6 Robotic Process Automation (RPA) interview questions for 2021

Preparing for an RPA job interview, as a candidate or hiring manager? Check out these RPA-related questions and guidance on developing strong answers
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Robotic Process Automation (RPA) interview questions 2021

Enterprise enthusiasm for Robotic Process Automation (RPA) keeps on growing. Research firm Everest Group recently predicted the RPA software market will grow at a compound annual rate of 45-50 percent during the next two years – and that’s on top of a market that surpassed $1.2 billion at the end of 2019. That rising adoption is starting to show in the job market, too.

A recent U.S. search for "RPA" on LinkedIn produced more than 4,200 open positions. (Spelling out the acronym and searching the full term generated more than 3,800 job listings.) These positions tend to come with a widening variety of titles, from RPA developer to RPA automation business analyst to automation architect.

[ How can automation free up more staff time for innovation? Get the free eBook: Managing IT with Automation. ] 

RPA job titles don't all include "RPA"

RPA jobs may be situated outside IT, in groups such as finance, customer experience, or HR.

Because multiple RPA tools take a low-code or no-code approach, there will likely be many “RPA jobs” that don’t have “RPA” or even traditional IT terms like “developer” or “engineer” in them. In fact, they might be situated in different departments altogether, such as finance, customer experience, or HR.

[ Related read: 5 Robotic Process Automation (RPA) trends to watch in 2021. ]

Regardless of the job title, RPA will be an increasing topic of interest in job interviews – whether one of many topics (for positions where RPA is one of multiple responsibilities) or the topic (for jobs where RPA is the core focus, like RPA developer roles). So we asked a variety of RPA leaders and hiring managers to share some of their top interview questions and advice on developing cogent answers.

You should expect some technical questions, of course. For developer roles, you’ll probably be asked about automation-friendly programming languages, for example. Even in business analyst or non-technical positions, you’ll want to be able to talk about RPA tools that enable people in these positions to implement and manage bots without writing much code from scratch.

“Each RPA vendor’s platform has a multitude of differences that impact usability, so it’s essential that applicants are familiar with an organization’s tools,” says Nancy Hauge, CHRO at Automation Anywhere.

Hauge notes that these are merely the basics: Given RPA’s interdisciplinary nature and growing relevance across business functions, you should also anticipate open-ended questions around challenges, collaboration, success metrics, and similar topics.

“IT leaders are looking for candidates with various skill sets – communication and collaboration critical amongst them – because candidates will need to partner with their peers and other departments across the organization in any planning, development, and implementation related to RPA initiatives,” Hauge says.

6 RPA job interview questions to expect

Let’s dig into six questions (and then some) to anticipate in RPA-related interviews, as well as guidance on developing strong answers. You can use these as an interviewer or a candidate.

1. How would you define success for an RPA program? What resources are critical to success?

Bots are quite literally mindless automatons. You don’t want the people working with those bots to be the same. Even at relatively junior-level positions, it’s useful to have an understanding of RPA strategy and how to measure success. (This is also a chance for candidates to turn the question on the interviewer and ask about their existing performance metrics.)

“Ideally, strong candidates respond with an appreciation for the need to align the RPA program to the enterprise vision and strategy,” says Chris Huff, chief strategy officer at Kofax. “This shows a business-savvy perspective and acknowledges that resource allocation is one of the most important decisions that a board and CEO make. When programs make the board and C-suite look good, they tend to get funded!”

Huff and other RPA leaders previously shared with us some specific metrics for tracking and evaluating RPA performance, as well as for making the business case for further automation. Check out the article: Robotic process automation (RPA) metrics: How to measure success.

Huff also mentions resource allocation: Candidates, especially for management or leadership roles, should be able to discuss what’s required for sustained success.

“Ideally, strong candidates respond with a mindfully balanced approach that covers talent, technology, and organizational structure,” Huff says. “Offering at least one consideration for each shows a holistic approach to assembling the right team and creating an environment for success.”

[ Get no-nonsense definitions of RPA: How to explain Robotic Process Automation (RPA) in plain English. ]

2. Can you share a few examples of your experience with RPA and business processes? For example, RPA applied to HR, finance, or IT processes?

RPA is only as effective as the underlying process it is intended to automate. Not everything’s a fit for RPA. Developers (or candidates with attributes that indicate high potential in an RPA role) should understand that and be able to talk process as much as technology.

“In addition to technical knowledge, it is important for applicants to have knowledge of the business process they will be working to automate,” Hauge says. “Developers have a much easier time automating solutions when they have an in-depth understanding of what the business process is. For example, knowing how finance manages accounts payable or how HR manages recruitment processes will help determine where RPA solutions can be deployed. Furthermore, this knowledge helps RPA developers identify what processes are good candidates for automation and which ones are not.”

[ Want more advice? Read also: How to spot a great software developer: 7 interview questions. ]

3. What do you believe is most important in order to prevent RPA implementation failure? How do you overcome RPA's challenges?

Enthusiasm is usually a good thing in interviews, but enthusiasm that indicates no understanding of why RPA projects fail might be a red flag. Be prepared to discuss challenges and mistakes that you’ve experienced, or from a hypothetical standpoint.

Screen your candidates for whether they understand the common pitfalls of RPA and how to overcome or avoid.

