover.  They have supported us and we have supported them, participating in their annual city-wide hacking competition Steel City Codefest.  An effective partnership involves both give-and-take.

Community Organizations

We also realized early on that, while we started as a student group, we needed to be community-facing. In fact, we openly welcome individuals from the community to become members and participate in every event. In our case, the Western PA Regional Data Center was an outstanding resource for bringing community members into the process. Through this connection, as well as partnering with our local Code for America brigade, we met organizations like the Alliance for Police Accountability, Greater Hazelwood Community Collaborative, Healthy Ride Pittsburgh, and the Port Authority, all of whom our members provided analysis for in 2016. These projects can be viewed on our SUDS website.


The university has to be your strongest partner. In the case of CMU, we were lucky to have the support of an organization called Metro21, an initiative that uses a research, development and deployment (RD&D) model to develop 21st century solutions to the challenges facing metro areas. In fact, its emphasis on city-university partnerships spurred the creation of a national network called MetroLab Network, which has grown to over 40 cities. Check to see if your city is a participating member.

Finally, you ultimately need to earn the trust and legitimacy from fellow students. You need to create programming that’s fun and offers different levels of engagement, recognizing that students are busy. While some may wish to just attend one tour of a local tech company, others may wish to attend skills-based workshops to learn about new data tools or meet regularly at a community hack night to work on an ongoing data project with a local community organization. I haven’t figured out yet how to breed the latter, but when you find those people, give them ownership and help them succeed however you can.

5 Tips for Transitioning Leadership in a Student Org

Students for Urban Data Systems (SUDS) started as a student organization at Carnegie Mellon in August 2015 to create a space on campus for students and community members to come together to work on ongoing data projects with community organizations, learn new data tools through workshops, and learn about the “state of the practice” from speakers. Like all student organizations, one of our greatest challenges was the nearly constant turnover of members. Most importantly for us, we were facing the loss of all of our founding Board members in May 2017, all of whom were graduating. While we knew that there was interest among students and community members to keep the organization alive (we had over 400 members), we were unsure how much interest there would be to lead the organization.

Therefore, we put into place an aggressive strategy for recruiting, selecting, and training a diverse group of students to join the Board. The five key points of our strategy are below. While these are SUDS-specific, I think that any student group transitioning leadership can adopt this strategy.

1.       Invite potential leaders to take up responsibilities early. Nearly 6 months before we started the official transition, we began to open up our Board meetings and invited other students who had shown an interest in leadership to attend these meetings and take on responsibilities. In fact, people outside of the Board planned nearly all events that occurred in the months leading up to the transition. By the outgoing board stepping out of the way, they created room for the upcoming leaders to step in. This helped the current Board work closely with these new potential leaders and allowed the potential leaders to “see themselves” in the organization.

2.       Schedule one-on-one meetings. In the 2-3 months leading up to the application process, I encouraged current Board members to meet one-on-one for coffee or lunch with students who had shown an interest in SUDS. At these meetings, we spoke with the students about their aspirations and interests and encouraged them to apply, if we thought SUDS fit with those interests. This direct appeal was extremely successful, and nearly everyone we met with ultimately submitted an application.    

3.       Hold an organizational “open house.” This step would not have been possible without the support of the local civic tech community. We hosted a leadership open house at a nearby restaurant and invited all students interested in leadership and our community partners to attend and share in food, drinks, and conversation. This was a terrific way for students to see the broader ecosystem in which SUDS worked and helped SUDS differentiate itself. Incoming SUDS Director Chris Worley remarked that “the event was attended by community and student leaders and allowed those with an interest in taking a more active role in "doing good with data" a chance to meet with the folks who are doing just that in Pittsburgh.” We also scheduled it so that it occurred the day before the application opened, so that the social aspect of SUDS was fresh on their mind when applying.

4.       Make applications easy and the selection process transparent. We knew at the beginning that we were looking for a transparent, fair way to encourage a broader group of people from diverse backgrounds to apply and join, as SUDS prides itself on being one of the few truly multi-disciplinary organizations on campus. When we finally opened the application process, we sought to make it easy while still being thorough, as we did not want a burdensome application to be the reason someone new did not apply. In addition, we changed our selection process from a voting process to an application process. There were two reasons for this: first, our membership structure is loose so there is a question of who should be eligible to vote and second, we found that voting tended to elect people from the same degree programs that were already in the organization.

