A guide to the technical program manager interview

Jan 12, 2022 - 9 min read
Erin Schaffer
editor-page-cover

Many ​software developers aspire to become technical program managers (TPM). TPMs work closely with dev teams and stakeholders and handle all technical projects for an organization. The job market for TPMs is great, with big tech companies like Apple, Amazon, Microsoft, and LinkedIn all hiring for TPMs, as well as many other tech companies. If you’re interested in the role of a TPM, this article is for you. Today, we’ll explore common technical program manager interview questions, TPM interview preparation, the TPM interview process, and more.

Let’s get started!

We’ll cover:

What is a technical program manager (TPM)?

A technical program manager (TPM) works with stakeholders and engineering teams to organize technical projects. TPMs use their leadership skills, management skills, and communication skills to help teams make, communicate, and execute strategic decisions. This role requires you to use problem-solving skills to create complex project plans and perform effective project management. Aspects of the job description include:

  • Defining workstreams
  • Aligning cross-functional teams
  • Creating metrics and a dashboard
  • Examining datasets
  • Crafting technical solutions
  • Automating processes
  • Scheduling meetings and taking notes
  • Following up on action items and projects

What’s the difference between a technical program manager and a technical product manager?

The major difference between a technical program manager and a technical product manager is that technical program managers focus on driving execution, while technical product managers set the strategy and vision for a given product.

TPM interview prep and process

Prep

The first stage of prepping for a TPM job interview is developing the right skills and having the right experience to stand out from competitors. In this TPM interview roadmap, we outline the prerequisites to a TPM position, along with more in-depth advice on how to gather these prerequisites. I’ll outline the requirements briefly. Most TPM jobs are looking for the following skills:

  • Education in computer science (whether it’s from a university or bootcamp)
  • 3-5 years of software development experience (with experience in system design and/or the cloud)
  • 1-2 years of experience delivering customer-facing products
  • 1-2 years of experience in IT operations or risk assessment
  • Strong communication skills
  • Strong organizational and scheduling skills
  • Leadership experience

LinkedIn is obviously a huge hub for the job market, so make sure you have a LinkedIn account and that your profile is up-to-date and thorough. LinkedIn is also a fantastic place to network. The more connections you make, the more likely you are to be noticed by a recruiter or hiring manager. You’ll also have more people to reach out to about potential opportunities. You can get experience on the job by seeking opportunities to lead and establishing a reputation of being an organized, involved, and disciplined developer.

Before your actual interview, I recommend preparing with proper resources and even conducting ​mock interviews with friends, classmates, or peers to practice asking and answering questions. Mock interviews are a great way to practice showcasing your soft skills.

Process

The TPM interview process at big tech companies typically consists of three rounds: a phone screen with a recruiter, 1-2 phone interviews with a TPM, and one round or multiple rounds of onsite interviews. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies have transitioned to virtual interviews and remote work, so an onsite interview would be less common these days.

That being said, it’s important to make sure you prepare for your remote coding interview, as virtual interviewing also requires proper etiquette. Things like what you wear, your body language, and attentive eye contact with your interviewer are still important! I recommend having a clean, professional background and prepping your devices beforehand to ensure that everything will run smoothly. In the event of a technical issue, don’t worry about it! The major transition to virtual communication and work results in some hiccups, and anyone working in the remote space understands that an issue may arise.

Let’s take a little bit about the different rounds of the interview:

Phone screen

Your phone screen will typically be conducted by a recruiter. The recruiter’s goal is to learn more about you, your motivations, and your qualifications for the role. They’ll want to know what interested you in the position you’re applying for and what relevant experience you can bring to the table. I recommend preparing your elevator pitch, as well as preparing to discuss your previous experience.

Phone interview(s)

Depending on the company, you might have one or two phone interviews with a TPM or hiring manager from the team. These interviews usually last a little under an hour (around 45-50 minutes). In this interview, you’re typically being tested on your program management, technical, and behavioral skills. Prepare to talk about your background, previous experiences, system design and architecture design, coding, and situational events. Below, I’ll share common questions from each category.

