/ Technical Program Management

How to Ace the Technical Program Management Interview

Thinking of jumping into the field of Technical Program Management? We understand that the TPM interview can be pretty intimidating. Technical program management, itself, is one of those roles that is a mix of many different fields. Let's dive into acing the technical program management interview!

An Overview of the TPM Interview Structure

Gaining a deep understanding the problems that customers face is how you build products that provide value and grow. It all starts with a conversation. You have to let go of your assumptions so you can listen with an open mind and understand what’s actually important to them. That way you can build something that makes their life better. Something they actually want to buy.
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Many TPM interviews have the same general structure. Usually, candidates must first complete a phone interview before an in-person interview. Each phase may have several variations, and different strategies can be used to ensure your success during the interview process. Let's take a closer look at each in more detail.

Initial Phone Screening

The length of initial phone screening may differ from company to company, from anywhere between 45 to 90 minutes. Generally speaking, the larger the company, the longer the interview, yet the structure is by and large the same. First, your interviewer may begin by introducing themselves and setting the agenda. Then, you'll be asked a series of behavioral questions. Finally, you'll need to conduct some technical exercises before the conclusion of your phone interview. In some of the shorter phone screenings, technical exercises may be excluded.

Before ending your phone call, you'll have the chance to ask your interviewer questions regarding the on-site interview. Be sure to ask questions such as:

  • Should I expect behavioral questions, or should I prepare for a technical exercise or both?
  • If the interview includes technical questions, should I prepare to use specific tools such as CoderPad?
  • What will be the length of the interview?

Based on the answers that your interviewer gives you, you can determine what content and topics you need to study for and how long your answers need to be. Don't hesitate to gather all of your prep materials out in front of you. It can be a tremendous help to look over them during the course of the conversation. If this phone screening is conducted using video chat, you should instead have these materials and notes open on your computer so you can always maintain eye contact with your camera, and by extension, the interviewer. Here are some additional tips that can help make sure your phone interview goes as well as possible:

  • Read the job description and reference it during the interview.
  • Make sure you know what’s on your resume as it is common to answer questions about it.
  • Do some research on the company to help display why you’re interested in the position there.
  • Look up the interviewer on LinkedIn so you can understand them a bit better; make references during the interview if you have something in common.
Conversation table
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On-Site Interview

Hopefully, you move onto the on-site interview. What does that structure look like? Like the phone screening, there are a few variations, but they still generally follow the same format:

  • Sit down with a TPM.
  • Sit down with an engineering manager or another engineering lead.
  • Sit down over lunch with an engineer or product manager.
  • Sit down with another product manager or product lead.
  • Finally, have an interview with the hiring manager.

Larger companies may require you to sit down with a few more individuals, such as the TPM manager, or a stakeholder from another department like finance, legal, marketing, etc. If you wanted to learn more about the particular format beforehand, don't be afraid to ask questions after your phone screening:

  • What sort of technical exercises should I come prepared for?
  • What is the length of each sit-down?
  • Will there be breaks during the interview?

No matter the company, TPM candidates can expect to meet with several members of the team during their on-site interview. They'll also be expected to answer many behavioral questions and at least one technical exercise, if not more. It's not uncommon for these interviews to last up to 4-6 hours. The best way to prepare is to complete as many behavioral and technical questions as you can. Here are some other tips for acing the on-site:

  • Search for the LinkedIn of everyone that you'll be sitting down with. Try to learn something about them that you can mention during your conversation.
  • Come with prepared questions about the tech, the company, the team, and growth opportunities.
  • Prepare some answers to commonly asked behavioral questions so that you bring up these stories quickly.
  • Conduct some of your own research on the company, check out the company’s social media, and more; this will help you show some passion and interest in the particular role.
  • Most importantly, use any products or services relevant to the TPM position.
  • Make sure to pack some snacks and supplies, like water or energy bars. These on-site interviews can be long and intense. Be careful that you don't eat too much during your lunch interview, as this could decrease your afternoon energy and make you tired.
  • Brainstorm on the kinds of questions the interviewing company is probably asking their candidates. (e.g. Amazon might ask you for a supply-chain or shipping based technical exercise).
  • After your interview, be sure to email the recruiter, thanking the interviewing team for their time.

Types of Interview Questions

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When it comes to TPM interviews, you're likely to experience four different types of questions that are specific to the role. These are system design, program sense, cross-functional partnership, and behavioral. Let's take a look at each in more detail.

