As a start-up founder and hiring manager, I’ve interviewed hundreds of candidates for engineering and product roles. Every single one wanted to know more about the company culture. Unfortunately, most of them asked the wrong questions to actually understand it.
In this article, I’m going to share with you some interview secrets to efficiently unlock the critical information you need to know about the company you want to join.
“How is the culture?”
This is a question many people ask during their interview. It’s also the lowest value question. Here’s why:
It’s easy for the interviewer to drift away from a fact-based answer, with any resemblance of objectivity. Such an open-ended question can get interviewers talking about vague ideals and interpretations, but not about facts; in which case you aren’t getting an accurate representation of the culture.
Culture is a huge concept. It’s almost like asking ”How is life?” There are many aspects to the culture, and you aren’t maximizing the likelihood that the answer will cover the details you care the most about.
The behavior that the company and the interviewers demonstrate during the interview is, by far, the most reliable signal about the culture that you’ll find there. Many candidates get too caught up wondering whether they are doing well or not, that they forget to interview their interviewers. You need to analyze the people in front of you. Pay attention to the things they say, to the things that are unsaid, and to how things are said.
Ask high-value questions
In a normal interview process, you meet with about 4 to 10 people – depending on the seniority of the role – and you get a chance to ask at least 2-3 questions per person. This means you get to ask between 8 and 30 questions. Use them wisely to get additional data points for the things you can’t observe directly during the interview.
Open-ended questions in an interview aren’t useless, but be aware of how many of them you ask, and how open they are. Questions that elicit a more fact-based answer will give you a more realistic picture, instead of somebody else’s interpretation or ‘dream’ of the culture. Below is a set of questions that will yield higher-value answers.
Performance & Feedback
- When someone who reports to you struggled to hit performance expectations, what did you do? Why do you think what you did was important? At which point do you consider someone to be non-reversible?
- Can you tell me about the last time you gave feedback to a direct team member and it didn’t go as expected? What would you do differently now?
- Can you tell me about the last time a promotion didn’t go through, and why?
- When was the last time you sought feedback from a direct report? How did you do it?
- When was the last time you apologized for something. Why?
- Tell me about the junior engineer on the fastest growth path. What is this person doing differently?
- Tell me about one of the most valuable and highly recognized engineers. What are they missing, and what was the last piece of feedback they received?
- How do you identify when someone is being underutilized?
- How do you show and convince someone of their worth and potential?
- How often do you have career-growth conversations with your direct reports? Can you talk to me about a recent one you had?
- What’s the preferred medium of communication within the company, and why?
- What are some ways engineers can get better at communicating with stakeholders?
- How often do you proactively DM your direct reports in Slack? What’s the most common reason why?
- When was the last time you DMed someone overnight?
- When was the last time you noticed interpersonal friction in a meeting? What was the issue?
Staffing & Hiring
- How often do reorgs happen? When was the last one, and what was the intent?
- What are 1 or 2 rules you follow for building teams? What are the trade-offs?
- How do you know which roles you need to hire for, and when?
- What’s the open role you’re struggling the most to fill? Why?
- Am I backfilling this role? Why did the previous person leave?
- What type of knowledge transfer happens when someone leaves?
- What’s the average tenure? Why do you think that is?
- What was your immediate reaction to the last person who told you they’re leaving?
Projects & Delivery
- Tell me about a time when the team shipped a large and valuable project, ahead of schedule. How and why did they achieve this, and was any recognition given?
- Tell me about a time when the team missed a deadline. By how much, why did they miss it, and what were the learnings?
- What’s the last big project that wasn’t finished? Why?
- How do you staff projects? How many engineers are in each project, and why?
- What are the conditions for someone to be the tech lead of a project?
Decision-making & Alignment
- When was the last time you had to act as the tie-breaker when making a decision?
- What’s the number 1 priority for the company? How is that reflected in day-to-day decision-making?
- How do you prioritize tech debt vs product-driven work? What’s the largest piece of tech debt that the company tackled in the last year?
- How do you know a decision was the right decision?
- What’s the role of the engineers in charting the vision and the strategy?
- Can you tell me about the last time you gave feedback to your manager? How soon did you see it implemented?
- When your manager reaches out via Slack, what is it typically about?
- Tell me about a time when an executive was pinging you directly in Slack, while you were presenting something over a call. What was the reason?
- Can you tell me about a time when an executive directly recognized the work of an engineer? Why do you think that happened?
- When was the last time a stakeholder was disappointed with the outcomes of a project or the team? How did they communicate it, and why do you think that happened?
Processes & policies
- What’s one process or policy you want to change? How, and why?
- When was the last time the code review policy was updated? What’s one outstanding change?
- When was the last time the incident management process was updated?
- When was the last time the postmortem process was updated?
- When was the last time the career ladder was updated?
- When was the last time you got an alert from the on-call escalation policy?
- Can you tell me about the last night-time alert that was triggered for one of your teams. How critical was it, and what were the action items arising from it?
- How many critical alerts does the team get per week? Are all of them really critical, in that something needs immediate attention?
- Over the past year, what was the outage that took the longest to identify? Why?
- How do you run a post-mortem meeting? Are post-mortems public?
Interviewers are being interviewed, too
“If you are a hiring manager in tech, remember that you are the candidate”
You may wonder if some of these questions are too harsh, that your interviewers might classify you as a “troublemaker” for asking such searching questions. This might be true in some industries, but it’s likely not true at successful tech companies. In fact, the biggest red flag for interviewers is a lack of questions, not the presence of them.
A company with high standards for culture embraces transparency, fairness and curiosity. In an interview, it’s only fair that for any question that the company asks you, you can ask one of them. If your interview panel handles your questions in a way that seems defensive to you, consider two things:
- Did you show good intent and thoughtfulness in the manner and tone of your question? You can even preface your questions with something like, ”I’m going to ask you some targeted questions, just because I really want to know some details of my potential future employer.”
- If you did take care and they still got defensive, that’s a red flag. Imagine a company that rejects candidates who can ask good questions and be brave. Is that the type of place you want to work at?
Company culture is like the air you breathe. When interviewing for a new job, don’t underestimate the importance of the questions you get to ask. Try to get a reliable idea of the culture you will join by asking penetrating questions that elicit fact-based, not highly subjective, answers. You don’t want to find out 3 months into the role that you are breathing an air you can’t tolerate!