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I'm assisting with interviewing a few new PM candidates, and I've been given the task of asking questions related to their MS Project knowledge. The other interviewers are using experience-based questions, ie "can you tell me of a time..."

What sort of questions would you include? Frankly, I think most software knowledge can be gained after the fact and that soft skills are most important, but I'd like to be able to assess the level of the candidates as a sort of tie-breaker if needed.

  • I personally have about a year of intensive use with MS Project. Some things are set by the fact that it's tied to a Clarity interface, so PMs must use automatic scheduling, for example, and there's a WBS template we have to use that dictates the highest level of tasks (eg: "Requirements"). Beyond that there are best practices, but they're not prescriptive. – Colleen Waldie Jul 1 '16 at 20:45
  • If usage of MS Project is required, you could set a requirement of passing the Microsoft Exam 77-343 either before or as a requirement within 30 days of hire. It will give you an objective measure. – JulieS Jul 7 '16 at 0:21
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Q - How do you make MS Project information available and understandable for non PM team members?

A - Typically this will involve views printed to PDF, exports to Excel, sometimes people have experienced Project Server and the answer will involve web based reports.

Q - How does MS Project determine a task is on the critical path?

A - If total slack is <= 0 it's on the critical path. Depending on the version this can be configured.

Q - What is critical path?

A - It's the longest path of tasks to either a deadline or the last task in the project.

Q - Do you set predecessors or successors to summary tasks?

A - Depends on who you ask and your organization may have guidance on this. Personally I never do this because it tends to hide tasks that may be on the critical path.

Q - Do you prefer auto schedule or manual & why?

A - Again, more of a discussion point. There are reasons that both make sense. I use auto and sometimes set constraints on a tasks by task basis. Small schedules sometimes are better off with manual scheduling. The more experienced someone is with MS Project the more likely, I believe, they are to use automatic scheduling.

Q - Say someone wants a custom view for their team, how might you do that?

A - Usually the answer is to set up a custom text field with a pick list, assign the team names to the tasks, filter on that field and either print to PDF or export to Excel. A more advanced solution is to create a custom view.

Q - Tell me two ways to filter in Project.

A - One is with the Auto Filters. Two is to create a custom filter.

Q - Have you used resource leveling? What are the pitfalls?

A - Again more of a discussion point. The biggest pitfall can be that leveling can push tasks around time wise if it's not set correctly. Most folks don't like that.

Hopefully these questions stimulate a conversation & some reflection on the tool. As you know MS Project is very rich and thus very complex. There is almost always more than one way to do anything.

Hope that helps!

Edit: One more -

Q - When would you NOT use MS Project to schedule a project?

A - "Small" projects. To me that means not more than 50 tasks and not more than a month or two in duration. An exception here is if it's a program that is made up of many small projects that all need to be linked to show critical path or reporting across the program (or portfolio)

  • Oh I particularly like the first question! A lot of the others are dictated by our methodology, but that and asking what the pitfalls of resource leveling are, are great. – Colleen Waldie Jul 1 '16 at 20:43
  • Glad I could be of help. Best of luck on the search! If this is a good answer I'd appreciate it if you could mark it as the answer. The points always help! :-) – JackW327 Jul 2 '16 at 2:16
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I think you need to be very careful about using knowledge of MS-Project as a tie-breaker. I am not convinced that will help you very much. In the event you had two identically experienced or desirable candidates, obviously you have to choose something to pick between them, but I doubt they would be so close that only MS-Project skills differentiated them.

The difficulty is this: It is such a huge and complex tool, with so many different yet intertwined ways of achieving the same outcome, that knowledge of any one functional item does not correlate to the competency of any individual PM. Great project managers can be rubbish with MS-P, and expert users of MS-Project, with fantastically detailed MS-Project plans (I know a Gantt chart is not a project plan from a purist point of view, but it is from a de facto point of view with every single PM I have ever met), can nonetheless be unable to manage their way out of a darkened room.

To summarise, I would always try to find some other correlator of PM competency before looking at how well they know MS-Project.

However if you insist this is the way forwards then I offer the following (note that I am not intending to provide answers, quite deliberately, as it would enable future candidates to "cheat" when asked such questions):

  • Discuss why project managers even use MS-Project (or some other project planning and scheduling software) at all? I have seen many project plans hand-crafted in Excel and there are times this is entirely reasonable. If the candidate knows when and why this is sometimes appropriate they will be demonstrating an understanding of how their plans can be used and also communicated to audiences and why that is important

  • What are MS-Project's limitations? This is a bit of a trick question because, since it is so flexible, a limitation in one area of use may not be apparent in another area of use, but the candidate's answers may illuminate any difficulties they find with the product, and from there you may be able to judge their competency with MS-Project and some of the more challenging features of project planning and scheduling in general

  • What do we use constraints for and when should they be used? Inexperienced PMs tend to overload their plan with constraints. If your candidate understands this, and more importantly explain why that is a bad idea (and what to do instead) then you will have someone who understands some of the common problems people have with MS-Project and how to avoid them

  • What is your standard set of steps you go through when starting a brand new MS-Project for the first time on a new project? I would expect to see some tasks around the project calendars, working time, project holidays etc. But the candidate will need to be able to explain what they are doing and, most importantly, why they are doing these steps. Failure to get these right leads to common and potentially severe problems down the line. Knowing and understanding these effects will demonstrate a PM that has faced and conquered these common "beginners'" issues

  • It's one thing to use MS-Project to create a plan for a project before it is started. But how does a PM use MS-Project once the project is under way? Good candidates should be able to take you through the steps they perform during a project, and most importantly, why they do them. What are the reasons for these steps, what are the outcomes, what issues are they trying to avoid. When do they stop updating MS-Project

  • How would you add contingency into an MS-Project plan? Another slightly trick question as there are many ways of doing this, none more right than the others, but the conversation will illuminate the candidate's views on contingency in the first place. In any case, how it is represented in the plan is very important and can lead to, or solve, many common future issues. If the candidate can demonstrate an understanding of this and how to deploy it then the signs are good

Lastly, I urge you to be slightly more circumspect in your view that "...most software knowledge can be gained after the fact". With MS-Project it is very easy to pick up the basic skills, which look so intuitive, but it is very difficult to scale those skills up to a more complex plan and use of the tool. An understanding of what that takes and what that means will indicate a PM that has been through that mill (but they still might be a rubbish PM, which is why using MS-Project as the tie-breaker will not help much!).

I hope that helps. Good luck!

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