A journey to the ultimate CID designation – PCAM Article by Jamie Hackwith

PCAM Application

Jamie Hackwith, CMCA, AMS, PCAM

 Within the first few days on the job as a new Community Association Manager, I was told that if I wanted to succeed in the Common Interest Development (CID) industry, I should try and work towards obtaining the Professional Community Association Manager (PCAM) designation. At the time, I had no clue what a PCAM was. In my previous life, I sold automotive parts. I had essentially come in to the industry cold and really knew nothing about Common Interest Developments and how they should be managed.

After a few months on the job, I learned that the PCAM designation was the pinnacle of CAI’s professional designations program and is the highest professional recognition available nationwide to managers who specialize in community association management.  I learned that by earning the PCAM, I would join the elite—the select—the best. I was told (by other PCAM designees) that the PCAM is the equivalent of a Master’s degree in our industry.

The PCAM is not for the faint of heart. It takes several years of direct Management experience and countless hours of continuing education to obtain. As of August of 2009, only 1700 managers have earned the PCAM designation nationwide.

This article is geared towards Community Managers who are close to completing the final step towards earning their PCAM designation – The PCAM Case Study.  What is the Case Study? It is a comprehensive examination of an actual community association, combining classroom instruction with an extensive on-site inspection. Managers who attend the Case Study get to explore the community’s profile in depth when they meet with the community’s manager, board of directors, and other key personnel on-site over a two-day period. On the final day, Managers are given ten questions. The questions cover all aspects of Community Management. The final narrative Case Study paper, covering the skills acquired in the PMDP courses, is due within 30 days of completing the Case Study.

Getting Started – Preparing for the Case Study

After attending a few of the M-200 courses, I began to notice familiar faces in the crowd. Several other Orange County based Managers were also in attendance. Over a short period of time, we realized that a group of us (about 10 managers from different Management Firms) were going to complete the M-200 series at around the same time. This meant that we would most likely be attending the same Case Study together. The question was – where would it be held?

Thanks to the hard work and effort by Orange County’s Executive Director, Kathy Gonzalez, were able to schedule a PCAM Case Study in Los Angeles. Attending the Case Study in California was very important for our group of Managers. The reason for this is simple – CAI requires that your Case Study paper be consistent with the law of the state that the Community Association resides.  While it would have been great to complete the Case Study in Hawaii, I felt that my chances of actually passing were better, if I was able to take the Case Study in the state were I lived and managed. As a California Manager, I am more familiar with the California Civil Code and the Davis-Stirling Act that I am with any of Hawaii’s laws.

Before attending the Case Study, I heard many stories from other PCAM’s regarding their experiences. I had heard, for example, the final exam consisted of ten questions and that the Managers would not know what these questions were until late on the second day. I had also heard that several of the completed papers exceeded 100 pages. I could not understand how ten simple questions could translate into 100 plus pages. I was a bit anxious of what to actually expect having never gone through it myself. What should I bring? What should I wear? How long should I expect to spend on the paper?

After hearing similar comments from the other O.C. Managers, we decided to conduct a teleconference with Kirk Watilo, PCAM at the CAI offices. Kirk is a long-time PCAM, he’s a current member of the CAI-OC Board of Directors, and most importantly, he was the head of the PCAM Counsel. Kirk was only too willing to take our questions and was very helpful in helping us prepare for the Case Study. Among other words of advice, Kirk empathized the importance of setting up the meetings we would have with our trusted experts (i.e. Attorney, Auditor, CPA) in advance of the Case Study and the need to get started on the PCAM paper as soon as possible following the Case Study.

The Case Study – Day One

Having completed everything on my preparation checklist, I was ready for the Case Study. In an effort to save some money, a fellow Manager and I decided to car pool up to Los Angeles as opposed to renting a hotel room. We arrived at the Association about 40 minutes early and were able to complete a mini-inspection – taking photos and making note of the unique features of the community. I decided to snap a few photos of the monument sign for later use on the PCAM paper cover page.

After grabbing bagels and coffee, the Managers and I sat down to get started. We were given a spiral binder with all the important documents we would need in order to complete our PCAM paper. This included the Association’s Governing Documents, the most current approved Budget, Financials, Insurance and Audit information, two years worth of Minutes and three different signed contracts/agreements. We were also given a schedule and other important information, which would help us to complete our PCAM paper.

We then spent the next few hours meeting with, and interviewing several key Association personnel, including the Community Association Manager, Board Members and the maintenance staff. We learned about the Association’s history, the issues they were facing and how they operated. I was pleased to note that several Orange County Managers asked many good questions. Since we did not know what the ten questions would be until the end of the 2nd day, it was important for the Managers to ask as many questions as possible up front.

