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Top 15 IT project manager interview questions

Project management positions are challenging to fill. Ask all the right questions the next time you screen project manager candidates and find just the right person for the job.

For a technical project to succeed, it requires a project manager with top-notch organizational and interpersonal skills. That means one who can manage the project from inception to completion.

A project manager must be a strong leader and communicator who motivates teams and keeps stakeholders happy, while balancing resources, schedules and budgets. But such individuals aren't easy to find, and assessing the skills and knowledge of candidates isn't easy.

If you're an IT pro interviewing candidates, you need to ask them questions that will help you assess their character and their capabilities. Here are 15 questions you can use to learn more about candidates during interviews. Each question includes information about why the question can be useful, along with tips for getting the most out of the question. In addition, the questions come with example answers that demonstrate the type of responses you might look for in candidates.

No doubt you'll want to ask them other questions -- more technical ones or questions specific to your industry and projects. Nevertheless, these 15 questions are a good place to start in your hunt for the perfect project manager.

1.     What are the most important skills for a project manager to have?

An effective project manager requires a range of skills, including leadership, organization, communication, collaboration and technical know-how. They also should have experience with project management software and processes.

By asking this question in broader terms, you can get a sense of how a candidate prioritizes skills and which ones the candidate thinks all project managers should possess. This can also help you understand the candidate's management style, scope of knowledge and ability to put that knowledge to work.

12 key project management skills
The dozen skills all project managers need.

Interviewer tips

Candidates should provide more than a list of skills. You might want to ask them to justify why they focused on specific skills and to provide examples of how they've used those skills in the projects they've managed.

An example of a good candidate answer

Communication skills are first on my list. Although I believe that skills such as leadership and organization are important, communication is the key to running a flawless project and to addressing issues as they arise. Communication is essential to keeping team members motivated and on track and ensuring that stakeholders are always aware of the project's status. Effective communication can improve even the most challenging projects.

On a recent project I managed, our data center experienced a significant equipment failure, which affected our team's productivity and resulted in delays. I immediately informed the stakeholders that there was an issue and it could affect the delivery schedule. In this way, no one would be caught off guard if we missed a milestone. I still had to smooth things over with some team members, but I've found the best approach is being open and honest about what's going on and what's being done to resolve the issue. In this case, because I was frank and consistent in my communications, team members trusted that I was giving them the best information.

2.     How would you describe an ideal project?

At its most basic, this question will tell you what types of projects the candidate prefers to work on, which can help determine if the candidate is a fit for your organization. The question can also give you a sense of the candidate's strengths and perhaps weaknesses.

Interviewer tips

If a candidate says they're happy working on any projects, it could mean they're not being completely honest with you or with themselves. That said, there are no right answers to this question, and you should encourage candidates to be open and honest in their responses. What you want is a frank discussion about what their ideal project looks like.

An example of a good candidate answer

For me, an ideal project is one that comes with a reasonable budget and timeline to complete it. It also offers me a chance to work with talented people who are self-reliant but know how to communicate and work collaboratively. The project should also have the full support of all stakeholders, and those stakeholders should share a common vision of the project's goals, which can make it easier to resolve issues.

At the same time, I like a project that introduces me to new technologies and methodologies and offers enough challenges so I'm learning and improving my skills, while having the opportunity to explore creative solutions. The project must be substantial enough to keep me fully engaged, rather than trying to balance multiple small projects at the same time.

3.     What are the basic stages of the project lifecycle?

This question will give you the opportunity to assess the candidate's knowledge of the main stages of the project lifecycle. The candidate does not need to go into elaborate details about each stage, but they should demonstrate conceptual knowledge of each one and tie them back to their own experiences.

A candidate might discuss a specific project, describe how project management tools helped move the project forward or outline a strategy for addressing one or more stages. Regardless of the approach, the individual should be able to demonstrate knowledge of the entire project management process.

Five stages of a project lifecycle
Get to know the five stages of a project's lifecycle

Interviewer tips

The exact terminology might differ among candidates, depending on whether their background is in software development or some other IT area, but they should be conceptually close to these five stages: initiation, planning, execution, management and review. For example, some candidates might refer to the management stage as quality control or monitoring and control, or they might refer to the final stage as completion or closing.

An example of a good candidate answer

I typically begin a project with the initiation stage. I get an idea of the project's scope by interviewing stakeholders and conducting any necessary research. At the same time, I identify the resources we'll need. I also perform a feasibility analysis and take any other steps to prepare for the next steps.

