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Interviewing the Interviewer: Beyond Getting the Job

January 24th, 2006 · 10 Comments

You’re sitting across the table from John Q. Smith, manager of some group in a big corporate IT department. He and his cohorts have just spent two hours grilling you about web services, architecture, project management, or whatever else it is you’re so darn good at. John’s smiling reassuringly at you – you’re the best candidate he’s seen so far and he’s ready to stop looking.

“That pretty much wraps up the things I wanted to talk to you about,” he says, sitting back in one the elegant Herman Miller chairs that litter the office building. “Is there anything you’d like to ask me?”

You smile casually. “I can’t think of anything,” you reply.

“Good,” John Q. Smith says, getting to his feet.

Two minutes later you’re out of the building and back on the street. You wait until you’re sure no one in the office building can see you before you pump your fist in the air, kick your heels, or whatever else your patented I-just-nailed-that-interview move happens to be. One week to get an offer, then two weeks to serve out the remainder of your prison term at your current job, then it’s off to a wonderful new life with John Q. Smith and his merry crew of super competent IT professionals.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Unfortunately, too many job changes aren’t actually changes for the better. Instead we find that we have simply exchanged one unique set of problems for a different set. Too often we replace the pain of a crushing beuracracy and mind-numbingly stupid debates about who’s job it is to do what with an equally crushing eighty-hour-a-week death march toward a completely arbitrary deadline established by a ruthless project manager who refuses to tell the truth about the real status of the project. At least in the throes of the evil beauracracy you got to see your family every now and again!

There’s an old saying about choosing between the dragon you know and the dragon you don’t know. Unfortunately, when it comes to job changes, the dragon you don’t know won’t bare its teeth and claws until it already has you in its clutches. And then it’s too late, at least until you’ve done you’re time and you can start the whole stupid cycle over again by heading back to the bruisingly slow pace of yet another corporate IT group obsessed with process.

This type of scenario is played out year after year in corporate IT all over the country. How many people do you know who have made lateral moves to other companies or other groups because they thought the grass was greener somewhere else? Have you ever checked back with them a year later? I have, and nine times out of ten the enthusiasm and excitement that drove them to this new organization has been sucked away by the completely different set of problems that they now face in their not-so-new-anymore job.

So, what can you do to make sure you see the “dragon you don’t know” for what it is before you commit to spending a minimum of two or three years living in its shadow? How can you detect the deathmarch project, the beuracracy from hell, the caustic work environment, and the organizational blender before committing to them?

The key is to get a good sense of at least three specific things before you hire in, and I’m not referring to the dress code, the break schedule, or the availability of free coffee. Instead, you should get a sense of the organizational stability of the company, the checks and balances around decision-making, and the overall morale of the staff.
You only get one shot at evaluating an organization’s these things, and that’s the job interview.

I’m not going to tell you that it’s easy, but I do believe it’s possible. It requires very pointed questions in the interview process coupled with a very objective analysis of the answers. It also requires that you see your interview as having two objectives: getting the job and evaluating whether you want the job. Most people focus all their efforts on the first objective and completely forget about the second. We’re too busy trying to make a good impression to evaluate the impression the prospective company is making on us.

Remember when John Q. Smith offered to answer your questions after he’d finished? That’s the time at which you should change your focus. No more worrying about getting the job, it’s time to figure out whether you would even want the job. The most important thing you can do is ask pointed questions that are designed to help you make some sort of determination about the fit of the company to your ambitions and desires. Good or bad, you want to know what it’s really like to work at this company so that you can see the dragon’s claws before you feel them!

Unfortunately, most interviewers aren’t very good at being straight about the nuances of their workplace. And it’s not an honesty issue, either. Most interviewers just don’t know how to answer questions general questions about the workplace. If you ask a hiring manager about the work environment, here’s how nine out of ten hiring managers are going to start their answer: “It’s a great place to work…”. Then they’ll launch into an explanation of something irrelevant, like benefits or charitable activities of the company or something else that doesn’t really have much to do with the nature of the workplace.

So, instead try asking some of the following questions instead. They are rather indirect, but I think the answers will tell you a lot more about the dragon’s claws than more direct questions will.

Question 1) How long does it take from the time someone identifies a need for a new piece of hardware (server, etc) to the time it is connected to the network and available?

