Interview Questions for Software Companies

Posted by Phil on March 12, 2017

I've often thought about questions I would ask a new employer or wish I'd asked under the pressure of a past interview but I've never actually distilled all those ideas into a single place before.

It's about time I finally committed these ideas to paper. Well... the internet.

A job interview is typically a very stressful environment. It's artificial in the sense that you will generally never be under so much personal scrutiny again if you're the successful candidate. In fact, it's very easy to arrive on your first day and, assuming someone has arranged for your PC to be set up, end up reading documentation (hopefully it's complete and up-to-date) or product overviews for the first few days.

In a busy company - and I'm speaking from the experience of a technology company here - you are often left very much to your own devices and are expected to figure things out and ask lots of questions.

So how do you set yourself some clear pictures of what your daily routine will look like before committing to signing that employment contract? You're being bombarded with tough technical questions in the interview and by the time it's over and your interviewer asks, "So do you have any questions for us?", you'd be forgiven for just wanting to get out of there and relax. Certainly, coming up with pertinent questions of your own right after an interview is hard unless they're really front-of-mind for you.

Several years ago, Scott Hanselman compiled a list of Interview Questions for Senior Software Engineers, looking at expectations of a new candidate. Obviously that has been updated since and there are plenty of similar articles around the net but finding good material as a job candidate is less readily found. Let's be 100% clear here: you might be a job applicant, but the company is your workplace applicant. They are recruiting because they have an immediate need and they're wanting to know if you might meet that need. The thing is, you have needs that must be met as well.

So here is my attempt at getting more of this conversation started.

  • What regular training or personal development opportunities to you afford people?
    • WHY: Is this the sort of company that invests in you as a person? If it's important to you that you have an opportunity to grow your skills on top of that "on-the-job training" every loves to tout, then you want to know: who pays for the training, who can receive that training, what conferences have staff been funded for, how often are these activities offered?
  • Ask about the median tenure of your candidate's employees. How long is it between when they're hired and when they leave?
    • WHY: Several reasons. The most likely answer is "Oh. I don't know. A few years, probably?". This suggests they don't measure it. And that suggests they don't consider it a problem if someone leaves because people can be easily replaced. This isn't a deal-breaker but it doesn't suggest a culture of continuous improvement on staff engagement either. If you don't consider this important enough to measure, why not? How confident are you that staff aren't churning more than the industry norms?
    • The second possible answer is to actually give you a figure. If that figure is less than 18 months, I'd be very concerned. Why aren't people staying and building a career here? What are you doing to encourage your people to commit to this company for longer? How confident can I be that this company is a good career move for me?
  • How would you describe your company's culture and how does that compare to the actual team I'd be working with?
    • WHY: A corporate culture is generally more abstract than that of individual teams within it. A company might measure its culture on the stuff that it offers, the events it holds and the latest results from some staff satisfaction surveys, but it likely doesn't really understand the mood and feelings of the people working there. The company culture may say "equal employment" and have all sorts of positive ideals but the true measure is how that corporate ideal filters down into the practices of the shop floor.
    • If your interviewer can't provide specific examples of how they build their team (we all go for coffee together / we all do the quiz together in the morning paper / we play in a sports team, etc) and how that team is encouraged to function on a personal level as well as a technical one, then there's a good chance they're so focussed on work that your office isn't going to feel comfortable, encouraging and supportive.
  • How do you encourage mentoring and what support do your mentors get in how to be better at it?
    • WHY: If you want to grow professionally and personally, then you need to know you can rely on the people around you to learn from their experience. Just saying "Jenny here is your buddy. You can ask her questions and she'll help you out" isn't enough. Jenny might get busy, she might not actually want to be your go-to person indefinitely. You want to know that if you have an area you want to build skills in, there is a clear willingness and policy around encouraging that.
    • Not only this, but if your candidate company's idea of "mentor" is just having someone answer your questions while leaving you to it the rest of the time, that's not encouragement; it's guesswork. Mentoring is time-consuming and a big commitment. You need to know that your mentor has been told what the needs of that role are and have been afforded time out of their daily schedule to deliver on those needs. This circles back to the team culture and personal development.

Asking thoughtful, challenging questions may put you outside your comfort zone - even more so than the mere interview itself. But this is a good way to truly get a feel for what sort of commitment you're about to make. For example, try asking "Is it better to reject a good candidate than it is to hire a bad one?". That's going to get some conversation started.

On the one hand, opting to reject potentially good candidates when you're just not quite sure means you might miss out on diversity and character strengths you didn't know you were looking for. You're risk-averse by nature and want to make sure you get an exact fit. However, if it's the latter, you might open yourself up to taking more chances and get some really great people, but it's really a lot of work and effort to terminate a chronic non-performer and it can be a costly process.

What about diversity? How does your employer demonstrate their equal opportunity policy in its recruitment, training, management and engagement? Note the key word here is "demonstrate". Saying you have an EEO policy is practically a legal requirement in most modern countries. Actually being able to show how you deliver on that assurance is another thing entirely. Women generally won't apply for a role unless their confident they'll meet [almost] 100% of the job criteria (ref: https://hbr.org/2014/08/why-women-dont-apply-for-jobs-unless-theyre-100-qualified). So how open is the company about its hiring processes and what does it do to encourage as wide a net as possible?

What are some other questions that would empower you as a job seeker? Tweet me @Phil_Wheeler to discuss it further and I'll add to this list as suggestions grow.

 

Photo in this post by https://www.instagram.com/oliverthomasklein

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