After lunch, the Association’s Manager, along with and the Maintenance Committee chair took the Managers for a much-anticipated tour of the community. The site inspection was especially insightful. There were Managers everywhere. I’m certain that the Owners were wondering what the heck was going on with thirty or more people; all with cameras, taking photos of stuff like the grass, lighting, sidewalks and balconies.  We walked the entire property and then some. It was encouraging to see the attending Managers being helpful with each other by pointing out potential issues and sharing their knowledge. Most everyone has heard the term “The more eyes, the better to see.”  Imagine sixty highly qualified eyes, all trained on the same thing. It was quite a sight to see indeed.

Once we finished inspecting the Association inside and out, we made our way back to the Clubhouse for a few more interviews with key Association Personnel before finishing up for the day.

The Case Study – Day 2

The 2nd day of the case study consisted of a few additional meeting/interviews with key personnel, including the Association’s Legal Counsel. After the interviews, we took a quick break before sitting back down to go over the PCAM Case Study Questions with Facilitator Mike Packard.

The Managers were finally handed the document containing the ten questions for which we would base our PCAM papers on. I’m not certain if the questions are the same for all Case Studies, but I would think that at least a few of them are at least very similar. Without giving away any secrets, I’ll present to you just one of the questions:

“Please review the Associations Governing Documents and the Davis Stirling Act. Make 5 recommended changes, “each,” to the Association’s CC&R’s, By-Laws and Rules & Regulations based on your review of these documents”.

There were also questions relating to the Association’s Minutes, Budget & Financials and the facilities in general. Several of the questions asked us to review specific documents and give our recommendations on how we might improve upon the way things were currently done. After seeing the questions for the first time, I quickly came to understand why the average completed Case Study paper was between 80 and 100 pages in length. The problem (for me at least) would not be what to write about, but the amount of time that I would need in order to put all of those thoughts swimming around in my head onto paper in way that showed the Facilitator I understood what I was talking about. My goal at this point was to create a paper that the Facilitator would want to give to the host Association’s Board of Directors.

After going over the Case Study questions, we said our goodbyes and headed home to start on our papers. 


The Case Study exam

I’m sure that every Manager had their own unique way of approaching the Case Study exam that worked for them. I decided to answer the questions I felt comfortable with first. But before I did that, I made it a point to type out each exam question on it’s on Word document and then type out all the thoughts and Ideas I had for each. I did not focus on grammar or spelling at this point – I just wrote and wrote some more. I also took some time to scan in all the documents I had been given by the Host Association (Governing Documents, Minutes, Contracts, etc) and convert them into text searchable PDF files. I was then able to copy and paste text from these documents directly into my paper as opposed to typing them in manually. This process saved me time and helped me to produce a highly polished and comprehensive paper. Once finished with this process, I went back and organized my thoughts a little more by highlighting and prioritizing key thoughts and ideas that I wanted to expand on later on.

As an experienced Manager, I knew that I could probably answer all ten questions on my own, and with little help from others. However, I wanted to be able to provide solid recommendations in my paper and that is where my experts would come in. Once I organized my thoughts for each question, I highlighted the areas I was not 100% certain of and typed out several questions that I wanted to ask of my experts.

Lining up the Experts

As all Case Study attendees knew, you were allowed to used experts in the industry as long as they were not CAI staff, associated with the host Association in any way, or PCAM’s themselves. Knowing this, I set up lunch meetings with my favorite Attorney and two Insurance Agents that I trust in the industry. I also consulted with a trusted Reserve Study Analyst, Certified Public Accountant (CPA) and my company’s very intelligent accountant.

Having created an outline for each question in advanced, I was able to run my ideas by these very knowledgably people and ask the questions I needed to ask in a very efficient manner. Based on the consultations, I was able to target the specific areas I wanted to focus on for each question.


Completing the exam

Having met with the experts and identifying specific areas I wanted to write about, I took aim at filling in the details of each questions. As noted earlier, I started with questions I felt more comfortable with first. I re-read the GAP Reports I had obtained over the past several years and added additional suggestions to my paper based on these reports, making sure to give proper credit to my sources along the way When finished with a question, I added a few photos to specific areas as a way to emphasize the recommendations I was giving. Once I was happy with the content, I focused in on the grammar and spelling.  Once my paper was complete, I asked an English major friend of mine to proof read the entire paper.

Even though I probably completed 80% of the paper within the first two weeks, it still took until the last days of the 30-day period before I was ready to mail the completed paper to CAI National. Those last two questions; one regarding the Audit, and the other regarding the Financials were the hardest to complete. The Case Study took place around tax season, and I was not able to talk with my trusted CPA until about five days to the exam deadline. If I had not started on my paper immediately after the Case Study as Kirk Watilo had recommended during the teleconference, I am not certain that I would have been able to submit a completed paper on time. While 30 days may sound like a lot of time at first, once you start working on the Case Study paper, you soon realize that it is not.

As mentioned earlier, I was able to mail my Case Study paper about three days before the deadline. I sent two copies of the exam paper via Fed Ex Overnight delivery just to be certain that CAI National would receive it on time.

