Matt Peperell's Blog

How to interview a company

Questions to ask as a candidate during a job interview

Written: 09 Dec 2021 (Index by date)

Tags: work  (Index by tag)

I see lots of advice about how for candidates on how to prepare for interviews, covering both algorithm specifics (e.g. “how to crack the technical interview”), and how to prepare for common non-technical questions (“Why do you want to work here?”, “Where do you see yourself in five years time?” and the like). But interviews are a two way street. They’re not solely for the company to decide whether they want to hire you or not – they’re also to help you decide whether you want to work for the company. I see much less advice on how the candidate can address that second aspect.

I’m hugely lucky to be in a job I enjoy. This hasn’t always been the case but I think what really helped me to learn how to interview potiential employers was a bumpy patch in my employment history in 2014. Around and since that time, I’ve collected some questions that have really helped me to gain insight into what working for a company might be like.

Here are the questions, along with some thoughts on why these are useful

When top performers leave this position, why do they leave, and where do they go?

If a company doesn’t know it likely means that they’re not conducting exit interviews, meaning that they have little interest in working to retain talent. Another possibility is that people are leaving because they’re disgruntled1, though it’s understandable that the company won’t admit this, and thus an answer of “We don’t know” does not necessarily mean something negative. But if exit interviews are conducted then there’s often something the company can learn from that.

What one thing missing from my resume concerns you the most?

I use this one as a barometer to help gauge how well I’m faring compared to other candidates seen so far. I’ve worked with in excess of 40 different languages and syntaxes in my working life2 so I’m able to demonstrate that I can learn new ones. This question, therefore, is useful to see how the company views differing skill sets and their willingness to offer training opportunities.

Conversely, with there being so many other good candidates, what made you seek me out?

This is the other side of the coin for the question above, but it can be of use.

Where have the best ideas come from in the last two years?

This is a great one to learn about company culture as set by the executive suite (or C-levels, or whatever term is used for the organisation in question). If all ideas come from The Powers That Be and none have come from lower tiers, including Individual Contributers, then it’s possible that the organisation is an inflexible or dogmatic one.

With learning curves in IT typically steep, productivity from day 1 is rare. If I’m hired, what is one thing I’ll need to deliver in the first 90 days in order to be considered successful?

This is a great one that I use to get an inkling into what it might be like working for that person. A list of projects or tasks is useful, but as the candidate I can also get a sense of whether the expectations are realistic or not.

Burnout is a common problem in IT - how do you help staff not to?

More than once I’ve quit my job before having another one lined up, and once I didn’t but probably should have. I realise this is hugely privileged of me to be able to do so. IT has a reputation for providing a good income, and I’m thankful for that. But workplaces shouldn’t make us feel bad. Money should not need to be a sweetener to be subject to duress for 40-odd hours a week.

When was your last production outage and what was it? How green is the monitoring and how common are false alerts? What is your oncall rota like?

I use these questions to help gain an insight into how high-pressured the workplace is. If there’s always something breaking and it needs to be fixed immediately, then the chance of burn out increases and staff churn increases. Plus due to lack of rest (because of gruelling on-call), tired people are at increased risk of making mistakes, and this too leads to more outages.

What’s the diversity of the engineering team? (not just that of the company in general)

Tech has an appalling reputation for diversity with women, trans* people and non-white people woefully under represented. I’ve had some very lazy answers to this question when asking it but the best answer I received was supplemented with activities that the company is undertaking to combat the disparity. That’s the place I accepted the offer from almost 7 years ago, and the place I still work at today.

I’d be curious to know whether you have any of your own questions of this kind. I’m particularly interested on hearing from people who work in tech-adjacent or even unrelated fields.

  1. due to working conditions, pay, lack of progression, or whatever else 

  2. I’m not claiming to be an expert in all of them! 

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