Defensive Interviewing

If you’ve interviewed anywhere in tech, you’ll hear the advice or instructions to have questions ready for your interviewers. Which questions do you ask though?

Hopes and Fears

Everything boils down to what you want to happen and what you don’t want to happen.

Hopes

  • Belonging
  • Achievement
  • Trust
  • Growth
  • Variety
  • Money – this one is salary negotiation so I’ll skip it

Fears

  • Exploitation
  • Rejection and isolation
  • Boredom
  • Stress

Now that we’ve got the heavy stuff out of the way, how does that translate into interview questions?

Belonging / Rejection and Isolation

A sense of belonging contributes to happiness. A sense of happiness contributes to productivity. Thus, you will be more successful if you feel like you belong. Even when your job is really bad, if you feel like “you’re all in it together”, it’s easier to pull through.

Questions:

  • What is the diversity of your team?
  • Are there people like me on the team?
  • Who will be my mentor when I join?
  • What are some social activities we will do as a team?
  • What communities for technical and non-technical topics exist at the company?
  • Do you feel like you could be friends with some of the people you work with if they weren’t your coworkers?
  • How often will I have 1 on 1s with my manager?

Scenario one: a diverse group of people who welcome new members with an automatic support network of a mentor and bond through shared interests. Scenario two: a monochromatic team of humorless people you can’t identify with that leave you to struggle alone and generally don’t talk to each other. Take your pick.

Achievement, Growth, and Variety / Boredom

Boredom is bad. Boredom is similar to stress. You disassociate and (eventually) become depressed or destructive. Work that slightly exceeds your skill set is ideal for maximum engagement and learning (according to Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman). You can keep things interesting through promotions, new skills, or role changes. Additionally, if you want to climb the ladder, make sure there are at least a few rungs.

Questions:

  • What does promotion look like here?
  • How long does someone like me stay in this role before being considered for promotion?
  • Do you support 20% time or time to grow professionally via hackathons, conferences, or tech talks?
  • Does this company encourage moving between teams if there are other opportunities available?
  • Does this company support role changes and what does a successful role change look like?

Trust / Exploitation

People typically know when something they are going to say will put people off. The managers and recruiters of the world know this and choose to omit or mislead when it comes to that information. Instead of trying to catch them in a lie, probe to fill out the truthiness of their answers. This was taught to me as “peeling the onion”. In this metaphor, the more you peel the onion, you might get more onion or, I don’t know, a radish.

Questions:

  • What tasks are you working on right now? Ask for specifics.
  • What would you say is the key success criteria for your job? Why?
  • What is an example of the first project (not task) I will be working on? How is this important to our customer?
  • How involved will I be in designing new features and choosing team priorities? How often will I get a chance to influence project direction?
  • How many people with my role are on the team? (the more there are, the more reliable their answers)
  • If I am interested in working on something in particular, how would I go about getting assigned to the project? Give me an example of when you did this.
  • When something goes wrong, what is the recovery? Maybe a bug is pushed or a customer says the feature was done wrongly or a service goes down. Is there a retrospective? Does it get fixed right away?
  • Who is responsible for operations, customer contact, and project planning?

This is probably the hardest one to detect. Often, teams want to hire someone to do the housekeeping, like bug fixes, legacy maintenance, mindless migration, and minor management activities. You need to ask questions to confirm there is enough “meaty” work for you and housekeeping is spread evenly or kept to a minimum.

General Red Flags

  • Your manager has been in the company or sub-org for less than 6 months. This usually means they haven’t been through a performance cycle and there is a risk that they aren’t sure what it looks like for you to do a good job. If you don’t know how to do a good job, you might not be rewarded for the work you do. However, after about a year to a year and a half, most managers figure it out.
  • You are being hired for a “generic” position. This is basically job roulette. It’s worked out well for me in the past but it’s also opportunity for you to be placed where no one else wants to be.
  • There are a lot of buzzwords. If something sounds good but doesn’t tell you anything specific, they might be trying to hide something. “We do machine learning” is the equivalent of saying “we develop software”. It generates excitement but doesn’t tell you that you’ll actually be a code monkey for the scientists who do the “real” machine learning.
  • “We have no operations.” This is very job dependent. I’m talking about services, cloud, and larger software applications. If you have no ops, you have no usage or no customers. On the other side, you might have a lot of ops but someone else deals with it. This is an organizational anti-pattern and guarantees someone will strongly dislike you on that ops team. Not fun.
  • “We are a rapidly growing team.” This can genuinely be exciting if you are joining a team of smart and capable people coming together to create a new great thing. Or this could mean the managers are throwing bodies at a problem in such a way that creates stress, confusion, and general unhappiness.

It’s Too Late

If you’ve found yourself in a job where it didn’t live up to your expectation, first, figure out which questions to ask next time you interview. Second, tell someone it wasn’t what you expected and firmly ask to be placed somewhere that meets those expectations. Third, as soon as you can, decide whether you want to stay or go. Be intentional about what job you are choosing to do. By taking responsibility, you give yourself control over your situation and who doesn’t like control?

Good luck interviewing!

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