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could this interview have been an email?
fresh off the job hunt - part opinion part EM interview prep guide
The overall process is pretty standard across companies but I think the best loops incorporate and weigh signals based on what a particular company & hiring manager values for the role.
If a startup is growing rapidly, it might have an interview focused on hiring & scaling. If collaboration is really one of the core values, there should probably be an interview dedicated to cross-team collaboration. If DEI is important, it should be evident from the interview questions and conversations. What a company does/doesn’t ask should show what they actually care about and that’s a valuable signal for a candidate.
imo when designing an EM interview loop:
I would err on the side of having a more rather than less thorough process. Ideally, both the company and the candidate are able to do due diligence and feel reasonably confident in their decisions. It should feel like we took the time to get to know each other. I want to be able to imagine what it might be like to work together.
Engineers, cross-functional partners, and senior leadership for the team should be on the panel. If they weren’t in the interview loop, include pre and post-interview chats.
Interviews should more often have a written portion, especially when work is remote/distributed! Managers do so much writing - decision docs, one pagers for various stakeholders, performance reviews, OKRs, charters, etc it seems fair to ask for a writing sample. The only writing exercise I’ve ever seen is in the Technical Deep Dive part of Stripe’s interview process. I think there are several sections below that could be well answered in written form.
Interviewers are often taking notes as fast as they can already. Having a written exercise that sets the context could produce interviews that may be more interesting conversations around nuances and thought processes rather than covering the basic facts. The most enjoyable interviews in my experience from both an interviewer and candidate perspective are the ones that feel like a conversation between coworkers.
What the loop usually covers
In the interest of everyone’s time, it’ll work out best if we’re both honest about who we are and what we’re looking for from the beginning. This starts with the recruiter screen/intake that covers an overview of past experience and future hopes and dreams.
If it feels like it might be a fit, it’s time for a vibe check with (ideally) the hiring manager. Who is this person? What do they value? Personally, if this relationship doesn’t feel right, it’s a dealbreaker. This is the time for both sides to ask things like:
What’s the shape of your team?
Why did you become a manager? How did it happen?
How would your reports describe your management style?
What’s a piece of feedback you’ve received?
What growth areas are you working on?
This is also a time for the hiring manager to share additional context on the role and team. As a candidate, I want to leave this conversation with a better idea of what the role might be like and feeling excited about the the potential of working with this person.
If we can align on the fundamentals, then we can start diving deeper.
Even with a full loop of 5-8 interviews (45-60min each), there isn’t enough time to go over everything a manager does. The areas that get more focus should be the ones that best reflect what’s most important for the particular company & team.
The methodology/format from company to company may be different (maybe it’s a role play or product thinking exercise instead of a behavioural question) but it’s a pretty consistent pool of overall dimensions from which these interview loops are assessing.
A good recruiter will help candidates prepare by giving an explanation of what types of questions to expect from each interview. It can be difficult to come up with an example on the spot so most of the prep for EM interviews is reflecting on experiences and being ready to share stories and ways of approaching various scenarios. Keeping a personal copy of performance reviews will make these easier to recall.
Individual performance management
How do you grow engineers on your team? Can you provide an example?
When’s the last time you sponsored someone for an opportunity?
How do you provide feedback to your direct reports?
Who’s your top performer and why? What are they working towards? How are you helping them?
How do you think about levelling?
Can you discuss a scenario where someone was underperforming on your team?
Have you ever had to manage a conflict between two people on your team?
Running a team
What’s your process for hiring? What is your role in the hiring process? How do you partner with recruiters?
How do you think about hiring for your team?
What was the last strategic hire you made?
Tell me about a time you closed a candidate?
What signals/qualities do you look for?
Have you ever had a mis-hire?
How do you know when your team is under or over staffed?
Communication & change management
Have you ever had to manage through organizational change / difficult environment?
Have you ever needed to change the team’s direction / strategy? How did you communicate that change to your team?
Walk me through a time you had to deliver unpopular / controversial news to the team
How does your team know what you’re thinking about and what’s important?
What do you do to ensure that everyone feels welcome at work?
What does DEI mean to you?
How do you include DEI in your hiring philosophy?
Team culture & health
How do you think about team health?
