Program management primer for tech interviews (competencies, questions, resources)

woman uses whiteboard for program management work

This article was written in collaboration with interview coach Nupur D. A former Technical Program Manager for Google, Nupur has coached more than 300 people over her career. She currently works as a TPM for a fintech company in India.

Demonstrating program management skills is a key part of the interview process for tech roles at companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google.

Candidates at every experience level must be able to facilitate multiple tasks in parallel, while keeping their team and stakeholders on track. Illustrating this thoroughly is difficult in an interview setting.

So we’ve put together the following guide to cracking program management interviews, with an overview of the top program and project management competencies, practice interview questions, and a step-by-step preparation guide.

Here’s a brief overview of what we’ll cover:

  1. What is program management?
  2. Top program management competencies
  3. How to practice program management interview questions
Click here to practice 1-to-1 with ex-FAANG interviewers

1. What is program management in top tech companies?

In many tech companies, the term “program” management is used more often than “project” management. This is because one program can encompass several projects, and you’re expected to have the skills to handle multiple projects at the same time. 

Therefore, being able to manage a program requires project management skills, in order to keep track of and deliver the specific outputs that make up your program. 

Additionally, program management does not always require technical competence. As this primer focuses on general program management, take a look at our guides to system design interviews, coding interviews, or technical questions in product manager interviews if you’re looking to brush up on your technical skills.

If you want to go deeper into program/project management from an engineering perspective, check out this guide by Birdview on engineering project management.

To help you get your head around which program management competencies you should emphasize in an interview, we’ll dive deep into the most important ones in the next section.

Let’s get started.

2. Top program management competencies

Now that you’ve got an idea of what we mean when we’re talking about program management, let’s break it into specific components. Here are the program management competencies you’re most likely to be tested on at companies like Amazon, Facebook, and Google:

  • Planning
  • Organization
  • Strategic communication
  • Prioritization
  • Risk management
  • Understanding the project lifecycle

In the following sections, we’ll define each competency and provide you with a list of questions you can practice with. These questions are a mix of our own examples and those that were reported by real candidates on Glassdoor.

2.1 Planning

Proper planning is only possible when there is a clearly defined goal to work toward. In conjunction with stakeholders and product managers, a good program manager must ensure that there are specific and measurable objectives to achieve, as well as a road map to do so. 

So your interviewer will want to see what steps you take to effectively make a plan that hits key objectives. To demonstrate this, we’ll give you four things you can do, and then move into the example questions.

Four ways to demonstrate planning:

1. Identify risks and mitigations up front

Every project comes with risks, so show your interviewer your method of identifying them at the beginning of the planning process, as well as how you continue to manage them as the project unfolds.

2. Gather relevant information from subject matter experts

Domain knowledge is useful when planning a program, but not mandatory. If you’re missing key information, explain to your interviewer how you will go about gathering it from relevant experts.

3. Establish high-level milestones and how you will reach them

Discuss how you decide what is and is not a milestone, the steps you take to reach them, how you decide when one has been reached, and when it’s necessary to change them. 

4. Define clear metrics

To bring some clarity to an ambiguous project, show your interviewer how you will measure its successes and failures. The metrics should be data-based, achievable, and aligned with the project and organizational goals.

2.1.1 Planning interview questions

With those tips in mind, try demonstrating the items above using the questions below.

Program management interview questions: Planning

  • Your project is not going as planned. What will you do?
  • Give an example of how you planned a complex project/program.
  • What is WBS (work breakdown structure)? How would you use it?
  • What goes into a project plan?

2.2 Organization

A program manager's organizational skills are what bring order to chaos, making sure nothing falls through the cracks. You’ll have to tackle grey areas by creating, organizing, and tracking tasks and processes. This will require you to manage your time as well, to ensure that you are able to juggle multiple projects and priorities without missing deadlines. 

It can be difficult to demonstrate good organization verbally, but you can show this to your interviewer by giving practical examples. Let’s take a look at a few ways that you can do that, and then we’ll get into some example questions. 

Three ways to demonstrate organization:

1. Discuss how you break overall project goals into small tasks

Broad project goals like “increase engagement” or “drive demand” are too vague to tackle as-is. So give your interviewer examples of how you break down large initiatives into actionable, bite-sized pieces that your team can independently understand and act upon.

2. Show how you arrange information in an accessible way

Tell your interviewer which documentation you use to organize your thoughts and your team (e.g. dashboards, PRD’s, Design docs, OKRs), and how each of them contribute to the project goals.

