Project manager interview questions you should be prepared for

By - 13 Sep 2017

Project Manager job interview questions

I’m no stranger to project manager job interviews. Between full-time job searching years ago and chats with agency owners for contract work now, I’ve had my fair share of discussions about my experience, work style, philosophy, and project history over my career.

While interviews can be a tedious exercise, they’re also a great time to be able to evaluate the company you might be working with and the position you’re hoping to be hired for. I’ve often found that the best indicator of a good fit are the type of questions I am asked in an interview—and what kind of conversation sparks out of those.

“The questions asked during project management job interviews are also a great indicator of potential red flags within a company”

The questions asked during project management job interviews are also a great indicator of potential red flags within a company, especially surrounding their project management practices. The worst interview I ever had was for a somewhat-established, all-remote development agency hiring their first project manager. My interview was with the founder of the company, but struck me as bizarre and ended up with me turning down the opportunity to interview further. The questions posed to me during that interview included asking me if I thought certain budgets and timelines were reasonable to work within (spoiler alert: all of them seemed very tight given the project descriptions), and ended without a single question asked about my project history, process, or experience. I felt like they were looking for someone to justify their expectations of project needs and nothing we talked about indicated actual interest and understanding in project management as a profession—which really made me concerned!

Good interview questions feel more like conversation starters

Conversely, the best interviews I’ve had have felt more like conversations and really center around the importance of project management in the work that a company does and how that will aid or fit into their process. The conversations I have in an interview are a huge factor that I consider when I consider joining a team or project myself. I want to know that my position will be valued, that I’ll be able to contribute to the team, and that there’s space for project management in general at the company.

The best project management interview questions I’ve been asked

I’ve compiled a shortlist of the best questions I’ve been asked in a job interview, along with the thought process that goes into my answers for each of them. These questions have not only helped me share the most important pieces of information about my work, but have also led to great discussions about the potential role, background about the team I’m interviewing for, and project context for the types of projects I’d be managing. They’ve built confidence and created excitement about the work or roles I’ve interviewed for, and are great indicators to me of teams that I want to be a part of. Regardless of which side of the table you’re seated, they should offer a helpful guide for your next interview.

1. “How would you address our current project pain(s)?”
I used to find this question annoying—was my interviewer just trying to get free information out of me, or would I offend anyone by answering this truthfully? Now that I’ve had time to experience interacting with many project teams and dealing with all sorts of process issues, I can really appreciate the question. When an interviewer tells me about a process or project issue they’re experiencing, it can show me that they’re aware of the pains that exist on their team. When they ask me what I would do to address this, it demonstrates that they’re open to change and are actively interested in feedback from a someone who might be familiar with this issue.

“When an interviewer tells me about a process or project issue they’re experiencing, it can show me that they’re aware of the pains that exist on their team.”

I’ve stopped worrying about giving out advice and offending anyone when answering this question—I can’t exactly offer a precise thought or solution since I’m only interviewing for the position. But I can take the opportunity to explain similar situations I’ve been a part of, and how I went about finding a solution or being a part of a solution that worked well for my work as a project manager.

2. “Tell us about a project you would consider a failure.”
While success/failure questions are definitely stereotypical interview questions, they actually say a lot about me as a candidate—and they can also be turned into a great opportunity to learn more about the team I’m interviewing with, too. By explaining what I define as a failure, I’m communicating my own management philosophy and can take the chance to talk about what I’ve done to re-examine those points of failure on a project and work with my process to help change that moving forward. For example, I might consider a project a failure if my team comes out of the work exhausted and burned out, even if it launched on-time and on-budget. Being able to explain why I consider these things failures (and how they might have gotten to those points) says a lot about my views on project processes and what can be learned from each project I work on.

“Success/failure questions can be turned into a great opportunity to learn more about the team I’m interviewing with”

Identifying what I consider a project failure gives me a chance to talk about my strengths in adapting to issues and insight into project processes as a whole. It’s also a good way for me to turn the question back to my interviewer and ask them what they consider a project failure on their team—and if they have any project processes or feedback loops to help deal with those if they occur. In asking this, I can learn a lot about how or what might be considered a failure on this new team and if there is a positive, motivating culture supporting the project team.

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3. “What do you think is most important in a project?”
When I have a chance to talk about what’s most important in a project, I can talk about the data-based elements like project metrics, launch dates and budgets—showing that I’m aware of the importance of tracking these areas on a project and using the tools and processes available to me to leverage that information. But I can also talk more about my views on communication, project methodologies, client happiness and education and team health. Project management covers a huge range of activities and information—there is so much work we do beyond budgets, resource allocation and time management. When I talk about what I find important on a project, it’s an easy way for me to express an understanding of the basics of project management in order to successfully hit numerical project goals, but also gives me a chance to talk about the skills I bring to the table beyond that.

Getting an understanding of what the project team I’m interviewing with considers important is helpful for me too. If all a team cares about is hitting a deadline and budget, they might not be that invested in continuous team improvement or career growth over time. But if my interviewer and I can connect on other major factors for success on projects, I can gain a better understanding of their overall project philosophy and support.

Use interviews as an opportunity to evaluate the interviewing companies

Job interviews can be tough—between the work it takes to get there and the vulnerability in interviewing, it’s not the most fun process to go through. However, I’ve found that these questions above have not only given me a great chance to explain my work as a project manager, but also a chance to evaluate the companies I might be interviewing with for a position.

Questions like those I’ve listed above have definitely helped me make the most of my project experience during the interview process—so much project management work is contextual, and this can be difficult to express on a resume or job application alone. These questions have also helped me weed out potentially bad fits for my work and my project experiences. If these questions don’t come up during an interview, it’s a great time to turn them around and ask to find out more about the company I’m talking with—and hopefully this can help you in your next job search, too!

Natalie Semczuk is a freelance remote project manager specializing in processes, project managing web development, and operations management.