“Since before your sun burned hot in space… I have awaited a question.” – The Guardian of Forever, Star Trek episode City on the Edge of Forever.
Questions are the lifeblood of an interview. The interviewer asks the candidate questions. Too often, though, candidates do not ask questions in reply. This should be a conversation, not a one-way interrogation. Reading the online literature from job search coaches, they all discuss the need to ask questions as a part of the interviewee’s presentation. Questions show interest, motivation, and they give the interviewee information to judge the employer, not to mention their potential boss, in turn.
Multiple sites and columns exist with scores upon hundreds of questions for candidates to consider asking in an interview. If you search with google or bing the phrase “questions to ask on/during an interview” you will find more questions than you can possibly imagine – many are good, and when interviewing I try to ask them if I can get a word in edgewise. But I’d like to discuss a few of my favorites which I’ve not seen elsewhere.
Who will introduce me to the people outside the department with whom I will need to interact to get my job done?
Not “Will I be introduced”, not even “how”, but “who”. This puts a spotlight onto both the company’s and hiring manager’s onboarding process, and the role of HR. It also highlights their commitment to you as a new person to help you get up to speed. A lack of this basic action as a standard part of the process implies weakness in other aspects of your coming on board – the “Here’s your anvil, now go swimming” mentality is not going to be conducive to your success. Body language can speak volumes here, especially if they have no such process. I’ve seen people literally squirm and shift uncomfortably when I ask this.
How are decisions made here?
This is actually a double-whammy question. The first is that it gives insight into how the group functions. Are big decisions done by committee, by one person, etc.? But it’s also an insight into the perspective of the manager… because decisions are not made by teams, but by a person. Teams can recommend courses of action, they can agree on a consensus or majority path to choose, but ultimately the decision to do X and not Y has to be made by a person, even if that person decides to accept the recommendation of a group.
How long have you worked here, and what is your story of how you ended up here? How has it measured against your expectations?
This is a chance to learn more about the career history of your potential manager. This is also a chance to see how the company’s marketing to potential employees, and their self-serving spin (and they all do self-serving spin, just as candidates do), matches the reality. In particular watch their body language as they describe the correlation between their own expectations vs. reality.
If you could change one thing here, what would it be? And is that a local phenomenon, or is it global to the whole company (if a large company)?
This is another chance to see what a potential sore point your manager might have about the place. It’s also a great question to ask a potential colleague who also reports to them. Ideally, do both. First, you get to see how peoples’ perceptions of organizational weaknesses align with the different perspectives of position. It’s also a good segue to learn more about your possible new boss from their subordinate, without specifically asking.
How long ago did you move from being an individual contributor to a manager? What induced you to make that switch, and do you have any regrets?
Again, this is a chance to learn more about your potential boss’ history and motivation. But there’s more. If they’re new to their level of responsibility, they might be nervous about someone gunning for their chair, and scared they’re not up to their new responsibilities. And if they have regrets, that’s a warning sign they might micromanage and possibly meddle in your day-to-day activities, because they want to keep their hands in the business of their subordinates, as opposed to managing it.
What happened the last time a big project went awry? What did you learn, and how do you keep these issues from happening again?
A number of things can come from these questions – so ask several people. The first is that there is no organization that is so fine-tuned that projects don’t go off the rails to some degree. A company that says it’s never happened either has a really poor collective memory, or people are hiding reality. The second thing is that it gives an indication of how flexible and adaptable the organization is. It’s also an opening for one of the people to descend into finger-pointing, which can teach you a lot about how the company handles people who make mistakes. And last, informal companies fight fires but are unable to prevent them from happening again. Good companies document and disseminate such information formally. Where are you interviewing?
Describe the best, most successful project that you’ve seen done here.
The answers to this question can reveal if the company does projects well, if things going right is considered normal or not, and what’s involved in a successful project.
I’m curious; what are the top three things about my background that interested you?
This forces the hiring manager to bring to mind specific things they liked about your background (as opposed to the question about any shortcomings or objections, which forces them to think of negative things). It also gives you insight about what the company values in general, which can help you color your answers to emphasize the traits that led to the accomplishments they cite. Lastly, if you know you are an “imperfect fit” for the position, it can indicate what they value enough to bring you in anyway despite those things that are lacking.
Have you ever abandoned a significant project (or cut loose a client, or whatever is suitable to your profession)? What went into that decision?
Not everything in a business works out. If they’ve never done this, they’ve either been blessed with extraordinary success, or are so desperate for revenue or cost savings that they don’t dare give up anything, or are too stubborn to cut their losses on something… among many possible reasons. Regardless of the root cause, this is useful to know.
Stock questions have their uses, and many are good and worth asking. But just as good candidates have created stock answers to stock questions – and there are a million “best answers to top interview questions” articles and books – so too have veteran interviewers created stock answers to the canned questions from candidates. Just as interviewers try to ferret out information from candidates, candidates must do the same.
In the sci-fi masterwork novel Dune, which I’ve praised before (don’t bother with the movie IMHO; I suffered through it so that I could recommend you avoid it – instead read it, and then immediately start reading it again), arch-villain Baron Harkonnen is gloating to his nephew Rabban about having suborned his enemy Duke Leto Atreides’ trusted employee, Doctor Huey. The doctor, a graduate of the Suk medical school (famous in that novel’s universe for the loyalty of their students to their employers), has conditioning and training that supposedly precludes exactly this type of betrayal. Rabban asks “Does the Emperor know you’ve suborned a Suk doctor?”
The Baron was surprised and paused, thinking “That was a penetrating question.”
Surprise your interviewers. Ask penetrating questions.
© 2013, David Hunt, PE