“Far too often we as RPA practitioners may find ourselves cheerleading end-results, without fairly acknowledging the long and windy road that it took us to get there,” says Hanna Kettunen, head of product at Robocorp. “You will want to screen your candidates that they understand the common pitfalls of RPA and that they are able to overcome or avoid. In doing so you’ll jointly discover whether they’ve actually been entrenched in the industry and set yourself up to find someone who will help you avoid costly mistakes in the future.”

RPA is a tricky area for recruiters and hiring managers right now, Kettunen notes, because the technology is still relatively new but its appeal is already well-known. As a result, it may be tempting for candidates to overstate their level of skill and experience.

“If you’re going after an experienced hire, you want to make sure that’s what you’re getting. A veteran will know things aren’t all simple and easy,” Kettunen says.

You can also give the person some “homework” in advance of the interview (while being careful to not ask someone to produce work for free) as a way of testing their skills and seeing how they approach problems.

“I also usually try to give a real-life RPA task as homework for the candidates,” Kettunen says. “Ask the candidate to talk through how they built the automation and why they made specific choices. The main takeaway is not necessarily how well they master a specific technology, but rather the approach that they take to solving the problem.”

4. What aspects of RPA or automation in general get you excited? What brought you here?

The fact that RPA is still an emerging area adds another interview challenge: How do you gauge someone’s long-term potential to grow as the technology itself matures?

Look for signs of genuine interest versus someone who may just be trying to capitalize on the fever pitch surrounding RPA over the last year or two.

“The technology hasn’t been around long enough for people to have an extensive, long history with RPA,” Hauge says. “By asking this question we are able to uncover what gets a potential hire excited about RPA and what fuels their drive to work in automation for a career.”

[ Related read: 8 automation trends to watch in 2021. ]

5. How does RPA relate to other technologies and disciplines, such as BPM?

The strongest candidates will be able to connect the dots between RPA and other disciplines and technologies.

RPA is a tool, not a magic portal to transformation land. The strongest candidates will be able to connect the dots between RPA and other disciplines and technologies, such as Business Process Management (BPM), process mining, and so forth.

“In general, RPA, like many other disciplines, [is] a means not an end,” says JP Ascenci, consulting alliances and ecosystem director at Signavio.

How you specifically approach this question should tie to your long-term vision for RPA’s role in your organization. In all likelihood, though, if you’re hiring RPA skills, you’ve already moved past the experimentation or POC phase and have grander plans.

“[If] RPA becomes a strategic capability which is meant to be adopted at scale [and] rolled out company-wide, it will generally end up joining a Center of Excellence (COE) or an Automation Factory,” Ascenci says. “In both cases, RPA can’t be dissociated of the Business Process Management discipline. For more mature organizations, RPA will join an intelligent ecosystem alongside BPMS, low-code/no-code platforms, and process mining.”

Ascenci recommends being able to discuss the relationship between RPA, BPM, and process mining as a sign that you can be a key part of a large-scale approach to process optimization and automation.

This is also related to our first question and Huff’s advice on being able to discuss a holistic vision for RPA success.

“For example, when discussing technology, the candidate may respond by citing several global advisory firms that state RPA at scale requires three core technologies that work interchangeably: BPM, RPA, OCR),” Huff says. “Considerations across all three areas should be complementary in nature and provide a ‘sum of parts’ value proposition that prompts the interviewer to have an ‘aha’ moment.”

[ What benefits does a COE bring? Read also: Adobe CIO: How we scaled RPA with a Center of Excellence. ]

6. How have you helped non-technical folks use RPA?

One reason for RPA’s popularity: It’s seen as a technology for everyone, not just IT pros. That’s why many commercial and open source tools put an emphasis on low- or no-code approaches. While most RPA experts recommend IT collaboration and oversight, the idea is that your finance or HR pros could just as easily build a bot.

If you’ve helped train “citizen developers” – meaning folks who don’t actually have development experience – to build, deploy, or manage a bot, talk about that. If you haven’t had that opportunity, take the hypothetical approach: How would you train a non-techie in a particular RPA tool or best practice?

“Making or contributing to easily accessible training will make your job easier by promoting best practices,” says Kurt Rapelje, director of analyst relations and product support at Laserfiche. “As you train the early adopters and power users who take the time for the training, they will be resources in their line of business. More engaging and high-quality training will increase the number of people who will try it.”

For leadership roles, this is also a chance to show how you’ll roll out an ambitious program without draining IT resources: “The reason RPA is popular is that IT is slammed, and business staff are willing to take things into their own hands,” Rapelje says.

This is in general a good way to get a sense of someone’s interpersonal skills – especially in terms of working across business functions. As Huff noted in #1, people are critical to RPA success.

Also, RPA (like many automation technologies) can generate fear of job loss and the related resistance to using it. Can this person help reduce that friction?

“Be prepared to be sensitive to tech anxieties, especially among those who have been doing their job a long time without a lot of variety,” Rapelje says. “You’ll want them to see you are helping free them from drudgery, not training their replacement robot.”

Someone who indicates low EQ, for example, might not have a knack for assuring people that RPA is an enabler rather than a replacement.

“RPA developers must bridge the gap between employees and automation initiatives to ensure deployments are working with, and not against, the workforce,” Hauge says. “Together, humans and bots can amplify each other and maximize productivity levels that were unreachable in the past. RPA developers should be proactive in helping organizations achieve harmony for both employees and bots working together.

[ Is your culture agile enough to handle RPA? Get the digital transformation eBook: Teaching an elephant to dance. ]

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.