Traits to look for in PMs

PM Clinic: Week 23 discussion summary

Compiled: 4/7/2005

The Question:

You've been tasked with interviewing candidates for an open PM position in the company. What do you look for in internal candidates (lateral move / promotion, etc?) What do you look for in external candidates (via a recruiter, etc?)

Extra Credit: You're the PM who gets to interview an engineering candidate. What do you look for?

Hiring is never easy:

  • Berkun and others mentioned how complicated hiring is. Traits are one thing, and fit for team and organization is another. There's also passion, enthusiasm and a dozen other factors that in combination makes someone a suitable hire for a particular job.
  • There is a big difference between knowing what traits you want and identifying them in an interview.
  • You have to balance out many potentially competing factors: fit for now, fit for the future, their happiness and potential for growth given their interests and talents.

Internal candidates:

  • I'd look for demonstrations of intelligence and drive. Do their peers respect them? Do the engineers and testers that work with them think highly of them, and would choose to work with them again? If they're an internal candidate I'd take as much information as I can from all the people who have actually worked with the candidate.
  • If there was a project manager or team leader that worked with them in the past I'd want their impressions. Did they think of this person as having the traits or skills needed to be a project manager?

Understanding the role:

  • Do they really understand how different the project manager role is from their previous experience? Do you believe they are emotionally ready to be accountable for things they don't have complete control over?
  • Are they interested or skilled in how to put themselves in the place of customers, extrapolating from various sources of data to design and manage the making of software that will be used by dozens (or thousands) of people?
  • Do they enjoy collaboration? Do they get excited about making other people look good (who deserve it)? Can they handle delivering bad news or talking the fall for their team?

Questions to ask:

There's a wide range of skills needed to lead projects. These questions are not a complete list of things you'll need to ask, but they hit on some of the core traits.

  • In your experience, what causes things to go wrong?
  • How do you get people to work effectively together?
  • When do you know you don't know the answer to something? What do you do about it?
  • How do you define success for a project?
  • What are the leading causes of software bugs / defects? Schedule slips? Unhappy customers? Cost over-runs? Products that don't sell well?
  • What information do you usually gather before building a schedule?
  • When a project runs into serious problems (and all good PMs have faced this predicament), how did you handle it? What was the root cause of the problem?
  • How do you usually track an ongoing project?
  • Do you gather metrics? If so, what measurements do you gather?
  • What is the best project team you've ever worked on? What made it so good? How do try to replicate this on teams you manage?
  • Design something that solves a specific problem, and allows you to probe their ability to think about the customer, engineering and business perspectives. (Levy offered this example: "Design aloud and on a white board the algorithm for how an elevator services requests in a ten-story building. (Don't sweat aligning with a floor or opening the door; simply describe how you figure out which requests get serviced in which order".)

And when interviewing for team leader / project management roles always emphasize their experience, and getting them to talk about it.

There's nothing worse than the candidate who likes to tell you how perfectly everything has gone for them on previous projects. This always means one of three things:

  1. They're lying.
  2. They had zero responsibly on those projects
  3. They're on drugs or insane.

On the other hand, there's nothing better than a candidate that honestly explains what went wrong on a project, how they approached solving it, what the results were (both the good and the bad), and what they would do differently next time. Although some candidates can present these stories in ways that seem awfully packaged and prefabricated, if you ask good questions you'll force them into new places where they have to really think about it.

Happiness vs. Success:

  • Will they be both happy in the role you're hiring for and successful? It's possible for people to be successful and un-happy, and unsuccessful (from your perspective) and happy.
  • To be happy, they'll need to enjoy working on fuzzy problems like conflict resolution, leadership, planning and design. They'll need to enjoy working on things that are big, and not entirely in their control.
  • To succeed, they'll need to be smart, good communicators, sensitive to the differences between people, have an interest in team politics, be good at debate, be good at various kinds of problem solving, likes to get their hands dirty, are comfortable making tough decisions, and have an interest in many different aspects of software development and business.


David Gorbet, Fasial Jawdat, Andrew Stellman, Steven Levy, Scott Berkun (editor)

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