When it comes to interviewing you should prepare ahead of time so that you can ensure that greatest chance of success that you will receive an offer from the company.  Too often people brush up on the technical/knowledge parts of interviewing and completely neglect the whole “question” part.  Do yourself a favor and prep.

Based on my experience as a hiring manager the best candidates have prepped ahead for the last, awkward part of the interview – when they are expected to ask questions.

First and foremost, take the time to research the company.  Know what they do, play with their website and product, and familiarize yourself with recent press (google the company, or look at the press portions of their website).

Then, prepare a list of questions to ask when the time comes.  It is okay to print out a list or write them in your notebook, few people would fault you for preparing, and if you feel awkward just say, “I was worried I would be nervous to I brought my questions with me so I would be sure to ask them.”

Here is a good list of questions I ask, or have been asked.  And don’t be afraid to ask the same question to different people – sometimes it is interesting to hear different perspectives.  Also, don’t feel like you need to ask all these questions – pick the ones that are important to you and use your time for those (although bring a spares just in case).

Screen Shot 2012 03 18 at 8.13.38 PM Questions for Candidates to Ask in an Interview
Questions to ask interviewers:

  • What do you love about [insert company here]?
  • What is your day/week like?
  • What have you learned working here?
  • What are the most exciting parts of this role?  This company?
  • What are the biggest challenges that lie ahead?
  • What was your biggest achievement this year?  The company’s biggest?
  • When have you had the most fun at work?
  • What was your last launch (or maybe you already know this)?  How did it go?  What is the typical duration of your releases?
  • Why did you come to work at [insert company here]?
  • If you could improve anything about the company what would it be? [Note, keep the interview positive, and only ask this after you have asked something about what they like about the company]
  • What are the core values of the company? [you can ask this to multiple people, and generally it will be consistent – which is a good thing since it shows alignment]
  • Where do you see the company going over the next 5 years?

For your manager:

  • What is your management philosophy?
  • How will we interact?  How is performance measured?
  • How do you see my role evolving here 2 years from now? 5 years?
  • What are the key qualities that make a [insert role here] successful here?  Do you have any examples of people on your team that fit that bill?
  • What are the key responsibilities of this role for the next 6 months?
  • How many people will I be working with/how big the team/company?
  • What is the overall structure of the company and how does your team fit into the larger organization?

About the process  (for software engineers, programmers, and developers):

  • What technology stack do you use?
  • What programming languages do people work in?  What would I be expected to work on?
  • How long does it take from someone starting at the company until their first checkin?
  • How do you normally onboard new employees?
  • Describe your software development lifecycle?
  • How are operations and maintenance handled?  Some companies have on-call responsibilities, is that expected in this role? If so how does that normally work? [Again keep this one positive, and don’t bristle at the answer – it is a good question but being negative could hurt your chances if that is a part of the role.  If you screw this up, recover with “I definitely want to be a part of fixing any bugs, I take great pride in my work.  I have just heard crazy stories about on-call rotations so want to be well educated in the job responsibilities.”]
  • How is the team structured?  Is there back end/UX teams?  Test and QA teams? DevOps?  How to they work together and collaborate?
  • How are projects chosen and planned?
  • How does the team do estimates now?
  • Do you usually hit your schedule? Why or why not?
  • How would you describe your software best practices?  Things like version control, testing (unit tests, system and integration tests, etc.), deployments, code reviews, design reviews, project management and bug tracking software, etc. are all good things for this open ended question.  Although do your homework – don’t ask about it if it is on their website or in the job description.

And perhaps more important as the questions you should ask, are the questions not to ask.  Generally most of these questions are reasonable, but should be deferred to later in the process, because the nature of the questions can easily turn the hiring manager off or give the wrong impression.

Questions to avoid:

