My Favorite Interview Questions – SE & SE Leaders

c22a46c4585e9e1d1dd99d53f90bcd15If you like this post please feel free to subscribe to email updates or post/retweet to your network.  Ask any people leader what his top responsibilities are and “Finding and Retaining Top Talent” is likely to be at the top of the list.  So why is it that 10% of people leaders excel at this and the other 90% are just OK?   In my post about Talent Acquisition and Leadership Philosophy I documented lessons learned about the type of talent I look for.  Finding out if a candidate matches this is easier said than done.  When people are job hunting they learn the most common questions and craft their answers ahead of time.  Heck, visit and chances are you will find a front page article on how to crush an interview.
It is the people leader’s job to get past the bullsh*t and discover the candidate’s skills, talents and motivations.  You can then determine:
  1. Is the candidate a fit for what your company needs both in the short term and in the long term?
  2. Is the company a fit for what the candidate wants both in the short term and in the long term?
Although most interviewers focus on #1 I have found that #2 is the key predictor of success.  If a person is doing something they are passionate about it is called a hobby.  If a person is doing something they don’t enjoy, even if they are good at it, it is called stress.  People who enjoywhat they do will practice more often, improve their skills, and be more creative.
My goal is to get past the bullsh*t and hold up a mirror to the candidate so they can reflect on what they are looking for, what their strengths and gaps are, and whether or not they really are a fit for this job.  On my end I am looking for Curiosity, Drive, Ethics, an approach documented by Mark Adreessen in 2007.
  • Are they CURIOUS about how things and people work?
  • Do they then have the DRIVE to get off the couch and discover the “why” and put it to use?
  • Do they have the ETHICS to always do the right thing and collaborate well with others?

Questions – The Basics

I endeavor to ask non-direct questions that are uncommon and ideally unprepared for.  The non-direct questions provide multiple data points.  For example, if I ask a question about why they are leaving their job they could talk about a previous manager, my current company, family pressures, passions, technology shifts, etc.  The response topic tells me what is most important to on top of what the actual answer is.
  • What would you like to talk about?
    • I  use this for senior positions in order to see if they make the news or report the news?  When you don’t provide them structure will they provide it by suggesting an agenda, key topic areas to cover, and next steps?
    • Worst Fail:  the candidate went on and on with their life story and I would only reply with affirmations ‘uh huh, yup, ok’ unless they asked me a question.  They never asked one.  45 minutes later the interview was over.
  • Why are you leaving your present job? (or, Why did you leave your last job?)
    • While this is a general background question it is also a big ethics question.  I want to know if the candidate is running from something or running to something.  A candidate should always be truthful.  It is a small world and there is a 99% chance that I know a guy who knows a guy who will give me the real back story.  Too often candidates are embarrassed about the reasons (laid off) and try to make  something up.  Don’t.  Just Don’t.
  • Take me through your career changes and why you made them?
    • This is a way to determine what a candidate values in their career and their ability to be reflective on what worked and what didn’t.  How did they find that new job?  Were they hand selected, did they network, did they just need any job so they could pay the bills (and admit it).
    • Worst Fail – candidates bring you through a 20 minute monologue on every job and what they did.  I didn’t ask what they did, I asked about the moments of inflection/transition.

