Enterprise Software

Look for leaders when interviewing project managers

When recruiting a project manager, it's hard to tell from a resume the skill level of a candidate. Project Mentor Tom Mochal explains how to gather such information during an interview.

When recruiting for a potential project-management position (or any position, for that matter), we choose who we believe to be strong candidates based on their resumes. But project management requires the combination of such a number of skills that it’s often difficult to judge the strength of a candidate’s suitability based on his resume alone. Often, the information needed to make that judgment can only be garnered through an interview. What follows is a case in point that illustrates what you need to know from a project-management candidate.

Even though the Blue Sky Manufacturing Company tries to use employees to manage projects, periodically we still end up looking at outside candidates. Last week, Ashley, one of our human-resources recruiters, asked me to interview a candidate for a position requiring strong project-management skills.

The candidate’s resume listed the title of project manager a number of times. Most of the information on the resume, however, described the project he was working on, and not his specific responsibilities. I interviewed the candidate, and after 30 minutes, I had the following set of notes:
  • Understands some of the basics of the development life cycle. Can talk at a high level about a traditional waterfall approach and a rapid-development life cycle. In each case, he started the life cycle in the analysis phase. Was fuzzy about the up-front planning process.
  • Good knowledge of how to use project-management tools to manage a work plan. Was vague when asked to discuss how to build a work plan from scratch.
  • Knows how to estimate work based on previous experience and “gut-check.” Discussed an estimating approach that I would classify as “quasi-work breakdown structure,” but could not articulate any other specific estimating techniques.
  • Knows the number of people that worked on prior projects, but cannot remember the total budget for projects. Not familiar with whether or how the team members’ costs were allocated.
  • Can describe how he has managed issues on previous projects. Vague on how to manage scope. Could not define specific processes for risk management, or for ensuring that the solution was of high quality. In some cases, could discuss specific project-management steps used in prior projects, but could not lay out project-management procedures in a context that would work on all projects.

After the interview, I called Ashley to provide my feedback. Based on the need for strong project-management skills, I recommended that we not move forward with this candidate.

Mentor advice
Project managers come with all types of skill levels. Some have basic project-management skills that can be used on small- or medium-sized projects. Others have the rigor and skills to run substantial and complicated projects. A strong project manager will have a good understanding of the project life cycle—with emphasis on the planning process—and will be able to define a project in terms of objectives, scope, budget, risk, and approach. The candidate must have built work plans and know how to use at least one project-management tool. He or she needs to understand basic estimating techniques, including estimating effort, duration, and cost, and then have experience in managing the budget and work plan. He also must be able to articulate processes for managing issues, scope, risk, and quality. Lastly, he must be a good people manager and must possess good skills in listening, verbal and written communication, people management, and performance management.

Although I believe the aforementioned candidate has worked in a leadership position on a number of projects, I think he functioned as more of a team leader, or as a project manager on a subset of a larger project. He appears to have worked on projects where the bulk of the planning, estimating, and budgeting were already in place. That’s probably the reason he has a hard time articulating many of the up-front planning, work plan development, and estimating processes. He also is more comfortable managing events as they occur, rather than establishing proactive project-management processes. Overall, this person might be equipped to fill a more junior project-management position, but not yet one that requires stronger skills.

Project-management veteran Tom Mochal is director of internal development at a software company in Atlanta. Most recently, he worked for the Coca-Cola Company, where he was responsible for deploying, training, and coaching project-management and life-cycle skills to the IS division. He’s also worked for Eastman Kodak and Cap Gemini America, and has developed a project-management methodology called TenStep.