Thursday, February 04, 2010

Nine Questions to Ask during a Job Interview

It's important, when submitting to a job interview, to realize that the interview process goes both ways: You're interviewing your future employer. It's not just him or her interviewing you.

I've been a hiring manager (in R&D) as well as a hiree, and I can say that from the standpoint of the hiring manager it is always refreshing to encounter a candidate who has interesting questions to ask. In fact, the quality of questions an interviewee asks is something I always paid close attention to in interviews. A good candidate invariably asks good questions. You can tell a lot about a person's preparedness for the job (and overall enthusiasm level, not to mention the degree to which the person has done some homework on the company and the position) by the types of questions the candidate asks during an interview.

Most candidates, of course, are passive, expecting only to answer (not ask) questions. Which is bad.

So, but. What kinds of questions should you ask? Here are a few possibilities. You can probably think of others.

1. Who would I be working with on my first assignment? (Try to find out who your peers are and what their backgrounds are.) And: Who will I report to? (Hopefully, you'll report to the hiring manager. But it's possible you'll initially report to a team leader -- or to no one. Best to find out now.) Who will mentor me? (Hopefully, someone will.)

2. What is the single most important quality someone in this job should possess? This is an open-ended question that could tell you a lot about both the job itself and the person who is hiring you. The answer to this question could help you frame better answers to subsequent questions during the interview, so listen up.

3. How is success in this job measured? How will my performance be measured? This is crucial to future job satisfaction. A fuzzy answer here is bad news.

4. Are there opportunities for training (and/or career enrichment) in this job? What are they?

5. How often will I have an opportunity to meet with my manager? Are regularly scheduled performance reviews part of the process? Try to get a sense of what kind of "management culture" you're going to find yourself in. Is this a company that values management skills, or is it a free-for-all in which it's every manager, and every employee, for himself/herself?

6. What is the career path in this position? In other words, what are the opportunities for advancement? (In plain English: Is this a dead-end job? Will I be doing the same thing in 5 years?) If it's a dead-end job, best to find out now.

7. What tools will I use the most in my day-to-day job? This is a very practical question. You want a concrete answer, like: "You'll be using Eclipse and Maven on Linux quite heavily, and you'll be expected to track bugs in Bugzilla. For word processing, you'll use OpenOffice, and for e-mail you can use whatever you want." (Or whatever.)

8. If you're filling a vacancy (rather than a newly created position), ask what happened to your predecessor. Did the person get promoted? Did he or she leave on his own? Did he die of exhaustion, or stab wounds to the back? Try to get a sense of what happens to people who take this particular job.

9. Ask the hiring manager how he or she got hired at the company. Also ask: What do you most like (and/or dislike) about working here?

Questions Not to Ask

As a hiring manager, I've always been unimpressed when candidates asked certain questions. So avoid the following unless you know what you're doing:
  • Questions that show an undue interest in time off or avoidance of overtime. It may be that the job involves no overtime per se, but I still never liked getting the impression, early in a job interview, that the person was already looking for opportunities to take time off. (The first question out of your mouth should not be: "When do I get to take vacation time?") It speaks to a certain work ethic.
  • Questions about working from home when the job description clearly states that it is an on-site, 40-hour-a-week office job requiring close interaction with coworkers who are also working on-site.
  • Basic questions about what the company does. This is something the job applicant should already know a thing or two about (from having visited the company website ahead of time). Thoughtful, in-depth questions about specific aspects of what the company does are fine, of course. But don't ask questions that indicate you didn't visit -- and study, in some detail -- the company website.
  • Questions that indicate an undue fascination with pay raises, bonuses, or benefits. Again, these are actually fair-game topics, but you have to be careful how you ask about them. You don't want to convey an attitude of entitlement.
In general, you should save any questions that can be answered by the HR manager for the HR manager. Don't ask the hiring manager detailed questions about the company 401K plan. That's what the HR manager does.

Do ask questions that make your hiring manager think. Trust me when I say, that's more than most hiring managers are expecting.