Questions for prospective employers

So I’m starting interviewing this coming week, which means I have to distil my long list of questions to ask employers into something more manageable. The following is very much a work in progress and I’ve not tested it in the wild yet, but I think it roughly matches what I’m going to want to use. If I change what I actually use then I’ll update it appropriately.

First off, how to raise these: I was originally thinking of mentioning right at the beginning of the interview that this is going to happen. Something along the lines of:

Hey. Up front warning: I have a long list of questions I need to ask your company in order to determine if this is somewhere where I’d like to work. It’ll probably take about half an hour to an hour, and I’ll need at least one developer and one non-developer present. I’d sortof expect this to happen at the end when we get to the “any questions?” part, but really we can do this at any point in the interview you like – we can even schedule a separate interview for it afterwards if you don’t want to take up this much time on it today – but I really will need to do this.

My friend Daniel Royde pointed out in the comments that this is something that I should really be mentioning before I arrive for the interview, so they can actually incorporate this into their schedule. He is 100% right about this.

The one non-developer and one developer thing is very important. I want to see how different their answers are and how they interact.

The actual questions I’m planning to ask are as follows:

  1. What do you personally like about working here? What do you dislike?
  2. What’s your office culture like? Can you describe the typical sense of humour?
  3. What’s your racial and gender diversity like in the company? Does this vary from team to team? If it’s not good, do you know why and is it something you’re trying to change? How?
  4. What is your company doing to have a positive impact on society? (question suggested by my friend Alex White)
  5. What’s your staff turnover rate like? Is it different from team to team? If it’s high, do you know why people typically leave and is it something you’re trying to change? (question suggested by Jamie MacIver, my brother)
  6. How do you deal with failure? When something goes wrong, what do you do to make sure it doesn’t happen again? (question suggested by my friend Kat Matfield)
  7. Who in your company is completely indispensable? Tell me about them (question suggested by my friend Elisabeth)
  8. How much technical debt do you have? What are you doing to address it? Is it working?
  9. Can you tell me about a change you’ve made in your development process recently? What prompted it? (question suggested by Michael Chermside)
  10. How do you decide and manage what to work on next?
  11. Suppose it is decided that a feature is needed and should be part of the current work priorities. What happens between now and the point where that feature hits production?
  12. What’s your business model like? Is it working? How would you know if it wasn’t working, and how would you go about fixing it?

I feel like this is a bit too long, but there really aren’t any questions in there I’d be willing to take out. If anything there are questions I’d like to put in that I’ve not!

UPDATE: I’ve decided the bit that follows is a bad idea. Real interviews are too chaotic for voice recording to be practical, and some informal polling suggests that people are bothered enough by the idea that it’s not worth the headache. Left in for posterity.

The other thing I am currently considering is how to handle note taking. Specifically, I’d like to record these question and answer sessions. I’m considering offering this with a speech something along the lines of this:

So I need to take notes on this bit for later review. If I do that by writing, this will slow everything down and it’ll be a pain for all of us. Would you object terribly if I record this bit? I promise never to publish any part of this recording, or even a transcript of it, and at the end I’ll give you the option to delete it before I leave. If you take that option I’ll ask for a few minutes to write down some notes and reference the recording before you do, but will be completely happy to comply.

I’m also thinking of mentioning at the beginning of the interview that I’m going to have a long set of questions to ask them and that I’m happy to do them either at the end of the interview or at whatever other point in it they’ll find convenient.

What do you think? Does this sound like a terrible idea?

This entry was posted in Hiring, life, programming, Work on by .

13 thoughts on “Questions for prospective employers

  1. Daniel Royde

    Might it be better to warn them about this when you accept an interview date? You want two people to give you some time, and take it seriously, so make that as easy as possible for them.

    Reply
  2. Marc Hamann

    Having been on both sides of many interviews, I don’t think you should make a point of barraging them with all the questions. They don’t need to be aware that you have them prepared at all.

    A better approach is to salt your conversation with the appropriate questions as it seems conversationally natural. You never want to let on that you are grilling them or that you object to any of their answers.

    The reason for this is that interviewers often assume that they are the ones doing the evaluating, and if you make it too clear that you are aggressively evaluating them before they have decided that they like the looks of you, they will not give you a chance.

    I would recommend focusing all your overt efforts on selling yourself to them (showing how your skills fit their needs) but keeping in mind for yourself what you want to find out about THEM. If you get a job offer, you can always ask for another interview to ask more questions before you accept, so get the offer, then worry about weeding out the unworthy offers.

