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Ask HN: Types of questions to ask team members before accepting role?
219 points by 0x01030307 on Sept 4, 2018 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments
What kinds of questions would you ask coworkers before you begin working with them and accepting a role?

Disclaimer: my role will be in info sec.


You never want to ask direct questions about the company that will be bullshitted away -- you're wasting everyone's time in a little ceremony where both parties say nothing. People will usually talk about how they feel, and if they don't, the way that they do not answer the question is useful as well. It's also good way to make a personal connection with people.

Adapted from: "First, Break All the Rules". Gallup found that these questions were correlated against organizational and personal performance across industries, from fast food to the army to law firms. These were intended to be answered on a 1-5 "strongly agree/agree/neutral/disagree/strongly disagree" scale and need to be tailored to the situatino.

1. Do you know what is expected of you? (If the employee answers with a four or a five, this self-score would indicate that he or she knows the goal, how it is measured, and how he or she plans to reach the goal. An answer of one indicates that the employee does not know the goal or objective or how it is measured and has no idea how to reach it.)

2. Do you have the right materials and equipment to do your work right?

3. At work, do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?

4. In the last seven days, have you received recognition or praise for doing good work?

5. Does you supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?

6. Is there someone at work who encourages your development?

7. At work, do your opinions seem to count?

8. Does the mission/purpose of the company make me feel that your job is important?

9. Are your co-workers committed to doing quality work?

10. Do you have a best friend at work?

11. In the last six months, has someone at work talked to you about your progress?

12. This last year, have you had opportunities at work to learn and grow?

That’s a great list. I also like to ask:

- When did you last miss supper / a personal event because you were working late?

- Think of the last person you know who left the company. Why did they leave?

- When was your last vacation, and how long was it?

These are essentially a way of asking, how’s the work life balance? In a way that avoids the BS answer, “great!”

>Think of the last person you know who left the company. Why did they leave?

I don't think you'll get an honest answer for this a lot of the time, often team members might not even directly know why someone was laid off

>When was your last vacation, and how long was it?

This is a bit tough too, it's very subjective. I personally like working, and while I encourage my employees to use all of their vacation time, I rarely do so myself (I spread my time around as individual days rather than large chunks).

Also depends on your audience. Parents will answer this much differently than individuals.

It does depend on your audience, but I've gotten good mileage out of these questions, so personally vouch for them. I got them from the book "Switch"[0], which has better phrasing than I jotted down in my comment. I highly recommend the book.

[0] https://www.amazon.com/Switch-Change-Things-When-Hard/dp/038...

I'd argue against asking questions that have a clearly negative predicted response. Whenever a question is clearly skewed in one direction, the subject has a tendency to become suspicious and will often try to give the unintended answer. This is why tests like the MMPI use validity indicators and repeat questions.

Very good list.

One I ask personally: in the past year, what work are you most proud of doing?

This THE list of questions to ask any team or employee to get a health check. Great book, by the way.

This is a fantastic list. Thank you.

Ok, for infosec I'm not sure.

For dev work, I'd ask the questions in the Joel test.

Some questions do apply (I wouldn't expect a 100% YES answer, but hopefully most of them):

  Do you have two monitors (or more)
  Do you get a fast PC
  Do you get your choice of mouse and keyboard
  Do you have a comfortable chair
  Do you have a fast (and unfiltered) internet connection
  Do you have quiet working conditions
  Do you use the best tools money can buy? 
  Do you support developer education by attending conferences, purchasing books, or something of that nature?

"Do you have quiet working conditions" < this.

Apart from asking just questions it's a good practice to have a look at the office that you are to work from (especially if no remote/wfh is allowed). I learned that the hard way - signed a contract without checking what office I would be working from. A couple days in and I had to use earplugs in tandem with noise cancelling headphones.

This thread has lot of good questions that can fit into any role. For InfoSec, I would ask following questions to team members:

1. How do you share knowledge about new vulnerabilities, detection techniques etc.

2. Did you attend any conference recently? Which one is your favorite security conference?

3. Does the management support presenting in conferences?

4. Have you (or any team member) presented in any security conference in the past?

5. How were the team dynamics when responding to critical vulnerabilities like Heartbleed, POODLE, Struts Vulns

6. Does the Chief Security Officer has any seat in the enterprise leadership

7. How often are you required to share metrics around state of security

8. Do you feel overwhelmed for crunching numbers as oppose to doing security review

9. Have you (or team) published and CVEs?

10. What do you think about developers and how much time do you spend in developer's security education?

11. How often the team members go for training and certification like SANS, Offensive Security, ISC2 etc.

These questions will judge whether the team has empathy for developers, encourage research, environment for training and development, management backing for security etc.

