Fabian Kostadinov

Four Questions To Ask During A Job Interview

During the last few months, I had several job interviews with different prospective employers. A few weeks ago a working colleague pointed me to four questions that I could ask my prospective employer that would tell me a lot about the working culture I'd join. As my experience with asking these questions was very positive, I thought I publish them here in my blog. To the best of my knowledge, the original (German) version comes from a guy called Lars Vollmer. What follows is nothing but a translation from German to English.

Why do you work here?
This question tells you a lot about your counterparty's inner motivation. One interviewer for example quite frankly expressed to me that in his company paying the highest salaries in the industry was not something they were striving for. At the same time, he seemed genuinely satisfied with the company's culture and how people treat each other. This actually agreed with my own values, and so the answer was useful for finding out.
Why does your enterprise exist?
This question tells you whether the management and the company as a whole knows what they are actually doing. Do they have a business strategy in place? Are they aware of the actual business need? If this is a listed company, you can compare the company's long-term stock trend with what your interviewer answers. If the company's stock price is in a long-term decline but your counterparty keeps reiterating about future business expansion plans, something might be fishy.
What will I need a permit for as an employee?
This one is about freedom and how much influence you actually have on what is happening around you. For example, being a software engineer by education, one question I repeatedly asked was: What if I supposedly wanted to have my own virtual server space to try out a few things - how difficult would it be to get this? It was quite amazing to see how much such a simple question was able to tell me about the internals of the company. Another interesting question was to ask whether the company used any agile software development methodology like Scrum. One should assume that nowadays most companies have already learned from failed IT projects in the past relying on outdated methodologies such as the waterfall model, but this is not the case at all.
What was the last big mistake, and how was it dealt with?
This is about honesty and a certain level of humbleness, but also about the degree of insight into the complexities of an alive organization. Are the superiors aware of the fact that mistakes can never completely be avoided and that they should actually be seen as opportunities for further self-improvement? When something bad has happened, is there analysis and learning or denying and dismissal?

In my experience not only did the questions help me to get a more concise picture of the company's working culture, but my prospective employers generally also seemed to find joy in answering some challenging questions as well as appreciated critical thinking on my side. And should you unexpectedly be confronted with a person being seriously offended by any of these questions, then how much will this tell you about your prospective employer? I, for my part, would certainly take my hat and leave. Ask yourself this:

Don't forget, these questions are not to criticise anyone! The goal is not to be unfriendly or nagging, but to investigate. That is, to find out whether this is a place where you actually would enjoy working. Be creative when some of the questions don't apply exactly. For example, one startup I was having interviews with could of course not answer questions about "their last big mistake". But since my prospective senior has had experience with leading a team in his former career, I simply re-coined the question to his former work experience. He actually was content to answer this question.

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