by Angela Zhang
Why you should ask questions at your next tech company interview
And what to ask to get the most out of those last 5 to 10 minutes
When I was a bright-eyed senior at MIT interviewing for my first full-time job, the part of the interview process I dreaded wasn’t the algorithm design or the complexity analysis. It was the moment at the end of each hour-long interview when my interviewer would ask me: “Are there any questions I can answer for you about <company>?”
This question scared me. I didn’t know whether asking a tough question would reflect poorly on me and reduce my chances of receiving an offer. I didn’t want to appear like someone who would be difficult to work with. Most of all, I wasn’t sure what kind of questions I should ask to actually learn more about that company.
Fast forward 2.5 years. I’m now a full time software engineer at Quora and I’ve spent 150+ hours interviewing candidates. At the end of each hour-long interview, I always make sure to save 5–10 minutes to allow candidates to ask whatever questions they might have for me. In that time, I’ve grown to really appreciate it when people ask insightful questions. Their questions help me focus on the things that they are interested in learning about, instead of talking about my work on a generic level.
As a candidate interviewing for internship or full time roles, asking your interviewer questions is one of the most important things you can do because:
- There are some things about a company that you can only find out by actually talking to people who work there. A lot of aspects about a company — such as its size and mission — can be easily looked up online. But company culture and processes (hopefully I don’t have to tell you that these things are extremely important) are some things that you can only find out by talking to people on the team.
- Asking tough questions demonstrates that you have thought about the type of work environment you are looking for. As an interviewer, I’m really impressed when candidates ask thoughtful questions. I consider it a potential yellow flag if they didn’t seem all that interested in learning more about working here.
- To address the fear I had back then of asking tough questions reflecting negatively on me: Since I started interviewing and going to debriefs, I’ve never once been offended by any questions that candidates asked me — nor have I heard of any other interviewer at Quora feeling that way. And frankly, if your interviewers get easily offended by genuine questions, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway.
5 questions to get you started
Hopefully by now I’ve convinced you that asking questions to your interviewers is a must-do in the interview process. That said, coming up with questions to ask can still be daunting. So, without further ado, here are some questions that I found useful to help get you started:
1. Tell me about a project you worked on in the past 6 months.
By asking about a specific project, you can get people to tell you how things really happened — as opposed to describing an idealized situation.
Make sure to dive into the specifics with follow up questions so that you have an concrete understanding of the low level details.
- Who proposed this project?
- How did it get prioritized?
- Who was accountable for this project and how was that determined?
- How did you resolve/escalate disagreements amongst the project team?
- How was your manager involved in this project?
- What was the look back process like, if there was one?
- If you had to do this project again, how would you do it differently?
2. How are product decisions made?
This is an intentionally open-ended question. Here’s what you can get out of this question:
- a deeper understanding of the product mission and vision of the company, and
- whether that ties into actual projects the company is executing on.
To follow up, you can ask:
- What is the mission and core competency of the company?
- How do recent product launches fit into that?
- What are some challenges the company needs to overcome to achieve its mission?
- How does the company prioritize technical investments vs product investments?
3. How has the company helped you achieve your career goals?
Ultimately, you are looking to join a company that aligns with your career plans. Ideally, the type of work you will be doing once you join the company will fit into that plan.
This question essentially helps you understand what this has been like for current employees. Potential follow up questions here are:
- Do you and your manager discuss your career goals?
- How does your manager help you define and execute on those goals?
- What happens when your personal goals misalign with the highest impact thing you can do at the company now?
- How do people develop and make progress in their careers within the company?
- How much responsibility is given to new employees when they start?
4. How is the company culture here different than other tech companies?
A lot of tech companies have good benefits, smart people, and nice offices, so you should find out what distinguishes this particular company from the others. Some subtle differences I’ve noticed amongst companies that my friends work at include:
- The ratio of experienced vs new grad hires
- how much people hang out outside of work
- how flexible the work locations and hours are
- how much the company values diversity
Different people thrive in different types of work environments and cultures, and it’s important to find one where you’ll be most productive and comfortable.
5. What opportunities are there for employees to learn new things?
Learning is one of the highest ROI things you can do in the long run. Most companies have pretty well-established new hire on-boarding and mentorship processes, but I especially value companies that continuously invest in helping people grow beyond those first few months.
- How easy is it for people to move to different teams and try out roles that they haven’t done before?
- Are there ways to learn about a different technical area than the one you are currently working on?
- How do people share learnings from past projects and help build common knowledge?
Ask what matters most to you
This isn’t meant to be a comprehensive list of questions you should ask at every interview. You might have also noticed that each of the questions I listed above leads to lots of follow up questions. Definitely ask those follow up questions based on the answers you get. I bet the most interesting learnings you get will come from those followups.
If this post is helpful to you, I’d really appreciate it if you could click on the ? button below. If you have a list of favorite questions you ask during interviews, or as an interviewer have come across insightful questions that make you think, I’d love to hear about them in the response section!
If you want even more questions to ask, check out this excellent Medium post on a similar topic of questions to ask founders: https://medium.com/@rbuckheit/interview-your-founders-3d32556888a5
Lastly, if you’d like to ask me some of these questions, apply to interview with us at Quora. I might be biased, but I think we’ve got some pretty good answers.
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