    Reply
    1. david Post author

      I’ve got to be honest, this isn’t really a problem I’m worried about – I’m both in no massive hurry to find a new job and sufficiently confident of a high interview success rate that if I lower that success rate a bit by filtering out the companies who are offended that I’m not treating them with sufficient deference to their obvious superiority, that’s not really a big deal for me. If it gets to a point where I’m in more of a hurry and this has caused the interview success rate to drop unacceptably low, I’ll change my tactics.

      I understand that this is not something everyone can do and that I’m largely only able to pull this off because I’m in a very privileged position. I’m OK with that, as I regard part of the reason for this experiment as being me acting as widening the Overton Window for acceptable hiring behaviour.

      Reply
      1. Martin McNulty

        I’ll be really interested to see how this goes. I feel like there’s a risk you’ll come across as a bit of an ass, especially if you’re asking to record things, but I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly why.

        Personally, I tend to favour Marc’s approach of getting the offer and then evaluating the potential employer in depth. For my current job, I waited ’til after I got the offer and then came in to spend an afternoon sitting with the team I would be joining at their normal desks while they showed me things they were currently working on and gave me an overview of how the company fitted together. I got a pretty clear idea from that of what it would be like to work here, what senses of humour they had, what the diversity of the company was (at least the visible things), etc., and it felt much less scripted/forced to me.

        It does have the downside of potentially wasting the applicant’s time, since they don’t get to evaluate the employer until much later in the process but, as you said, you’re not in a hurry.

        Anyway, good luck!

        Reply
      2. david Post author

        I’ll be really interested to see how this goes. I feel like there’s a risk you’ll come across as a bit of an ass, especially if you’re asking to record things, but I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly why.

        I’m getting that reaction a lot. My working theory is that the underlying reasoning (explicit or otherwise) is roughly as follows: In an interview there is an expected power dynamic, in which the interviewee is the supplicant and most of the power resides with the interviewer. If the interviewee is rejecting that dynamic, they could be doing it because they reject the concept of the dynamic in general and think it’s important for there to be a symmetric relationship, but it’s much more likely that they’re doing it because they’re full of themselves and think they’re important enough to get away with it.

        (As it happens, I’m both)

        Reply
  3. Marc Hamann

    I don’t think that the power dynamic exists because people hiring are jerks trying to lord it over candidates necessarily (though such people exist in all situations). I’ve had the interesting experience of hiring with other people and getting to observe their reasoning and approach, and often it is simply that they don’t have any training in interviewing or any coherent philosophy of hiring.

    Most people’s experience of their own job hunts is “applicant as the supplicant”, and I think it is often just assumed that is how it should be. In situations of incompetence, people usually revert to base social norms. (Nevermind all the other human factors: new hire as professional and social threat, etc.)

    Reply
    1. david Post author

      I don’t think that the power dynamic exists because people hiring are jerks trying to lord it over candidates necessarily (though such people exist in all situations). I’ve had the interesting experience of hiring with other people and getting to observe their reasoning and approach, and often it is simply that they don’t have any training in interviewing or any coherent philosophy of hiring.

      No, nor do I. I’ve been on both sides of the interview too, and I’m sure the people on the other side of the desk are decent human beings. But that doesn’t mean I have to buy in to the power dynamic.

      Reply
  4. Channing Walton

    I have always found the idea that interviewees should prostrate themselves at the benevolent feet of the interviewer, grateful for the mere possibility of work, as ridiculous.

    But thats not the point.

    You want answers to these questions and should ask them without fear or concern about how it might be interpreted since you clearly want to work for an organisation that respects the people that consider working for it. It tells you an awful lot about the organisation’s culture that people are able to ask questions.

    If you are rejected on the basis that you asked a few questions then you wouldn’t want to work for them anyway. Its a good thing you found out before making a serious mistake!

    Reply
    1. david Post author

      I almost entirely agree.

      The one caveat is that how you ask the questions does matter, and it is certainly possible to accidentally come off as an arrogant twat in the course of asking them. I’ve very nearly lost a job offer in the past as a result of that (well. Rather I’ve heard from some of the people who interviewed me then that I nearly did. The others were like “Oh, you did? I totally didn’t pick up on that”).

      I still think it’s worth asking even with this risk, but it’s worth bearing in mind.

      Reply
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