What do you look for to know your team is functioning well?
How do you build psychological safety?
How do you keep a pulse on team morale?
How do you keep your team motivated and engaged?
What sort of activities do you engage in to help improve retention?
Have you ever had to motivate your team through a difficult time?
Are there times that the team has experienced burnout?
How do you help alleviate or prevent burnout?
How do you think about building cohesion?
How do you ensure that there are no single points of failure on your team?
What responsibilities does the tech lead have on your team?
How do you differentiate between your role and your tech lead’s role?
What is your team’s mission?
How did you arrive at that mission?
Who did you work with to create or refine your vision? How does this vision fit into your company’s strategy?
Where would you see the team in a year? How did you decide where you wanted the team to go?
Tell me about your team’s roadmap. How do you ensure that the roadmap stays aligned with business goals?
How do you define and measure the success of your team?
What have been some of the biggest risks for your team in the past year?
How do you set priorities for your team?
How do you measure the value of engineering-driven projects (refactors, system upgrades, addressing technical debt)? How do you weigh those against product-driven projects? How do you and your team convey the value of these to PMs or non-technical stakeholders?
Tell me about a time you disagreed on prioritization with a cross-functional partner or stakeholder.
Can you walk me through 1 or 2 important ongoing projects on your team right now?
How are projects staffed?
How do you keep track of the status of these projects?
Can you tell me about a time you discovered that a project was off-track?
How do you stay on top of high-priority bugs & incidents?
Walk me through recurring meetings on your team and the purposes they serve.
Are there any process gaps or inefficiencies on your team that you’ve noted? What steps have you taken to resolve those issues?
If a team is moving slower than expected, how do you propel that forward?
How do you tell if your team is operating at an acceptable level of overall quality?
Can you tell me about a time when you improved the overall quality of your team’s work?
Cross-functional & organizational relationships
Who are the stakeholders for your team? Describe how you collaborate with some of your stakeholders
Has your team ever been told by stakeholders to go faster? What tradeoffs were made and which tradeoffs weren’t you willing to make?
Who are your customers? How do you understand what they want?
Tell me about a time you had to say no to a customer request
Who are your peers and collaborators? Describe your relationships
Tell me about a time you disagreed with a cross-functional partner
Tell me about a time you disagreed with product prioritization - how did you resolve it?
What’re your expectations of Engineering/Product/Design roles? How do you divide responsibilities? How do you set expectations? What’s your ideal scenario?
What are some areas of tension between you and your product manager(s)? How do you and your product manager(s) stay aligned?
What are the dependencies and bottlenecks for your team?
Have you ever built a product with a lot of ambiguity around the scope?
What’s the most productive relationship you have with another team?
What’s a team you have a not-so productive relationship with?
Have you ever had to deal with a team whose goals didn’t align?
Tell me a time you had an impact on the overall engineering culture
I have never seen a coding challenge for an EM loop
Technical deep dive / discussion
Pick one of your team’s technical projects or a project you’ve led
What was the overall impact? What was the ROI? How did you measure success? Why was it important to the team and business?
Can you describe the system and architecture? What was the design of the project? What technical challenges did the team run into? What were some of the constraints and tradeoffs you had to consider?
Who worked on and partnered on the project? What did those relationships look like, what was rocky, how do you navigate as a leader?
What would you do differently next time?
I’ve seen this interview done a few different ways - formal presentation, written document, conversation with supporting material, and just conversational. I think the format works better when there is supporting material, whether that’s a slide deck, technical document, or architectural diagram - there’s a reason why system designs are usually diagrammed!
This is the same as the IC interview format
Ideally this is tailored to the candidate’s background
Does this one actually provide useful technical signal above and beyond the technical deep dive? Anyone can study for a standard system design interview. Managers should not be the team’s architect. The technical deep dive gives a more practical signal around whether a candidate can describe their teams’ systems and speak to the design and tradeoffs. If anything, I could see this reworked as a roleplay interview paired with a senior/staff engineer where the manager guides the engineer in explaining the system to them at the level of fidelity they need to understand how it works, the considerations and tradeoffs, and explain it back.
If you’re a cross-functional partner, what would you want to know about a potential EM hire? If you’re an IC, what do you wish your EM were asked in the interview?
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