From there, I move on to the planning stage, where I define benchmarks and milestones and conduct a risk analysis. I also identify who will be on the project team. This stage is a good time to establish open communication channels between all the players, while giving the team a chance to have some fun --bouncing around ideas, getting to know each other and maybe playing with new technologies. This stage prepares everyone for what follows, while building a foundation for how we'll all work together throughout the project.

4.     How do you prioritize tasks?

A project manager's ability to prioritize tasks is essential to a project's success. This question helps you understand how a candidate sets priorities. It can also provide insight into the candidate's ability to manage change and deal with challenges that require a more subtle approach, such as handling interpersonal conflicts or disagreements among stakeholders. A candidate's answer can shed light on their organizational and communication skills.

Most project managers have more work to do in a day than they can accomplish. Encourage candidates to discuss projects where they've had to make difficult decisions about how to prioritize tasks.

Interviewer tips

Most project managers have more work to do in a day than they can accomplish. Encourage candidates to discuss specific projects and circumstances in which they've had to make difficult decisions about how to prioritize tasks and the steps they took to do that.

An example of a good candidate answer

Prioritizing tasks is the norm rather than the exception in my experience. I often use Microsoft Project for overall organization, but I like to be able to quickly access the tasks I need to complete that day or week or in some other timeframe.

At the beginning of most days, I make a list of the tasks I must accomplish that day, arranging them based on priority. I use EverNote or something similar so I can easily access my list of tasks from whatever device I'm using. It's an informal system, but it helps me stay focused and productive. I knock the tasks out one-by-one -- or at least accomplish what I can on each task.

At the same time, I try to stay flexible to circumstances and open to opportunities to complete tasks faster. For example, a vendor's rep might unexpectedly show up, making it possible to quickly address a task further down my list. Jumping on the lower priority task now will save multiple phone calls and emails -- and lots of time.

I'm also open to new information that might change my priorities. I like to balance the need to focus on a task against staying flexible enough to accommodate changing circumstances and priorities. That said, I've learned over the years that it's just as important to know when to say "no" and not get sidetracked when there's something critical to address.

5.     How do you keep a project on track?

A technical project has many moving parts, and keeping it on track is a challenge. This question will assess whether a candidate has the skills to monitor a project effectively, determine when it's not meeting benchmarks and get it back on track. The question can also help you determine the candidate's ability to monitor and manage risk. Candidates can demonstrate they're detail-oriented enough to keep a project moving without micromanaging team members.

Interviewer tips

Encourage candidates to provide examples of how they've kept projects on track, as well has how they've handled derailed projects. Probe for specific project management tools and techniques they have used to monitor progress and resolve issues.

An example of a good candidate answer

Throughout a project's lifecycle, I assess progress regularly and determine whether we're on track to meet benchmarks. For most projects, I do a weekly review of how it's progressing, although I might assess specific pieces more frequently if there are extenuating circumstances. I frequently check in with team members, either one on one or in team meetings. This approach can alert me to issues I might not have discovered right away. Yesterday, for instance, I learned of a bug in the platform my team is using by asking a few questions in a meeting.

If we get off track, I first search for the root cause and then work with the team members and stakeholders resolve it. The back-end development of one project I managed got off schedule. With some probing, I learned the developers were running into contention issues with our databases, forcing them to stop and address the problem. Once it was clear this was a database issue, we borrowed a database admin from another team who had expertise in that platform and were able to get the issue quickly resolved. That wouldn't have happened so fast if we hadn't been communicating regularly and willing to work together to find a resolution.

6.     How do you handle unexpected changes in a project?

Projects aren't static from beginning to end, and project managers must be able to quickly adapt to changing circumstances, whatever the cause. It might be because of technology updates, customers asking for new features, a team member leaving the organization or even a natural disaster. This question helps you evaluate a candidate's ability to handle the unexpected, while keeping the project moving forward and minimizing the impact on the schedule and budget.

Interviewer tips

Candidates should provide examples of unexpected changes in the projects they've managed, showing how they've dealt with those situations. If they managed projects through COVID-19, have them discuss the effect of the pandemic on IT projects and how they handled them, such as transitioning to new ways of working.

An example of a good candidate answer

On a recent project I managed, I received a change request from the customer that would extend the application's reporting capabilities. My first step was to learn as much as I could about the new features being requested and then to assess their effects on the project. I discussed the proposed changes with several team members, and we identified what it would take to make them. I then spoke to the relevant stakeholders, making it clear how the change would impact the budget and schedule. After I got their approval, I updated the project plan and informed the rest of the team we were moving ahead with the new features.

