The Successful Digital PM, Part 5A: Hiring

Now that I've outlined the major areas to look for in a great Digital PM in previous posts, this post focuses on something equally important: finding those great PMs and getting them on board! Hiring can be a time-consuming process, but it's critical to get right given the crucial role PMs play in projects. Below are some things I've learned and the hiring process we employ at Metal Toad.

Part 5 was going to originally cover hiring, professional development, and retention, but it became too long and unwieldy, so this is part 5A, and 5B/5C will be coming shortly!

Other posts in this series:

Searching for Unicorns

I probably sound like a broken record at Metal Toad with my repetition of something along the lines of "In order to achieve desired outcomes, we need to improve our inputs - namely hiring and sales." If we consistently hire great PMs with the right traits and experience who are self-starters, a good cultural fit, great with clients, and loyal to a company that's good to them, then we achieve satisfied clients via great service and consistency over time. If we get it wrong and have to fire or have someone leave, there's a huge cost to do so, from the time to find another candidate, to the danger of losing client satisfaction during transition periods, to the inevitable training and ramp-up period (which our experience shows can be 3-6 months minimum for a PM).

Hiring is part art, part science. You can have the right gut feeling about a candidate, ask all the right questions, get buy-in from your whole team, check references, and ultimately still have things not work out. The good news is that hiring is right up a PM's alley when it comes to risk - the entire application and interview process is an exercise in reducing risk as much as possible! At Metal Toad, we don't spend days upon days in interviews, but we do invest the time necessary to make smart hiring decisions. Instead, our process aims to give a comprehensive review of candidates when it comes to the self-processes, knowledge, and traits I've outlined as important in previous posts. I've outlined the hiring process below with details on each step, including the tasks involved, what we're looking for, and some tips for applicants.