Virtual or onsite interview(s)

This round of the interview process is known to be pretty lengthy. It depends on the company, but this round typically consists of 3-5 interviews, with those interviews taking up a full day. I mentioned that virtual interviews have become the norm, so that will change a bit of the flow and fluidity of the interview, but the length and question types remain the same.

Expect to go even deeper into the three focus areas of the interview: program management, technical, and behavioral. You’ll be tested on your program management skills, your knowledge/understanding of system design, coding, and other various technical concepts, and your ability to lead cross-functional teams.

In some cases, if a company isn’t completely sure about your candidacy, they’ll want to schedule a follow-up interview after your virtual or onsite interview loops. Don’t panic if this happens! A follow-up interview means they’re interested in you as a candidate and want to get a little more time with you to ensure you’re the right fit.

TPM interview questions

As previously mentioned, TPM interview questions typically fall into three categories: program management, technical, and behavioral questions.

You’ll be expected to showcase your technical knowledge and PM skills, and also show that you’re a good culture fit during the behavioral interview. To help you prepare and know what to expect, I pulled some common questions from each category at FAANG companies.

Program management questions

With program management questions, companies want to hear your approach to getting things done and how you manage highly complex problems. They want to see if you can approach ambiguous situations with a structured approach and deliver results. Sample questions include:

  • How do you break up complex projects into milestones and prioritize them?
  • Your engineer comes to you and informs you that a particular feature can’t be launched by the due date. How do you respond?
  • Compare the agile and waterfall methodologies
  • Imagine you find a bug in the software the day before its release date. How would you handle the situation?
  • How do you manage risk for your projects? Please provide an example where you successfully identified and managed a risk.
  • Tell me about a project you’re most proud of and why

Technical questions

The technical interview will have a range of technical questions, from ​system design questions, to coding questions, to technical explanation questions.

Technical explanations

A technical explanation question is a test of your technical knowledge and your ability to communicate that information clearly. Expect to be asked to explain certain technologies or tools you have listed on your resume. These types of questions vary based on your experience. For example, if you have a background in software development, you’d be asked different questions than if you had a background in machine learning. Sample questions include:

  • How does the cloud work?
  • What is multi-threading?
  • How are passwords securely passed from servers to clients?
  • What’s the difference between TCP and UDP?

System design

The system design questions are some of the hardest questions you’ll receive, so it’s important to spend ample time practicing and preparing for this section. Think of it like a mini system design interview where you’ll need to demonstrate that you can have discussions that focus on large system architecture. You may need to dive deep into a system design project you’ve worked on in the past or discuss the design of a system from scratch. Sample questions include:

  • You open your favorite rideshare app and you don’t see any available cars. What could the issue be?
  • Design a meal delivery app
  • Design a streaming data processing pipeline that can reliably process data in near real-time
  • Design a web cache

As an additional resource, check out How to prepare for a system design interview in 2022.

Coding questions

Coding questions aren’t very common, so you probably don’t need to spend as much time preparing for them as you do for the other types of questions in the TPM interview. If you have experience writing code, you may be asked to write working code. If you’re in a non-engineering position, pseudo-code is the norm. Sample questions include:

  • Write a program to find if an integer is a palindrome
  • Write a program to reverse a string using no built-in functions
  • Parse all lines in a CSV file with a given string

Behavioral questions

The behavioral portion of the interview will assess your ability to facilitate communication between product, design, QA, and engineering teams. In this section of the interview, you want to demonstrate that you can work well with others and that you can lead a team. Sample questions include:

  • Tell me about a time you resolved a conflict between team members
  • Tell me about a challenge you faced while working with cross-functional teams
  • Tell me about a time when you worked with a difficult stakeholder/client/engineer
  • Why do you want to work for our company?
  • How do you manage a team member that underperforms? ​

Wrapping up and next steps

Many people want to break into technical program management. The role of a TPM is one that will continue to grow in demand as the need for cross-team and cross-functional collaboration increases. Landing a TPM role will require experience and preparation, but we’re here to help! If you want to get started preparing for your TPM interview, I highly recommend checking out Hacking the TPM Interview.

This course was written by an experienced TPM who has worked with multiple FAANG companies. You’ll learn about what it takes to pass the difficult TPM interview, as well as get some practical advice on how to thrive in the role.

Happy learning!

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WRITTEN BYErin Schaffer

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