Notes on enginering leadership and software development.

Barebones Engineering Management Interview Questions

At the core, engineering managers are accountable for two things: delivering projects, and supporting their teams. But they can operate on different levels, from constant firefighting to building resilient systems and tuning them.

Just like most small companies can't afford hiring and training junior engineers, most small companies can't afford hiring and training junior engineering managers — training them is much more expensive and complex.

So you want managers who can operate at least on the most basic level autonomously, who already made some mistakes, and have seen some situations in their managerial career, and learned from them.

Shipping software

Tell me about a project that went horribly wrong, and what did you do to steer it to success? Planning is educated guessing. When a project's plan blows up, you want your managers to communicate clearly, actively align with other teams, adjust plans, all while creating a safe environment for engineers to speak up, raise risks, and learn from the situation.

This is stressful work. And managers become better at this with experience. If a candidate says that all their projects are always on track, and they never had a problem, then either you just found a unicorn, or they're very junior.

Dealing with low performance

Tell me about a situation when you had to support an engineer who wasn't performing well. Providing negative feedback is awkward and hard. Receiving negative feedback is the same. There's so much you can get out of this question:

  • How does a candidate deliver feedback?
  • How does candidate support engineers who need help? Do they just pip them and call it a day? Do they ignore them for a year and hope they improve on their own?
  • What are the specific systems that this candidate put in place to improve engineering performance over all in their team?
  • What did they learn from an awkward and challenging situation?
  • How empathetic and vulnerable are they?

I'm usually looking for candidates that can open up, admit this area of work is genuinely hard, and admit they've learned a lot, and are still learning, and show me specific examples. It's okay if they're emotional, or nervous around this topic.

Again, I'm usually looking for folks who can share stories and go into details in follow up questions. If a candidate tells you that they had an underperforming engineer, ran a single performance review, asked someone to pair with them for 3 weeks and that solved the problem — they're very junior.

Building trust in the organization

The two areas above are the bare minimum for operational work of an engineering manager. If there's a project blowing up, or an engineer on the team lost motivation, a manager might switch into firefighting mode and take care of the situation. New eng managers can spend quite a lot of time in firefighting mode.

But good engineering leadership is more than that — it's about building systems (of relationships, trust, communications, and plans) that support your teams and other teams around.

  • How do you provide a clear view into your team's work and roadmap for other teams, and for leadership? At certain point, your leadership team is going to ask your boss to ask you what the hell are your engineers doing. How do you provide visibility into their work, without demanding that they submit their pull requests every week?
  • Tell me about a situation when you helped your team understand and work through a significant unexpected change in your company. Good managers listen around, get information early, package it up in a way that's easier for their team to process. Take the outside chaos and digest it into calmness. Good managers know what's important to talk about in a safe team space, and what can be just posted in a company-wide email.
  • Tell me about a situation you worked with your peers in other organizations (product, design, customer support) on an organization-wide change / process that affected multiple teams. How did you design the change? How did you ratify it and get it approved? How did you implement and roll out the change? It's extremely hard to get to agree 10 people in different departments that 2 × 2 is 4, let alone commit to a new process. If the candidate did attempt a change, they will have invaluable lessons out of it.

Bigger picture

The scope of enginering management work is so wide that it's hard to define in an article, let alone design an interview loop that would surface signal around all the things managers do. The best short overview I found is in the Engineering Manager's Bill of Rights.

The list has 8 bullet point, each of them covering a broad area of work. In a given 45-minute interview, you have time for one topic with follow up questions, or maybe two separate questions. Even assuming one qustion is enough to get the signal on one area of work, that's 4-6 interviews, easily.

Neither most startups, nor candidates can afford to invest in 6 interviews. You'll have to figure out what areas are important for you, your teams, and your companies, and build your interview loop around them, and make decisions with partial, and flawed, data.

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Originally published on Nov 29th 2022.