  1. Screen Applications
    • Tasks & Details: We currently post PM positions on our website and LinkedIn. Of the job boards that we've tried, LinkedIn returns the best overall quality of applicants. We usually receive 75-100 applications during a posting's duration. Applications come in to a group email address, but I review them all personally, taking 2-5 minutes per to review cover letter, resume, LinkedIn profile, and social networks. During this time, we also recruit and headhunt a bit if we have specific candidates in mind. (Total time: ~5-6 hours)
    • What we're looking for: In reviewing applications, I'm looking for a few things. First, I want to see some level of effort put into an application and interest shown in the position. Second, I want to see great written communication, since written communication with clients will be an everyday activity. This goes beyond grammar, and relates to communication organization and readability as well. Finally, I want to see that an applicant lines up well against the specific skills requested in the job posting and has relevant experience, or if lacking relevant experience, enough honesty to say so.
    • Advice for applicants: First off, write a cover letter! If you submit nothing but a resume, I have no context for your application and will likely pass you over unless your experience is outstanding. If you're not local to Portland, this applies even more so. You won't be getting a phone screen unless you tell me you're planning on moving to Portland in your cover letter. You're also going to want to take the time to make sure you're communicating extremely clearly. If your cover letter is a wall of text and your resume isn't easily digestible, your application is probably getting tossed. Sorry!
  2. Phone Screens
    • Tasks & Details: Based upon my analysis of the initial applicant pool and criteria for doing so, the applicant pool under consideration is usually reduced from 75-100 to about 20-30. From there, I set up phone screens with each qualified applicant. Sometimes I delegate phone screens to other coworkers, but the majority of the time, I take on phone screens myself. The phone screen format can feel a bit impersonal, but runs through a list of questions in quick succession that judge if an applicant is fully qualified and if they'd be a good fit with our team. It takes 15-20 minutes per applicant to complete. I take these on myself because it's important to me to not just read the answers, but hear how they're delivered. Context is everything. (Total time: ~6-8 hours)
    • What we're looking for: The phone screen is an increasingly fine-tuned list of questions that get at A) what the candidate's self-process looks like, B) how they stay organized, C) their familiarity with the technology involved, D) their understanding of project management concepts E) if they've actually DONE this before, and F) if they're truly interested in the job and the company. I listen carefully for confidence on the phone and great phone communication skills in general. Yes, some people do poorly under pressure with an interview on the phone, but that's reality for the day-to-day life of a PM.
    • Advice for applicants: Be prepared for some rapid-fire questions. They're not all going to be easy, and you won't have perfect answers for some. Don't let that drag you down; rebound and charge on! Engage with me to the extent possible within the context of the questions. Don't give me one-word answers, but don't go on extended monologues either. I won't spoil the fun and want to keep the phone screen questions private for obvious reasons, but here's a hint: the answers we get to "What are some things happening on the Internet that you find interesting?" are often quite telling. I've administered close to 100 PM phone screens to date, so your competition to get to the in-persons is against all candidates from all time as much as it is against the rest of the current applicant pool. Impress me!
  3. In-Person Interviews
    • Tasks & Details: Phone screens are effective, but imperfect. Some poor candidates occasionally slip through, and I'm sure we pass on other good candidates who don't excel in a phone screen. That said, from the phone screens, we usually end up with 5-6 applicants that are worth bringing in for in-person interviews. Sometimes we'll get a big sampling of the team together, while other times we have a smaller group and subsequent in-persons if initial meetings go well. We strive to have project management, operations, and development departments represented at the table. In-persons usually last an hour, and some questions are scripted, while others are more off the cuff based on conversation. We don't overly grill candidates, but I make sure there are some challenging questions asked. (Total time: ~20-30 hours between 4-6 people)
    • What we're looking for: I try to keep in-person interviews situation-based to the extent possible. Some questions get into the weeds to further expose their experience in the realm of digital project management, but overall, the in-person is all about looking for the traits that make for successful project managers. The in-person format (or in some cases, Skype/Google Hangout if necessary) allows us to evaluate another method of communication with the candidate as well. After this stage, we have a somewhat complete picture of written, phone, and in-person communication skills. We generally leave an ample amount of time for questions from the candidate, and the questions the candidates ask are important indicators of their cultural fit within the organization and if they're on the same page we are or not.
    • Advice for applicants: Swing for the fences in the in-person. We don't ask ridiculously hard questions or brain teasers, so the more you can go above and beyond in your answers to show us you're sharp and know what you're talking about, the better. I'll lead a question a bit from time to time, but if you give a half-baked answer, it's probably going to be left at that. Make sure you have some questions that challenge us too. If I find myself telling you about what the snacks in the break room are, meh. If you're making me sweat and poking holes in our process, awesome!
  4. Gut Check Phone Screen(s)
    • Tasks & Details: From in-persons, we're usually able to narrow down our applicant pool to 2-3 finalists, if not a single candidate. At this point, our team has conferred and come to a consensus or leaning on candidates, so now it's time for something completely different. Next, we pass the candidate off to someone who has not been involved in the hiring process to any great degree and hasn't seen a resume or notes from interviews. This is often our Vice President or someone in a leadership role. I schedule a call between them and the candidate, but I give little or no context to the person running the interview. This results in a strong gut check to validate or discredit applicants and is a good way to protect against groupthink when it comes to candidate review. (Total time: ~1-2 hours)
    • What we're looking for: For the phone gut checks, there's less focus on the details. Instead, we talk career objectives, overall fit within the organization, and probe a bit further into making sure the candidate knows that they see the position closely in alignment with their goals. Again, it's another chance to judge phone skills and how the candidate handles chatting with someone usually bearing a big title.
    • Advice for applicants: Have a crystal-clear vision for why the position fits within your career goals. If you don't know enough about the position by now to answer that directly, you haven't asked enough/the right questions. Be comfortable talking high-level PM concepts with an organizational higher-up.
  5. Reference Checks
    • Tasks & Details: The final step, whether we've narrowed down to a single candidate or not, is to check references. I call enough references listed by each candidate to get responses from at least 2-3, and I ask questions that attempt to get around the "yes, this person worked here and did a good job" answer. From time to time, I'll also look for shared connections or mutual friends to get reference checks not listed by the candidate. (Total time: ~1-2 hours)
    • What we're looking for: By now, we should feel confident about the candidate and have no red flags or concerns about making the hire. Phone screens serve as a last check to make sure there aren't any red flags we're missing.
    • Advice for applicants: Pick references who will have something interesting to say (even if they'd give you an A- instead of an A+) over those who will have little of value to contribute. Talk to your references before I do. Make sure they know you're comfortable with them being honest. I usually ignore the generic positive references, while I actually appreciate the people who share the good and the bad in detail.

This process has historically served us well, and has continued to improve as the questions and the methodology within each step improve. It can be a big time investment (up to a week's worth of hours not spent on other tasks), but pays off if you hire the right candidate when the alternative is losses in the range of $50,000K as a result of each employee turnover.

Every organization's hiring process is different, each with its own strengths and pitfalls. I'd enjoy hearing what other companies do to find great candidates, so if my post sparked thoughts about your process, leave a comment!

Next up, once you've hired a great project manager (or someone who has the potential to be a great project manager), it's on to professional development!

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