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Interviews are a great opportunity to find out more about your future company.
Ask any hiring manager in tech and they will tell you how hard it is to hire for the open roles they have. Much of the power is now shifting to the candidates. It’s time to flip the script and start focusing on how we can interview potential employers.
With the continued rise in startups, those of us with careers in a technical field continue to be presented with a wealth of opportunities. Along with this surge, we are seeing what has been dubbed the ‘great resignation’. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021, mostly in search of better opportunities and more supportive leadership.
However, before one can commit to a new company and role, we all must go through the process of the job interview, an event which used to be heavily focused on putting candidates under the microscope, but can now be leveraged to transparently and mutually see if there is a match.
Over many years of experience, I have learned that the art of interviewing lies more with listening than talking. As an interviewee, that’s often the most difficult part. Most interviews are structured around a company asking you questions and testing your skills, so how can you make sure you take the opportunity to interview the company just as they are interviewing you?
In this article, I will outline the most important aspects an interviewee should focus on when interviewing with a new company, from career growth, to management style, to time management, and more. If you are among the many who have made the decision to look for a new opportunity, I hope to share with you some of the lessons I have learned sitting on both sides of the conversations.
Before the interview, do your research
As you start talking to a company about a new opportunity, make sure to do your research. First, check to see if you have an internal connection to someone at the company; most hiring managers would not turn down the opportunity to ask someone in their network about their experience working with you.
Likewise, you should make an effort to learn as much as you can about the company and the people you will work alongside. Most employers today request a couple of references so they can reach out and get some feedback from prior colleagues; If you don’t personally have a common connection, you could ask for references yourself. Why not request that your hiring manager shares a contact or two for individuals who worked with them in prior roles or companies?
If this request makes you uncomfortable, don’t worry, you can still get valuable insight by researching a few key areas, including company values and how they invest in their employees. While most companies nowadays have defined and shared their values on their website or in blog posts, a good portion do not actually practice or live out those values. A better way to find out how a company values their team members is by looking at the policies they have in place.
If it’s not on the job posting, ask the hiring manager about benefits, time off, company events, team activities, and educational budgets. This is not about having free food and beer in the office, but truly supporting individuals to build strong bonds as a team and allowing employees to step away from work to be with family and recharge properly.
For example, Replicated made the decision to go fully remote and allocate the budget that would have gone into paying for offices to support team members’ office expenses. They also have a yearly education stipend to help each team member achieve their personal growth goals. This is very much an example of how the company walks the walk, not just talks the talk. If you hear a company has similar benefits or practices, it’s a good sign that they value and support the people who work there.
During the interview process, request more calls
It is so competitive out there that most companies are now trying to optimize for speed to get you through the interview process as quickly as possible and hopefully send you an offer within a few days from your last interview. You may think that’s great. After all, you are trying to get as many offers in hand so you can pick the best one, but did YOU have enough time to really get to know the company and the team? If you don’t have a good sense of who you will be working with, ask for more calls. It is better to take the time to get to know your future manager and some of your teammates than to be surprised after you join.
I am not advocating for requesting to talk to everyone on the team, but meeting with a few of your future team members is extremely valuable. Use the opportunity to ask about how the work gets done and prioritized. It’s also a good opportunity to ask about your future manager, how they support the team, and what management style they adopt.
Questions to ask your future manager
So, at this stage, you’ve scheduled a conversation with your future manager. Now you need to make sure you ask the right questions to gauge if the role is right for you. I hesitate to give you a set of questions to ask because every company, role, and situation is going to be different but I will share a few here in hopes to inspire you to develop your own.
How do you develop your team members?
Regardless of its size, does the company have a definition of career levels and a development model? Even for small teams, you want to make sure that your manager has some ideas around how to support your growth and continued development.
I consider career development an essential pillar for all engineering teams and a tool for managers to be held accountable to supporting their growth (I highlighted the importance of career development in my recent talk). Taking the time to develop a career framework, as I call it, means there is an outlined source of reference for coaching and developing engineers on the team. As a general rule, look for specifics over general statements here. ‘We value individuals on the team’ is something most hiring managers will say, but probing for specifics will help you to understand how this company backs up that statement.
How do you give feedback and what does a performance review look like on the team?
How a manager gives feedback is a valuable giveaway into how they will support and manage you through difficult situations. Feedback and performance conversations tend to be some of the most crucial interactions you will have with your manager. It’s important to know how they handle these. Do they make a point to give timely feedback in a candid but kind way or do they resort to avoiding conflict?
A way to get a good sense of this is to ask them: ‘Can you give me an example of a recent feedback conversation you had with one of the engineers on the team? What was the feedback and how did you help them improve?’ Again, look for specifics. You are trying to get a sense of how these situations would play out if you were to work with this person.