A couple team members weren't happy about the changes, so I spent time reviewing the details with them and listening to their concerns and suggestions. I made a few adjustments to the plan based on their feedback, which went a long way in appeasing their concerns. In the end, we turned out a better product, and the customer was pleased.

7.     How do you handle gold plating or scope creep during a project?

A project manager must always guard against gold plating and scope creep; both can impact costs and delivery schedules. This question can help you determine how the candidate deals with these two issues, while providing insights into his or her technical knowledge and resource management skills. The question can also help you understand how the candidate handles obstacles.

Interviewer tips

Look for responses that demonstrate the candidate understands the difference between gold plating and scope creep, and they appreciate the seriousness of these issues. Candidates should be able to provide examples of the steps they take to mitigate and address these problems if they arise.

An example of a good candidate answer

I've dealt with both scope creep and gold plating on several projects. Scope creep has most often come from customers asking us to squeeze in features that are beyond the original specs. I've also keep a close eye out for gold plating. In my experience, it mostly comes from newer developers trying to prove their abilities.

To prevent either problem, I define a project's scope at the start and get stakeholder buy-in, making certain everyone understands the plan. Then, for each assigned task, I provide team member with detailed requirements and its scope, so there's no question what's expected. However, these steps are only part of the job. Preventing scope creep and gold plating requires ongoing communication with stakeholders and team members to ensure that no features are being added that don't belong.

If I discover something like that going on -- such as stakeholders requesting a change directly from a developer -- I address the issue immediately, making it clear any changes will affect budget and schedules. If the stakeholders insist on the change, I offer to do an assessment of the potential impact on costs and time. That often ends the discussion. Other times, they have me go ahead with the assessment. If after that, they still want the change, I update the project plan accordingly. My goal is to avoid any changes that don't go through a formal change management process.

8.     Tell me about your budget management experience?

Not all project managers are required to manage budgets, and some might manage budgets only for certain projects. Even if your company isn't looking for a project manager who will handle budgets, it's still important to have a project manager who appreciates the important role budgeting plays in projects. This question will help you get a sense of the candidate's budgeting skills and how they've dealt with budgeting issues.

Interviewer tips

Candidates might have listed their budgeting skills in their resumes, but this question provides you with an opportunity to dig deeper into those skills, while also learning about their experiences with planning, managing and allocating budgets.

An example of a good candidate answer

Not all projects I've managed have required that I handle the budget, but many have. In my experience, it's difficult to manage any project without a clear appreciation for budgeting issues, even if I don't control the budget. Servers, software, office space and people all cost money. If I need additional resources to meet a deadline, I can't add them without consideration of the budget.

On projects where I've handled the budget, I start working on it early and continue to manage it throughout the project. I watch how funds are allocated and whether we're exceeding the budget at any point. If we run into issues that require additional resources or incur unexpected expenses, I immediately discuss them with the appropriate stakeholders. I've found by staying on top of the budget from day one, I can avoid budget problems. My negotiation skills are helpful when addressing budget concerns, whether working with vendors, hiring contractors or convincing a stakeholder that additional funds will make the final product stronger.

9.     How do you resolve team conflicts or stakeholder disagreements?

Conflicts and disagreements are a way of life for project managers, and they must resolve them quickly, while instilling a sense of trust and respect. This question can help you understand your candidate's ability to impartially mediate conflicts and resolve them without lingering resentments. The question will also provide a sense of the candidate's communication skills, which are essential to addressing conflicts and disagreements. This question offers a good opportunity to understand the candidate's personality and ability to work effectively with other people.

5 ways for a project manager to build a strong team
Project managers must focus on the building personal relationships that form the foundation of a strong team.

Interviewer tips

Encourage candidates to share experiences of how they resolved conflicts. Get them to be specific, so you understand the context in which the conflict occurred, how it was resolved and the outcome. Watch for candidates who give vague answers or don't have good examples. It might indicate that they choose not to deal with these issues or don't have skills or experience with conflict resolution.

An example of a good candidate answer

I can't think of any project I've managed in which I didn't have to address some type of conflict, disagreement or miscommunication. Conflicts are part of the job and each is unique. During one project, for example, the front-end team was upset with the back-end team over changes that were undermining their UI work. I set up a meeting with people from both teams where we discussed the concerns.

It turned out the back-end team had upgraded a platform that was affecting the entire application stack and both teams' work. Front-end team members hadn't known the upgrade was coming, let alone its effect on them. The back-end team didn't realized its changes would have such a severe effect on the front end. Once both teams realized what the other team was up against, it eased tensions and moved us toward a solution that met everyone's needs.