I have been in InfoSec for 9 years and have been taking interviews for last 3 years.

  1. % time spent programming, % time spent not programming?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 10, how much do you love your job?
  3. The biggest thing that would raise answer to last question?
  4. On a scale of 1 to 10, the quality of the business requirements you receive?
  5. The biggest thing that would raise answer to last question?
  6. On a scale of 1 to 10, the quality of the technical specs you receive?
  7. The biggest thing that would raise answer to last question?
  8. On a scale of 1 to 10, the quality of the dev environment?
  9. The biggest thing that would raise answer to last question?
  10. Avg length of time from dev complete to deployed into production?
  11. If you had not picked this, what would you have picked? Why?
  12. Biggest regret from this job?
  13. Biggest success from this job?
  14. How much longer to you see yourself working here?
  15. On a scale of 1 to 10, the quality of the existing code base?
  16. How far to closest Chinese buffet?

#16, never asked that one, but absolutely should. Next time.

I'd be disappointed getting such a not funny joke question asked.

Chinese buffets are nasty though... once you've seen mop bucket chicken you don't come back

I've been asking the following two questions for many years now and they have always been a great tool for me: "Can you tell me why I should NOT work here?" "If you had a magic stick, what would you change about this company?"

At my current job, they actively try to talk candidates out of taking the job, just to make the warts/issues known beforehand.

Personally I'd never take a job that my future colleagues try to talk me out of... Does this approach have any success?

It’s funny. Back when I was a senior in college, interviewing for what would be my first “real” job after graduation, I interviewed with every major defense contractor and computer company that came on campus. All the recruiters had only the best things to say about the company they were recruiting for. Not a single one of them contacted me for a second interview.

But during that same time, I also interviewed with a guy from the Defense Communications Agency. He told me that he knew I had interviewed with a lot of other companies, and that I could assume all the things those recruiters said were also true of working for the government. He then followed by saying he wanted to focus on the disadvantages of working for the government.

He really impresssed me with his honesty and forthrightness. When the call came for a second (phone) interview, I didn’t hesitate. When the tentative job offer came, I didn’t hesitate to take it. They took more than a year to complete the initial background investigation, so I also got a chance to squeeze in an internship that summer before starting to work there in August of 1989, while they continued to finish the investigation which would result in my TS/SCI clearance and the rocket-fueled start to my career.

I still remember Mr. Brewer’s name, and am grateful to him to this day, for helping me get my start in this business.

In my case the question has often unearthed things about the team culture that may work well for some and not so well for others. One example: a person I had an interview with told me that he wouldn't recommend a candidate to join the team if said candidate e.g. wouldn't get along with the typical "tech bros" team culture, which obviously wasn't something mentioned in the job description. For me that was clearly a no-go, for others this wouldn't be much a problem because the job in general was a very interesting one and very well compensated, too. OTOH, I've also heard non-trivial things in other interviews which were not mentioned in the job description but weren't a show stopper for me.

I also use the questions to learn more about the person and culture: if all people say "there is NOTHING I would change, this is a dream job" there is a very high likelihood that this is an environment where you don't speak openly about ways to improve and where individuals keep their criticism for themselves.

Success in what way?

This tends to take place at the very end of the process and discusses some of the flaws of the workplace and/or goals of the candidate ("you mentioned wanting to do compiler design, but as a webdev shop, it's unlikely we'll ever do that. Are you ok with that").

I think it establishes a tone of trust ("hey, we aren't perfect, but we think this is a good fit anyway").

I made a little checklist for myself here: https://smalldata.tech/blog/2017/03/27/questions-to-ask-at-t...

Maybe there are a few questions that make sense for your role!

1. "What is your biggest gripe with the company?" -- For me, at my current company, this would be exaggerated over-rigidness and glacially slow moving processes (because of checks and emails and re-checks and approvals and and and) when a fast answer/development is required.

2. "How many levels are there in the management hierarchy?" (deep vs flat) -- I tend to prefer flatter hierarchies, which plays into 3:

3. "How much personal freedom do you get?" -- Having more freedom means being more responsible for your work, but also enables you to produce better, faster, more creative stuff. The flatter the company management structure, the better (usually).

A flat hierarchy is not always strongly correlated to personal freedom. I'm 6 or 7 levels below the CEO, but I have a lot of personal freedom because of the management style of my direct manager.

Flat, flexible hierarchies can mask hidden power structures where responsibilities and accountabilities are vague / closed to outsiders. Not always, but something to be aware of...

I made a video with a list of questions I like to ask (and how to ask them): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s9XPTay-x8g

They've saved me from some bad gigs.

The second half of the video covers questions for your would-be future managers. Some of the commenters have also added excellent questions to ask.

