Interviewing companies

So, as previously mentioned on Twitter, I’m looking for work. If you’re maybe interested in hiring me, check out my CV and drop me a line.

But that’s not what this post is about. Let’s not talk about me here, let’s talk about you.

I’ve always held the very firm stance that when a company is interviewing you, you are also interviewing them – are these people you’d like to work with, does this seem like a decent place to work, etc.

Despite that, when we got to that awkward point at the end of the interview where they say “So, have you got any questions for us?” I was just as bad as everyone else and mostly said “No, not really”. I still formed an opinion about the company, but it was based on how they interacted with me and whether I liked them. It was very unstructured – the only really structured question I considered was “Imagine I was a terrible fit for this role. Do I think I could have made it through this interview process?”. If the answer to that question was yes then I would consider the company to have failed their interview.

But really good interviewing skills aren’t enough for determining whether a company is worth working at. You need a lot more than that. So I was mostly going on the standard “Do I like the cut of their gib?” school of interviewing. This is a school of interviewing that as I have learned as I’ve got more experienced at hiring people is, not to put too find a point on it, complete and utter bollocks.

So, based on a recursive application of my company interviewing technique, I should have failed. Fortunately no one picked me up on that, and fortunately I’ve ended up working with some great people at some pretty good companies.

But I’d like to do better. When we get to that “So, do you have any questions?” stage I want to be able to smile, say “Well, actually” and pull out a notebook.

So now I’m trying to figure out what those questions should be. I’ve got a set of the questions I actually want answers to, and they go roughly as follows:

  • Are you secretly terrible people?
  • Is your development process completely dysfunctional?
  • Is the way your development team interacts with the rest of the company completely dysfunctional?
  • If your company succeeds, is this actually going to make the world a better place for anyone who isn’t one of your investors?
  • Is your company going to fail horribly?

Unfortunately I don’t think I’ll get very accurate answers if I ask those questions outright, so I’m looking for questions that will give good indications to the answer to these.

Of course, I expect most potential employers to google my name, read this post, and realise what I’m secretly asking, so this is all a wonderful little game of recursive double bluff. It also means that the questions should be good enough that any answers that aren’t outright lies will reveal the truth.

Here are some questions I’ve got so far. I’ll update these lists as I get suggestions from others or think of new ones myself.

Are you secretly terrible people?

I’m struggling on this one to be honest. A lot of my questions here are hiring policy related, but that’s more because of my recent lines of thought than because it’s a useful indicator. It’s also difficult to ask some of these questions because they sound like “Are you violating the laws regarding employment?” and “Are you going to hire me?”

  • What’s your office sense of humour like?
  • What’s your racial and gender diversity like in the company? If it’s not good, do you know why and is it something you’re trying to change? How?
  • Follow up from the previous one. Do you do anything to deal with implicit biases in your interviewing process
  • Is the company committed to the London Living Wage for ancillary staff? (suggested by my friend Ruth Ball)

Is your development process completely dysfunctional?

I think this is the one I’m strongest on, as I have a reasonable amount of direct experience of both how to be dysfunctional and how not to be here…

  • How do you organise work that needs to be done?
  • Who sets deadlines? How much feedback is involved in this process?
  • Do you find you usually hit the times you’ve committed to? If not, do you know why not?
  • How often do you encounter bugs in the system? What do you do when you do?
  • How much technical debt do you have? Is it going up or down over time?
  • Suppose it is decided that a feature is needed, and that I’m the one to implement it. What happens between now and the point where that feature hits production?

Is the way your development team interacts with the rest of the company completely dysfunctional?

Again, I lack good questions here.

  • How do your developers interact with sales and marketing?
  • Do your developers talk to customers directly?
  • Do the rest of your company have a good view of what the dev team are doing?
  • Do the dev have a good view of what the rest of the company are doing?
  • What opportunities will there be to work closely with other departments? (suggested by my friend Ruth Ball)

If your company succeeds, is this actually going to make the world a better place for anyone who isn’t one of your investors?

Christ if I know how to ask this one. It suffers a bit from “If I knew how to make the world a better place, I’d be doing it already”. Here’s a starting point:

  • Who are your customers?
  • How does it help your customers?
  • In particular, what can they do now that they couldn’t do before?

Is your company going to fail horribly?

I’ve pretty much just got the obvious questions:

  • Have you got a business model?
  • Is that business model already making you money? Enough to turn a profit?
  • If it isn’t already, what makes you think that business model is going to work?
  • How do you track whether that business model is working?
  • What are you going to do when you discover it’s not working?

Suggestions, please

I’d love suggestions. Also just feedback on which of these questions you like, which of these questions you think are terrible, etc.

This entry was posted in Hiring on by .

10 thoughts on “Interviewing companies

  1. Elisabeth

    If you want to know if they’ll be fun to work with (although not necessarily competent), one I heard on a teaching forum recently to gague company culture was: ‘When was the last time you had a proper belly-laugh in the staffroom [substitute coffee area, dev lab]? What was it about?’

    Asking this question would have let my significant other know instantly that he would enjoy his new job – they enjoy jousting with wheely chairs and empty yards of Jaffa Cakes.

  2. Elisabeth

    Ooh – also please try to find a way to ask this question, which I would like to know how to ask delicately:

    ‘Is there anyone on your staff who is completely indispensable, and also a dick? How do you deal with it? How are new hires expected to deal with it?’

    1. david Post author

      I like the question “Is there anyone who is completely indispensable?” on its own quite a lot. If the answer is yes and it’s not someone you’ve met in the interview you can then say “Tell me about them. What are they like? How are they to work with?”.

      1. Elisabeth

        According to Daniel there is a proper word for this, and the solution is to make sure that everyone else learns to do the things that the indispensable person usually does – so that key knowledge is never contained in a single person.
        My question was more to do with employee ‘fit’ however – if there is someone on the team who winds everybody up / doesn’t fit the culture / is a grumpy arse and yet is resistant to being moved on, how do you advise people to interact with them?

      2. david Post author

        The phrase for this I’ve usually heard is “bus factor” – i.e. who can get hit by a bus without it ruining your company?

        The follow on “what are they like to work with?” questions are intended to draw out whether they’re actually an ass-hole without explicitly asking about that, because such a question is likely to get peoples’ backs up. You can tell a lot by how circumspect their replies are!

  3. Michael Chermside

    Here’s a good one: “Can you tell me about a change (major or minor) that you made in your development process during the past four months? What issues prompted you to make the change?”

    If they don’t have an example, they they really aren’t doing any sort of continuous improvement. If they DO have an example, then what seemed to motivate it? Was it utter disfunction, mandates from management, or perhaps an opportunity to improve a rough edge in their existing processes?

  4. Jamie MacIver

    What is your staff turnover rate? What is the turnover for the dev team? Which department is worst/best?

    If it’s high… what are you doing about it?
    If it’s low… why is it so low?

    The various possibilities of their responses actually could indicate answers to a lot of your questions. Some possibilities:

    High staff turnover where all they are doing is hiring new people = yes they are terrible people, yes they are going to fail

    Low staff turnover, high developer turnover = their development process is probably disfunctional and is likely to cause you to invoke rule 1

    Low dev turnover, high other staff turnover = they are probably terrible people but at leas the devs have fun!

  5. Pingback: Questions for prospective employers | David R. MacIver

  6. Will Fitzgerald

    In the past two jobs, I’ve really struggled with the build process, so I’d want to know — what build system do you use? What does it take to start a new project? What will it take to get a code change into production?

  7. Pingback: Best of | David R. MacIver

Comments are closed.