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How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews

How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, Iโ€™ll earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.

Disclosure: This post might contain affiliate links. If you click through and make a purchase, Iโ€™ll earn a commission, at no additional cost to you. Read my full disclosure here.

The goal of this post is to explain how to prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) interviews. I will give an overview of the interview structure, dive deep into the 6 evaluation areas and provide resources for mock interviews.

This is part of a mini-series of posts related to career development. The other related posts are:

  1. Interview Preparation Guides
  2. Role-specific information

Overview

A typical interview for high-tech companies consists of 2 rounds:

  1. Phone interview (45 minutes): The interviewer either calls the interviewee via phone or they use a Communications app (e.g. Skype, Zoom, etc). The interviewer needs to ask a wide range of questions, in order to determine:
    • if it’s worth to invite the interviewee for an onsite interview, based on his experience and knowledge
    • the appropriate level of the interviewee (e.g. entry-level, senior, etc)
  2. Onsite interview (4-5 interviews, 45 minutes each): The interviewee visits the company’s offices and talks to the interviewers face to face

The interviewee is evaluated on the following 6 areas:

  1. Project Management: How well can the interviewee plan, organize and execute a project, as well as create, manage and improve business processes?
  2. Domain Knowledge: Does the interviewee understand the specific requirements for the domain that he’s been interviewed at, e.g. the Software Product Lifecycle and the Software Development Methodologies (for TPMs working in Software products) or the Hardware Development stages, such as EVT, DVT, PVT (for TPMs working in Hardware products) or the different ML frameworks (for TPMs working in Machine Learning), etc?
  3. Technical Depth: Will the interviewee be able to have technical discussions with the engineering team and actively contribute to the technical decisions?
  4. Analytical Ability: If the interviewee is presented with an ambiguous problem, will he/she be able to show a methodical thought process (information gathering, reasonable assumptions, etc) that leads to a reasonable solution?
  5. Leadership: How well can the interviewee lead, persuade and influence the team without formal authority?
  6. Collaboration Ability: How well can the interviewee work in teams?

For each of the above areas, there are 3 types of questions:

  1. Behavioral questions:
    • They are open-ended questions about how the interviewee handled a specific situation in the past.
    • They start with “tell me about a time, when …”.
    • E.g. “Tell me about a time when you faced push back from the engineers in a project that you were leading. How did you handle it?”.
    • These types of questions are best answered using the STAR framework, which I explain below
  2. Hypothetical questions:
    • The interviewer presents a hypothetical scenario and asks the interviewee how he/she would handle it
    • E.g. “Your team is about to launch a very high profile project tomorrow and you just found out a very critical bug. What do you do?”
  3. Factual questions:
    • These questions evaluate how familiar the interviewer is with a specific topic.
    • E.g. “What is he difference between a struct and a class in C++?”

For additional information about the overall interview process, you can take a look at:

I also recommend that you take a look at the following online (paid) classes:

The remaining post dives deeper into each interview area with sample questions, preparation tips and explanations about the evaluation criteria.

How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews - Project Management

Project Management

Sample questions

  1. Behavioral
    1. Tell me about a complicated project that you led and was very successful (or failed)
    2. Tell me about a time when the project requirements changed drastically in the middle of the project
    3. What tools do you use to manage a project?
  2. Hypothetical
    1. You have 5 features that you want to implement for an upcoming product, but you only have resources for 2. What do you do?
    2. One of your dependent teams informed you that they will need to delay their release by 2 months. What do you do?
    3. You are working with a team of 5 developers, but the key developer in that team announced today that they are changing teams/companies. What do you do?