Here are the co-worker questions:

1. What's the most interesting thing you've gotten to work on (or learn about) here?

2. What's the balance between firefighting and project work in an average week?

3. What's the one thing you wish you could improve or change about your everyday work life here?

4. Every company is carrying some amount of technical debt -- what's the tech debt situation here? -how much they think there is -what they're doing about it

4. What is the policy/practice as far as WFH or remotely? 5. What does the on-call rotation look like?

These types of questions never get good answers because everyone feels like they're an expert and very few people read through the other comments or vote on them. You're better off reaching out to successful people you respect and asking them for advice instead.

One general rule: avoid binary/rating questions. So not:

"Do you like working at X?"

This question has a "right answer" (yes), and you'll always get it. Instead:

"What's your least favorite thing about X?"

Phrase all of your questions as free-form responses instead of multiple choice. This is very helpful to get interviewers talking.

For specific questions, there's a lot of good ones on this thread, so the only specific question I'd add is this one, which I found very helpful for startups and fast-growing companies:

"It's 2 years from now, and X has failed. What happened?"

Well-run businesses had a well-understood answer about their biggest risks; poorly-run places had platitudes and "it could never happen."

If you have a family, verify if some of team members and manager also...

This. To ensure incentives are aligned. To add to this you want to ask what the manager values. At my current job the mgr straight up said he believes you come first, then family, then work. Woohoo!

I got some inspiration from these: https://www.keyvalues.com/culture-queries

You highlight what you're looking for, and it offers decent ways of asking about them.

I found it here: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15908812

I wrote this specifically for data science jobs but I think it translates reasonably well into any technical role:


The short answer is that it all depends on what you are looking for in a position.

The longer answer is ask them what they do (as a company, team, etc.), then ask them what infrastructure (technical and organizational) they have in place to do that. Then ask them about non-managerial growth paths (unless you're a manager).

Finally, ask them to give you a question - some business problem they're trying to solve - that they themselves don't know the answer to. Ask to sit in a room with the people who would be involved in planning a solution to that problem, and actually plan out the initial steps of solving it. That will tell you more about the team dynamics and the workplace environment than any explicit questions you might ask.

This Julia Evans blog post lists many questions to ask before accepting a new role : https://jvns.ca/blog/2013/12/30/questions-im-asking-in-inter...

What have you learnt in the last year and how did that come about? Dig down to see the situation or person or self-motivation that lead to this? Variations can include 'what has the team learnt?'

This is useful at an individual level for your expectations, and it's a company flag if people respond negatively.

"How would run the business / team / org differently?"

Should let you know what's wrong without asking directly.

"You've been here for a while, what keeps you here?"

"How much overtime have you worked in the past year?"

"What would you change right now in this team/company if you could?"

What's the on-call system/expectations. What's the overtime pay/expectation. What's the career progression system. How many meetings a week do you have. Who controls requirements / work organisation. Remote work possibilities.

-what are your typical hours? remote flexibility, etc

-is this a new headcount or am i replacing someone

is this a new headcount or am i replacing someone

In my experience, you never get an honest answer on this one. If there is a vacancy because someone quit, they're not going to say why they quit. They probably don't know themselves since HR never shares exit interviews with others - if they happen at all.

If it's not an open seat and they're replacing someone, they're not going to say that either to avoid tipping off the current employees that someone is about to be sacked.

I'm always amazed by the % of people that work for large companies and never monitor the open jobs page on the website. They seem shocked when told that there are open reqs in their own group.

It's a difficult one to ask (and/or get an honest answer to), but something like "how much do you trust the boss, and the company". If they don't have integrity, other answers might not matter.

This is important as the rot almost inevitably starts at the top, but in my experience it is rare for an underling to badmouth their boss to someone who they don't know (I say this as someone who should have, but didn't due to fear of being fired). Instead you have to eek out a general vibe by asking less pointed questions like:

* How often do you interact with the CEO/insert title?

* How comfortable are you with the level of transparency and your understanding of the company's overall health?

* Do you have input into wider strategic decisions or is that handled by a smaller group?

* What does the X year roadmap/vision for the company look like?

* How does senior management interact with the team? Is everyone together during the day so it's a natural flow or is the management team in their office/meetings most of the time?

etc, etc. Ask enough of these types of questions and eventually you'll wear through the polish and get a better feel for how people really think about the boss.

They might not bad mouth, but generally a bad leader will get you neutral "fine", "great" opinions.

People under someone they respect and like will tell stories and use superlatives.

1. Who is the most difficult person here to work with, and why? (Who should I watch out for - do they have a bad temper or goto management every disagreement?)

2. What's the biggest technical thorn in the company's side? (This is almost always something basic - like convincing management to buy more storage, or getting everyone to migrate to the newest version of something, or an underperforming vendor with a long contract.)

