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Are You Ready for Your Program Manager Interview?

interview tips Aug 05, 2021

I spent three of my five years at Google recruiting Program Managers. These roles have a level of complexity that exceeds most other positions. Today, I would like to share my experience and insight to help Program Manager candidates better prepare for the interview process. 

Item #1 – Wearing Multiple Hats

The complexity of the Program Manager’s role in any company forces you to wear multiple hats. Adaptability is a key to having success in these interviews. An additional challenge is knowing what to expect, as the types of questions and subject areas can vary quite a bit. One recommendation I have is to cross-reference Project Manager and Product Manager interview questions. They often overlap with the expectations of a Program Manager.

Product Manager—Should display entrepreneurial skills, be customer focused, have knowledge of the industry, be obsessed with quality, understand return on investment (ROI), and have a visionary mindset.

Project Manager—Should be focused on the fundamentals (scheduling, resources, project scope), understand how to mitigate risk, know how to work with people, and be skilled at conflict/negotiation resolution.

Program Manager—Should display the ability to influence without authority and navigate higher levels of ambiguity because the scope of their role is broader. We will cover this topic more later on in the article.

Item #2 – Program Manager Methodology

In my experience at Google, Program Manager roles do not require knowledge of a specific Project Management methodology. However, candidates are expected to know one or more methodologies. You should read the job description and know if the company prefers Agile, Scrum, another methodology, or none at all. This is also a question you can ask during the interview if it is not clear in the job descriptions.

You can’t be rigid in your approach. You have to show that you can work on multiple projects, interact with multiple teams and be flexible whenever it is required. Focus on examples that show a commitment to “getting things done” as opposed to a singular approach.

Item #3 – Problem Solving

This is obviously a critical skill for any position, but it is even more important for a Project Manager. Throughout the interview, you want to look for opportunities to talk about examples of how you identified, developed, structured, implemented, solved and monitored the success of a given program or project. Though your examples may be complex, make your responses as structured and as concise as possible.

Item #4 Leadership

Your interviewers are going to spend a significant amount of time focused on your leadership skills. Here are the qualities and skills that are generally the most important from a leadership perspective:

  • Communication
  • Innovation
  • Motivation
  • Working on a Shared Vision
  • Ability to Delegate
  • Building Trust
  • Building Teams
  • Conflict Resolution
  • Decision Making
  • Negotiation
  • Coaching
  • Presentation 

Item #5 – Data Driven

Program Managers must also be heavily driven by data and metrics. It’s important to know your numbers and come prepared with multiple examples of how you drove positive results. The key word here is “drive.” Show them how you drove your programs/projects forward.

Item #6 – Navigating Ambiguity

This is where the ability to influence without authority is key. There are many unknowns, but you have to show you are ready for anything that can and will happen. This includes understanding an ever-changing technological landscape and preparing to be tested on this subject matter. Have multiple examples prepared for how you navigated ambiguity in past program management roles.

Item #7 – Adaptability/Flexibility/Fungibility

We all know programs change, and Program Managers will have to adapt. Share examples of situations where there was a large scheduling, budget, process, strategy or technology change. Talk about how you responded, how others responded and how you maintained influence throughout the changes.

Item #8 – Domain/Technical

Like any other interview, you will need to navigate both behavioral and open-ended questions. Beyond just exhibiting the skills needed to be a great program manager, you will need to tie it back to the domain and technical scale needed for success in the role.

Find out as much as you can from the job description and the hiring manager/Recruiter. Domain topics will vary greatly depending on the specific role, but some technical topics to consider are system design, architecture and technical specifications/fundamentals.  

There are a number of items to consider when interviewing for these roles and I hope these basic tips will help you. For more information on this topic, check out my full YouTube video at the link below:

If you need help preparing for your Program Manager interview or any other leadership role, check out the Practice Interviews YouTube Channel or sign up on our website for updates and an introductory coaching consultation.

Jeff H. Sipe

Jeff has interviewed over 1000 people in his career and previously spent five years working at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. You likely found Jeff through YouTube and you will find the same level of dedication in his one on one practice interview sessions.

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