Interview preparation

  • In order to answer these questions, you need to understand all aspects of project management in depth. In addition, you need to be able to incorporate in your stories/answers all the important areas that are managed by the TPM, including:
    1. Stakeholders
    2. Scope
    3. Time
    4. Resources
    5. Communications
    6. Risks
    7. Cost
    8. Quality
  • Read the post “What Does A Technical Program Manager (TPM) Do? A Practical Guide” to understand how to structure a program using all the above elements
  • Most hypothetical questions are answered using the following 4 steps:
    1. Understand what caused the change, e.g. why did the dependent team de-commit?
    2. Try to revert the change, e.g. can we convince them to drop a different project and keep support for our project?
    3. Discuss about the tradeoffs between scope, time and resources, e.g. if we cannot get any more resources or change the scope, then we’ll have to delay the product launch
    4. Talk about the risk for each tradeoff, e.g. if we decide to add more software engineers to a project then this might lead to additional delays due to ramp-up times
  • As a quick refresher, it could be useful to audit a free/cheap online class that covers the material for to PMP (Project Management Professional) exam. The goal is not to remember all details, in order to take the actual exam (most high-tech companies don’t value the PMP credential anyway), but to be able to refresh your knowledge regarding all areas mentioned above. A couple of great examples:
  • In addition, you should understand the Agile methodology, such as how a project is structured into themes, initiatives, epics and stories, as well as the differences between Kanban and Scrum
  • Ace the Technical Program Manager Interview by Mario Gerard: Provides answers to 100+ TPM interview questions related to project management, Agile/Scrum and system design
  • Complete TPM Interview Course in Exponent: Provides a methodology on how to answer Program Sense questions

Evaluation criteria

  • Project size and impact: The size and the complexity of the projects that you discuss (i.e. how many people involved, how many teams, impact, visibility to leadership team, etc) are an indicator of the TPM’s experience, which directly affects the seniority level for the interviews (e.g. whether the interviewee will be evaluated for entry-level roles, senior, etc).
  • Execution: Create project plan, monitor the execution of the project, identify risks, deal with ambiguity and handle changes in scope/time/resources/budget successfully
  • Communication: Create communication plan to keep all stakeholders informed about the project progress and risks.
How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews - Domain Knowledge

Domain Knowledge

This area is highly dependent on the projects that the TPM will be working on. For examples, the questions to test somebody’s knowledge about Machine Learning would be totally different than those for Hardware or Embedded Systems.

Sample questions

  1. Behavioral
    1. Tell me about a time when you managed a project using Agile methodologies
    2. Tell me about a time when you had a disagreement with a developer about a technical aspect of the project
    3. Tell me about a time when you faced an important technical problem that had the potential to delay your project launch date
  2. Hypothetical
    1. You are tasked to remove a specific C++ library from the company’s internal source depot. It’s unclear how many existing projects are using it. What would you do?
    2. You just found out that one team is using PII (Personally Identifiable Information) data to perform an action, for which the user has not provided consent. What do you do?
    3. You believe that your engineering team would benefit if you transitioned to Scrum, but your engineering manager disagrees. What do you do?
  3. Factual
    1. What happens when you type “www.google.com” in your browser?
    2. What is the CAP theorem?
    3. How does a search engine work?

Interview preparation

  • You need to understand the domain that you’ll be working on in depth. This means that if you want to work with Machine Learning, then you should search for Machine Learning resources, whereas if you’re working with embedded systems then your list would be quite different.
  • Divya Dhar wrote a great blog post in Medium with details on how she prepared for the Technical Round before her interviews at Google. This is a great preparation list.
  • Be prepared to talk about any technology or programming language that you written in your resume (you will not need to do any coding)

Evaluation criteria

  • Technical fluency: Making sure that the interviewee can actively contribute to technical discussions (e.g. design reviews, etc) with other engineers in the team
How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews - Technical Depth

Technical Depth

Sample questions

The goal of these type of interviews is to evaluate whether an interviewee can actively participate in technical discussions with Software Engineers. TPMs do not need to write code in their jobs, so there are no coding questions during the TPM interviews.

There are 2 types of questions that are typically asked during these interviews:

  1. Previous project: Show me the detailed design of a complicated technical project that you worked in the past
  2. System Design questions: How would you design Twitter/Uber/Facebook Messenger/etc

Interview preparation

  • Previous project: You should select a complicated project that you worked in the past and prepare the design diagram, think about important design decisions that were made and prepare to talk about design tradeoffs
  • System Design questions: I have provided a detailed guide for System Design questions in my post “How to Prepare for Software Engineering Interviews

Evaluation criteria

  • System design skills: Follow an organized approach to design complicated systems at scale (gather requirements, suggest solutions, discuss bottlenecks and tradeoffs, etc).
  • Communication: Clear communicate the approach and tradeoffs using design diagrams, interaction diagrams, etc
How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews - Analytical Ability

Analytical Ability

Sample questions

  1. Estimations
    1. How much additional storage will YouTube need to store the videos that will be uploaded during the next calendar year?
    2. How much money did Facebook make from ads last year?
    3. How many iPhones were sold in the US last year?
  2. Hypothetical/Troubleshooting
    1. You were just notified that in the latest build of the Chrome browser, there is a huge performance difference between the Windows and Linux versions. What do you do?
    2. The latest prototypes of your H/W devices are overheating. What do you do?
    3. Your ML model is behaving very differently between the training data set and the production data set. What do you do?

