Interview Questions for Program Managers

One of the top posts on this site is Interview Questions for Project Managers. I bet some of you are interviewing for program managers, too. Here’s a little guidance for how to interview for those jobs.

A program manager is a strategic job. Remember, a program is a collection of projects where the business value arises from the delivery of all of the projects. The program manager has to collaborate across the organization, use influence, negotiate, coordinate, and most of all see when the reality of the program does not fit the wishful thinking of the desired results. That’s when the program manager needs to do some problem-solving with the project managers and the core team (the cross-functional team from across the organization) to deliver the program. This is a challenging job.

A couple of caveats: Make sure you ask behavior-description questions. Those questions will help you see the candidate’s most recent behavior. And, ask what the candidate learned from these experiences. You might be surprised.

  • Tell me about a recent program you managed. What was your role? (You want to know if the candidate was the overall program manager, the software program manager, or something else. This is a closed question, but I have heard many answers. Get the data!)
  • How large was the program? It’s another closed question. (Different size programs require different management styles. So do different organizations.)
  • Did you have a program charter? If so, how did you charter the program? (First question is closed, second question is behavior-description.)
  • Tell me about a problem on the program you encountered. What happened? (Every program has problems. Or risks. This should be good for a good 10 minutes of conversation.)
  • What was driving your program?
  • Tell me about meeting with your sponsors.
  • What metrics did you use to manage your program?

If you have a software program manager, ask about continuous integration or lack thereof. “Tell me how your program brought all the features together.”

If your program manager is agile, ask these questions:

  • How large was the program? This may make a difference for how the program manager decided to organize the program. A three-team program has more options than a 43-team program.
  • What organizing principle did you use? (Did the program manager use Scrum of Scrums, kanban, SAFe, small world networks, traditional program management, something else? There is No Right Answer. Please. There is No Right Answer. It’s every program for itself.) Why? (This is the real question. You want to know why. The program manager will discuss the culture, how agile the organization really is, what the people are capable of. This is the meat of the answer. Let the candidate talk. If the candidate doesn’t know about any organizing principles, you have a larger problem.
  • Was there a time you thought the program was stuck? What happened?
  • Was there a time you thought the program was going “too fast?” What happened?
  • What was driving your program?
  • Tell me about meeting with your sponsors.
  • What metrics did you use to manage your program?

These are just some of the questions. You will need to do a job analysis for your program manager to see which other questions to ask. You’ll need to look at your culture to see what else makes sense for your culture. Read Hiring Geeks That Fit for a full description on how to hire anyone, including project and program managers.

P.S. Are you a Program Manager looking for a job? I have a post about Six Tips for Answering Project Manager and Program Manager Interview Questions. Also read 4 Tips for Preparing for a Project or Program Manager Interview and 4 More Tips to Answering Project Manager Interview Questions About Metrics.

MYJS_border.150And, read Manage Your Job Search for how to project-manage your job search and find a job you love.

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28 Comments

  1. Krishna

    Hi Johanna
    Many thanks for your post. I am preparing for the Programme Manager interview which is scheduled next week. Do you have good sample answers for the above questions?
    Kind Regards
    Krish

    Reply
    • johanna

      Hi Krish,

      I’m not sure I understand how to reply to your question. These are behavior-description questions. There is no typical or correct answer.

      You see these questions. Now, answer them, using your experience. That’s all.

      Reply
  2. Mohammed Shahjahan

    Hi Johanna,

    Trust you are doing fine.

    I’m preparing for Senior Project Manager role which is scheduled next week on Tuesday 19th November,2013.Kindly provide and send me sample questions and answers and I will try to fit in according to my project experience.As I’m presently working as a Senior Principal Consultant as a CRM Functional role…so I need to relate my experience and narrate to the questions being asked during the interview.

    So,I would appreciate if you could send me some sample questions with answers to [removed]

    Thanks in advance.

