Hiring a great Project Manager is critical, especially when this new team member will lead many of your software initiatives. They help prioritize tasks, interface with stakeholders and overall, drive a project to completion. But how do you find a great one?
Like in any other specialized professions, there are many Project Managers out there to chose from, but the really good ones are very hard to come by. Throughout my career, I’ve had the good fortune of interviewing and hiring many professionals in big and small companies. I’ve learned that there’s a lot of information on hiring Engineers, Sales people or other professionals, but there’s not a lot on hiring Project Managers. The question I often get is “how can I find the great ones?” In my experience there are many things to consider during the interview process. In this post, I outline my selection criteria, and in Part 2, I share a hiring process I’ve successfully used for many years.
Before starting your search, it’s important to define what your goals are and what you are looking for in a candidate. Yes, a job description is important, but I’m talking about the nitty-gritty. As a Product Manager, what type of Project Manager are you looking for? Do you need somebody to drive full programs and interface with Executives, or do you need a coordinator to keep the schedule together. Do you want somebody that just drives tasks, or do you need somebody with a solid technical background to dive very deep into the details of the software? Your perspective also needs to consider the size and type of company you’re in. A Project Manager for a small company will need to wear a lot of hats while a PM for a big company will usually have a very specific role. Additionally, the Project Manager background will be different if you are in a Product vs a Services (i.e. Consulting) company. You also need to consider how this new Project Manager will complement/collide with some of your Product Manager responsibilities. Keep that in mind as you start looking for the right candidate.
When hiring Project Managers, I always look for the same things. The depth of knowledge will depend on the level of position I’m looking to hire, but regardless of years of experience, every candidate should be strong in these 5 areas:
- Project Management craft
- Working knowledge on the topic they are going to manage
- Business acumen
- Excellent people skills (no exceptions)
- Great cultural fit
Project Management craft
To me this is very important. When I hire Project Managers, I’m looking for somebody that is a PM professional, meaning that she has studied the craft and has experience managing projects using a specific methodology. I can’t tell you how many resumes I’ve reviewed of people that claimed to be Project Managers because they did some task management in their marketing role or dev lead role. In my book that’s not a PM, that’s just somebody that knows how to check items off a list. I put special attention on people whose past title is actually Project Manager or Program Manager. That tells me they are committed to the craft.
Another question I often get is: certified or not certified? This question inundates every Project Manager forum out there. People are very divided on whether certifications (either PMP, Agile, etc) are a good thing. I’m personally biased since I have a PMP certification myself. But the truth is that certification alone does not make for a good Project Manager. A good PM will be good with or without a certification. But, since the recruiting process is very competitive, I view certification as a way to stand out. It tells me that this person is committed to the craft of Project Management, has invested the time to learn about the profession, and can speak the same language as other professionals. In my opinion, that’s a big plus since they can hit the ground running. For example, if you are an Agile shop and your candidate is Agile certified, at the very least you know that he won’t be a stranger to sprint planning, stand-up meetings, sprint demos, etc. That’s one less thing you have to worry about.
Working knowledge on the topic they are going to manage
According to PMI, a Project Manager relying on the PMBOK (Project Manager’s Book of Knowledge, published by PMI) should be able to manage any type of project, regardless of size or industry. Conceptually this sounds great, but my experience has taught me otherwise. The software industry is very young in terms of processes and maturity, so having a deep understanding of design and/or development goes a long way when managing teams.
I myself have been in the situation where I needed to manage big design engagements having only a development background. The learning curve was steep and during that time, I wasn’t able to support my team and my company the way I would’ve liked. The lesson learned for me is that the software industry moves extremely fast, so hiring somebody that can hit the ground running is always best. In my opinion, the best software PMs are those who started as a developer and are now following the managerial path. They’ll be able to understand the technical complexities, relate to the team, win their trust, be more accurate with estimations, and be able to identify risks proactively and efficiently.