3. Explain how you handle multiple tasks in parallel 

Talk about how you manage your time to accommodate synchronous tasks, prioritize the most important work, cut down on interruptions, and meet deadlines.  If you’ve dropped the ball in the past, explain what you’ve learned to avoid doing so again.

2.2.1 Organization interview questions

Now, try showing off your organizational skills with the following questions.

Program management interview questions: Organization

  • What are your favorite tools for managing a project?
  • How do you organize a large program?
  • How do you keep others organized and focused? 
  • How do you know a process you made is successful?
  • How do you manage your time?

2.3 Strategic communication 

Communication is key to being a great program manager, as you must keep individual teams informed from end to end. You have to be able convey messages both thoroughly and concisely, to keep all relevant stakeholders up to date.

Interviewers want to see your methods of communicating effectively and avoiding misunderstandings. Let’s get into a few things you can do to illustrate that.

Four ways to demonstrate strategic communication:

1. List your communication tools

Explain how you make information quickly and easily accessible. Tell your interviewer how you use internal websites and dashboards, publish and maintain a project plan, gather and share status updates, etc.

2. Demonstrate your attention to audience

Show your interviewer how you choose which communication channel is best to use with different audiences (e.g. engineering versus product teams, executives, etc.). 

3. Highlight consistency

Explain how you set in place  weekly syncs, daily standups, and other methods to ensure a predictable cadence and steady flow of information

4. Proactively address unforeseen issues

When escalations are necessary, a risk has arisen, or there has been a scope or timeline change, talk about how you communicate this information as early as possible to the necessary audience. 

2.3.1 Strategic communication interview questions

Try applying the talking points above to these practice questions.

Program management interview questions: Strategic communication

  • How do you decide the medium of communication with your team?
  • A big change has been introduced in a project. How will you handle the communication?
  • How do you ensure all your stakeholders and team are able to give timely inputs to the program?
  • How do you communicate an escalation? How do you decide what issue needs an escalation?
  • How do you communicate bad news?

2.4 Prioritization

Prioritization is key in order to ensure that your teams are not wasting time on low-importance projects. As programs often see scope changes, bugs, or new risks emerging, many of your tasks will have to be re-prioritized daily or weekly. 

Your interviewer wants you to be able to rank and address issues in order to empower your teams to make faster decisions. Let’s jump into some methods of demonstrating that.

Three ways to demonstrate prioritization:

1. Employ a prioritization framework you’ve used in the past

Show your interviewer that you have a practice in place to remove inherent bias from your decision making process (e.g. the RICE framework, the Kano model, etc.).

2. List the resources you leverage to make a decision

You shouldn’t be prioritizing in a vacuum. Talk about the data you employ to inform your decisions (e.g. product or consumer data, input from engineers, etc.).

3. Address the impact of your decision

All decisions come with trade-offs, and your interviewer wants to know that you’re aware of them. So consider the downsides of your choices, both on the program and on your team, and why they are outweighed by the benefits.

2.4.1 Prioritization interview questions

Use the examples below to practice your answers to questions about how you prioritize tasks and projects.

Program management interview questions: Prioritization

  • How do you prioritize your personal tasks?
  • How do you drive prioritization in your projects?
  • A key decision maker is out of office. How will you go about making a decision which requires their input?

2.5 Risk management

Projects come with problems. A key part of the program manager's job is to prevent or address them, in order to ensure that everything runs smoothly. This means both proactively identifying risks and being able to address them if they arise later on.

Your interviewer will want to see that you have the foresight needed to do so. Next we’ll list a few ways to show this, followed by some interview questions.

Three ways to demonstrate risk management

1. Talk about problems you’ve preemptively avoided

Bring up any examples from your past in which you foresaw a problem and implemented a solution that kept it from happening. Be prepared to explain why it worked, and if there were any downsides to your approach.

2. Talk about when you’ve resolved major obstacles 

If you weren’t able to prevent an issue, list the steps you took to resolve it later. This would also be a good time to go over the steps you could have taken to avoid it and will take in the future.

3. Explain lessons learned

If you’ve lacked foresight in the past and been overcome by project obstacles, explain the context and what you have done to prevent this from happening again (e.g. setting up a retrospective with your team).

2.5.1 Risk management interview questions

Given the information above, practice your answers to the interview questions below.

Program management interview questions: Risk management

  • You are leading a project to implement a security feature in a product. Give some examples of the risks you might identify beforehand. 
  • Give an example of a time when you faced a roadblock in a program and how you tackled it.
  • Give an example of a time when you had the foresight to prevent a major problem from happening during a project execution. 

