10 Essential program management Interview Questions *

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What is the difference between project and program management?

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The project manager role is more tactical compared to the strategic role of program management. A project manager is responsible for day-to-day activities within a given project like assembling and leading a project team, managing resources and schedules, and delivering project results. A program manager typically oversees multiple projects that all share a common strategic goal outlined in the given program. This role involves leading multiple project managers, formulating and adapting strategic goals, communicating and coordinating with top-level management.

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How do you control the scope of projects?

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The program manager has to make sure that all the projects within a program are aligned and follow the same strategic goal. To begin with, clear milestones for each project have to be identified and plotted out in a single space to make sure that all key elements of a program are covered. This high-level overview will quickly expose any milestones, which are unnecessary or excessive and will also reveal any dependencies between the projects. Secondly, regular meetings with all project managers are crucial for keeping the scope of all projects in check. As time passes, new information can be revealed that might change the priorities of a project or even the program. Regular updates ensure that the scope does not get out of control and strategic goals are achieved.

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What is the difference between governance and management in the context of a program?

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Governance includes strategic level decision-making, financial planning, and oversight. Governance provides values, purpose, goals, and structure, which form guidelines for management. Different people should undertake governance and management positions.

On a company level, a program manager is in a position of management as they implement the goals of the whole company. However, in the context of a given program, they are in a governance role and they provide guidelines to project managers.

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How do you evaluate a project’s performance?

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Program managers have to constantly evaluate the performance of a project to make sure the program is on track to deliver its goals and to be able to provide feedback to project managers. Different metrics might apply to different companies, however, there are some high-level performance indicators that can be applied to all projects:

  1. Costs - compare the budget to actual spending.
  2. Schedule - evaluate if project milestones are being met on time.
  3. Quality - comparing the output quality to the quality plans outlined at the beginning of the project.
  4. Business Case Alignment - reevaluate the business context and if the project is still on track to satisfy business needs given the current budget and schedule.
  5. Stakeholder Satisfaction - investigate if the project stakeholders are satisfied with the project deliverables and the communication of the project manager.
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What is Earned Value Management (EVM)?

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Earned Value Management (EVM) is an attempt to manage a project’s performance and progress in an objective manner and it combines the measurements of the project management triangle: time, scope, and costs.

While EVM can be very complex and include many different indicators and forecasts that are relevant to different industries, on a basic level EVM include three main components:

  • Project Plan - a collection of all work that needs to be accomplished for a project to be complete.
  • Planned Work (PV) - the budgeted cost of all the work outlined in the project plan plus any overhead.
  • Earned Value (EV) - the budgeted cost of the work actually performed plus overhear and plus any costs related to planning.
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How do you determine funding requirements for a program?

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Funding requirements for a program are simply a collection of all funding requirements for all the projects within the program plus the budget for the program management team. Some programs take multiple years to complete and thus the concept of period funding requirement is appropriate. Quarterly, half-year or yearly periods are managed by the program managers with all the project managers.

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How would you approach risk management in a program?

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Firstly, a program manager should put down all of the possible risks in the list and prioritize them. One simple approach to prioritization is ranking all the risks on a 1-5 scale, which 1 representing the very unlikely to occur items and 5 for very likely risks. Following that, each risk has to be evaluated on another 1-5 scale based on the severity of the impact if the risk was to occur (1 - lowest, 5 - highest). The two multiplied numbers for each risk create a prioritized list.

Secondly, a risk mitigation plan has to be put in place. Each risk item needs to be assigned a course of action based on these options:

  • Avoid - changes in implementation that would negate the risk from happening.
  • Control - intermediary actions that minimize the likelihood or impact of a risk.
  • Accept - assume that the risk will occur and budget for negative financial or other impact.
  • Transfer - outsource the risk to someone else by using insurance or outsourcing some operations.
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What is your strategy for change management?