Hiring a Project Manager from a different software industry works fine since software development and management principles are similar across all software projects. For example, a PM with Cloud experience in the Health industry will be OK managing Cloud software in the Internet industry. The same is true for software PMs with experience in different platforms. For example, a Project Manager with SaaS experience will probably do okay managing Desktop applications. They just need to apply themselves to fill their knowledge gaps and they’ll be able to hit the ground running.
On the other hand, hiring a Project Manager from a non software/high-tech industry can be tricky. Experienced Project Managers from a non-software industry (i.e. Consumer Products, Construction, etc) will have a hard time driving a software team since usually the expectation is for the technical Project Manager to dive deeply into the weeds of the projects.
Project Management is all about producing results. Throughout a project, the PM needs to make many decisions that will affect the business performance of your company. That’s why it’s important to have a strong business acumen. The Project Manager needs to understand the trade-offs and how they affect the overall health and goals of the company. I’m not talking only about managing the budget and the schedule of their particular project. That’s a given. I’m talking about understanding the business model of a company, how they make money and how their decisions will impact the bottom line.
Excellent people skills (no exceptions)
Project Management is all about influence without authority. PMs will communicate with all levels of the organization, both internally and externally, so they must have great written, oral and presentation skills. I put special attention to their demeanor and how they react under pressure during the interview. I also look at their manners, their communication style, how polite they are, etc. I ask myself questions like: do I feel I can take this candidate tomorrow to present to my CEO? Do I think they’ll be able to handle my toughest client or problematic team member? The answer has to be a solid “yes”. If there are any doubts, then the choice is clear. I don’t care how experienced or talented they are; if their people skills are not polished, then I rather move on to the next candidate.
Great culture fit
Culture fit is extremely important in any organization, especially for people joining a leadership role. The Project Manager will be thrown in the middle of an already existing team and needs to start driving them forward. Not an easy thing to do. Having your new PM to be a great cultural fit makes it a lot easier on everybody. My advice is to be extremely picky about this. Interviews are a very controlled process, and the candidate is always trying to make the best impression. Anything strange you see during the interview will be amplified 1,000 times once the candidate starts. For example, if you ask a question and they are snappy or roll their eyes, that should be a indication of some of her personality traits. It’s for you to decide whether they are acceptable or not.
To asses if they are a good cultural fit, try to learn more about them as a person and not just as a “candidate”. Get a feel on whether their personality, interests, views, etc align with the overall spirit of your organization. For example, if your organization is very fast-paced, and the people are mostly extroverts, then hiring somebody very shy or quiet might not fit with the organizational dynamics and will end up disrupting the team balance. Again, Project Managers are key members of the organization that need to interface with many people. You need to make sure they’ll represent you, their team and the company the right way.
Once you decide you are serious about this candidate, I recommend asking for references and listening to what they have to say. You’d be amazed at some of the details you can discover, so this is an opportunity you can’t pass up. I usually ask questions like:
- What’s the candidate’s work ethic?
- How does he perform under pressure?
- How does he get along with peers, clients, etc?
- What are her strengths and weaknesses?
- I’m looking to hire him for position X. Do you think he is a good fit? What should I be aware of?
You can also look at the candidate’s recommendations in LinkedIn. These recommendations usually have things in common. They usually have a theme or some keywords that repeat regardless of who gave the recommendation. For example: “great with clients” or “very responsive”, etc. These themes can help you get another perspective on the candidate.
Keep in mind that as valuable as references are, they are often biases since it’s the candidate who supplies these references. It’s hard to think they’ll provide references that wouldn’t speak very highly of them. To combat that, An additional approach is to look in your LinkedIn network to see if you know somebody connected to the candidate. That way you can get a sincere opinion of somebody you know and trust.
The Bottom Line
In this post, I’ve covered the criteria for hiring a great Project Manager. But, how do you evaluate all this during an interview? In Part 2 of this series, I’ll share the hiring process I’ve used many times to evaluate all these characteristics and arrive at stellar candidates.