Program Management: Due Dates

Example interview question on handling tight deadlines.


Your engineer comes to you and tells you that a particular feature cannot be launched by the due date. How do you respond?


This situation is a very common occurrence, and this question is a great way to see how you would handle a tough, ambiguous interaction with key cross-functional stakeholders. These scenario-type questions are trying to gauge how you will handle a similar situation at work and if you are able to reach a consensus on a plan of action.

We’ll treat this question as a role-playing exercise with back-and-forth questions from the interviewer to better reflect how a real-life interview would work.

Solution approach

Since this involves a sensitive interpersonal interaction, we don’t want to jump to conclusions right away. We should aim to gather facts and information, and then use these to formulate our response. We’ll use the following structured approach to answer this question:

  • We’ll start by listing out possible options that could be the reason why the project will slip, but we won’t explicitly jump to any specific reason.
  • We’ll clarify and build upon the follow-up questions that the interviewer asks. This will demonstrate problem solving abilities to approach an ambiguous question.
  • Finally, we’ll make sure to actually state the next step. Our job as a TPM is to make progress, so we should make sure we’re clearly stating the plan of action.

Sample answer

Interviewee: The first question I would ask is “why.” This is to determine the root cause of the issue. There are many potential reasons:

  • An unforeseen risk or dependency just surfaced.
  • A key dependency failed to deliver and we are blocked.
  • We had to prioritize something else.
  • We lost a key resource.
  • We underestimated the work effort needed.

Interviewer: Good question. Your engineer responds: “We think the amount of tech debt and maintenance required to launch by that date is unacceptable.”

Interviewee: Fair enough. Let me ask some additional questions:

  • First, approximately how many more days/weeks would we need to push the launch date to reduce the tech debt and maintenance cost to an acceptable level?

  • Second, can we quantify what we mean by “tech debt and maintenance"? Does this mean we’ll need to have a 24/7 oncall that we’re not equipped to staff yet? Will we be fighting fires or monitoring the system constantly during work hours? Or is there something else I’m missing?

Interviewer: Good follow-up questions. Your engineer responds: “To answer the first question, we’ll need to push the launch out several months to get this in good enough shape where we feel comfortable launching. For the second question, the main issue is that when a user makes a change to a particular setting, we don’t have the necessary automation in place yet to update the backend setting. This means we’ll need an engineer to monitor any changes manually (possibly at all times of the day), and then update it directly. This is quite burdensome and very risky.”

Interviewee: Got it. How critical is this setting to the feature launch? How did we miss properly planning for this?

Interviewer: The Product Manager came to us a few weeks ago with this request and we thought it was fairly easy, but as it turns out, it is way more complicated than we anticipated. In terms of priority, we’re not really sure how important this is to our product as we didn’t really pushback.

Interviewee: Okay, I think I understand. Let’s do two things:

  • First, let’s chat with the release folks to see how firm our launch date really is. I expect that a few months will be unacceptable, but we may get some leeway that will help us.

  • Second, let’s chat with the PM to determine the feature priority and if it is a launch blocker. If it is, then we will need to negotiate timelines, remove a different feature, or get some additional resources to help implement it.

Interviewer: Sounds good to me.

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