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Ask HN: What are good questions for job candidates to ask in interviews?
9 points by decasia 17 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 12 comments
When you're a software engineering job candidate, what are good questions to ask if you're interested in learning more about the internal culture and politics of a prospective workplace?

I think about an interviews as being a two-way street — both parties are trying to figure out if it's a good fit — and if at all possible, I want to learn in advance if it's an organization that I'd genuinely like working in. So I'm wondering — what are questions that you find helpful in trying to learn about that kind of thing?

For example, one time I asked a CEO who was doing a last round interview with me: "What keeps you up at night?" I got a pretty candid answer and it shed a lot of light on the whole organization (as seen from the top, of course).

Some questions I've asked that (occasy) produce illuminating answers (and sometimes an illuminating lack of answers):

"Production has just gone down. What happens?"

"You're offering X share options in equity. What's that come to in terms of % of the company, what is your valuation based on your most recent round, and what is the strike price for those options when they vest?"

"How long is your company's runway right now?" (Note: I was told 6 months, took the job, and it turned out to be 6 weeks. Everyone was let go.)

"Do you have any engineering practices that you would like to adopt but can't for some reason?"

"What does a typical customer of yours look like? What about an ideal customer? What are you doing to close that gap?"

"How large are each of your engineering teams? How many teams are there? How do teams coordinate with each other?" (The most illuminating answer I got was "engineering isn't split up into teams, all 50 people report to me."). Alternatively, ask to see an org-chart.

"Someone from sales just closed a huge deal, but they made a bunch of promises for custom functionality and features without running it by engineering for sanity checks or timeframe estimates. What happens now?"

"What's your 'bus number'?"

"Why does the CEO of a 10-person startup need a 'chief of staff'?

"What's a cool feature you came up with that you decided to NOT build (or deploy)? Why? How was that decision reached?" (The best answers showed how dissenting opinions were handled, and who was allowed to express them).

"You're just idly browsing through the company repos on a weekend (as one does). What are you looking (or looking out) for? a bug to fix, code to refactor, code to delete, tests to add, documentation to update, or something else?"

- What was the last conflict that you had in the team? (if they evade the question, it's a bad sign - conflict is actually healthy if you address it productively. False harmony is much worse)

- Why do people stay?

- Why do people leave?

- What practices do you have in place to help people stay connected while remote?

- What's exciting about working here?

- What's frustrating about working here?

We actually posted a sneak peak to our culture https://www.notion.so/bunch2/Bunch-Culture-Sneak-Peek-68bd77... Thought I'd share because it might give you some inspiration to look through the categories. We keep updating this based on what people ask in interviews and applications. People specifically seem to value the "Why do people leave?" section - it tells them a lot.

When I was looking for a job a couple of years ago I developed this framework to assess opportunities against what I value, and what I want to avoid.


You can estimate how well the company matches up to them, and then use questions you ask in an interview (and speaking to team members that work there) to validate your assumptions.

So for example: something I was looking for in my work, is to be surrounded by people who were passionate (and not bored) by what they do. So in team interviews I would look out for how they spoke and their tone - was it excited?

I like your framework. However, could you elaborate a bit more on how you'd probe the companies to show their values?

I'm curious if you had any strategy there, since in a interview setting, people have an incentive to ,for example, avoid talking about their conflicts with coworkers, or say anything bad about their boss / office culture.

What is the turnover rate.

I worked for a company where when I joined they had just let go something like half or more of the engineers. Few in engineering except for management had been there more than a year. Apparently the company liked to treat employees like contractors and just wholesale let people go as the company’s finances dictated all the while advertising to customers and potential hires as a stable and growing place to work or to partner with.

I've found that "what's your typical day like?" to be a good starting point. Pay attention to their answers, ask follow-up questions, and you're likely to get a good sense of the company culture and state.

Generally speaking, you should be asking just as many questions as the interviewer, interviewing the company just as much as they're interviewing you.

This article has some thoughtful questions: https://medium.com/free-code-camp/how-to-interview-as-a-deve...

I once asked the CEO of a very small startup if there were any barriers to entry. I had an offer the next day. When I got there everybody was using the 'barrier to entry' buzz phrase. I am sure that that question had a great deal to do with getting me hired.

I mostly ask industry-specific questions but here are some of the generic ones.

Who do you admire on your team and why?

How long does a purchase request take?

Just ask the questions you would like to be asked if you were the one being interviewed.

How many people on the team, how many in the company.

vacation policy, remote, etc.

any gym or coworking benefits?

I try to always formulate my questions using the classic STAR behavioral question format (specific situation, task, action, and result). You can look this up, there's plenty of articles about it online.

Then I ask questions that give me insights on the company's culture and how they perceive themselves. Below are some examples of the themes and questions I use. I generally ask only 2-3 questions at the end of an interview because of time limitation, so I always pick the ones that will give me information about the aspects I have the most concerns about and feel the need to dig into.

One extra trick: when I know I'll be meeting multiple people in multiple interview rounds, then I keep one of the questions the same across all rounds. I do this to see what different types of data I get from various people, and if the information converges or diverges. If they all have the same answer more or less it's a good sign, but if the answers differ, it means they're either mis-aligned internally, or they're trying to bullshit me in some way (sometimes they might have randomly different answers, and it doesn't mean anything).

Also, I sometimes use the answer to one of my questions from one round to narrow down another question in another round. For example, once I asked a developer about recent unpopular decisions (see below), to which he replied the founder asked all employees to show up no later than 10am, and the tone was perceived as top-down and not well received. So then in my chat with the founder, I asked him what he thought of the reaction people when he announced his ask for them to show up no later than 10am, and I was able to get insights as to what makes him tick (which I wouldn't have been able to ask if I had not collected that information in a previous interview).

Here are some examples of questions I ask, categorized per themes:

### Success

- How do you evaluate success? What was the last big achievement that was celebrated?

- Can you give me an example of a person or a team who did something that was very successful in the past year? How was this person rewarded for it?

### Conflict resolution

- Can you tell me of a time when you had a disagreement with someone on your team?

- What tends to create conflict, and how does it get resolved?

### Decision making

- How are decisions made when there’s disagreement and stakes are high?

- Can you describe an unpopular decision that was taken recently, and what was the result?

### Working with the founders (if a startup)

- What do you like the most about working with the founders?

- Do you have an example in mind of how the founders involved the employees in an important decision?

### Process

- Can you give me an example of the lifecycle of a feature? How do you go from idea to final implementation?

### Motivation

- Can you tell me of something that you're really proud of/not proud of?

- What do you like the most about working here?

- What is the one thing you would change about the company?

### Opportunity

- What was the company/department’s biggest challenge last year and what did you learn from it?

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