From that point on, a representative from each team met weekly for the duration of the project to discuss the details of changes and their impacts. This proved to be an effective strategy.

10.  How do you motivate team members?

Project managers must keep team members working to their fullest potential. However, this can be difficult because team members often don't report to the project manager but to another manager who might not have anything to do with the project. This question can help you assess whether a candidate has the leadership and interpersonal skills to keep team members engaged throughout the project.

Project managers must keep team members working to their fullest potential. However, this can be difficult because team members often don't report to the project manager

Interviewer tips

When answering this question, candidates should provide examples of how they have motivated team members and the results of those efforts. There is no right answer here, but you want to hear about more than just a list of skills.

An example of a good candidate answer

I have several standard practices to promote engagement, such as holding regular strategy meetings and doing periodic check-ins with team members. Throughout the project, I try to stay abreast of what each person is working on and give them opportunities to share ideas and express concerns. My goal is to get people to feel like they're part of the team and a full participant in the decision-making. Whenever possible, I try to provide opportunities to enhance communications across the team.

At the same time, I'm mindful that these are individuals with their own work styles and comfort levels. For example, not everyone is comfortable sharing ideas in large groups, so I try to make a point to hear from those people in other ways, such as one-on-one meetings or in smaller groups. It's also important to pitch in and work side-by-side with team members when the need arises. For example, in a recent project, I helped the QA team test application features, so we were sure to meet our benchmarks.

It's also important to keep the individual in mind when they're not working to their full potential. For instance, one time a QA team member was less engaged in the project than others. I met with him and discovered he was new to DevOps processes and didn't have the experience of others on the team. I arranged extra training for him, and his performance significantly improved.

In general, I encourage team members in whatever way I can, letting them know when they're doing a good job and how much I appreciate their efforts. And it never hurts to share that praise with their managers. It's also a good idea to celebrate together when we hit a goal or  benchmark.

More interview questions

Project managers aren't the only hires that need targeted interview questions. Here are several sets of questions tailored to specific IT disciplines.

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6 Crucial Interview Questions for ERP Job Candidates in 2020

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13 Business Intelligence Analyst Interview Questions and Answers

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11.  How do you delegate tasks and responsibilities?

Project managers have a lot to accomplish, and they need to be able to effectively delegate responsibilities. This question helps you determine whether the candidate is willing to delegate tasks and, if so, how they go about it. You should get a sense of whether delegating comes naturally or if micromanagement might be an issue for them.

Interviewer tips

Get candidates to open up about experiences in which they might have had trouble delegating tasks. This can provide insight into their level of honesty and ability to learn. Also encourage them to describe how they go about delegating tasks.

An example of a good candidate answer

In my early years as a project manager, I tried to do everything myself, but it soon became apparent that that wasn't going to work, especially as my projects became bigger and more complex. I was driving myself crazy, in fact, and it wasn't serving the projects well. Now, delegating is a routine part of my job, and it starts with being clear from the onset that project team members should expect to take on occasional project-related tasks that fall outside their routine assignments.

When I assign a task, I try to match it to an individual's role, capabilities and workload. For example, when I might need someone to research the specific infrastructure requirements for a new database platform, I look for someone with DBA skills or who's good with IT systems, rather than turning it over to a UX designer with relatively little experience.

I also avoid overburdening team members who are known for getting things done. When communicating an assignment, I offer as much information as possible and provide the space for questions and give feedback. When the task is complete, I show appreciation. Like most aspects of project management, considerate communication is the key to effective delegation.

12.  What experience do you have managing remote or distributed teams?

This question reflects the growing importance of working with remote or distributed teams in the age of COVID-19. See if the candidate is aware of the issues that arise when a team never meets in person. Do they mention details such as the effect a geographically distributed team has on scheduling meeting times?

Remote team management best practices
Managing a remote team requires a different set of tools and skills than managing one that can meet in person.

Interviewer tips

Get candidates to describe the challenges of working with remote or distributed teams and how it differs from working with an on-site team. Their answer to this question will show if they have had to manage such a team and if they are sensitive to what's required.

An example of a good candidate answer

I worked with remote and distributed teams on several projects prior to the pandemic. Since COVID-19's inception, all my projects have been remote. There are pluses and minuses with a remote team. When you have the entire team on site, getting input is quicker and resolving issues is faster and easier. It's also easier to instill a sense of teamwork and move everyone toward a common goal. On the other hand, remote and hybrid work lets people set their schedules and operate in an environment that's more conducive to their workstyles. Remote teams are often more productive because there are fewer interruptions.