Interview preparation

  • Estimations
    • Three main ways to do these calculations
      • Top down: Start with a big number (US population or total users of Gmail/YouTube/Facebook, etc) and make assumptions that lead you to the smaller number
      • Bottoms up: Start with a small number (e.g. number of people you know that have an iPhone) and make assumptions that lead your to a larger number
      • Relative calculations: Find how many users/buyers/customers are there in a city and then extrapolate to the US/World
    • Methodology
      1. Ask clarifying questions to understand the problem
      2. Show your equations, even before using any numbers
      3. Add round numbers (using logical assumptions), do the calculations and round any intermediate results
      4. Verify that the final number looks logical (e.g. if you calculate that Facebook’s annual revenues from adds are $1M, then you are way off, but if you calculate that it’s $50B then this looks like a plausible number)
  • Hypothetical/Troubleshooting
    • In these types of questions, you are presented with a specific problem and you need to show a methodical way of solving it
    • Learn how to use a framework for Root Cause Analysis

Evaluation criteria

  • Organized thought process: Understand the initial ambiguous problem by gathering enough information and follow an organized approach that leads to well-thought solutions
  • Communication: Communicating ideas clearly, including any underlying assumptions
How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews - Leadership

Leadership

Sample questions

  1. Behavioral
    1. Tell me about a time when you led a group
    2. Tell me about a time when you worked with a diverse team
    3. Tell me about a time when you faced an ethical dilemma as part of a project that you were working on
    4. Tell me about a time when you led an organizational change. What did you do?
    5. Tell me about a manager that you really liked working with. What was he/she like?
  2. Hypothetical
    1. You got assigned to a new team that keeps missing their milestones. What do you do?
    2. You just came out of a meeting where there was a heated discussion between two teammates, who had vastly different opinions about the next steps for a specific approach. What do you do?
    3. You were just assigned to a project, but your manager had to take some time off due to a family emergency, before he/she could give you more details the project. What do you do?

Interview preparation

  • Think about 1-2 projects, where you led a team without authority and use the STAR framework to answer the behavioral questions
  • Make sure that your answers for these questions score highly based on the evaluation criteria below

Evaluation criteria

  • Leading without authority: Influencing important stakeholders, who might be higher up in the hierarchy. Show leadership for multiple cross-functional teams
  • Initiative: Driving changes for improvement, challenging existing status quo
How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews - Analytical Ability

Collaboration Ability

Sample questions

  1. Behavioral
    1. Tell me about a time when somebody disagreed with a decision that you made. What did you do?
    2. Tell me about a time when you mentored a coworker
    3. Tell me about a time when you worked with a diverse team
  2. Hypothetical
    1. One of your coworkers is struggling to keep up with his deadlines. What do you do?
    2. Your manager made a project-related decision that you disagree with. What do you do?
    3. You notice that your engineering manager has very different opinions than you regarding the priority of a specific project. What do you do?

Interview preparation

  • Think about 1-2 projects, where you worked with a team and use the STAR framework to answer the behavioral questions
  • Make sure that your answers for these questions score highly based on the evaluation criteria below

Evaluation criteria

  • Working well with others: Helping teammates when needed, actively listening to problems, fostering a great team spirit, helping team bond
  • Feedback: Providing and receiving feedback without issues
  • Conflict resolution: Fosters dialog and understanding people’s needs
How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews - How to Answer Behavioral Questions Using the STAR Framework

How to Answer Behavioral Questions Using the STAR Framework

These types of questions are answered using the STAR framework:

FrameworkContentsExample
Situation (2-3 sentences)1. Title of your story (1 sentence): “Let me tell you about the time, when… “

2. Explain what was happening, e.g. the project that you were working on, the teams involved and what was at stake
1. Let me tell you about the time, when I saved Acme Co $10M during the development of the Widget v2.