5.       Have a leadership retreat. Approximately 2 weeks after the Board was selected, we scheduled a half-day retreat at a non-profit off campus with the new and old Board members, again with the support of the civic tech community. This not only served as a “knowledge transfer” for the incoming group, but also allowed the outgoing members an opportunity to talk about SUDS mission, objectives, and aspirations that they had for the organization as well as allowing the incoming members an opportunity to get to know one another.

What were the outcomes of our strategy? Well, we received 13 applications from undergraduates, graduates and PhD candidates across 4 of the 7 colleges at CMU, a healthy pool for an organization that previously only had 4 Board positions all from the same college. We ended up selecting 10 of these applicants and filling all vacant Board positions, while also creating two new ones – Undergraduate Liaison and Speaker Series Chair.

While we were extremely pleased at these outcomes, and at the enthusiasm and commitment the incoming leadership has already demonstrated, there are always areas for improvement and with SUDS there is no exception. I think the organization can continue to build a sense of inclusiveness by actively partnering with other organizations on campus in order to recruit a diverse membership body (and by extension, a diverse leadership structure). While I am proud of everything we accomplished in the first 1.5 years as an organization, I am even more excited to hear about the good work that is yet to come.

For many smart cities, a shift to students

Originally published on StateScoop

Cities today are being pulled in two different and contradictory directions: They’re being told to work smarter but to not spend any more taxpayer dollars doing it, a modern variation of the age-old paradox of “doing more with less.” 

In response, cities are increasingly looking to federal grants — like the federal Department of Transportation’s Smart City Challenge — and other funding sources for help. But one, perhaps overlooked, resource cities can tap is its students: They are cheap (or free) labor, offer fresh perspectives, and can devote significant time, whether through a class, fellowship or thesis project, to evaluate an essential government service that otherwise would not be prioritized. 

And the timing is right — we see students increasingly shifting their focus to the intersection of data analytics and government. In many ways, this can be traced to’s spectacular failure and the dream team of wunderkinds that the Obama administration brought in to help save it. This “geek squad” provided a band of big data superheroes for young civic-minded technologists to aspire to become. It also highlighted the impact that young people can have on government.  

After was overhauled, many members of this small cadre of tech all-stars then stayed within government and helped to create programs like the U.S. Digital Service, General Services Administration's 18F tiger team, Presidential Innovation Fellows, and innovation labs, all of which are providing more opportunities for young people to have an impact in government and will be expanded if the Clinton campaign wins in November. 

Finally, the explosive growth of massive open online courses (which doubled in users to 35 million in 2015, and didn’t even exist five years ago) means that eager and self-motivated nontraditional students are able to go online and take computer science or programming classes (which grew from 7 to 17 percent of all classes offered in just one year) for free. All of these trends point to one thing: Students now have more opportunities than ever to acquire and apply skills to help government in a meaningful way.    

So how are students already helping government? 

Some universities are incorporating it directly into their curriculum. For example, NYU’s Center for Urban Science and Progress requires students to complete an Urban Science Intensive, a two-semester project working with a city agency to address a current urban challenge. At other universities, student groups focused on urban systems, data analytics, Internet of Things, and civic engagement provide a bottom-up approach to create opportunities for students. Finally, some places are creating new employment opportunities, such as the recent announcement by the Harvard University Ash Center that it will provide yearlong fellowships for students to work in local government. 

Working smarter means to “eat that frog,” or to do the most difficult task first. In most cases, such tasks involve updating legacy IT systems, reviewing outdated procedures, and changing the way things have always been done. Working smarter also means taking stock of the resources and partners that a city has and bringing existing data together to extract new information.

In this vein, cities are beginning to recognize the value of their unique city-owned assets — the thousands of miles of paved streets, light poles, bus stops, parking garages, street lights, phone booths, and sidewalks, to name a few. Together, these assets are the building blocks of the city and provide an opportunity for a positive interaction with its residents.  

Some cities are already using data to capitalize on these assets. In Chicago, a group of Data Science for Social Good fellows from the University of Chicago brought together data about building records, census data and blood tests to identify the houses most at risk for lead contamination. In Pittsburgh, Carnegie Mellon University is working with the Department of Public Works to optimize snow plow routes, to clear the streets of snow and return service as quickly as possible. There is one unifying resource that both of these cities have successfully tapped: students. 

The idea of being “smart” is not about how many sensors are embedded in a city’s streets, it’s largely about how well a city uses its unique assets to build partnerships and “expand the pie” without spending more taxpayer dollars. Students, driven by a desire to work for a cause that they believe in, can play an important role in helping cities work smarter, helping to reimagine essential government services in the 21st century.