On Interviewing Project Managers

March 12, 2014

Even as it’s grown to 350+ employees, MongoDB has maintained a solid ratio of engineers to managers - at my last count, the Kernel team has 30 people who write code and 3 who do not. Of course most companies might seem sanely structured when compared to the ratio at Patch.com: 25 engineers and 9 product managers was, by most any definition, unusual (and I say that as one of those 9.)

Now that some engineering teams here are growing to 20 developers and beyond, we’ve opened up hiring for a few more PM roles including Kernel Program Manager and Project Manager, Performance. To coordinate our interview process I finally took a few minutes to distill my interview questions and record them in our internal wiki. My intent was to share the good questions, get feedback on the bad, and maybe pick up a few new ones.

Most of the questions went without comment from my colleagues. For example:

What is your understanding of this role?

Seemingly unnecessary, this is a good way to start and make sure the candidate and I are on the same page about the role’s responsibilites, the structure of the company, et al. This question can also show what research, if any, the candidate has done in advance. It’s pretty difficult to botch this question, although “No clue, I’m just here because a recruiter emailed me” is about as close as I’ve seen.

What is one thing you’d change about your current company if you were CEO?

This gives some insight into how much the candidate thinks about process improvement in their current job. No company is perfect, and an ideal candidate shouldn’t just be focused on a smoothly running team - they should be constantly thinking about how to improve their own lives or that of their coworkers.

But, to my surprise, I did get some pushback on my preferred closer:

What is one book you’ve read in the last year that I need to read?

I’ll caution that there is no right or wrong answer here - the key is the reason for that book.

“What if someone says The DaVinci Code? Would that count against them?” said more than one person. (This is everyone’s example of a ‘bad’ answer.) But I’ve heard a few good opinions on that book, and I’d be impressed if someone followed up with a strong discussion on the popular perception of Catholicism in America.

Even having heard this qualification, the objections fall into two broad categories:

That’s a pretentious/elitist question.

This is impossible to refute since it feels more like an opinion or matter of perception. I should take a broader survey and really worry if the overwhelming opinion goes against me, but an informal survey of 10 people gave me 3 who objected, so I feel confident for now.

That’s not useful for gauging someone’s fit for a PM role.

This is a stronger objection. I admit the question has nothing to do with project management, although for that reason I think this supports using it for any new hire, rather than discrediting it for PMs.

And, on the topic of useful questions, there is no magic set of them which determines a candidate’s fit for a PM role - there is no Fizz Buzz or Reverse A Linked List. Every company asks slightly different questions because each question is just one more piece in an evaluation, and I think this question, although unrelated to software, does provide one more data point.

Two suggestions fell out of my conversations, one of which I’ll take, and the other I’ll leave.

First, I was told I should replace “What is one book you’ve read…” with “What is something you’ve read or seen…”, and I understand the sentiment behind this - thinking of a book under pressure is difficult, rephrasing allows for long-form articles and documentaries - but I’ll probably still ask for a book. Maybe it’s a misguided sentiment, but I do believe that you can get a small peek into someone’s personality based on what books they’ve committed to read and why.

Second, I was told I should replace “…that I need to read?” with “…that you thought about afterwards?”, and I will definitely make this change. As I’ve thought about the question, I’ve realized that this change much more accurately reflects what I want to identify.

A key attribute for any PM is the ability to reflect (on one’s self and one’s team) and then change the structures or processes around themselves if change is needed. I suppose the underlying questions I want to answer are:

Do you have the capacity to take input and reflect on it in a meaningful way? And is that capacity a deep and ingrained part of your personality?