Technical program management (TPM), or the management of IT-related projects, is a hybrid career field that requires a unique blend of art, science and craft. Given the complexity of managing multiple interdependent projects, candidates must possess not only sufficient technical knowledge but also the ability to communicate clearly, solve problems and embrace ambiguity. During any job interview, recruiters and hiring managers will ask questions designed to evaluate the candidate’s aptitude in all these areas.
Below, we’ve assembled a list of commonly asked interview questions for TPMs, along with some tips for formulating great responses.
Walk me through the steps you would take to implement a program successfully.
Most candidates are familiar with the best practices and control processes to bring a program to fruition, explained Kumar Saurabh, senior engineering program manager, instructor and author of “27 Program Management Interview Techniques.”
But to Saurabh, the greatest predictor of success in the role (and what he looks for) is structure, flow and clarity of thought in a candidate’s response. As you prepare for your interview, make sure to review your previous jobs and projects, and make sure you’ve crafted a compelling story that puts your experience and skills in the best possible light.
Tips: In addition to succinctly summarizing their process, top candidates also describe their previous work and link their actions and behaviors to outcomes, Saurabh added. Out of a hundred interviews, he estimates that only one or two candidates describe how they drive projects to meet company objectives, so taking that extra step can definitely set you apart.
What happens when you type a URL into a browser?
Mario Gerard, principal TPM manager, uses this question as a yardstick to measure the depth and breadth of a candidate’s knowledge of technical concepts and processes. “I want to see if someone understands how the entire process works, including how the front-end and back-end of a website interact and connect to a database,” Gerard said.
Of course, this kind of question doesn’t have to focus on URLs and browsers; it could cover any technical process, from turning on a phone to launching an app. The key is to walk the interviewer through a logical, step-by-step process.
Tips: Many candidates simply regurgitate what they read on the internet. A better approach is to interpret what you’ve learned, and share insights and experiences that prove you understand the technical process inside and out.
How would you design a particular system (such as a new tool)?
System design questions are yet another way for hiring managers to evaluate your design skills and technical knowledge. How you answer the question will reveal how you approach problems, communicate, and devise solutions.
Many technical interviews ask candidates to design a solution or even a whole system. Getting the “right answer” isn’t necessarily the most important part, especially if you only have limited time; the interviewer is more interested in your thought process, and whether you’re creative and thorough in your approach. Make sure to explain your steps as you work—and be prepared to defend your decisions.
Tips: The best candidates spend 10 to 15 minutes asking questions and clarifying the goals before suggesting a solution, while the worst candidates jump right in, Gerard said. “Walk me through the reasons and logic behind a particular approach and design,” he added, and be ready to explain the advantages and disadvantages of the solution you chose.”
Walk me through a challenging program that you owned and managed.
Successful program managers take ownership of their work, know how to get results, and lead others even without formal authority. They also know how to impress a hiring manager with their storytelling skills. How do they do it?
Tips: Set the stage by providing an overview of the scope and complexity of the project, then describe the challenges you encountered around risk, conflict, lack of trust and so forth. Finally, show that you’re not only capable but a cultural fit by describing how you used integrity, persuasion and negotiation to “unblock” obstacles, support the team, and deliver outcomes.
How do you decide which metrics to track and share with stakeholders?
Program managers shouldn’t follow a “one-size-fits-all” approach when it comes to communicating with dashboards and data. Show the interviewer that you grasp which metrics are important, and why. Remember, there’s a huge difference between a “vanity metric” that doesn’t impact the company’s broader goals, and a real metric that can make an appreciable difference to the business.
Tips: Communicating with stakeholders isn’t just a task, it’s a strategic activity. To win over a hiring manger, explain how you tailor the type, volume and frequency of metrics reporting to audiences with different functional expertise. Different divisions (finance, marketing, operations, engineering, HR, etc.) can also have wildly different information needs.
You work in food service and notice that dishes adorned with onions are being sent back. How would you go about solving this problem?
When senior TPM Rion Angeles asks the “onion” question, he’s looking for hybrid skills and a multi-level approach to problem solving. “I like to see where they go with it, how they pick the problem apart, and how flexible they are in considering (and validating) an array of solutions,” Angeles explained.
Tips: The ideal candidate will approach any such problem in a customer-centric, process-centric, behavior-centric and a product-centric way—plus they will consider change management in developing a solution.
How did you go about recommending a tech stack for a recent project?
Asking this question reveals two things. In a broad sense, a candidate reveals their technical depth and ability to pick up technical concepts (ideally, they’ll explain the factors they consider before recommending particular platforms or tools). They also divulge key skills such as how they communicate (and support) engineers, as well as how they “push back” against things they don’t think are right.
Tips: Make sure to explain the positives and negatives behind your choices for the tech stack. Also, take the opportunity to show off your “soft skills” by explaining how you would sell your decisions to others within the organization.
How do you handle dependencies in cross-functional teams?
Dependency management is one of the most crucial and complicated processes for program managers, because if a piece is missing, you can’t launch a product on time.
Tips: Saurabh says that program management is about getting ordinary people to come together to build extraordinary things. In addition to mentioning tracking, documentation or other practices for managing dependencies, make sure to explain how you go about understanding and balancing differing perspectives and goals. It’s key to use communication, empathy and negotiation to get stakeholders to unite and complete tasks on time.