2.6 Understanding the project lifecycle

Managing a program requires you to keep tabs on multiple projects happening in parallel. Of course, you cannot manage each individual project in the same way, as each is unique and will require different tactics to achieve their goals. However, there is a fundamental lifecycle that applies to all projects, which will help you stay on track with their progress.

Your interviewer will expect you to know this lifecycle and how to tailor it to your projects. Let’s go over each of the processes in the lifecycle and how you can demonstrate your understanding of them.

Five project process groups and how to address them:

1. Project kick-off

Talk about how you define project goals, gather resources, budget, identify stakeholders, get approvals for certain tasks, and lead the project kickoff meeting. 

2. Project planning 

Explain how you break down all of the tasks and assign milestones, set up meetings or recurring  syncs, develop a communication plan and dashboards, set roles and responsibilities, and identify risks and mitigations.

3. Project execution

Go over how you stay on top of the progress of the project (using waterfall or agile methodologies), lead daily standups, plan sprint planning meetings, and prioritize tasks.

4. Project monitoring

List the metrics you define to measure the success of your projects, how you report on multiple projects when some are falling behind, or use analytics to make decisions.

5. Project closure

Demonstrate your understanding of what success means for the project in order to declare it complete, and how you measure the outcome and impact of the project.

2.6.1 Project lifecycle interview questions

Let’s get into some questions.

Program management interview questions: Project lifecycle

  • How will you go about managing a large, cross functional project?
  • What are the typical stages of a project?
  • Give an example of what project management methodologies you have used in the past.
  • What is the waterfall method? What is agile? What are the advantages of each of them?
  • Tell me about how you went about gathering requirements for a project. How did you do it?
  • Can you explain how testing fits into the software development life cycle?
  • How do you close a project?
  • Give an example of a complex project you managed. What did success mean for that project completion?

3. How to practice program management interview questions

It’s best to take a systematic approach to make the most of your practice time, and we recommend the following three steps:

3.1 Learn a consistent method for answering program management questions

In an interview setting, you should focus on your most relevant experiences and communicate them in a clear way. An easy way to achieve this is to use a step-by-step method to answer questions. 

Notice that almost all questions above can be asked as hypothetical questions (e.g. "How would you go about managing a large, cross-functional project?"), or behavioral questions (e.g. "Tell me about a time when you faced a major roadblock").

Although the two phrasings are similar, they require different answers. For hypothetical questions, you should explain your hypothetical approach to the question asked (e.g. "I would do XYZ to detect problems.") And for behavioral questions, you need to take an actual example from your past and explain what you did (e.g. "I did ABC to learn about my project domain").

When answering behavioral questions, we recommend using the IGotAnOffer method to bring structure to your answer. Here are the steps:

  1. Situation: Start by giving the necessary context of the situation you were in. Describe your role, the team, the organization, the market, etc. You should only give the minimum context needed to understand the problem and the solution in your story. Nothing more.
  2. Problem: Outline the problem you and your team were facing.
  3. Solution: Explain the solution you came up with to solve the problem. Step through how you went about implementing your solution, and focus on your contribution over what the team / larger organization did.
  4. Impact: Summarize the positive results you achieved for your team, department, and organization. As much as possible, quantify the impact.
  5. Lessons: Conclude with any lessons you might have learned in the process.

For more information about this method and a full example answer, take a look at our guide to behavioral interviews. While this is a guide to Facebook’s behavioral interview, the method and example can apply to any company.

This method will help you to understand the structure of a good answer. This is a good first step, BUT just knowing the method is not enough, as you also need to be able to apply the steps in interview conditions. 

3.2 Practice by yourself or with peers

A great way to practice answering program management questions is to interview yourself out loud. This may sound strange, but it’s an excellent way to improve the way you communicate your answers during an interview. Play the role of both the candidate and the interviewer, asking questions and answering them, just like two people would in an interview.

If you have friends or peers who can do mock interviews with you, that's a great option too. This can be especially helpful if your friend has experience with tech interviews, or is at least familiar with the process. You can also find peers to practice with on our new mock interview platform.

In addition to practicing by yourself, and with peers, it can be a huge advantage to do mock interviews with experienced ex-interviewers.

3.3 Practice with FAANG ex-interviewers

If you know an interviewer who can help you, that's fantastic! But for most of us, it's tough to find the right connections to make this happen. And it might also be difficult to practice multiple hours with that person unless you know them really well.

Here's the good news. We've already made the connections for you. We’ve created a coaching service where you can practice 1-on-1 with ex-interviewers from Google, Amazon, and other leading tech companies. Learn more and start scheduling sessions today.