Some interview questions

We continue looking at asking, and answering, interesting interview questions.

In this context, PM = product manager. As opposed to a project manager.

  • How do you keep top performers engaged? Given a high-performance team, there is the challenge of keeping them around, and keeping them interested and engaged in the work they are doing – even if the work gets dull sometimes, or less than interesting. How do you motivate people, and keep them consistnetly interested in the work at hand?

I should also add here, for the benefit of the interviewee, that the behavioral questions have an implied time limit. Like in a debate. You should not spend more time than necessary answering a question. You should not spend too little time, out of fear of not demonstrating sufficient details. Effectively, I think every question is answered by two-four paragraphs’ worth of oration. Answer each question in a span of 2-5 minutes, and then wait for the interviewee to ask the nexst one.

Habitually, for me as an interviewee, it is a red flag when the first question from the interviewer is, “tell me about yourself.” That is ambiguous and uncomfortable. It is a green flag if the interviewer first introduces himself, talks about his role and functions, to make the intereviewee more comfortable. And also as the host, it is the interviewer’s task to welcome and greet the interviewee.

  • What is an ideal team size? Do you have something like that in your mind? There is a rule of thumb, the two pizzas rule: you should be able to feed your team a comfortable lunch with two pizzas. Can you comment on that?

So, in technology, for me personally, a fair team size and composition is the following: 1-2 QA’s, 1 designer, 1 PM, 4-6 engineers, one partner. The head count is then around 12. That sounds like 2 pizzas.

Look also at the organizational social science, that states the rule of thumb of 10 people. Less than 10 people don’t need a leader to agree on something. More than 10, and you’re looking at increasing communication difficulties requiring a leader to resolve opinions and be able to have good direction. Mongolian army did that before it was cool: they had units of 10 soldiers, and those were batched into units of 100. Those, of course, were grouped into units of 1000.

  • What are the challenges of hiring a good PM? What are the characteristics of a successful PM?

I think the last time we talked about it, the consensus was that a good PM offers a lot of flexibility, and understanding the business needs of the company. He doesn’t need to be very technical, but he does need to be a good communicator, making people feel comfortable, and making sure that the team is cohesive. PM is a very interdisciplinary job.

  • Have you done mentorship of junior members? How is such mentorship structured – if it is structured at all? Maybe it’s always spontaneous? Talk about being a mentor to junior team members.

I’d say, a good pattern (and therefore a good answer) is to do both: structured and unstructured mentorship. Me, for example. Anyone can come to me and ask a question (or on slack), and expect some useful response or advice. If a motivated intern sits next to me, I expect him to ask questions about how to structure code, etc. This is unstructured. On the other hand, we have a company-internal blog, to which I contribute. The blog talks about interesting challenges that the company is addressing, or the structure of things that we’ve come up with, or how things *should* be done – a theoretic discussion. In addition to that, the company hosts weekly lunch and learn, where a team member would talk about either a problem that was recently solved, or again about how things should be done in the future, or else touch on an interesting and relevant topic. So, mentorship should be a combination of formal and informal methods.

5 ways of finding a career match

To correct what I’ve said yesterday, the 5 ways of finding a career match are:
* live fit (career choices, location, compensation, company size)
* technology fit (candidate’s skills align and candidate has the necessary skills)
* cultural fit (candidate’s acceptance of the company’s management style, situational judgement test, personality test)
* personal fit (do I want to work with him? does he want to work in this team?)
* other factors (a blanket category for red flags and whatever you cannot disclose)


Tag: Interviewing Tips

Title: On doing take-home technical coding challenges as part of an interview process

Let me tell a fable about how I applied to the company N***. Let the name be redacted. The recruiter reached out to me via email, he found my profile on Stack Overflow. I have been actively looking for a full-time position. He said he is working on scheduling for me to tal to a VP of engineering, and meanwhile sent me a link to a technical challenge, inviting me to take it.

I spent 2 hours on the challenge and passed.

