A few weeks ago I got a question from Stephane Bjorne on twitter, about how to screen for bad managers and/or management culture.
This is a great question. I’ve talked a lot about my philosophy for interviews, which boils down to equalizing the power dynamics as much as possible to reflect the reality that the candidate should be interviewing the company just as much as the reverse. You are all highly compensated subject matter experts who can find jobs relatively easily; there’s no reason all the judgment and critique should flow in a single direction.
But HOW? What questions can you ask, to get a feel for whether you will join this team and belatedly discover that you’re expected to be a jira ticket monkey, or that the manager is passive aggressive and won’t advocate for you or take a stand on anything?
Glad you asked.
First of all, backchannel like mad if you can. If you can’t, do ask the same question of multiple people and compare their answers. Pay particular attention to the different answers given by junior vs senior members of the team, and give extra weight to the experiences of any underrepresented minorities
Questions to consider asking the manager:
- “How did you become a manager? Do you enjoy it?” Trust me, you never want to work for someone who was pushed into management against their will and still seems openly bitter about it.
- “What do you like about your job?” Red flags include, “I was tired of being out of the loop and left out of decision-making processes.” That could be you next.
- “Is management a promotion here, or a lateral move? Do people ever go back from managing to engineering? Is that considered a viable career path?”
- “What kind of training do you offer new managers, and what are they evaluated on? What are YOU evaluated on?”
- “Do you have a job ladder for individual contributors (ICs)? Can I see it? Do the IC levels track management levels all the way to the top, or top out at some point?”
- “What does your review and promotion process look like?”
- “Are your levels public or private? What is the distribution of engineers across levels, roughly?” Here you are looking for how high the IC track goes, and how many engineers exist at the upper bound. Distribution should be scant at the upper levels, roughly an order of magnitude less for each level after “senior engineer”. Do the written level descriptions seem reasonable and appealing to you? Do you see yourself in them, and feel like there is a path for growth?
- “Do you have any junior or intermediate engineers, and how many? If not, why the fuck not?” Ask.
- “How often do you have 1x1s with each of your direct reports? How often are the skip levels?”
And then there is the ur-question, which every one of you should ask in every single interview you ever have:
“What is the process by which someone ends up working on a particular project?” In other words, how does work get decided and allocated? Bad signs: they get flustered, don’t have a clear answer, you have no say, there is no product/design process, it’s all done via jira assignments.
Pay just as much attention to their body language and signals here as the answer they give you. Are they telling the truth, or describing their ideal world? Ask what happens when there are problems with the normal process, or how often it gets circumvented, or how you know if your work aligns with company strategy.
Questions to ask an engineer:
- “What do you talk about in your 1x1s with your manager?”
- “How often does your manager have career conversations with you, asking how you want to develop over the next few years?” Ideally at least a couple times a year, but really any answer is fine other than a blank stare.
- “Does your manager care about you? Has working here moved your career forward? How so?”
- “Have you ever been surprised by feedback you received in a review from your manager?” You should never be surprised.
Most of all, can you get the manager to tell you “no” on a thing you clearly want during the interview? (Maybe a level, or WFH schedule, or travel, etc.) Or are they squirmy, evasive, or hedging, or make you promises that they’ll look into it later, etc? Anyone who will look you straight in the eye and say “no, and here’s why”, is someone you can probably trust to be straight with you down the line, in good times and bad.
Depending on your level and career goals, it’s a good idea to ask questions to ascertain if the right gap exists for you to fill to reach your goals. Don’t join a team where five other people have the same exact skill sets as you do and are already eyeing the same role you want. (I wrote more on levels here.)
We also got some great contributions from @GergelyOrosz and @JillWohlner:
- “Ask about specific situations, any half decent manager can BS on hypothetical stuff.”
- “Who was the last person you promoted? Why/how?”
- “How do you handle when X complains to you about Y? Can you give an example?”
- “What was the best team you managed and why?”
- “What is the biggest challenge the team currently has and why? What are you doing about it? Biggest strength?”
- “How many people have left the team since you’ve been here?”
- “Who was the last person to leave your team? Why did they leave?” (These leaving questions are tough to ask but will give you a lot of signal. Especially seeing how the manager frames it — are they playing victim, or owning up to it?)
Anyone who won’t be honest about their real personal weaknesses and struggles, probably isn’t someone you want to report to.
Jill says that she wants to hear from ICs:
- when their manager has gone to bat for them
- when their manager gave them hard to hear feedback (if it’s never, it’s a flag — all positive feedback = little growth)
- when their manager coached them through a tricky situation
and from Managers:
- when they went to bat for someone on their team
- a team member’s growth they feel really proud of
- when they got negative feedback about someone on their team and how it was handled
Obviously, you won’t be able to ask all of these questions in an hourlong slot. So ask a few, and lean in whenever they seem avoidant or uncomfortable — that’s where the juicy stuff comes from. And personally, I wouldn’t consider working somewhere that sees management as a promotion rather than a peer/support role, but that may be a high bar to clear in some parts of the world.
Good luck. Joining a team with a good manager can be one of the best ways to accelerate your career and open the door to opportunities, in part because it ensures healthy team dynamics. Workplace friction, bullying, harassment, passive aggressiveness, etc can be truly terrible, and even in the milder cases it’s still a huge distraction from your work and a big quality of life issue.
A manager’s One Job is to make sure that shit doesn’t happen. It’s really is worth trying to find a good one you can trust.