Both of these tell you about the company, and also about the person's perspective from their role and expected duration.

I would never honestly answer #1. In my head I know my honest answer today, but out of context I would never attempt to explain the history with a candidate. If the candidate joins the team, then what? Are some offices so impersonal that this doesn't become an issue?

I am sure that folks will give their list of gotcha questions for which a negative response would, to them, indicate a red flag. Some folks will give a list of questions that require long, honest, and thoughtful responses to be of any value. There's nothing wrong with asking questions you feel are valuable.

BUT, more important than any of these questions, however, is the one you have to you ask yourself: How will you evaluate these pieces of information?

At the end of the day, it's an intrinsically subjective analysis.

The Developer's Guide to Interviewing has some great ideas: https://medium.freecodecamp.org/how-to-interview-as-a-develo...

"How would you describe the code quality of the project you work on?"

“If you work on multiple projects simultaneously, is it clear who would resolve conflicts between the projects that affect you?”

E.g. if two different project managers are giving you tasks that exceed your capacity

Would you recommend <company name> to your friends?

Specifically for information security, have the team members had PREVIOUS ROLES IN THE FIELD?

"What's the worst part of your job?"

“How does the company reward tenure?”

Describe how you work as a team.

Also, specifically: How are big decisions made? When two individuals disagree about a technical choice, how is the conflict resolved?

When I interviewed at FAANG, I would often ask them the same questions they ask me. Very effective.

Rate the company out of 10.

Check the restrooms. That's where disgruntled employees act on their frustrations and take revenge on the company. Broken and dirty restrooms are a red flag.

Also, try to find out who left the company recently, reach to them on linkedin and try to chat a bit about the reasons to leave. Take it with a grain of salt, thou.

What is a team? I know we're on HN but there are many different types of teams.

I work in sort of devops teams and I've helped conduct the technical part of a few interviews so I made some questions for that reason.

1. Some technical questions but they're not that important.

2. More important is what they do in their off time. I always try to figure out how nerdy they are.

One person when asked the 2nd type of question brought out their mobile phone and showed us how they could control their entire home with an open source automation system and a homemade app they made themselves.

They were hired and they were very good.

Re #2: Ugh. This sort of thing is a selector for plenty that is negative about the tech industry — selects for young single men without a family.

Frankly, I want to go home at night and do anything but code. Music, art, explore the city, have friends. And I want to work with others who value the same.

> One person when asked the 2nd type of question brought out their mobile phone and showed us how they could control their entire home with an open source automation system and a homemade app they made themselves.

They were hired and they were very good.

They would have been an equally capable hire if they did not have the time or inclination to complete that project. Moreover you can acquire all the skills a capable software engineer has without having personal projects. That means this is a poor heuristic for hiring criteria and candidate assessment.

IMO Some of the questions here are opinion based , you may not get right answer and you may set a red flag for yourself. For example if someone asks me what are working hours, do you work on weekends ? I take that as a sign that interviewee may be looking for easy job role and not committed.

I would suggest to ask process related questions i.e what is the build/deployment process? What happens when you take down site in production due to bug? Etc.

You really should not be using basic questions concerning things like work life balance as a hiring heuristic for candidates. If nothing else, from a purely pragmatic standpoint you do not receive any new information from a question about work life balance other than, "This candidate has a question about work life balance."

Your interpretation of that question is going to be noisy, subjective, unreliable and intrinsically incomplete. That makes it an exceptionally poor hiring signal. The idea that you can divine interesting insights about a candidate's employability or character based on mundane interview questions is fundamentally flawed.

Couldn't disagree more. The fact that the company doesn't like those questions would be a massive red flag to me that they indeed expect me to work weekends.

Times are great to be a software engineer. Don't squander that opportunity working for a place that won't respect you especially when there are so many wonderful places to work at where you will be respected.

I asked a few questions (working from home due to a long commute) like this during an interview and had my potential manager react like you. This was a great way for me to know I will never work there, until that culture element is changed.

A candidate is also testing you, and if you do not respect a candidate's concerns you're making it clear you're not committed to ensuring the potential employee gets the most out of the role.

For many, weekend work is a deal breaker. There should be full transparency about the frequency of weekend work or work hours above 40. It should be in the job ad.

If asking working hours means being flagged as not committed, I would seriously question the quality of the interviewee and subsequently the company.

Thanks, Good replies ! Should remind myself to also think from other point of view.

WTF. That might be in your country but in Europe this is pretty normal question. If you are going to be hired you have the right to know these.

You seem like an exploiter.

Completely disagree. If asking about work/life balance this is a red flag for the company then I definitely do not want to work for them.

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