The first interview in the hiring process for software developers is often a conversation with the hiring manager. Candidates tend not to take it seriously because it is usually a free-form conversation, without the scary live-coding task or deep technical questions. It is a mistake, though, and people should not waste the opportunities that the hiring manager interview provides.
I have done many hiring manager interviews for the data engineering department in my company. Some of these conversations have been energizing and lively, and some have been tough to get through. I learned a lot from this experience. In this post I will share some advice for candidates preparing for such interviews.
The goal of the first interview from the manager's perspective is to find out two things: whether the candidate can do the job and whether they want to do it. The latter question is more important than the former because the rest of the interview process is designed to test the candidate's skills. If the manager is too optimistic about the candidate's competencies, the other interviewers will correct the error. However, if the job doesn't match the candidate's expectations and the manager doesn't figure this out in time, this can potentially lead to a disappointed new joiner and a lot of wasted time for everyone.
If you, as a candidate, understand the manager's goals, you can work together with them and find out whether you want this job. Besides that, by asking the right questions and presenting your achievements correctly, you will leave a great first impression.
The Elder Scripts blog covers the opportunities and challenges that software engineers and data engineers encounter. I am sharing insights gained from years of work in the industry as an engineer and as a manager of engineering teams. Subscribe to get notified of weekly posts if you haven't already.
State your goals
There is a way to prepare for the hiring manager interview that gives you an advantage right from the start. Luckily, it does not involve solving hundreds of coding puzzles and reading through dusty tomes on algorithms and data structures.
All you need is a pen, a piece of paper and 15 minutes of your time. Sit down and think of answers to the following questions:
- What kind of company would you like to join? A scrappy dynamic startup, an established giant with deep pockets, or something in between?
- What would be your ideal team? Are you looking for a team of veterans that you can learn from? Or would you like to mentor some colleagues who are just beginning their careers?
- What motivates you the most in your work? Do you like to dive deep into a complicated problem? Do you prefer to keep close to your customers and see the impact of your work directly?
- Which skills would you like to practice and develop? The best way to learn skills is by using them on the job.
This exercise should help you picture your ideal job. Use the interview to find out how well the position matches your goals. In my interviews I ask every candidate about their expectations for their next job, and I do my best to describe how our positions fit these expectations.
Ask the right questions
When you know what you are looking for, it is a matter of asking the right questions to figure out whether the job is right for you. Most managers will set aside 10-15 minutes for you to ask questions, but if they don't, feel free to request some time for this.
I will suggest some questions to ask. There are no right or wrong answers there. It all depends on the type of company and the team that appeals to you.
- Who is in charge of the team's priorities? Do the team members have a say when the sprint goals are defined? What about quarterly or yearly plans?
- What does success look like for the team? Is there an obvious metric that reflects the team's performance? Are there quantifiable results against which the performance is measured?
- Who makes the major technical decisions? In some companies dedicated architects or tech leads make the calls and set standards. In others this responsibility lies on developers.
- What is the ratio of senior and junior developers in the team? Look out for disproportionate numbers in either direction.
The interview could be too short to discuss all of these topics, but still, the manager should give you an idea of what it's like to work in the team. I believe that the right team makes all the difference, as it will amplify your effort and skills and help you perform at your best.
Sell your services
I mentioned above that the manager needs to know two things about the candidate. When you explain your goals and ask the right questions, the manager should understand whether the job is right for you. Now is the time to prove that you can do the job well.
The best way to do it is to discuss your contribution to your current team and your work in the past. If you are looking for your first job, you can speak about your side projects instead or about the projects you've done at school. I will suggest three areas to focus on.
- Work ethic. Talk about a project that you took from start to finish. Highlight a time when you went the extra mile. Maybe you automated a tedious unpopular task and saved everyone the frustration. Or you took the initiative to improve the performance of a service that was lagging.
- Ability to understand the context of your work. Explain how your work fits in the big picture of your company's business. Have you helped the product team deliver a new feature that improved customer retention? Or were you preparing reports that the sales team used to win a new enterprise client? It is surprising how often people can explain the technicalities of their projects in great detail without mentioning why they did all this work.
- Teamwork. Talk about times when you and your teammates helped each other by providing valuable feedback and sharing knowledge. Mention a time when you had a conflict but resolved it constructively.
I have written another post where I discussed how non-technical skills are vital for any engineer. The hiring manager interview is the best time to show off these skills because the following steps of the hiring process are likely to focus on your technical knowledge.
I wish you good luck in your interviews, and I hope my advice will prove helpful, whether you are looking for new opportunities now or plan to do it later.
Please let me know on Twitter or at firstname.lastname@example.org if you think something is missing from my user manual for the hiring manager interview.