What I Want To Learn In An Interview

And some questions that get me there

Photo by Marten Newhall on Unsplash

Interviewing is not an activity that I have performed many times. In fact, in the last 12 years, I think I have only interviewed for a job three times. (I worked in one job for 9 years…so take that into account.)

This means that I have very little experience interviewing the company that is interviewing me. In general, when you’re inexperienced at something you are bad at it. Specifically, I am bad at this. I am bad at interviewing a company to see if I would like to work there. (I won’t claim to know how well companies think I interview for jobs. All I know is I got an offer the last time I interviewed, and they like me so far!).

Before I go on an in-person interview there are a good number of questions that I have already answered. So when I arrive in person there are two questions that I need to get an answer to by the end of the interview. These aren’t the only two important things, but they are the most important things for me.

Role

Is the role described accurately and in detail? At this point in my career a generic role description is not interesting to me. I don’t want my role to be a plug-and-play role that any person can fulfill. I have my personal strengths, and experiences that bring unique things to the table. The questions I need to ask here are straight-forward and purely reactive to the role description. Basically, you know generic when you see it—work to get past that in the interview.

Is this actually a role I’m interested in? Reading a role description is very different than understanding how a role will interact within an organization. An in-person interview will result in some back and forth conversation about the role, and you’ll get a lot more signal on just what they are looking for. I want to ask questions about personal growth in the role, and the impact of the role throughout the organization. At this point in my career I need both.

Is this role valued at the company? Just because they are hiring for a role does not mean that role is valued. If I do not feel my contributions are being valued there are a number of not-great things that are going to happen. It is hard to figure this out. A lack of detail, growth, and impact from the two previous questions would indicate that this is about putting a butt in a seat, rather than a valued role.

💥 In my last interview I failed to get a detailed picture of the role. I did not realize that I was getting somewhat generic answers. I was surprised how my understanding of the role worked itself out over the first few months. If I am doing this well, this will be the short part of an interview.

How Do You Work?

These are the “Culture & Process” questions. This is where my personal growth has forced me to start asking more questions. I realize, now, that there are some environments that just do not work for me, and that I need to do a better job asking organizations about their culture.

Some very wonderful folks (including my wife) have given me their valuable time to help me better understand how to ask questions for this topic. These are especially valuable when assessing companies where you don’t know anyone. Here are some questions that have been given to me, that I’ve not gotten the chance to ask yet:

  1. What is the most risky decision the company has made in the last two years, and how was it made?
  2. Where have the two best ideas come from in the last two years?
  3. Imagine that you hire me and a year has passed. Things worked out better than you imagined. “What three things did I do that made you really glad you hired me?”
  4. A year from now you’re saying to yourself, “I’m really sad we hired the person we chose. What three things did that person do that made you sad you hired him?”
  5. What three things differentiate people who are really great in this organization — from those who are simply good?
  6. How does this organization handle conflict at a senior level?
  7. What is working right now in the organization? What is not working right now in the organization?
  8. What does a bad week at $company look like?
  9. How responsive is the organization when you have raised issues?

These are some engineering questions that I realize I need to ask that will give me a good sense of how the organization functions:

  1. How does Engineering handle competing priorities and projects?
  2. What is the MTTR (median-time-to-release) for code into production? Are you happy with that number?
  3. Is there well-written internal documentation that you are happy with? (but I am really trying to get the answer to: “Is good writing valued by your engineering team?”)

👉 The answers to these questions are going to tell me whether or not I think I will have a good experience working at $company. They don’t need to “bat 1.000%” with a $company going 11-for-11 with answers I like. But I need to detect that we are at least on the same wavelength.

💥 If, after all these questions, the organization has not presented an issue, a problem statement that the role is intended to make progress on, or at the very least an intent to improve against the status quo; I am 99% sure that I do not want to work there. (Either that, or you are Netflix and I don’t know if I can hang at your level.) Why you might ask?

☝ In the case that there truly is nothing to fix, solve, or improve on—I’m going to be very bored because of that fundamental angst.☝️

But I doubt that is the case. If they don’t believe there are problems it means one of two things; they’re not listening to the people describing problems, or no one is comfortable sharing the problems with the organization. That is not a healthy place I want to be a part of.

My Value Add

I received one very valuable piece of feedback, from someone who self-describes very similar to me.

There is one thing that I am now “adult enough” to realize I need to share in an interview. I ask a lot of questions. I challenge a lot of perspectives and opinions. I don’t debate, but neither do I back down. In short, I can be a pain in the ass—but that is my value prop. If this situation does not work out you’re going to spend energy trying to manage me. But I am easy to lead when I believe in what is being done.

I couldn’t resist adding this photo. It’s too good.

Solving Problems & Saving Time through Software and Crushing Entropy. Twitter: @EngineerJohnO