'Questions?' by Stefano Parmesan

When I’m the interviewer, I’ve got two questions that I always use. They don’t have a textbook answer. The only way to answer them is by being honest. They are:

  • Tell me about a workplace where you felt you were able to do your best work
  • Tell me about a workplace where you didn’t feel like you could do your best work

I always find the answers illuminating. Folk tend to open up and say their preferences. There’s no trick here. I’m trying to see if that person would be happy to work where I am.

Recently, I’ve been trying to find a way to do the inverse. How can I find out if I would be happy at any potential new employer?

Most interviews take place outside of the real working environment. You can’t see the constraints the team are working around. So we are looking for questions that talk about their culture. We want to check where the inertia is that we won’t be able to change. We aren’t looking for things that are easy to change like tool choices and libraries. We want to find the big maddening things.

If you need inspiration try remembering things that pissed you off at previous jobs.

Here’s my three:

  • Can I pair program?
  • When did you last release?
  • Can your teams deploy to production?

It’s okay if the answer to any of the questions is “We want to get there”, I’m looking for opposition to my preferences.

There’s a why behind each. And I expect asking these questions will lead to follow-up questions.

Can I pair program? Is about their reaction to collaboration. In one interview I watched a tech leads face go crimson while monologing about how pairing is a waste of productivity - from just asking this one question. I knew I would not be happy there.

When did you last release? Is about checking the appetite for releases. Some places haven’t performed a release since the project began which hints at a lack of technical leadership. Moving a culture to frequent releases is difficult, but without management support, it’s a nearly impossible cultural change to undertake.

Can your teams deploy to production? Is about trust. So many issues disappear when someone can say “Let’s try it in production with a limited set of traffic and see what happens”. As soon as hand-offs enter the game, it becomes a merry-go-round of opinions, what-ifs and arguments. Trying safe to fail experiments trumps opinion.

For all three, if management support isn’t there, then I’ll spend my time getting frustrated, knowing I could be helping much more.

I asked on Twitter what other folks questions would be. Again looking for questions that have a cultural constraint behind them. Here’s a sample:

  • What is your diversity like, and what are you doing to improve it? @robinweston
  • What was the last architectural change and how is it going? @tef
  • When was the last time someone on the team was promoted? @tef
  • Do I have to do a time sheet? @karen_greaves
  • How do you make sure you set up teams for success? @cartwrightian
  • Are your stakeholders local, available, and involved? @cartwrightian
  • How do you know that your stuff works? @johnacowie

You should know what your three questions are. Your sanity is at stake.