What should a developer say when the prospective big-boss asks, "Do you have any questions for me?" Here are several suggestions, from management style to company finances.
Plenty has been written about the questions that developers should ask one another during a job interview, from "How would you solve this programming problem?" to "Why are manhole covers round?" I've written about the subject myself, a time or two, such as my 2006 article, "The Best and Worst Tech Interview Questions."
But those are tuned for techies. At some point, a manager will want to chat with the prospective hire, even if only to feel that she participated in the process. If the manager isn't (or is no longer) technical, that means the questions won't be about system internals or coding techniques, and she won't participate in any hands-on coding which the candidate's asked to do. And, since every job (or contract) interview is two-way (though I'm always surprised when people see that as a revelation), developers should be ready when the manager inevitably asks, "Do you have any questions for me?" What should those questions be?
This is your opportunity to learn how the company works and what it values (at least based on what trickles down from the top). Don't dismiss it. The answers will tell you whether you'd enjoy the job, not just the work you're assigned to do — and they may let you know that this is a job you truly don't want under any circumstances. Among the things you're looking for is the manager's management style; the freedom that you'll have to perform; the manager's ambition to grow, because you cannot grow unless she does; and a clue about how she (and upper management) will respond during tough situations.
I asked dozens of experienced developers to share the questions they asked (or wish they asked) the non-technical manager during a job interview. Here's several suggestions about what — and why — to ask. You probably don't need or want to ask all these questions, certainly not in a single meeting. But they should calibrate your brain for quizzing the person who may sign your paycheck.
About the Team
- Who is my line manager or the project leader to whom I will report? Can I meet him? (Some companies only let candidates meet the managers. Go figure.)
- Before I accept the job, can we do a lunch with the whole team to get to know each other?
- What is the demographic of the team? or Why are there so few women in senior positions here? (Diversity matters.)
- What sort of team environment do you promote? How do teams interact with one another?
About the manager
- How much time do you spend in one-on-one meetings versus the time in team meetings?
- Give an example of something unexpected and how it was handled.
- How do you measure success? Where does that measurement stand now? What actions are you taking to change the measurement(s) (in the right direction)? What have those actions done to the measurement(s)?
- How does your manager measure your success?
- What is your preferred method of communication? Phone calls, e-mail, informally, in meetings, only when necessary? How much contact will I have with you?
- Why do people typically leave your team? (The best answer probably is that they were promoted, but if they're leaving the company or seeking internal transfers you may have an opportunity to drill down and find out why. This is also a subtle way to ask how long the manager has been managing people.)
About the work environment
- Can you show me where I'll be working? Can we walk around the office? (As you walk around, listen.)
- Are the tools I'll be using cutting edge or totally ancient? What is the specification of the developer machines that you provide?
- What sort of training and development mechanisms are there for professional development? How about conference attendance? (Factor in the answer when you begin negotiating. Plus you want to know if the company is interested in investing in people.)
- Are there opportunities to explore my skills at different business areas through the course of my tenure? (Can you grow in different areas, and move into a new one? For examples, can testers with a bend towards coding become developers?)
- I'm not a morning person. Will I have flexibility to work when I am most productive, barring things like mandatory meetings?
- What is our mission? What will be my role in the mission?
- How many positions am I actually covering?
- What will I be expected to accomplish the first three months?
- What projects will I work on? How will I be transitioned to new projects after existing projects are over?
- How much overtime has this team been doing in the last three months? What's typical? What's acceptable? How does the company respond after a time-crunch is over? (If you ask directly, "Do you encourage work/life balance?" naturally they'll respond "Sure!" Instead, ask a specific question to find out if that "Sure!" matches reality.)
- What is your company vision? How do you reflect it in your daily work? (Most start-ups have big ideas but few conduct themselves in a way that will help them reach their goals.)
- How do benefits compare to sector averages?
- Could you explain the pay review system? Also, the performance review system?
- How comfortable are you with your company's financials? How has the current economic climate impacted business?
- When did the company have its last layoff? (What you really want to know, of course, is "How long until the most recently hired get laid off?")
The open-ended questions
- What one thing would you change about working here? You can ask this of anyone on the team. The answer tells you a lot about the workplace, as well as the values of the person you're talking to.
- What's the best thing about working here? What's the worst thing about working here? Expect that the "best" things will be unremarkable, however nice to hear (such as "so many smart people!"). Listen carefully to the undertone in the worst-things.
- In six months, what will I love about working for you? What will I hate? (I learned this question during researching the aforementioned DevSource article, and it's been amazingly useful. Warning: if the manager says, "You won't hate anything! I'm a nice guy!" run away. Either he has poor self-assessment skills, or he has demonstrated that he'll never give you a straight and honest answer.)
What shouldn't you ask? According to one manager, these items all could be an immediate interview failure:
- Candidate has done no homework on the company, the product and the job. If the candidate cannot spend thirty minutes preparing for an interview, he does not deserve the job.
- Starts negotiating during the interview. This is not a deal breaker but is not the way to start a relationship (and an interview is the beginning of a professional relationship).
- Says inappropriate things about their previous company or the people they worked with. This could include passing on confidential information or saying negative things about people.
- Not asking any questions when given the opportunity to do so.
Naturally, these aren't the only questions you could ask. And I'm sure some will disagree with a few; that's fine, because each of us only has to ensure the job makes us happy. But maybe I've left out a few. Chime in, and tell me what question you wished you asked during a job or contract interview.