However, remote teams can succeed only if the members remain highly motivated, which takes more effort on my part to ensure effective communications. For example, if everyone is spread out across the planet, scheduling meetings is a challenge because of time zone differences. In one project I managed, we had people in Australia, Germany and the U.S. I had to be flexible enough in my scheduling to accommodate different needs. We made it work in a large part because everyone was willing to keep the team informed of their progress. With remote teams, I often end up reaching out more to individuals.

13.  What are some big project challenges you've faced and how did you address them?

All projects raise challenges, some of which can be significant. This question will help you understand how a candidate addresses challenges. It will provide insight into how the candidate identifies and resolves problems and communicates issues.

Interviewer tips

Encourage candidates to provide details about challenges they've encountered, the steps they took to deal will them and what the outcome was. Have them elaborate on the circumstances surrounding the issue. Be wary of candidates who focus primarily on blaming others for their problems. This question could prove to be one of the most informative ones you ask, so give it the time it needs.

An example of a good candidate answer

A couple years ago, I managed a large application development project that incorporated an existing credit card processing and storage system. Not long before the application was supposed to go live, we discovered that one of the steps in the credit card processing phase failed to protect the credit card numbers according to Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance standards. We found ourselves scrambling to find a resolution.

Working together, we identified the cause of the problem and how we could fix it. Unfortunately, it would mean pulling several team members off other tasks. I kept stakeholders informed of what it would take to address the issue. It took several more meetings to get everyone onboard with our strategy, but I eventually convinced them to move forward. I modified the project plan and got everyone to sign off on it. We were able to make the fix without too big an impact on budget and schedule. I'm convinced if we hadn't established open communications early in the project, it would have been much more difficult and time-consuming to address the issue.

14.  How did you handle mistakes you made when managing a project?

Everyone makes mistakes, including project managers. You can learn a lot about a candidate by asking about where they stumbled. It can help you understand how the candidate deals with mistakes and learns from them. The question can also give you a sense of the candidate's character, honesty, maturity and willingness to take responsibility for their actions.

Interviewer tips

Encourage candidates to discuss specific incidents. There are no wrong answers, but be wary of candidates who can't come up with examples. It could indicate a lack of honesty or integrity on their part, or it might mean they're not aware of their own mistakes, which is just as bad.

An example of a good candidate answer

One of the biggest mistakes I made was on a large project that included several working parts. When defining the milestones, I failed to account for the effort needed to integrate the various components and test that integration. As a result, I didn't allow enough time in the schedule to complete the project, and I had to call a meeting to inform everyone of what had happened and how, because of my mistake, we might miss our delivery. It was a difficult admission, but just putting it out there was let us move ahead to a solution. After that, I'm more careful to set realistic milestones and schedules.

15.  How deep is the deepest quicksand at the equator?

This is not meant as a trick question, but rather a question that will give you a sense of the candidate's ability to handle the unexpected and come up with creative solutions. Most projects are rife with the unexpected, and the candidate should treat this as such. You're not looking for accurate answers, of course, but the question should give you a good idea of how the candidate uses critical thinking, logic and creativity to arrive at an answer.

Interviewer tips

You might need to encourage candidates to take the question seriously, although there's nothing wrong with them having a little fun with their answers. You can easily substitute this question with a similar one.

An example of a good candidate answer

Before I answering, I need some additional information. By "at the equator," do you mean each quicksand pit must be at exactly zero degrees latitude? Can it deviate off that exact latitude, perhaps, one degree in either direction? Also, if a quicksand pit is near a tidal zone, should it be measured at low tide, high tide or somewhere in between? The same goes for quicksand pits that might be impacted by changing water tables. Should I base my research on the average depth of each pit throughout the year or on another metric?

Once I have answers to those questions, I can identify any research limitations. For example, logistical issues might make it impossible to determine the depth of every equatorial quicksand pit around the world. And even if we can determine the depth, we would need to agree on the degree of accuracy that would be acceptable in measuring depths, such as plus-or-minus three centimeters. In addition, we would also need to agree on the acceptable mechanisms for carrying on those measurements. For example, we probably wouldn't want to rely on old wooden yardsticks like those used in classrooms.

After we've ironed out any outstanding issues, my team can determine the deepest quicksand pit at the equator, with the caveat that our results will be based on the known information at our disposal at the time we carry out the assessments. We'll also need to come up with a contingency plan should political unrest, natural disasters or other unforeseen events affect our ability to access all the quicksand pits on the equator. However, barring any unforeseen circumstances, we will do our best to meet your expectations.

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