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Change management is a planned out course of action to accommodate changes in strategy, processes or tools. Typically, there is some resistance to any major change in traditional approaches to doing things and thus it needs to be managed to avoid negative psychological fallout. One way to approach change management for a program manager is in a phased manner.

Firstly, create clear messaging on why the change is needed and what impact it will have on the team, department, or company. Having data-driven research to support your claims will make your message stronger and lessen the hesitation or resistance. Communicate the changes not just to the project manager, but to everyone working in the program.

Secondly, create a pilot project for the change that would involve one or two project teams. Try to find project managers and teams which seem the most open to this change. Use the pilot not only to garner support among other teams but also to iron out any kinks in the new process.

Lastly, after the pilot, create a timeline with all the project managers during which the project teams will make the change.

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How would you determine if a project is at risk?

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A program manager can keep a pulse of a project and detect risk early on in a few ways:

  • Unified dashboards - a program manager has to keep track of relevant metrics across all projects and ask project managers to comment on significant deviations from the plan.
  • Stakeholders - regularly checking-in with the most important project stakeholders can provide an honest picture of a project’s health as stakeholders are more than happy to escalate any problems that might be present.
  • Simplify reporting - have more direct and constant communication with project managers. Creating trusting relationships with project leads will go a long way in making sure people are not hiding any problems.
  • Anonymous tips - a program can have hundreds of people working in it so it is unrealistic to have direct regular communication with most of the team members. Having a way for them to report any concerns to the program manager without going through the project manager can give the much-needed visibility in a project’s health.

Program managers must monitor numerous projects at once. This question asks applicants to explain their management style, how to identify project risk and what steps to take to ensure projects are completed successfully. What to look for in an answer:

Applicant’s management style and communication skills

Critical thinking skills and ability to identify and mitigate risk

Leadership capabilities

Example: “I consistently analyze project health, looking at timeliness, budget, staffing and client satisfaction. I utilize project and program dashboards to give me a unified, real-time view. I simplify reporting processes and regularly interact with project managers and leads. Additionally, I build trusting relationships with project managers and teams in order to increase transparency and improve communication.”

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What are the advantages of grouping projects under a program?

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  • The big picture - having related projects under a common program makes it easier to understand how the project fits together and what impact they have on the company goals.
  • Sharing resources - a program works towards the same goal so if at some point on project needs more resources or people it makes it easier for project managers and project team members to understand why people need to transfer to other teams.
  • Optimizing resources - the purchasing power of a program is greater than of any single project within it. A program can get discounts on tools, infrastructure, or services when more projects are using them.
  • Project performance comparison - similar performance metrics make it easier to evaluate, which projects have better ROI and shift resources to them for a bigger impact.
* There is more to interviewing than tricky technical questions, so these are intended merely as a guide. Not every “A” candidate worth hiring will be able to answer them all, nor does answering them all guarantee an “A” candidate. At the end of the day, hiring remains an art, a science — and a lot of work.
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Looking for program management experts? Check out Toptal’s program managers.
Steve Davis
United States
Steve Davis is an experienced project manager, scrum master, and project management office leader with over 20 years of experience demonstrating results in enterprise and large-scale transformative portfolio, program, and merger integration initiatives for top industry leaders. Steve has strong financial discipline and is proficient in Agile, Waterfall, and other leading methodologies as well as custom solutions.
Peter John Hastings
United Kingdom
Peter is an experienced project manager, business consultant, and business analyst who has worked with a broad range of organizations from relatively new to mature across technology and business. He has have worked on large client projects at GAME, the public sector, ASDA, M&S, and other major global and UK retailers as well as an internationally renowned utilities company.
Mark Bolton
United States
Mark is a Certified Scrum Master and Prince2 project manager with large-scale global delivery experience in financial services, IT, and business transformation. He builds, leads, and delivers programs with up to 250 staff and $50 million in spend. Mark has substantial BPO leadership building remote teams that support business and IT.