Published: July 31, 2020

Solid project management has revolutionized the global workplace. It drives innovation, boosts ROI, and increases customer satisfaction in organizations of all sizes. And, like many a revolution, today’s project management best practices started with a rebellion. 

Brent PhillipsPrior to World War II, many of the largest projects were undertaken by militaries and governments. The projects were big, complex and could take decades to complete. Many people involved in these projects began to question the status quo, wondering if there could be a better way to get things done. Thus, began the transformation of cumbersome and disorganized processes into documented and efficient ones. That’s just part of the storied history of modern-day project management (PM) you’d hear if you were to strike up a conversation with Brent Phillips, Associate Director of Project and Portfolio Management in the Office of Information Technology at CU Boulder.

Forms of organized teamwork have been around for millennia (just think of the building of the pyramids, Parthenon, and Great Wall); however, it was the 20th century when project management developed into both a professional discipline and a strategic business function—and an exciting profession. 

“It’s been really interesting to see it evolve over the years,” says Phillips. Prior to his IT role at CU Boulder, he managed teams and projects in the public and private sectors and in industries such as telecommunications, financial services and aerospace. Today, he also brings his decades of real-world experience to the CU Boulder Engineering Management Program (EMP), where he serves as an instructor. 

No matter what your role is in engineering, project management skills and thinking can be, without a doubt, beneficial to your career. In fact, the Project Management Institute (PMI) reports that 69% of senior leaders value project management and that more than half of them require project leaders to hold a related certification

Why Study Engineering Project Management?

While methods and terminology tend to vary by industry, at its heart, project management is about keeping things on time, on budget and on spec. This requires a blend of leadership capability, organizational aptitude, and technical expertise—an in-demand combination of skills at almost any company, but especially in engineering and technology-related organizations. 

As more companies structure (or restructure) themselves around projects, it is common for job descriptions—IT or engineering management positions— to require project management experience and certifications even if the job title is not “Project Manager.”

With this demand in mind, CU Boulder launched its graduate-level Project Management Certificate. This 12-credit certificate focuses on practical application and fulfills the education requirement (35 hours of project management education or training) to sit for the PMI Project Management Professional (PMP) certification exam. Phillips believes the biggest value of earning this designation is that it shows future employers that you have invested the time in project management study and practice that you can “speak the same core language” as other project management professionals. 

The Project Management Certificate has seen a broad range of students: some come straight from an undergraduate program, others are mid-level professionals preparing for advancement, while others are contemplating a career change after decades in a different field. It’s also not uncommon for Phillips to see a member of the military taking advantage one of the programs that allows them to dedicate a year away from active duty to complete a Master’s program. Career goals can be just as varied, from a straightforward project manager role in an engineering services firm to a C-suite position that will benefit from the operational and organizational knowledge and skills that come with an advanced project management certificate. 

Perhaps one of the more compelling reasons for someone to further their project management education is that a “project” is often only one part of a much bigger and more complicated organizational ecosystem. 

Project, Program and Portfolios: Advancing in Engineering Project Management

At its most basic level, Phillips likes the Project Management Institute (PMI) definition of a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” Behind that brief explanation is a broad and exciting field with many methods of project delivery. The title of Phillips’ latest course at CU Boulder EMP, “Advanced Project, Program and Portfolio Management,” illustrates the scope of the profession well. airplane against blue sky

Of these three disciplines, project management is likely what people hear most often, but career opportunities can also extend into program and portfolio management as well. Phillips uses this example of this hierarchy: “An aerospace company might undertake the creation of a new airplane as a program, with multiple projects underneath it focused on the many specific components of the new aircraft (electrical systems, engines, seats, computers, etc). The program to create that aircraft might be part of a portfolio of related aircraft that the company has in its development pipeline.” 

While it’s common to start at the project level, Phillips points out that knowledge of all three areas can lead to expanded career options. “Projects, programs and portfolios each have a set of guides and standards,” he says. “Once you understand one, it’s easier to delve into the others. We give you the ‘scaffolding’, and you can more easily understand each new layer.  Students will tend to focus on the one or two levels that best fit their specific interests and career goals, but they will leave the course with a core understanding of each level.” 

Phillips adds that CU Boulder EMP offers one of the few graduate certificates that includes dedicated time for program and portfolio management content. This comprehensive training can become especially valuable as someone advances in their engineering management career.  “My course covers project, program, and portfolio management best practices with the final lessons providing guidance on how the students could apply the course materials to start a project management office (PMO) in an organization.”

Engineering Project Management Certificate: At a Glance

The 12-credit graduate Project Management Certificate from CU Boulder EMP requires four courses, and students have some flexibility in what they choose; options include systems engineering and aerospace program management. 

Keeping in mind CU Boulder EMP’s emphasis on immediate career application, Phillips and his colleagues endeavor to make the Project Management Certificate course materials and examples as engaging and relatable as possible by sharing their own professional experiences and bringing in noted experts from other industries as well. Adding to the real-world experience is a final, scenario-based project where students bring together everything they’ve learned.  

Shorter in length and lower in cost, graduate certificates are ideal for busy adults who have the desire for specific skills, but not the time (or interest) to complete a master’s degree. 

“The engineering Project Management Certificate is a fantastic way to confirm your interests, hone your skills, and to receive a tangible result from your effort,” says Phillips. 

Another benefit? A graduate project management certificate can also serve as a stepping stone toward an engineering management master’s degree or related Ph.D. program. 

Project Management Skills in Everyday Life

While rooted in more complex use-cases, the concepts of agile project management can be taken to nearly any industry, and knowledge of these practices can even come in handy during everyday-life experiences, such as when faced with making a weighty decision. Phillips notes “In my course I have covered applying project management and ‘agile’ principles to diverse topics like wedding planning, chore boards for kids, choosing the right retirement plan, house improvement shows, and building robots.”  With project management training you have a personal ‘toolbox’ of tools, processes, and best practices that you can apply in a wide variety of useful situations. 

Phillips, who has also taught introductory PM courses, looks forward to those moments where the course content really clicks for his students. “It’s gratifying to hear students say things like ‘Now I understand why our projects have always struggled’ or ‘I guess this isn’t just an IT thing after all’” he says. 

If you would like to learn more about the engineering Project Management Certificate or other CU Boulder EMP options, you can speak with an advisor or request more information. Just visit the CU Boulder EMP website or contact: or call 303.492.0954.