The recruiter said he’ll schedule the talk with VP for Thursday, and meanwhile wanted to talk with me himself, on Tuesday. Come Tuesday, I have to remind him to call me, after he was 15 minutes late. He rushly calls me and says that he was “just testing how much I’m paying attention” and that simultaneously “power went out” in the office and he was unable to call me. After that he asks me to talk about myself and my background. This is a red flag: if the person you’re talking with asks such a generic question, that means they don’t know or remember who you are, and you are a statistic rather than a man for them. I ask him if he’s read my resume, and he says oh yes! He remembers now, I’m the candidate with a degree from University of Michigan. The recruiter says he was reluctant, almost didn’t want to message me, because he himself went to Ohio state, with which apparently I’m supposed to have a rivalry. After that, believe it or not, the conversation degraded to such a point that there was no next step. Why? Because of the recruiter’s perceived rivalry with my school in college sports.

One of the elements of the interviewing process is the evaluation of how cohesive the team would be, with the addition of a new team member. In this particular case, I didn’t even get to talk to any team members. Upon hire, the candidate will spend no time with the recruiter, therefore there isn’t a question of cohesiveness between the candidate and the recruiter. There is, however, the very material possibility of raising a red flag: either by the candidate, or by the recruiter.

And in my application to company N***, I additionally wasted 2 hours of my time, successfully solving a technical challenge that was irrelevant. People are more important than technology, and talking to people is sometimes less tiring than doing technical work. A show-stopper in human aspect has higher priority than a show-stopper in technical aspect. For this reason, going forward, I have the requirement of talking to people before undertaking any technical challenges.

How to prepare for Facebook Interview

aka the Facebook University

Facebook prepares you for their own interview, they give you study materials, references and plenty of tips. They hire strong engineers and they want strong engineers to hire.

Make sure to study – algorithms, data structures, tree traversals and the like.

Practice by interviewing at other companies. The process and the skills translate from one company to another quite seamlessly.

This is very important and a step that I may not have done: actually want to work there. This is important.

You need to be passive in that you can’t show that you’re desperate for a job, but you need to show them that you want to work there.

Load up on a lot of patience. This might be a slow process, it might take a while. There is a guy who interviewed at Amazon 8 times and the 8th time he “almost got it.” A recruiting company said they think it takes 4 weeks to get a job, on average. Don’t believe silly things like that. It takes a year, multiple years of focus to get it. Of course, we’re talking about top IC (individual contributor) positions at top companies.

“What makes you interested in applying for this position?”

This is a toxic question, but a one that comes up frequently and you have to be prepared to give an answer.

To be sure, this is a tricky aspect of recruiting. You, the candidate, should not be looking for a job. You should not be applying for a top position. The jobs should come to you. Google, Facebook and a number of other companies look at engineers’ presence on LinkedIn and so forth, and reach out to the ones that have been at their job for a year or more. Google reaches out to you when they think you could leave your employer, and after you have already vetted yourself with that employed. Google/Facebook aren’t looking for unemployed folks to hire them. If you are looking for a job, perhaps you are unemployed and that’s a red flag for Google/Facebook. So when they ask you, why are you looking for a job? You really, really should not be looking for one.

If they reached out to you, and ask the same question – the question then is, “what makes you interested in working here?” but it’s a different question. You can easily say, you’re interested in working there because you want to make an impact, or because you like companies that drive innovation, or you like the tech – you can say any of a number of true things. But if they reached out to you and ask, why did you reach out to them? Tt’s a red flag, so please thread lightly, for your own safety. Not every recruiter is a good one, and being under constant scrutiny is emotionally exhausting, so save your energy. Remember: you aren’t applying for a job. You are open to opportunities, and they have to demonstrate good process to you when recruiting.

