Monday 3 November 2008

Eachan's Famous Interview Questions - Part II

A while back I posted some engineering manager/leader interview questions that I frequently use - designed to test how someone think, what their priorities are, and how they'd approach the job - rather than whether or not they can do the job at all. As I said back then, if you're at a senior level and you're testing to see if someone is capable of the basic job all, then you're doing it wrong (rely on robust screening at the widest point - your time is valuable).

Like everything else, this is subject to continuous improvement (agile interviewing - we're getting better at it by doing it) and with more repetition you tend to develop more ways of sizing people up in a 1 hour meeting. So here is iteration 2:

1. What is the role of a project leader? Depending on your favorite SDLC, that might be a project manager, SCRUM master, or team leader - but what you're looking for is a distinction between line management (the maintenance of the team) and project management (the delivery of the work).

[You might not make such distinctions in your organization, it is important to note that all these questions are intended to highlight what an individuals natural style is, not to outline a 'right' way to do it.]

2. Walk through the key events in the SDLC and explain the importance of each step. It is unlikely any candidate (except maybe an internal applicant) is going to nail down every detail of your SDLC, but what you're hoping to see is a solid, basic understanding of how ideas are converted into working software. It seems overly simple, but you'd be surprised how many people, even those who have been in the industry many years, are really uneasy about this. Award extra credit for 'importances' that benefit the team as well as the business (for example - product demos are good for the team's morale etc).

3. Who is in a team? Another dead simple one, and what you are testing for is engagement, inclusion, and transparency. Everyone will tell you developers, and usually testers, but do they include NFRs like architects? Supporting trades like business analysts and project managers? How about the customer him/herself?

4. What is velocity, how would you calculate it, and why would you want to know? Their ability to judge what their team is capable of is the key factual basis to the promises they'll make and how they'll monitor teams performance and be able to help them improve over iterations.

5. Explain the software triangle. This is another one of my favorites - because the fundamental relationship between time, scope, and cost is as real a law as gravity yet so many engineering professionals still seem to live in some kind of weird denial. Perhaps afraid of falling off the edge of the earth? Nonetheless, someone who won't get swept along on a romanticized story of One Man's Heroic Triumph Over Project X will make sure you keep a sustainable team and not fall into the sarlacc pit of over-promising and under-delivering. You can also use this question as a springboard to explore how they'd negotiate tradeoffs with customers and how they'd make the costs of decisions visible.

6. How would you handle a team coming off a failed project? No one will ever preside over a flawless team that never drops anything, so being able to handle this effectively is a critical skill. For me, the ideal candidates have some answers to both 'what can we do to recover morale and re-motivate the team?' and 'what went wrong and how can we sidestep it next time?'

7. What's the definition of done? You need you're on definition of done, but I'm always looking for people who include testing, documentation, successful build and integration, failure scenarios, maintenance plans etc in their definitions. How about as far as commercial success? You can easily wander into estimation from here - protecting time to build sustainable software is a vital prerequisite to actually doing it.

8. Who are your stakeholders? Another one that varies terrifically from place to place. Don't let them get away with 'the business' because remember, you're testing for a depth of understanding of How It's Done. Do they include system administrators? How about operators? Customers themselves? Do they prefer to work in a close, personal way with these individuals, or to abstract them away behind business analysts and product managers? It is all valuable decision making data for you.

9. Imagine you could wave a magic wand and either make your products recover from failure 50% quicker, or make them 50% less likely to fail in the first place - which would you choose? A bit of a wily questions, but one that will expose their strategic vs operational bias. More interesting is the discussion around why they chose the way they chose.

10. Imagine you have a black box which fails regularly. You may chose to have basic observation in real time or vastly detailed statistics on a 24 hour delay - which would you choose? Alternatively, you can ask this one in a less course way by looking for examples of different types of system and the circumstances in which each choice might be appropriate. This type of question, along with number 9, can also demonstrate their ability to theorize and generalize (while appreciating that they're doing so) without studying the details of a specific example. This is usually indicative of experience.

There are no 'right' or 'wrong' answers to most of these questions (although I would argue there are 'better' answers to some), just answers that will suit you well, and answers that are less compatible. Ultimately, exploring people in this way will help you predict how they'll perform given autonomy - and why give yourself more governance than you need to do?

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