    Cheers
    Shahjahan

    Reply
    • johanna

      Hi Shahjahan,

      Here’s the deal. When an interviewer asks you behavior-description questions, as these are, there are no sample answers. These are the sample questions.

      I clearly need to write a summary post that explains how to define your value.

      Reply
  3. Anitha Goagoses

    Dear Johanna

    am going for the project manager position, can you send me questions and answers conserning this interview?

    Reply
    • johanna

      Hi Anitha, You should read Manage Your Job Search. It’s still in beta right now (early December 2013), but my job is to finish it this year.

      You need to learn to articulate your value. I have a post about this in my queue to write.

      Reply
  4. Sandeep

    Those were very good questions. They help not just the interviewee but the interviewer as well. Thanks.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Sandeep, thank you. Yes, almost any question that helps the candidate will help the interviewer, too. It’s part of my nefarious plot to make hiring better on both sides of the table! (That was humor there, in case you couldn’t tell.)

      Reply
  5. Prashant

    Johanna,

    Those are some nice questions. However I see that it most suitable for candidates who already have a program/project management profile. Most of the questions requires a reflection of previous experiences as program/project manager.

    How about someone who was an individual consultant and would like to get into a sub-executive, program management job (well, just assume that they do have right expertise for the new job but no previous experience)? What are the real challenges do you see such people might face during interview?

    Thanks for the post!

    Reply
    • johanna

      Hi Prashant,

      Oh, I love it when people ask me these questions. It’s tricky, but not impossible to move laterally. Let me write a different blog post and link to it from here. I need to think more and give you a good answer.

      Reply
      • rahul ravindran

        Hi Johanna,

        I was working in Qa team for three years.Later on i moved to program management team.So people start asking me many questions reason for moving from technical to management.I am not able to answer what they asked.There are people saying no scope in program management. Jhonanna i know what i have updated in blog is not understanding to you.But just want to know being scrum master and following agile methodology work is good or bad and is there any good career growth.Please reply

        Reply
        • johanna

          HI Rahul, here are some answers, if I understand you correctly.

          1. If people ask why you move from a technical role to a management role, answer them. For *me*, I explained that I was looking for other challenges. I liked organizing work so people could deliver value. I liked solving problems in the program “system,” as opposed to technical problems. You might have different reasons.

          2. There is plenty of scope in program management! (See Agile and Lean Program Management: Scaling Collaboration Across the Organization.)

          3. If you have been a Scrum Master for several years, you might be ready for different responsibilities. I’m not so sure what you’re asking here. Sorry.

          If you struggle with these questions, you should read Manage Your Job Search, or read the posts in the category “agile job search” on the blog.

          Best wishes to you.

          Reply
  6. Steven Brinson

    This is the sort of service mentality that makes a difference. Thank you so much for spending time in this area.

    Reply
    • johanna

      Steven, my pleasure.

      Reply
  7. Karthik

    Good Job!
    And for people requesting for answers please understand these questions are conversation starters, if you cant answer these questions and are actually looking for the “Right” answers, then you are in the wrong direction.
    Whats important is to understand that these questions are open ended and are put in front to open up more questions related to what you actually did. So my suggestion is to keep in mind that any answer you give could (and will) turn into a question or call for more explanation, so please be careful in what you say (do not lie!).

    Reply
    • johanna

      Karthik, yes, you got it!

      I love the part where you say, “Do not lie.” This is where you define your value to the interviewer.

      Reply
  8. Raj

    Hi Johanna

    Liked your article., And really appreciate for NOT answering the questions asked above. Behavioral questions are asked to identify one’s real personality/attitude/problem solving skills/adhoc decision making abilities…. It doesn’t come by memorizing the answers, so thanks for not answering…. 🙂

    Thanks
    Raj

    Reply
    • johanna

      HI Raj,

      Glad you liked it. Yes, when you answer behavior-description questions you have to answer them from your experience. It’s my pleasure to not answer 🙂

      Reply
  9. SS

    I understand they are open ended questions; however, from the tone of other comments I gather that the readers believed they would get more out of the article. My expectations were the same. For instance, the last question about metrics used to manage programs could have been more helpful if a few examples of metrics were also added to the article. Small detail that further clarify the point will help transform the message to a more complete, and stronger guide.