  • How much will I get paid?  Don’t get me wrong, salary is important, and at some point someone will ask you about it.  However, it isn’t worth bringing up in the interview loop per se.  In general, salary is a great topic once you know they want to hire you.  If everyone is on board and they are going to make you an offer, then salary and compensation will come up – however at this point you have much more bargaining power than earlier in the process.  If someone (like HR or a hiring manager) asks during the interview loop a great response is, “I am looking for something competitive with my experience, but am somewhat open. I am very excited about your company, so if you decide to make me a competitive offer we can figure out how to make it work.”
  • How many hours do you work?  I get why people ask this question, especially for startups – you want to know if the sleeping bag you saw when you walked in means that you will be expected to camp out in the office for some crazy hours.  At some point it is okay to ask this question – but I would strongly advise to wait until after you have the offer in hand.  Otherwise, asking it before the want to hire you, can only hurt your chances at getting a job.  There is no way to see this question as a positive if you are an employee or hiring manager – and it can easily be seen as a negative (you are someone who doesn’t want to work hard or plans to log their hours and leave – even if you are a super hard worker).  Save this one after you know they want you and you are “trying” to learn more about their culture and environment (formal offer in hand).  Maybe even try rephrasing it to be more positive like “What is a typical day or week like?”, “When do most people get into the office?” (since people then will usually offer the leaving time as part of the answer), etc.
  • Do people have good work/life balance?  This question is definitely better than the one above it, but again, even if it is important to you, it may be better to ask this question via other avenues.  For example, asking employees about their last big project can tell you a lot about crunch time and how often it happens.  So if this is a concern for you, then I would plan a line of questions like: “How did your last project go?  What was the duration of the project? Did it ship on time?  Did the launch go well? Some companies have crunch time did that happen?  What was it like it?  Does it happen with every release?”  Structure your questions in the context of projects and tight deadlines (when people are expected to work really hard – to learn about the past and what other employees may have experienced).
  • How do you deal with the issue of being overqualified for a position?  Even if you are overqualified for a position, this is probably not the best question to ask.  Since whoever is on the other end of it, probably realizes this and is already concerned you may not be happy in the role – questions along these lines just emphasize it.  Instead of focusing on the negative and putting someone on the spot, talk about how your background makes you a great candidate, and how you are looking for a place to be happy.  If they bring up the pay differences, let them know that pay is a key part of any job but it is only one variable in the larger equation.
  • How do I get promoted or get your job?  Ambition and drive are great, but don’t make it so brash and overt.  Even if those things are important to you, ask them about growth trajectories in the company, or opportunities to grow your skillset.  If you are really concerned about promotions and raises (or reviews), ask those after you have the offer in hand before you make the decision to accept.
  • When can I take time off, or work from home, or change my schedule?  Again, these are great questions, but if the hiring manager is on the fence they can signal someone who is high maintenance and rub the interviewer the wrong way.  If you get the job, then some of these questions may make sense, but again wait until you know you want to work, and they have given you a written offer to ask about “not working” as planned.
  • Did I get the job?  Most of the time the person doesn’t know, or won’t know, until everyone has a chance to talk.  You can ask about next steps at the end of the interview, but save this for later and follow up after the fact.

 

Hopefully this will help get you started, and if you ever aren’t sure if a question is a good one or not, ask yourself if they were deciding between me and a person with my same exact skills/background who didn’t ask about this topic  – which would they choose?  If you would lean towards the other person, then save that question until after the interview and job offer.  Since at least then you know they want you and you can decide if that answer is even important (since sometimes, it may not be if it is the company you really want to work at – I know I would work at my company if they made me sit on the floor and I had to bring my computer from home – I like it that much.)

 

Other tips on interview etiquette:

  • Be nice and positive.  Interviewers wouldn’t be doing their job if they didn’t ask you things you didn’t know, and not all interviewers are good ones.  However, even if you are bad at a question, try not to get flustered, take a deep breath, and don’t give up.  And even if a guy seems like a jerk in the interview, they could be your biggest advocate so stay positive. [Personal anecdote: I had an interviewer almost reduce me to tears with how hard he was making the problem – but it turned out he was my strongest hire vote. He always asked questions candidates could not possibly solve in the interview (I didn’t know this at the time), but I got further along in the problem than most and kept my cool.  Although afterward, I thought I had failed and was sure I didn’t get the job.  And to interviewers – this is mean, please don’t do this to candidates – interviewing is hard enough as it is….]
  • If you ask questions, pay attention to the answers.  Take notes if you must, but listen and be polite – and bite your tongue and don’t interrupt.
  • If you mess up, it never hurts to follow up with the *right* answer.  Sometimes you get asked questions and you totally flub the answer.  This happens to the best of us – your brain ends up at home when you need it.  Make a note of the question (as many details as you can recall) and then follow up with the correct solution shortly after the interview.  And take the time to research it to make sure it is right.
  • Say thank you afterward.  A nice email thanking the people you talked with never hurts and gives you a chance to reinforce your interested in the position.  Good manners are still appreciated.

 

Hope this helps, I know it would be great if all the candidates interviewing with my team read this post.  And if you have other great questions or tips for this portion of the interview, feel free to leave them in the comments.