Questions – Curiosity

curiosityTo determine curiosity I am look for self awareness (are they curious about themselves and others), ability to ask and receive feedback (are they curious about areas of improvement), and are the motivated by learning, experimenting, and can they take a risk, fail, recover, and improve?
  • What’s the biggest misperception people have of you?  -Tony Hsieh, Zappos
    • My favorite question because it’s interesting to see how self-aware they are.  It is a way to understand their weaknesses and reflect on them.  The best candidates pause and take this question very seriously and when they answer you can hear that they truly care about how people perceive them and what they do about it.  On the flip side, some candidates will just say that they are an open book and there aren’t any misperceptions… they are perfect after all!
  • Tell me about the most valuable piece of criticism you have ever received? – Michael Skold, Area Director at Zscaler
    • A different way of asking about a weakness but it will usually come with a story about how/why they received it and how they reacted. Also a good opportunity to see how they took that and improved it.
  • When I go into the interview debrief with the team, what will THEY say are your roses and thorns based on your time with them?
    • Does the person reflect after a meeting (whether customer or interview) and try to identify what went well and what did not.  Do they put themselves in the other person’s shoes.  Are they looking to edify their own self worth by seeing if they got an answer right or are they always trying to learn.  Do they even remember the interviewers names, details, cues, etc.
    • Fails: the candidate says the interview went really well and then they tell you what their strengths are.  But, I didn’t ask what the candidate thought.  I asked what the interviewers said – every interviewer always has pro and con feedback they give.
  • How do you feel when someone doubts what you say
    • How well does the candidate listen – 90% of the time the candidate says what they do and not what they feel.  I usually stop them and re-ask the question.  Curious people are interested in learning why the other person doubts them, they get energized by it.  Non curious people feel annoyed or afraid.
  • How do you unplug?  -Arianna Huffington, The Huffington Post
    • People are eager to show employers how they’ll work themselves to the bone. That’s not good for them or the company.  When outside of work do they have hobbies or activities?  I find that great SE and Leaders  have a ton of hobbies and interests outside of work, yet somehow they find the time to excel at everything.
  • How do you think you are doing so far?   Why? – Mark McKinley, Area Director at Zscaler
    • When you ask this question mid interview it can be a stunner.  People don’t often ask for this type of direct feedback/assessment  Every time this question has been asked the candidate either says “Great” or “I think I could be doing better”.  When you ask the ‘Why do you think that?’ followup do they identify areas of improvement or examples that make them feel good?  If you they are doing well but they think they could be doing better you should give the candidate positive reinforcement.  It will give them energy to finish strong.  Top talent are always their own toughest critics.

Questions – Drive

mug_thumnailFor drive I am looking for SE and SE Leaders who love getting sh*t done.  One of the key roles of an SE is removing barriers to the customer and your company’s mutual success.  When they do that can do they go the extra mile to build capability and do it consistently (the opposite would be doing something for selfish reasons and only for themselves and their deal).
  • Tell me about the last time you broke the rules?  then… Why did you break it?
    • Many candidates suspect this to be a trap question around ethics.  It isn’t.  People who break the rules usually have a reason for it and usually that reason is that the rule wasn’t correct in the first place.  No one (usually) breaks the law or rules without good reason.  What I am looking for is: did they first try to work within the rule, after they broke it did they try to find out why it was there and work cross functionally to change or improve it?  Are they a fixer, builder, collaborator?  Or did they take a short cut, break it for their own self purpose and then walk away.
  • Tell me about the last time your manager disappointed you?
    • What do they value and need in a manager?  Were they able to be open and be honest with their manager and tell them they did something wrong?  Are they just a yes person who manages up or are they driven to improve not only themselves, their team, but also their leadership above them?
  • What would be a long week for you?
    • This isn’t about hours worked.  This is about learning what stresses them and takes away their energy.  When someone answers 70 hours – that is a weak answer.  Why did they have to work 70, did they do something wrong, is 70 a good thing?  After a 7 day vacation in the south of France does anyone say too long of a week? It is all perception.
  • What have your parents taught you? -Jason Goldberg, Fab
    • It gets to the core of people and what makes them tick.

Questions – Ethics

ethics-week-mainEthics is an umbrella category which includesdoing the right thing for your customers and your company but also whether or not a person is collaborative with others (a rising tide rises all ships), and are they a cultural fit for the company?
  • How would you describe your reputation within your company? If I reach out to XYZ person we both know on LinkedIn what will they say?
    • Are they self aware and honest?  This question is similar to asking someone what their strengths and weaknesses are but since it relies on having others edify the answer it tends to be more honest and accurate.  For example, if someone asked me about my reputation at Cisco I would probably say “A leader who got shit done, helped others, drove hard, technically skilled, creative but could be overly talkative, argumentative, and not always the best exec presence.”  I have no idea if it is true or not, but if you checked my references it would give you a good data point on how self aware I was and how much feedback I asked for.
  • Why wouldn’t I hire you? -Bobbi Brown, Bobbi Brown Cosmetics 
    • You get the most honest answers–because it’s not a question people anticipate being asked.  It is an alternate way of asking them what their weaknesses are but requires them to view it from your perspective, just like a good sales person should always think from a customer perspective.
  • What would make you quit this job?
    • A good way to check for competitive spirit as candidates will often key in on the word ‘quit’ and their responses are telling.  Once past that it is a good way to find out what their non negotiable ‘must have’ or ‘must not haves’ are in a role.  Is it something trivial like ‘I am offered better pay/role somewhere else’, or ethics like ‘I was asked to do something unlawful’, or curiosity ‘I stopped being challenged or learning’.
  • Do you love to win or hate to lose?
    • The goal is to see how graceful they are at handling a no win situation.  Since it has no right or wrong answer you can take the opposite position and debate it.  “Like to Win?” since you just like to win does that mean you churn through as many opportunities as you can get until you find the easy wins?  “Hate to Lose” – does that mean you will keep working a losing endeavor well beyond its prime, i.e. I know if we keep innovating on this Mainframe hardware someone will want it!.  Many customers have predefined agendas and you will never be able to convince them through logic, so can you take a step back and try an alternate approach?
  • Make up a non sensical question, i.e. “Can you explain Port Snarfing and why it is a threat?” – Product Management at Zscaler
    • If you have a candidate who has an answer for everything, are they humble enough to admit when they don know something?  In a situation like this ask a question that contains something made up.  For example, in the cyber security space there is no such thing as Port Snarfing (there is however something called Port Scanning).  If you ask a question like this the candidate can either admit they don’t know what that is, ask clarifying questions, or pretend to know what it is by guessing.  A sales engineer needs to be a trusted advisor not the smartest guy in the room.

