Guide to Interviewing a Subject Matter Expert


At the start of any project, you’ll be pulling together a new team of people. That may include people that you haven’t worked with before, people who have specific expertise or people who you need to consult to make sure you set your to project up with the best chance of success.

Subject matter experts (SMEs) are people who are highly skilled in their area and who will either be working with you or who can advise you on key aspects of the project. As they are often incredibly busy and deeply knowledgeable in their subject area (they are experts, after all), it can be daunting working with them – especially if you don’t share their expertise. It’s even harder to know whether your lack of knowledge is being used against you, say, when you’re asking someone to estimate a particular task.

Few people have experience interviewing someone, let alone knowledge of how to get the most valuable information which is vital to translating complex topics into action items on a plan. Our guide is intended to help you successfully meet those SMEs and get the truth you need from them to deliver your project successfully.

Set Your Objectives

Think about what you want to get out of the interview. The purpose of meeting with your subject matter expert could be:

  • To translate complex project features for the project charter, Statement of Work or roadmap
  • To identify tasks or deliverables for your project plan
  • To get to know them and to start building a trusted working relationship
  • To solicit their knowledge based on experience
  • To understand their estimating approach.

Or anything else that is relevant to your project. Always go into a meeting prepared so you can shape the conversation and make sure that you get what you want out of the session.

How to Manage the Interview

Arrange a time to meet with your interviewee. Find a time that is convenient to you both, and preferably as soon as you know that they are joining the project team. Send a calendar invite and talk to them (or send a follow-up email) that explains why you are meeting and what you hope to achieve from the discussion. Let them know where they should meet you and how long the interview will take.

If you can, send them your list of interview questions in advance. This will help them prepare as well. Your conversation might take a different turn as you follow a particular thread in the discussion but having an “agenda” in the form of your questions will ensure that you stick to the major topics.

Finally, make sure that you are prepared. If you can’t write quickly, take a recording device (check that they are happy to be recorded before you use it). Plan how you are going to take your notes and then write them up or use them afterward. Knowing what you are going to do with the output will help you record it in a way that facilitates using your notes afterward.

Sample Questions

Now on to the questions. You’ll see that there’s the main question to get you started. If your colleague doesn’t sound forthcoming with information, or you want to probe a little deeper, there’s a follow-up question to try. These will help you elicit more detailed responses.

1. What do you see yourself doing on this project?

This is where you start to uncover the tasks that should be allocated to the subject matter expert. Probe their expertise; talk about what they should be responsible for. Challenge anything that they say they shouldn’t be responsible for.

Take your draft project schedule or task list to the meeting if you have one already and use this as the starting point for the discussion.

Follow-up question: Have you started putting together a task list?

2. How can the rest of the project team help you?

This question is designed to uncover the dependencies (or linkages) between project tasks. There are probably tasks that will be started by someone else and finished by the SME. There are also likely to be tasks where the SME needs input from other people on the team.

Pinpoint these tasks so that you can make sure the right people are working collaboratively on the right tasks, and that no one holds up anyone else by not having their parts finished on time.

Follow-up question: What do you need from me?

3. How have you arrived at these estimates?

SMEs are responsible for estimating their own workload. They will look at the tasks and tell you how long each one will take. It’s important for you to know how these figures have been put together. Everyone estimates their time differently so check if they have accounted for input from other people and whether their numbers are based on effort or overall duration.

Follow-up question: What level of contingency is appropriate to add?

4. How shall we monitor progress?

Rather than telling your SME how to report to you, let them offer you ideas. This will give you an idea of whether they prefer to be monitored closely or left to get on with the job at hand.

Watch out for responses that lead you to believe that they don’t want to be monitored or to report progress at all. There’s a big difference between trusting your subject matter experts to do their jobs (as you should) and managing the project effectively. In order to do your job, make sure they know that they should be reporting the status of their tasks at least weekly.

This is the time to start talking about any project management software tools that you expect them to use. Listen to their responses to this: it will give you clues as to whether they will embrace using online collaboration tools or resist the shift to moving their work online. In turn, this helps you establish how best to support them.

Follow-up questions: What software have you used to track progress in the past?

5. What difficulties have you had in the past on similar projects?

This is their opportunity to tell you about problems that have come upon past projects. It taps into their expertise and also their experience, giving them the opportunity to flag up anything that might be worrying them.

Expect their answers to cover topics like:

  • Lack of resources
  • Being micro-managed
  • Falling out with the project manager
  • Having to handle changes to the project such as the addition of new tasks.

All of these are totally normal! They happen regularly on projects. Good project managers know the ways to assist the team through these difficult patches. The answer will prompt you to be on the lookout for similar issues on this project and to think creatively about the strategies you can have ready when they do occur.

Expand the discussion to talk about project risks more generally, and record anything that you feel should go on the project risk log.

Follow-up questions: What might go wrong on this project? What risks can you think of that I should be aware of?

Tailor these questions to meet the objectives you set for the meeting. A structured, productive discussion with your project subject matter expert will give you everything you need to know to work with them effectively and understand the requirements for the project.

Collaborate with your subject matter experts with ProjectManager. The intuitive online interface makes it easy to share progress and work as a team, even for the most time-pressed SME.