    Reply
    • johanna

      HI SS,

      Yes, some people would have received benefit from answers. I don’t see how to provide answers to open-ended behavior-description questions. You do ask a very interesting question, the last one about metrics. I will write another post to answer that.

      Reply
  10. Chanakya

    Johanna, I have interviewed recently couple of resources for program manager role .What I observed was, they are confident talking about the team size, resources etc, but when I did a deep dive on program size in terms of FPs or even hours they could not correlate the size of program to the team size they talk about. Also with respect to the revenue and cost particulars. Just posting my experience in the interest of readers here.

    Reply
    • johanna

      HI Chanakya, hmm. I don’t often track hours or function points (is that what your FP means?). I talk about the number of full-time people and when those people start and end on the program. I never measure function points or person-hours.

      That’s because I insist on no multi-tasking. (Production/product support is a necessary part of work, and if we don’t make it transparent, we never know how much time people spend on it.)

      I measure feature throughput or feature set throughput over time. Customers don’t buy function points or story points. They buy features.

      I also don’t measure revenue from the product release. That’s always been someone else’s job 🙂 I realize you might have to look for revenue recognition mid-program.

      Isn’t it interesting how different we all are?

      Reply
  11. Laxmi

    Hi Johanna,
    Thanks for the post. Surprisingly I was asked most of the questions listed here in my previous interview, I wish I should have seen it earlier.
    I am a developer with 9+ years of experience and willing to move to program management track. I have attended only 1 interview till date on this track but couldn’t get through.
    The feedback was not shared with me, but what I felt was, I was answering the questions more likely sticking to my individual contributor role due to the extensive experience I had. But I would really like to expand my knowledge and thinking into the horizons of an active program manager.
    Can you please help with a guide for people like me and also give an insight about expectations from an IC moving to this position.

    Reply
    • johanna

      HI Laxmi, if you want to become a program manager, know that “program manager” means different things to different people.

      Some people use “program manager” when they mean project manager. I suggest you take a look at Manage It! Your Guide to Modern, Pragmatic Project Management for ideas about how to be a great project manager.

      If they mean program manager as in “the person who coordinates many projects for one deliverable”, take a look at Agile and Lean Program Management: Scaling Collaboration Across the Organization. As of now (July 2015), the book is in beta. I am planning to finish it sometime in the fall of 2015.

      If you encounter other questions, let me know what you see and hear. I would love to improve this list.

      Reply
  12. Sunny Hope

    Thanks a lot Johanna for this wonderful post. As insightful as the post is, there is,equally,a wealth of knowledge in the comments of your readers and your replies. I gave 2 interviews recently for a Program Manager’s role (but without success) and found the nature of questions similar to what you have mentioned. Think I need to prepare better before I head to the next interview. 🙂
    Btw, for the benefit of your readers – here are some questions that were put before me:
    1. Describe a recent program that you managed? What were your roles and responsibilities? [There were many interjections in-between to understand whether it was really a program that I was managing or a project].
    2. What were the major challenges that you faced and how did you overcome them?
    3. What was the overall value of the program that you managed?
    4. What is my level of expertise with FTFP and T&M?
    5. Some questions of Estimations, Client Communications, Reporting, Stakeholder Management, People Management.

    Thanks.
    Sunny

    Reply
    • johanna

      Hi Sunny, glad you found this post helpful.

      What is FTFP? Is T&M Time and Materials or something else?

      Reply
      • Srini Gundala

        As per my understanding FTFP means Fixed Time Fixed Price and T&M means Time and Material, these are some of the engagement models of project management.

        Reply
        • johanna

          Thanks, Srini.

          Reply

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