Traits to look for in PMs
PM Clinic: Week 23 discussion summary
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.
- 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
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
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:
- They're lying.
- They had zero responsibly on those projects
- 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
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)
- 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
David Gorbet, Fasial Jawdat, Andrew Stellman, Steven Levy, Scott Berkun (editor)
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