* ~ * ~ *

I’d like to add also that recruiters come from a number of backgrounds. There is a particular breed of recruiters who come from Workbridge, Jobspring and the like. They are 3rd-party multi-client shops. An in-house recruiter with such background (you can see on their linkedin) can ask you questions like, what technology stack are you looking for? What is your ideal opportunity? So, if this is a role you’re actually interested in, you should have already figured out the tech stack before talking with a recruiter. There is no good answer here! If you say a tech stack that doesn’t exactly align with theirs, it’s a problem. If the recruiter doesn’t understand what you’re saying, it might be a problem. For me, the fact that they ask is a red flag. They can tell me what their stack is, or they can ask me about my history and background. But if they are in-house and ask me what stack I am “looking for” – it’s a red flag on that recruiter. As I mentioned you should not be “looking for” anything, and at that point you really cannot decide the direction the company is going, you can’t change their stack. Just something to consider with this particular question.

Some Practice Interview Questions

Answer these to yourself, in preparation for behavioral part of an interview.

I also recommend recording yourself on video while answering the questions – basically talking out loud, and recording it. Later on, maybe in a week, go back and watch the recording. Is this how you want to appear to the interviewer? Are there any aspects of your appearance that you would like to change? It is a good time to analyze them now.

There is this thing called one-way video interview (and it’s terrible). The recruiter has a list of questions and invites you to record yourself answering them. I won’t go into details why self-respecting candidates should not follow this process. However, the idea itself is interesting. If the only recipient of the one-way video interview is yourself, and it’s a practice interview, then it may be a valuable tool to help you study, to get a glimpse of how you appear to someone else.

And now, the questions.

Tier 1

What type of company and work environment are you seeking?

Which company did you enjoyed working at the most working at and why?

Which company did you enjoy working at the least and why?

Do you prefer to work in a team setting or independent setting?

Do you prefer to interface with other business units / customers as well or just stay mostly within your own team unit?

Do you prefer to wear a lot of hats and work on multiple projects at the same time or stay focused in one area and move onto the next when it is complete.

If given a choice of having full detailed step-by-step clear instructions on how to build something vs having a clear vision of the end product and needing to develop your own step-by-step instructions to build it; which would you prefer?

Tier 2

What are your biggest strengths and weaknesses?

What is your ideal work environment?

Tell me about yourself

Why do you think you are a good fit for this position?

Why are you pursuing this job?

What is your greatest career accomplishment?

Tell me about a big mistake, how you dealt with it, and what you learned from the experience.

What type of work environment do you prefer?

Tell me about a time you went over and above to get a job done.

How do you evaluate success?

Interview questions from the candidate

What questions can the candidate ask on an interview?

Sometimes, in an initial interview the interviewer asks a whole lot of questions and you do your best to keep up, and then he asks, “do you have any questions for me?” This can be a bit disheartening: you’ve been on 10 of these this week, he didn’t even introduce himself, the company reached out to you, he went on to technical questions without prefacing them with any personal-company fit, and now, “Do you have any questions for me?” – a generalized, boilerplate inquiry that doesn’t mean what it may seem. So now, it’s time for questions, and it’s bad not to have any.

The first question you want to ask yourself (not him) is: do you want to work there? If your general answer is no – then maybe there is no need to continue. If the answer is yes, the next quesion is: why do you want to work there? You can ask the interviewer this: why should I want to work for your company? Although, admittedly, this is quite aggressive.

Other questions that should have been answered to you by the human resources – but if they haven’t been, you can definitely ask them, are:

  • What city is the position in?
  • What is the title? – The implication here is that you want a certain level. I make a clear distinction between senior and principal, for example.
  • Who does it report to? – You should require to speak with that person at some point in the interview process. And see if you want to work with him.
  • What’s flexible vacation policy? What about work from home? – a boilerplate question that you may ask
  • What’s the salary? – a boilerplate question that you may ask, although be careful! Salary negotiation is a perilous task, you may shoot yourself in the foot. Specifically study the art of salary negotiation. See the article on Salary Negotiation.
  • What technology is being used? What is the technical stack, and what part of the stack am I expected to work on?
  • Do I have to manage other people, and if so, what’s the arrangement?
  • What percentage of my day will I be expected to code? – This, as contrasted to managing.

With these questions you can at least be prepared for those last 3 minutes of the interview.