2. In my last project at Acme Co we were building the next version of the Widget. This was a high visibility project that involved 5 teams with 50 engineers that worked in 5 countries across the globe. When I started working on the project, it was already late by 3 months and had gone way over budget.

Task (1-2 sentences)What was your roleI was the TPM that owned the delivery of the whole project.
Actions (the bulk of your answer)1. Present 3 problems that you identified

2. Present the actions that you took to solve the above problems

IMPORTANT: Use “I”, not “we”, since you want to talk about your tasks, not the team’s tasks
Upon starting with the project I saw that there were 3 problems:
First, due to multiple changes in the leadership team, there was no clear sponsor for the project.
Second, there was no trust between the teams and they were all blaming each other for the delay.
Third, some of our key H/W components did not have good quality.

In order to address the above, I took the following actions:
First, I gave a presentation to the VPs in the company, explained what was at stake and gained their credibility. I also secured a Senior VP as the project sponsor.
Second, I setup a meeting with all the team leaders and invited my sponsor. I presented my new plan and got commitment from everybody. I also setup recurring weekly meetings.
Third, I worked with our supply chain team to find alternative components that were more trustworthy.
Result (2-3 sentences)What happened in the end
e.g. you got an award/promotion, the project launched on time and the company earned $XXX
In the end, the project launched according to my plan. I got lots of visibility within the VP team and a promotion. Based on conservative estimations by the revenues team, the company saved at least $10M by launching before our competitors.

Please note the following:

  • Prepare 3-5 answers using the STAR framework before the interview and write them down (in a text file, on paper, etc)
  • Your answers should not be longer than 2 minutes
  • Remember to use “I” instead of “we” in your answer, because the interviewer is interested on the actions that you took and not on what the team did

You can find lots of resources about these questions on the internet (also check YouTube), so I won’t go deeper into these questions. Here are some good links to start with:

How to Prepare for Technical Program Manager (TPM) Interviews - Mock Interviews

Mock Interviews

After going through all the materials above and getting ready to start the interview process, it is always helpful to get some feedback in a low-stress environment. Mock interviews help you test your knowledge and get feedback from another person.

Here is how you can find interviewers for mock interviews:

  • Pramp.com (free): This website connects you with other peers, who are also studying for interviews, so that you can all learn together
  • ThePmInterview (free): This site presents you with random questions and has a timer so that you can practice your answer. It is a great way to practice General, Behavioral and Estimation questions (you can select them using the filter on the right side of the screen), but there is no feedback for your answers
  • Mario Gerard (paid): Mario is a Principal TPM at Oracle. He conducts:
  • Exponent: This site has 3 options for mock interviews:
    • Peer interviews (1 free, rest are paid): Every day at 6pm PST, you can be matched with another person doing PM interviews, so that you can practice together
    • Top TPM Interview questions (free): This is a list of the top TPM interview questions that are asked by top companies. You can see how other peers answer these questions or you can answer them yourself and get feedback
    • Mock interviews (paid): You can select mock interviews from a list of experienced Technical Program Managers in the top tech companies
  • Use your network: You can talk to other developers that you know (either from your own company, via LinkedIn, etc) and ask them to do a mock interview for you

Salary negotiations after a job offer

Did you get a job offer and you want to maximize the compensation that you are being offered? If so, then you have 2 main ways:

  1. Ask the help of a professional
  2. Do It Yourself (DIY)

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7 Comments

  1. Basically a good structure. Like parent – child. This look like too much of content. May be indexing at top will help. I am not expert how to do it but this is a feedback as a user. May be use and copy structure from a professional content writer blog.

  2. Pls pls organize this in a good UX. This is Gold content, Just need better lens…. Thanks!!

    1. Thanks, Sachin.

      Could you clarify what you mean with good UX? Are you talking specifically about how the post is organized? How to find the posts inside the blog? Something about the theme?

  3. Nice work FIRE man! Really appreciate the awesome interview tips you shared.
    I found you from Blind and shocked by your exp.
    Will keep following your post. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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