What does this tell you? A heck of a lot. If it takes four months to get a server, you can bet there is a mountain of process, people, and organizations between you and the things your project needs to succeed.

Question 2) Tell me about the people and processes involved in acquiring a new piece of hardware.

It’s amazing how hard buying a new server can be. Even if buying a server doesn’t have anything to do with the job you’re considering, it’s important to know how complicated the approval & decision-making process is. This particular activity is frequently one of the most process-laden things a company will do, so it’s good to know how painful it is.

Question 3) What’s the most frustrating thing you’ve had to do this week?

Most managers won’t be truthful about this, and for good reason. Tech leads and developers are more likely to be honest. I’d save this question for them.

Question 4) What do you and your co-workers do at work for fun?

This is a tricky one. If the answer is all about formal, organized activities on a regular basis, there is a significant possibility of a big morale problem. I prefer an organization where adhoc celebrations or activities are more common (like a pickup game of nerf basketball in an empty cube). Activities like this indicate a more relaxed, easy-going atmosphere that is focused more on performance than on formality.

Question 5) In the middle of a project, a developer identifies a key technical improvement that will have significant benefit but also involves additional cost and risk. What is the process for deciding whether or not to make the change? Who makes the final decision and who else is involved?

The answer to this question will help you figure out how risk averse the organization is. It can also give you some insight into the quality of the relationship between this particular IT group and their business partners.

This list of questions could go on and on, and I hope it does! Add your questions to my list by posting a comment.

Good luck! Remember, different isn’t always better.

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Tags: Job Advice

10 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Lyndsay // Feb 6, 2006 at 4:12 am

    Good questions :-)
    The Joel Test is something I use, though with both sets of questions I would add one further tip: Ask for evidence to back up the answers :-)

  • 2 dave // Feb 12, 2006 at 9:05 am

    A friend of mine had the following comments offline, and said it would be cool to post them:

    The overall premise is right on the money. I coach a lot of people to remember that an interview goes both ways and you should go in with a thorough set of questions you want answered that address what it will be like to work at the new place (detail questions about benefits and even pay are secondary). Personally, I’ve been told after getting my last two jobs that many of those I interviewed with felt more like I was interviewing them. This is especially true if the interviewer isn’t prepared with very good questions. Being prepared with good questions has the added benefit of making a strong impression on those you are interviewing with assuming the questions are good ones.

    Your questions were great. Great interview questions should ask for examples to avoid getting fluffy philosophy answers. If you ask “tell me your style of leadership” you get a lot of fluff and theory. If you ask “give me an example of a time you gave one of your subordinates some corrective feedback” you force the person answering to be very specific. If they can’t be specific, it should raise red flags.

  • 3 Vicki // Feb 19, 2006 at 12:19 pm

    I think you are missing a word – I’ve taken the liberty of putting it in ( )’s below. Great article.

    “The key is to get a good sense of at least three specific things before you hire in, and (not) I’m referring to the dress code, the break schedule, or the availability of free coffee. Instead,

  • 4 dave // Feb 19, 2006 at 4:46 pm

    Thanks Vicki for catching that error. It’s fixed now.

    A conversation I had with a buddy made think of something else I’d like to add. Write the questions you intend on asking down and take them to the interview. When they ask if you have any questions, pull it out and spread it on the table, saying “Yes, I’ve got a list of questions that I’d like to discuss.”

    Not only does this help you remember all your questions, it also demonstrates your preparation for the interview and strong interest in the position.

  • 5 The Captain // Mar 29, 2006 at 8:36 pm

    I have been known to drive an interviewer to distraction, esp. and not to pick on this, but… when they are younger than I am. I suppose that could raise issues, however, if I am expected to fit into the culture, I feel the issues need to be raised. Interviewing *IS* a two-way street. A hard questions is, how do they get to hiring someone who is older with more breadth of experience, but not the depth ? Not everyone can be a brain surgeon, however, GPs keep thousands alive every day.
    My 2cents…

  • 6 Anonymous // Jun 7, 2006 at 9:47 pm

    Beyond the questions, which are excellent, I’d also suggesting asking to talk with “to be” peers. A good schedule of interviews will include this opportunity, but if they don’t, ask for it. This enables you to meet your future co-workers, and gather more information about the position and environment.

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  • 9 Michelle // Jul 10, 2007 at 3:59 am


    great post…I look forward to reading more! thanks alot!

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