Recently, I’ve been chatting with some folks who are starting out with technical interviewing. A common question that comes up is that folks aren’t sure what to say at the end of the interview, when the interviewer says, “Do you have any questions for me?”

In this post I’ll document some questions I’ve asked in the past, and that I’ve been asked when helping out with interviews for companies I’ve worked for. These are questions that I’ve found to be helpful as an interviewee, and insightful to hear as an interviewer.

It’s also worth noting that the questions you should ask will change as you interview for more senior-level roles. Not everyone will agree with this, but my view is that junior-level candidates should not focus too much on asking about diversity and inclusion initiatives. One or two questions is fine, but unless there is a specific time set aside for a D&I interview, asking too many questions about D&I can unfairly brand an early-career candidate as being too focused on culture, and not focused enough on technical growth. To understand more about why and how this happens, see Tanya Reilly’s talk about “Glue Work”.

For more junior-level roles

  1. How long does it typically take a new engineer to become productive and autonomous on their teams? (What I’m looking for: around 3-6 months is a normal answer. Sometimes longer if the tech is proprietary or domain is very complicated. Any longer, and it might be a sign that support systems aren’t in place, or the tech is in a really bad state, or there are other cultural problems preventing people from getting up to speed quickly. Worth asking “Why?” if the answer is very long.)

  2. What types of support systems are in place to help me level up during my first few years? (What I’m looking for: any formal mentorship programs? How do you join this program? How are mentors selected? How do mentors receive feedback about how they’re doing? If all mentorship is informal, what are some things you have to do internally to find a mentor?)

  3. If I joined your company, and worked there for six months, what’s something that at the end of my first six months, you’d consider to be a really above-and-beyond achievement? (This is a thought-provoking question that will be impressive to just ask. It forces the interviewer to think concretely about the contributions they expect from folks your level, and it displays high ambition on your part. You might get some interesting data as well! Credit goes to Will Bentinck for teaching me this question years ago.)

  4. How do teams decide the most important feature or project to work on, and how is work distributed among the team? (What I’m looking for: Teams that are empowered will have a lot of say in what they build next – they might have an embedded product manager or business analyst that helps them make business-driven prioritization decisions. These are the most fun types of teams to work on, because they’re autonomous and they feel strong ownership. Teams that are told what to do, by a manager or a director, tend to have lower morale and feel less in control. This will affect your experiences and the types of software development processes you learn early on. In my opinion it’s best to try to look for empowered, autonomous teams, because they also tend to attract stronger engineers and better leaders.)

  5. How do individual contributors receive feedback on their performance, and how often does this happen? (What I’m looking for: Companies that have strong feedback cultures will tend to grow you as an engineer faster. If people only receive feedback every six months when performance reviews happen, then there’s a chance that feedback is just a procedural box to be checked, rather than a serious component of their culture. Giving feedback is a muscle that organizations have to invest in.)

For mid- or senior-level roles

  1. How does your organization define a “senior engineer”, and how do you decide when someone should be promoted to that level? (What I’m looking for: “Senior Engineer” is a muddy term, and it’s unlikely two organizations will define it exactly the same way. However, I would personally be cautious of a definition that focused purely on technical contribution, and took no account for mentoring more junior team members, thinking critically about product decisions, and advocating for cross-team cultural changes. To me, a fairly strong answer is that a senior engineer can take ownership of a project from end-to-end, including facilitating the organizational and structural changes required to deliver the project in a sustainable, collaborative way.)

  2. How do you define team health? What processes do you have in place to check in on how teams are doing? Who has ownership for this outcome, and how often do these checks occur? (What I’m looking for: That this question doesn’t come as a surprise. If I’m speaking to a director or manager and they’d never thought about team health, that would give me serious hesitation about joining. There are various models for measuring team health – the Spotify Health Check is probably the most common. It doesn’t really matter what model they choose, as long as they’re aware of at least one. There should be evidence that psychological safety is part of the organization’s cultural vocabulary.)

  3. How does out-of-hours support work? Who goes on-call, and how does the company incentivize people to provide on-call support? (What I’m looking for: On-call rotations are a tricky thing to design, and it’s hard to get people to volunteer: the answer should acknowledge that many people experience fear and anxiety around being solely responsible for keeping a system online. I would hope that one team doesn’t “own” on-call; it should be fairly evenly distributed over all product teams.)

  4. How many women or non-binary engineers have interviewed for manager or tech lead roles in your team in the last year, and how many were promoted? (What I’m looking for: Because I’d like to move into engineering management in the next few years, if I’m going to spend a few years with a company, I want to see evidence that other women are already succeeding. If the answer is “0” for this question, I’d hope for evidence that they view this as a problem worth solving.)