Questions for the Interviewer

13 Nov 2018

For most of my job searches, I never asked that many questions – I was just happy to get any job at all. Most of the time, this has worked out well and I’ve had good jobs that I learned a lot from.

But the odd exception has taught me that I shouldn’t expect to be so lucky every time. For my most recent job hunt, I ended up compiling a rather large list of questions, which I’m reproducing here for future reference and, of course, the benefit of my millions of monthly readers.

These are probably not groundbreaking questions. Probably at least 80% of them originally came from long-forgotten forum posts, blogs, and podcasts. If I accidentally stole your question, I’m very sorry.

1. Software development

  • What does a development cycle look like?
  • How are projects assigned? How do you balance between the company/team goals and what people want to do?
  • How are projects chosen? Walk me through the lifecycle of a ticket – how is it generated, groomed, assigned? Who defines the acceptance criteria?
  • If an engineer finishes their work, how do they get new work?
  • What’s your code review process like? How long does a ticket usually spend in active review? Can you show me an example of a ticket that is being argued over? What do people tend to argue about?
  • Who tests? How do they test? What type of tests?
  • What’s your strategy for managing technical debt?
  • Do you have deadlines? How do you set deadlines? Have you ever missed a deadline? What happened / what would happen?

For these questions, there’s no specific answer I’m looking for. I mostly want to see that my potential future manager recognises that grooming tickets is a non-trivial job, that individual engineers’ interests don’t always align with what’s best for the company and balancing the two is necessary, etc.

I also care very little about how, exactly, they manage technical debt, but I want to hear that they have some strategy, not just “Yeah, technical debt… that’s bad stuff.” Accepting an internship on a team that has no tech debt management strategy is begging for pain.

2. Intern lyfe

  • Where do interns fit in on a team? What is a typical intern vs. full-time ratio?
  • Do interns tend to be given a big, self-contained project, or are they looped into the regular ticket grooming/assigning process with the rest of the team?
  • How do you evaluate an intern’s performance? How do you set goals for interns?
  • Can you give me some examples of past interns’ work?
  • If they give a single example that sounds absolutely amazing: can you give me an example of a more typical intern project? Can you give an example of an intern project that turned out poorly?
  • What’s your conversion process like? What percentage of interns end up coming back full-time?

Recruiters can answer many of these, as well.

3. Office environment

  • How do you balance the benefits of collaboration vs. the need for engineers to have quiet, focused time?
  • Do people work remote? If yes, what supports do you have to make sure that people don’t fall out of the loop when working remote?
  • If there are multiple offices, how do the offices interact with each other? Do teams have one home, or are teams spread across offices?
  • What does a software engineer’s meeting schedule look like? How many fixed weekly (or other schedule) meetings are there? How many ad-hoc meetings?

4. Management, coworkers

  • How do you hire, in general? Where do your hires come from? (universities, industry, referral, all-out pursuit)
  • How does your hiring process differ for a new grad vs someone with, say, 8-10 years of experience?
  • (if everyone in the office looks really young) Where do your management come from? If they are promoted internally, how do you identify who will be a good manager? What sort of support do they get to help develop their management skills?

5. Long term probing

  • What’s the “big picture” goal for the company? What do you imagine you’ll be working on 10 years from now?
  • How might a software engineer’s career grow within the company over time? Do you have separate tracks for IC, management, technical leadership? Where do people tend to “end up,” if there is such a thing?

6. Chatty questions

  • Why did you choose this company?
  • What’s your background? How is [current company] different from [previous company]? What do you miss about your old company?
  • What does your team do? Can you tell me about a cool problem you worked on recently? What’s something you’re looking forward to starting?
  • Without being able to name your current team, if you could name one team to join at your company, which one would it be and why?
  • If you could go back in time, what advice would you give to yourself when you were in 3rd or 4th year of university?
  • Have you ever mentored an intern? What did you get out of it? What could the intern have done to make your life as a mentor easier? What do you think you might change next time about how to approach mentoring an intern?

These are my bread and butter early-stage questions, for those interviews where you just get 10 minutes to ask questions. They’re the right combination of chatty, easy to answer, fun, and informative or personally useful.

I particularly love the “name a team other than your own” question, partly because it can be very interesting what sort of teams are considered “cool” at a company, and partly because – well, as an intern, if I pass the interviews and accept the job, the next stage is to pick a team!

This list will probably keep growing – it managed to grow by one or two while I was copying it over.

I don’t ask all of them in one interview, obviously. That would be insane and probably take 3 hours. Typically, I pick 4 or 5 that would particularly suit that interviewer – for example, I’m not going to ask a junior engineer how to identify good future managers.

How do interviewers react to probing questions like these? Do they abruptly push their chair back, stand up and say, “Who do you think you are, asking these questions as if you have the right to pass judgment on us?”

No. My last interviewer burst out laughing when I said I had one more question. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s just that I’ve never had anyone ask so many good questions during an interview before.”

Even though students are at the bottom of the job search pecking order, we still owe it to ourselves probe as deeply as possible, get as much information as possible, before accepting a job offer. The good news is that great companies and great interviewers do understand this, and are happy to answer questions.