System Design Fundamentals

Every TPM will be asked a series of questions centered around their ability to think technically. Typically, these come in the form of system design questions, in which candidates are asked to work through the system architecture of a particular product.

Program Sense

As the name of the position suggests, Technical program management is all about managing a "program" or some technical process. Therefore, a TPM's particular program sense is their ability to understand and improve the technical processes they work with, while using the skills they've picked up in their previous experiences.

Cross-Functional Partnership

These types of questions center around the ability to work with people with different roles and or functions, especially those from several different departments. This is a crucial aspect of any TPM role.

Behavioral

Behavioral questions are common in many interviews and have a wide variety as a result. All of them, though, are trying to get to know you and your experience a lot better, especially when it comes to how you behave on the job. Candidates could even be asked to present a "technical retrospective" of a product they've worked on before.

Be mindful that you don't answer any of your behavioral questions with hypothetical scenarios. Your interviewer isn’t interested in how you would have done something, but what you actually did.

Interview Tips & Tricks

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Study up on the frameworks

Every job candidate must answer each question as comprehensively but as concisely as possible. This can be a struggle, as a thorough and a short answer may seem at odds with one another. Yet, there are several frameworks you can use to ensure your interview answers are as effective as possible. That said, don't make the mistake of relying solely on a single framework and using it to answer every question. It'll be much more impressive to your interviewer if you can adapt and use the best framework to answer the particular question.

Instead of rehearsing through these frameworks as you would a script, you should come into your interview with a few situations or examples beforehand and then deliver them naturally and conversationally. It's obvious to your interviewer when you go through a particular framework step-by-step instead of really answering the question, and this will make you come across as inauthentic. Be sure to use these frameworks in a way that will help you, not hurt you. Nevertheless, here are three that, if used naturally, can serve you well during your TPM interview.

STAR

The STAR framework is another popular choice for many job candidates, not just TPMs, and this framework is best used with behavioral questions. For interviewing TPMs, the STAR method is also useful when answering questions about cross-functional partnerships or difficulties between stakeholders of different departments. The framework involves breaking up your answer into four parts. They are:

S - Situation

T - Task

A - Action

R - Results

Using this method, you can best elucidate often complex situations without rambling or otherwise confusing your interviewer. To begin, you describe the situation in which you had to make such a decision or take a course of action. Make sure to explain why your example is worth talking about. Go beyond the basics, and really dig deep into the challenging circumstances that you had to face.

Describe all the tasks that were involved with your decision-making process, the actions you needed to take, and, finally, the results of your efforts.

Triangle Method

The Triangle Framework or Three-Point method is rather simple. It involves breaking your answer down into three parts, all of which should more or less be related to one another. This framework is much more adaptable than the STAR method, and you can use it for answers or parts of answers that are both big and small. As we've mentioned, you don't want to use these frameworks too rigidly. You don't want to come off like a robot. Luckily, the triangle method's generality allows you to use it in creative ways.

Broad then Deep

As the name suggests, the Broad Then Deep framework involves first giving a broad overview of your answer and then going deep on one aspect. For instance, let's imagine you were asked, "what are the top 3 technology trends that will change the landscapes in the next decade?" You might begin, then, by going broad and outlining a general overview of all the top technology trends you think are most important. Then, you'll deep dive into one of those trends you believe is the most critical. Be sure to explain to your interviewer why you choose the options that you did.

Go Through Some Mock Interviews

Every TPM candidate will naturally prepare heavily for the technical aspects of the job interview, but completing some mock interviews are incredibly important for successful performance during your real one. Nothing will give you the confidence and self-assurance you'll need quite like nailing a couple mock interviews. After all, the way you present yourself can make or break an interview, especially at the more competitive companies.

Join the Exponent Community

There's no denying the fact that an upcoming TPM interview can be daunting. But you're not the only one out there. Here at Exponent, we have a thriving community of like-minded applicants, interview coaches, and employees with top tech companies that can help you along your journey to becoming a TPM. We also developed a TPM interview prep course along with some centered around Product Management, Software Engineering, Data Science, Product Marketing Management, and Product Design.

You can also get access to industry-leading interviewing coaching to further improve your chances of an offer. Sit down with a TPM from Stripe, LinkedIn, or even Amazon! Dozens of industry insiders and career experts in product management, program management, product design, software engineering, and data science have partnered with Exponent, and they're just waiting to help you ace your tech interviews. Check out our list here and book a session today!

Anthony Pellegrino

Anthony Pellegrino

I’m a rather bohemian freelance journalist and tech content writer. Philosophy/CS student - A.I.,Consciousness, Social Sciences.

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