Project Management

Hiring a project manager: When technical skills play second fiddle

Andy Weeks needed to hire a project manager quickly, but no one had the unique technical skills this new position required. Learn Andy's strategy for finding the best candidate.


A few weeks ago, I was faced with what seemed a fairly mundane task—hiring a new project manager. I have done this a number of times before, but for some reason, hiring for this particular position was more difficult than most.

I’d like to share with you how we handled the task of finding the right new hire. I will outline how we approached the position and the criteria we used for evaluating candidates.

Define the position
The first step was to define exactly what we were looking for in a project manager. What made filling this position more difficult was that we were creating a new assistant project manager (APM) position for rolling out completely new technology. There was no one out there with experience doing exactly what we were getting ready to do. As a result, we needed to think in terms of general skills and grow the specific technical skills around them.

For this particular project, the APM would be responsible for coordinating multiple rollout teams in the field. These teams would be in constant communication with the APM, who in turn would be communicating project progress to the client representative. In this case, I decided to focus on finding someone who had strong project management skills, preferably in a field-force environment, but not necessarily any technical project experience.

This is actually a pretty good strategy for hiring project managers overall. My experience tells me that solid project management skills are much more important (and conversely harder to find) than the specific technical skills related to the project. For example, I have seen project managers in the construction and medical fields successfully make the transition to running technology projects, while I have seen excellent technical people fail when moving into managing projects very similar to the ones they have successfully worked in the past.

No luck finding a certified project manager?
Anyone can call himself or herself a project manager (and many do). I believe that PMI PMP certification (Project Management Institute’s Project Management Professional) is a surefire indicator of solid project management skills and training. Check out my recent article about the PMI PMP.

The ratio of PMPs to positions is astoundingly low, and as a result, the salaries PMPs can demand is commensurately high. In this case, the project budget (and project timing) dictated that limiting the candidate pool to PMPs was unrealistic. In such a situation, I tend to look at two key areas when examining candidates: experience and personal work habits.

Gauging experience
I believe that past experience is the best indicator of future performance. When looking at resumes, interviewing candidates, and checking references, probe for specific project management experience.

Many people will list project management on their resumes when in fact they were managing a very small project team indeed: Themselves. Get the details on project scope. A good project manager will at least roughly remember the dollar value of the projects they have managed, as well as the size of the project teams.

Someone who answers, “I wasn’t really involved in the budget side of things,” or throws numbers at you that don’t jive (like a three-person team pulling off a $10 million project) may be overreaching.

Here are a few background questions that are especially valuable:

What methodologies have you successfully used in the past?

Someone who enumerates the names of software packages in response to this question or replies with, “None of the canned ones work for me, so I use a methodology I personally developed” (don’t laugh, I’ve heard it more than you can imagine) may be pulling your chain.

What documentation do you find most useful?

Again, someone who lists GANTT charts or PERT charts in response may not have the depth you are looking for. Don’t immediately count them out, but probe more deeply, asking them why those documents are helpful.

Can you describe a project that went bad?

Experienced project managers have all had projects with problems. If they can’t relate a story, be wary. In fact, how project managers responded to problems is perhaps the best indicator of their skill.

Determining skills and attributes
If you are looking for someone who is ready to move into project management but may not have specific project experience, you’ll need to consider other attributes.

For one thing, good project managers are organized. In the past, I’ve used various approaches to help determine a candidate’s organizational skills, including:

Tell me what your desk looks like, both inside and out.

Someone who is meticulous about his or her desk will tell you so. Look for responses such as, “I like to make sure my desk is cleared (or filed or organized) before I leave for the day,” or, “I pile things but know exactly where everything is.”

Show me your calendar.

Organized people, as a rule, keep excellent calendars. You might ask about their approach to time management as well.

Tell me about a time when you were surrounded in chaos.

How they respond to chaotic situations can tell you a lot. Some meticulously organized people melt down, and thus would probably not be good candidates. Others step up and impose organization on chaos, and they may be very strong candidates indeed.

Good project managers have strong communications skills. To determine how well a candidate communicates, you might ask:

Tell me about a time you had to deliver bad news to someone.

Look for answers indicating that they approached the communication directly, without beating around the bush.

Tell me about a situation when you didn’t feel like your message was getting across.

Again, look for people who are good about communicating details without extraneous information, as well as people who are good about “closing the loop.” This ensures that their communications are both heard and understood.

And the winner is…
These are by no means complete guidelines, but they’ve worked for me in the past. In this case, we hired a talented individual out of the insurance business to help run our technology project. Although he has limited project management experience, he is doing very well. I believe we found a strong project manager because we looked for someone with the right personal attributes.

Andy Weeks has worked in the information technology field for over a decade as an end-user support manager, network architect, and a business process consultant. Currently he's VP for business development for Henderson Electric Co., Inc., in Louisville, KY.

Andy Weeks explores the issues and problems facing IT project managers. Send him a question about your project or post a comment below.

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