Another question to ask about performance reviews is, how often do they have those conversations? If the answer is, ‘we have a once-a-year performance review cycle,’ mark this as a yellow flag. This doesn’t mean run for the hills, but it should push you to follow up and see if they will put in effort throughout the year to support your personal goals.
I have a bullet in my 1:1 template to make sure I check in with every individual on my team on their personal goals. Yes that’s right, every 1:1. It doesn’t mean that we will spend every 1:1 talking about personal goals, but it is a reminder to check in and make sure we are on track towards achieving this goal. Growth does not always come with a promotion. The career framework I develop for my team has multiple areas that we focus on outside of just technical skills. Communication and leadership skills are invaluable and something you will take with you wherever you go. In a field where hard skills are a prerequisite, I find that taking the time to develop my team members’ soft skills is invaluable for their continued success.
What is your definition of success in your role?
You will want to understand how your future manager and the engineering leaders at the company view their roles. The answer you are looking for here is that they tie their success to your success. They understand and value your contribution and growth on the team ahead of their deliverables. I have seen many managers fail on this front, as they are either being asked to be both managers and individual contributors on the team or they have a hard time letting go of their previous role as an engineer.
Questions to ask your future teammates
Meeting your future teammates is also a great opportunity to see who you will be closely working with on deliverables. It’s also a good chance to gain insight into how the day-to-day will play out on the team. Here’s a list of potential questions you might find helpful to ask:
Could you tell me about an incident that happened in production and how the team worked through it?
Incidents in production tend to be some of the most stressful situations for a team. Because there is pressure to resolve the issue quickly, often when you can gauge the psychological safety of a team. How was the escalation handled? Does the team have good tooling to help mitigate issues in production, such as feature flags? Did they get their leaders' support to fix the issue and do a proper learning review?
Incidents will happen, unless no one is using your product, and teams vary depending on the maturity of their operation and product in how they handle these incidents. Keep this in mind, but the core insight you are looking for here is that team members can fail safely and be supported to learn and grow in a healthy way.
How do you onboard new engineers?
I’d be lying if I said onboarding is easy, and different companies and managers will have their own methods. When you ask this question, you are looking to understand whether you will be properly supported starting off on a new team or whether expectations will be misaligned on what you can accomplish right out of the gate.
If you find that expectations are unclear, have a conversation with the hiring manager. Dig in to understand what they are looking for. Ask them if you will have an onboarding buddy. Find out if there will be any onboarding checklists (I have found these to be a valuable tool. They’re a great way to make sure the team has thought about documenting how things work and what is needed to get started).
Does your manager listen and take feedback well?
Feedback should go both ways. It’s good to know how your future manager takes feedback. Do they iterate and try to make things better for the team when issues are highlighted? Do they demonstrate humility when something is not going well and try to improve?
What is the company’s meeting culture?
It’s hard to dive too deep into the value of meetings. What I want to highlight here is that it is important to understand how the company operates. Are most decisions made in meetings? Is there transparency around the discussion and decisions being made? The pitfall of meetings is not that they are devoid of value, but that most happen without the right level of preparation, documentation, and inclusion. Meetings also have a way of limiting flexibility at work, and impacting your focus time. Ask if the company supports no-meeting days and other ways to make sure that ‘makers time’ is accommodated.
How did the company adjust to the pandemic and what did they do to support their team members?
As we all went through the struggles of the pandemic, every company adapted in different ways. Hearing how they responded to the pandemic provides a window into whether they stepped up to support their team members. Did they make mental health, family, and self-care a top priority or did they continue to push ahead dismissing the struggles of individuals on the team?
GitLab started a series called Friends and Family Day to ensure the entire company was taking a day off. This became a monthly day off and they kept it up for 2021. Taking a day as a company helps everyone get some much needed rest. No one will need to miss out on meetings, slack messages, or work to catch up on which tends to accumulate after taking some time off.
How do the executives and leaders on the team support each other?
I strongly believe that the health of an organization starts with its executive team. The behaviors of the leaders’ group will influence the entire company culture. My favorite book to recommend to every executive team is The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni. When an executive team lacks health and the members of the team do not act as a unit, it leaves everyone else to fight unwinnable (and frankly unenjoyable) battles across the company. Get some idea of what the political landscape is like at the leadership level. A company cannot be transparent and supportive if the leaders of the company do not prioritize the health of the organization.
I like to think of careers as portfolios, with every experience a potential growth opportunity. Learning how to get a good glance into the inner workings of a company can help you find the right place to land. It’s about finding a good match for your individual goals, balancing your strengths and areas for growth with the opportunities and culture that a company can offer. We are all different; some may thrive in a growing startup environment and some may find that the stability of a larger company and team is their sweet spot. Know what is important to you to be successful, and take the time to make sure that you will be supported in the role.