Beyond the Interview – Formal Engagement

hqdefaultTo me the interview is only 33% of the evaluation.  The other 66% is split evenly between a formal engagement and their approach outside of the interview process.  Can you put the candidate in an environment where they have to show what they DO vs. what the SAY.  Give the candidate a problem similar to what they would have on the job and observe how they approach it.  At GoodData we would give a candidate a random data set,  documentation, and access to our platform, ask them to create a business relevant proof of concept and present it.  At Zscaler we give them a corporate presentation template and ask for them to present it to a cross functional panel. You can then observe if the candidate is:
  • willing to invest 10+ hours in working on the project
  • motivated and excited by the topic so the 10+ hours feels like 0
  • willing to ask you questions
  • willing to ask for access to other team members
  • willing to ask for feedback on their draft
  • willing to hold you responsible if you are not being responsive
  • able to come up with a creative solution/approach or do they only do what you told them to do
  • able to complete in a set period of time while still juggling their day job
  • leverage other resources on their own that you didn’t provide to them
  • practiced/rehearsed before the presentation

Beyond the Interview – Approach 

I am not sure if approach is the right description, but what does the candidate do outside of the formal interview?  Do they:
  • interview current and former employees on their own?
  • sign up for your trial account or ask for access to your product?
  • sign up on your website and evaluate your inside sales and lead gen teams?
  • treat the support staff well (travel team, recruiters, etc)?
  • leverage their references or network in some manner?
  • set the pace for you on timing and next steps?
  • send a follow up email and is it just a thank you or an insightful view?
  • provide alternate forms of collateral beyond just the resume?
  • do research ahead of time on all of the interview panel members?
  • take coaching and change behavior or read a book that you may have mentioned?

Final Thoughts

I have vacillated back and forth on whether or not to share these lessons learned.  Your interview and hiring approach is a leader’s crown jewels and core intellectual property.  I asked myself, even if someone read the answer key would they pass the test?  To do so they would have had:
  • Curiosity to want to know more about the hiring manager (me), find this blog, learn about my approach, and reflect on what it means for them.
  • Drive to take reflect and take action on the coaching provided here
  • Ethics to provide honest responses to questions that have no right or wrong answers
In conclusion, there is no answer key for the test because it isn’t really a test.  Both yourself and the candidate are looking for a mutual fit and a win-win.  If either party isn’t all in and fully transparent then the relationship will not be a lasting one and we only cheated ourselves.
As always, these thoughts are only an approach and I am not advocating they are the right way or the only way.
Oh, and lest I forget, I am currently hiring SEs, Architects, and SE Leaders 🙂

3 thoughts on “My Favorite Interview Questions – SE & SE Leaders

  1. I really enjoyed this post. I have asked candidates to tell me about themselves. Most often they tell me about their work history and I have to stop them and clarify that I want to know about them not their work history. I have always believed it has to start with the person (the right person) and then we can figure out if they have the skills and knowledge to be successful in the particular job role. Much of what you outlined is designed to narrow in on the right person for the job. I also like to figure out if the candidate will provide diversity of thought. Do they have a unique way they see the world? Do they approach things from a slightly different angle because of their background and experiences. I am convinced having diversity of thought is one of the most important attributes of a strong team.


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