Chuck Groom

Jan 4

4 min read

Questions Software Engineers Should Ask During an Interview

The interview process for software engineers is as much for the candidate to assess whether a company is a good fit for them as it is for the company to evaluate their skills. Most job-seekers aren’t just looking for the highest compensation: they want to find the kind of job where, most mornings, they will wake up excited about work. But as a candidate, how do you figure this out in the short time given to you by an interview process? Here are some questions I would suggest asking.

“Tell me about a time when leadership used the company values to make a hard decision.”

We all want our work to stand for something and to be guided by a set of principles. Most companies nowadays publish a list of values as evidence of their virtue. Unfortunately these are often bland and trite sentiments that, because they’re generically true, lack the bite of taking a stance on team culture or corporate governance. How do you cut through the B.S. to find places that have an actual value system and philosophy?

Values without action are just words. Ask for specific examples of how an organization leaned on its values when times were tough. Did leadership at the top have enough buy-in and conviction to choose principles over the easier path of “business as usual?”

“How do you decide which projects engineers work on? Who makes the decisions?”

I’ve found that a team’s planning process (at whatever level is immediately above the day-to-day of a sprint) can tell you volumes about the attitudes toward engineering and the general sanity of an organization. This question is more about surfacing red flags than finding a “right” answer.

You want to hear things like:

  • Priorities
  • “Outcomes” or “goals”
  • Decisions based on user research and observed behaviors
  • Engineering managers being part of the process

Bad signs include:

  • CEO or sales “knows” the roadmap, engineering just needs to execute on it
  • “We’re a startup…” as justification for constant ad-hoc scrambles around the crisis d’jour
  • No culture of product management
  • There are a ton of stakeholders and process gates to get anything done
  • “Quality” is said way too much, like it’s a four-letter word

“What are some projects I might work on?”

It’s surprising, but you can go through an entire interview process and still not have a clear picture of the work itself. Ask what tasks and hard problems are on the team’s docket. Are these projects you’d be interested in working on?

Interviewers love that you ask this question, by the way. It shows that you’re engaged and curious. Note that the person interviewing you might be from another team and doesn’t know; just ask them to refer you to someone who could tell you more. And a good follow-up could be to ask that person about their team and what projects they’ve been working on the past week.

“Tell me about the people on my team.”

You want to get specific here — who are the people you’ll be spending time with day-to-day? How many? What is their relative level of experience? How long is their tenure at the company? (If everyone is new, is that a sign of high attrition? Or if the company is in hyper-growth, how cohesive is the fledgling team?). Do people expect to have “focus areas” of ownership, or to share responsibilities? What about other roles, like product management and design? Are people located in different timezones, and if so, how do they collaborate?

Spend time with your (potential) boss

As the saying goes: people don’t quit jobs, they quit their managers. I’d flip that around to say that for a job to be truly compelling, you must have a manager you respect and will learn from. Make sure that you have plenty of 1:1 time to go deep with your future manager; it’s OK to ask for a follow-up chat after receiving a job offer. Some topics could be:

  • What is your management philosophy?
  • What are the team priorities for the next few months? Did you have input setting these? Are they likely to change?
  • How do you give engineers time and space to deeply focus on one problem, instead of being spread thin between many things?
  • Tell me more about my job title. How does the company think about career progression? Can you step me through the career ladder?
  • How does time-off work? How much vacation did you take last year?
  • What does the team do for fun, or to connect as people?
  • Is there an on-call rotation? What is it like? How many after-hour pages were there this past week?

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