Getting the Results

It would take several weeks of patience before finding out whether or not I had passed. Before getting the results, I was able to talk with several of the managers I had taken the Case Study with. It was interesting to hear which questions they had trouble with, and how they answered them. I was slightly concerned that perhaps I missed something. Perhaps I gave a bad recommendation, or maybe I misunderstood a question. After talking to the other Managers though, I realized that we all appeared to hit on the same key areas. I really think this says a lot about CAI’s education and the fact the Orange County has some great Management Companies. Companies that take education seriously enough to allow their Managers to attend the great classes offered by CAI.

Within about three weeks, I received an email from CAI National congratulating me on passing the Case Study. All I could think of was that I was glad it was over. This was it! After five long years working towards this goal, I had finally achieved the highest professional recognition a Community Manager could obtain. I was both relieved and ecstatic beyond words. I soon discovered that my fellow Orange County based Managers has also passed the exam. This is just another reason to give credit to CAI and especially the Orange County Chapter for the great support they give to their Managers and the fine education they offer.

Having gone five years without a new PCAM, Orange County now has 11 of them. I’m hearing that several other Orange County based Managers are getting close to obtaining their PCAM designation as well. Hopefully by 2010, we might have another 10 or so.

Tips for a successful PCAM Case Study experience

For those that are getting ready for the PCAM Case Study, I offer these tips to help guide you through the process: 

Before the Case Study:

  • Read, and re-read the PMDP course material you received over the years
  • Obtain and read all of the Generally Accepted Practice (GAP) reports.
  • Read the “Best Practices” articles located on CAI’s web site
  • Set up lunch meetings with your Experts in advance.
  • Buy a good pair of comfortable walking shoes. Remember, you will be completing a site observation. Dress comfortably.
  • Purchase a good digital camera and voice recorder. Keep extra batteries on hand.
  • Inform your Board Members. Let them know what you’re trying to accomplish. Most Board Members will appreciate the fact teat you are trying to make yourself a better Manager for them and will work with you during this time.
  • If possible, have your meetings covered by another Manager during the exam period. You will need as much un-interrupted time to complete your paper as you can get.


During the Case Study:

  • Arrive at the Association early
  • Ask lots of questions. Remember, you will be asked to give recommendations based on what you see and hear. I was actually surprised at the number of attendees that did not ask questions. Don’t be shy. Ask questions.
  • Record all interviews with the Association’s Board, Attorney, Manger, etc.
  • While walking the community, record your observations. Make note of what your fellow Managers are seeing as well. They may spot something that you would otherwise miss.
  • Take a lot of photos. Not just photos of violations or maintenance issues, but also photos of various amenities the Association has. You might want to take a photo of the Association’s monument sign for your paper’s cover page for example.
  • On the first day of the Case Study, Managers will be given a large, spiral bound book with the Association’s Governing Documents, and other important documentation, such as Minutes, contracts, budgets, etc. Ask the PCAM Facilitator if it would be possible to obtain PDF copies of these documents as well. This will make it easier to reference once it comes time to prepare your paper.


After the Case Study (Exam time):

  • Do not delay. Get to work immediately! You will be glad you did.
  • Create an outline for each question first, and then fill in the details later. You will have a lot of ideas on how you want to answer each of the ten questions you are given. As opposed to focusing all your time on one question to begin with. Write down all of your thoughts under each question subsection. Once you have all your thoughts organized, then feel free to go back and expand on them later.
  • When you are ready to craft and polish your paper, start with the easiest question first.
  • Prepare questions for the experts.
  • Meet with your experts. At the very least, you will want to schedule lunch meetings with your most trusted Attorney, CPA and Insurance agent. You may also want to consult with a trusted Reserve Study Analyst as well as a Landscape, Pool and/or General contractor.
  • Don’t give up! You may come to a point, where you are so stressed that you feel like throwing in the towel. Just remember what it is that you are trying to achieve. Be sure to take some time away from the exam. Go outside and stretch or go for a swim. Relax! But don’t quite on yourself.

  – Have questions about how to get your PCAM, click here

3 Responses to “A journey to the ultimate CID designation – PCAM Article by Jamie Hackwith”
  1. Christy Barber says:

    Thanks for the good information. I read this before taking my case study in May and just found out yesterday I passed!

  2. francisco foschi says:

    Thank you so much for taking the time to put this information out there. It was EXTREMELY helpful to know what was I getting into and also your tips on how to approach it. I just found out today that I passed…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 38 other subscribers
  • Blog Stats

    • 154,063 hits
  • Contact Us

    Amber Property Management 27261 Las Ramblas, Suite 100 Mission Viejo, CA 92691 General email mark@amberpm.com and or tracey@amberpm.com Office (949) 429-5831 Fax (949) 429-5933
%d bloggers like this: