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The Interview Questions Engineers Must Ask to Figure Out What a Company's Culture's Really Like

With companies vying for top engineering talent—and not all of them able to compete on salary alone—the actual work environment has become one of the biggest selling points you’ll hear from hiring managers. That’s because a great company culture is worth over $7,000 annually to over half of surveyed Millennials. Translation: A majority of job seekers (possibly you!) would take a job that pays less if it feels like an ideal fit.

But, for all the talk about culture, it can be tricky to know what it really means. In their book, Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, Terrence Deal and Allan Kennedy define it as “the way we do things around here.” I like that definitely because it’s not centered on snacks and ping-pong tables. (If you don’t play pool, why would you care about the company’s professional-grade billiard table?)

Related: 22 Questions That’ll Get You the Real Inside Scoop on Company Culture

Engineering culture can be similarly understood as the way we build things around here. This definition encompasses the processes, the metrics, the people, and the best practices across the team. As a job seeker, the difference between working at a company with a strong emphasis on engineering culture and one without is stark.

While you probably won’t be 100% sure what it’s like to work somewhere until you’ve been there for a week or two, there are plenty of great questions you can ask your potential future employers to suss out any red flags. So, review this list before your interview. Choose a particular category where things have been unclear (or that covers what’s most important to you) or write down your favorite option or two from each section. Then, when it’s your turn to ask questions, you’ll won’t be at a loss for words—and you’ll get some great information!

1. To Learn More About Development Process

A predictable, well-thought-out development process that allows people to take a front seat in planning and dividing their work is a good sign that the company respects its engineering team. Conversely, you should think twice before accepting an offer from an organization with haphazard plans and a lack of accountability. Some questions you can ask to learn about the employer’s development process are:

  • Who’s involved in the planning process?
  • When does engineering get involved?
  • Who picks the things I work on? Are they assigned to me or do I choose them from a list?
  • What’s the process like if I have a question?
  • Do you hold regular standups?
  • What are the expectations for automated testing? Manual testing?
  • Do you conduct code reviews?
  • Do you use version control? If so, what’s your branching strategy?
  • Do you use continuous integration?
  • Who is involved in product demos and who signs off on the features before they go live?
  • How long does deploying to production take?
  • How often do you push updates to production?

2. To Learn More About Specific Technology

Let’s be honest: Not every engineering role will be on the bleeding edge of technology. However, you’ll want to work at a place where you feel good about the balance of pragmatism versus experimentation.

If a company won’t update its tech stack from time-to-time, it’s likely to have a lot of people who have happily worked in the same places for a long time and may not be interested in changing—or open to your new ideas. So, be sure inquire about the technology, specifically:

  • Does your company use open source software?
  • Do you give engineers time to contribute to open source projects?
  • What percentage of time is devoted to cleaning up technical debt?
  • What parts of the development and release cycle have you automated recently?
  • How can employees or customers report bugs?
  • Who creates the architecture for a new product or feature?
  • Why and how was the current technology stack chosen?

3. To Learn More About Turnover

It isn’t easy to retain great engineers, but if everyone is new, the organization may be booming—or there may be an issue with employee satisfaction. Ask about the hiring, training, and onboarding process as well.

Note: If you push on employee turnover too hard, you could sound cynical or disinterested, so save that question for somewhere where it’s been particularly high. Odds are, like you’d have a prepared response for a resume gap, the hiring manager will want to clarify what went down and any changes the company has made since.

  • What is the onboarding and training process like?
  • What steps have you taken to increase diversity among the engineering team?
  • What’s your team’s turnover been like?
  • How often do you hold performance reviews, and what do they entail?

A great engineering culture encourages hires to balance their time building well-designed products with settling technical debt, improving test coverage, and learning from their peers. A poor engineering culture ignores the future for short-term gains and treats its employees as cogs in a machine. A great engineering culture results in efficient, working products and high retention; poor engineering culture results in burnout and half-hearted effort to deliver unreliable products. So, do your research on the front end to make sure you’re signing up to work somewhere you’ll feel good about.

Photo of interview courtesy of Vgajic/Getty Images.