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I am a software engineer in the United States, and I have a job interview coming up soon. I have a handful of questions about their backlog, which most of them would be answered by actually viewing the current sprint of one of the teams. I am not sure how I should phrase the request, nor am I sure of how that request will reflect on me.

Is it a good idea to ask to see the product backlog during an interview, and if so, how should I phrase the question?

  • Possibly related to How can I ask a potential employer to show production code?. – Radu Murzea Jan 9 '18 at 6:57
  • Thanks for the link! The accepted answer definitely has some good questions to ask about the quality of the code. It shouldn't be too difficult to come up with similar questions for their backlog. – Llama Jan 9 '18 at 7:07
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    What sort of insight are you looking for with viewing their backlog? Perhaps you should simply ask that question instead? – Dan Jan 9 '18 at 17:39
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    @Dan The biggest thing I am interested in is the level of detail they put into their work items. My current employer only uses the title field for the user stories, and that leads to a lot of questions and misunderstanding the requirements. I want to make sure that I would have enough information to work effectively on my assigned tasks. – Llama Jan 10 '18 at 3:55
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    @Llama, then why not ask that? – Seth R Jan 10 '18 at 4:16
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Probably not a good idea, for the same reasons stated in the linked question above.

The company are going to wonder why you feel you need to go through the backlog/sprints. They're generally going to assume that you're going to criticise everything you feel that they're doing wrong and the interview will turn into them defending/justifying their practices rather than interviewing you.

Concentrate on asking about their processes/style of working, etc. By all means ask them what challenges they face (since that's the point of you being recruited), but don't expect them to go into actual detail.

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    It's hard to say a backlog would give any useful insight about the working conditions at a company. At my last company, we had a fairly long backlog but none of them were of priority. They were pretty much a "do it during down times" and nobody really pressured you one way or another. – Dan Jan 9 '18 at 17:41
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I think you're better off working abstractly, for two reasons:

1 - the nature of the issues of the day is likely to have sensitive information on it that the group may not want to show to a new person. Certainly the sensitivity varies widely from company to company but it's pretty common to ask engineers not to publicly share bugs and security issues publicly, and an interviewee is pretty close to public. Also, at least in some companies, there may not be a guarantee that the backlog of the team member you are talking to will be your backlog should you join.

2 - it doesn't reflect much about your ability to communicate in the abstract. If you can get your questions into a backlog-agnostic form and drive towards the processes or practices you're looking for, you show the interviewer that you are capable of backing away from the details and asking in a more general way about the way the team manages work. That's a pretty useful skill to demonstrate in an interview!

In between the two - I don't know any team that hasn't had to make some compromises on how they manage their backlog, so just looking at the backlog may not answer some of the most interesting questions about how work gets decided and worked on.

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