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I had a phone screen with the hiring manager (VP of Engineering), and my impressions weren't very favorable. Some of my basic questions were answered vaguely or at best, with answers that I didn't really like.

For example, I asked "what's a typical work week", and at first he talked a bit about how they have flexible hours, and they try to avoid fire drills, and so on... And finally when I asked point-blank if it's 40 hours a week, he said "40-45. There probably are some people who do exactly 40...".

Then I asked "how many people would I be working with" and I didn't really get a clear answer. He told me how many people are in the department, but this role isn't a pure software developer role (it's more on the data side), so that answer didn't really help.

Additionally, this role doesn't have a defined manager yet. It sounds like other candidates apparently have had some confusion about what the role entails.

Overall, this role sounds like it has a lot of ambiguity and would require well over 40 hours/week. (I'm not at all interested in a job that's over 40 hours a week.)

The problem is that I know this role would be an excellent opportunity to get into a serious mid-level role, rather than a junior role where I am currently.

In theory I'd just proceed with the process and make that decision later, but they want a coding assignment done in advance (before calling me in for an interview) and I'm also pretty tight on time (both at home & at my current job) because I'm interviewing with two other companies right now, as well.

Are phone screens (especially with a senior developer) truly reflective of a company's reality? What are some considerations for when to proceed or not to proceed with an interview even after you're unimpressed by a phone screen?

Since he's the VP of Engineering, I'd expect much more from a phone conversation with him, unless this place really is as a big of a mess as it sounds... Of note, I like my current job but I'm looking for more opportunities and higher salary. So switching jobs is not urgent at all for me currently.

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    It's only a few hours of my time for the literal interview, but the pre-requisite coding assignment will probably take about an hour too... I'm trying to see if there's real reason to think that this role at the company is better than this VP made it sound. – giraffe36 Aug 13 at 1:22
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    This is purely dependent on too many variables to be a useful answer. I hope you don't put too much weight on any answers you get. (ie: the interviewer might have been having a bad day, you might have simply asked him things he doesn't know, some very small and seemingly trivial things can affect the interpretations). – solarflare Aug 13 at 1:35
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    By "phone screen", I assume you mean a telephone interview, to screen candidates? At first I thought this question was about AMOLED displays! And then, while not strictly relevant, I was trying to work out if this was a video-call or audio-only... – Chronocidal Aug 13 at 10:17
140

I've done a lot of interviews in the relatively short time (around 7 years) in the industry.

One thing I learnt is that if you sense something not quite right, trust your instinct and don't progress further.

I learnt it the hard way: when I was close to your level, there was an opportunity to move up. However, the interviewer kept asking me: what will you do if the project is close to the deadline? I remember I answered with something along the lines of, "Focus more and work with high efficiency." The interviewer didn't look happy and kept pushing for a different answer. I realized that he was looking for something like, "I'll work over time as much as the project requires."

I got the offer. Although I had concerns about the project deadline question, I took it regardless. And you probably can guess what happened next: he asked me to work on public holidays without any compensation. And regular over time was the norm due to the heavy work load I had to take.

Another point is, are you ready to move up to a more senior role? If you think you're ready, then don't worry about missing this opportunity. If you don't get it here, you'll get it somewhere else, and possibly at a better company, too.

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    “he asked me to work on public holidays without any compensation. And regular over time was the norm due to the heavy work load I had to take.” Why not simply say no? I also don’t understand that concern of OP. If the contract says 40h/week, why shouldn’t you be able to refuse to work more? – Michael Aug 13 at 12:36
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    @Michael Risk of eventual career suicide comes to mind. Especially people with less than 5 years experience are rightfully a bit careful about such. – Mast Aug 13 at 13:48
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    @Michael - neither the OP nor this answerer specifies a country. If in fact the country is the US there is no such thing as an employment contract, in the field of software development (and most everything else), that's worth anything, much less what Europeans expect (and apparently, are required) to have. Only if you're executive level or, possibly, sales, will you have such a contract as you're thinking of (and it won't have maximum hours!). Pretty much everyone is "at will" and the federal and state laws govern employment. – davidbak Aug 13 at 15:15
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    "What will you do if the project is close to deadline?" When I ask this question, the answer I am looking for is, "Speak with project owners to find features to drop so we can make the release on time." I don't want to hear, "I'll work overtime to get it done." That communicates to me that this person isn't a problem-solver. I would also lump your answer ("Work more efficiently") into that category, and would wonder why you don't always work efficiently. Just some perspective. ;) – Cypher Aug 13 at 19:33
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    @Cypher, fair point. I was junior-ish back then. Didn't think of this at the time. – Allen Zhang Aug 13 at 20:00
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During phone screens, and the entire interview process, both candidate and company are trying to show themselves in a positive light.

If the manager says

"40-45. There probably are some people who do exactly 40"

... the literal meaning is "everyone works overtime as far as I know".

Assume that this is a positive spin on the actual situation.

I asked point-blank if it's 40 hours a week

Good job being direct.

(I'm not at all interested in a job that's over 40 hours a week.)

If that's the case, this isn't the job for you.

There are employers out there who will say "we do not want you to work overtime; we value your long-term happiness and productivity more than your short-term output." Keep looking and asking direct questions as you did here, and you'll find one of them.

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    Personal anecdote: my first full-time software developer job was at a place that I sensed might be an overworking environment during the interview process, but I really wanted the job. I asked the same kinds of questions you did and got the same kinds of answers. My intuition was right - I worked overtime every week, and my first review was negative because I wasn't working enough for them. I left quickly. From then on, I've filtered for employers who do not demand overtime, and I'm very happy with my career so far (~12 years). – Nathan Long Aug 13 at 12:39
  • I think it should be pointed out that the most flexible companies wrt employee schedules do not keep track of employee hours. There is no clock to punch in and out of. So if someone responded 35 hours per week, they are either bullshitting or there is a clock to punch in and out of. – emory Aug 15 at 12:20
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    @emory: in France, the legal work week is 35 hours. Anything above that should in principle be overpaid. But there is a bad cultural habit too: so called knowledge workers (notably software developers) got a social pressure to attend too much useless meetings ad spend a lot of (useless, unproductive) time at office – Basile Starynkevitch Aug 15 at 13:03
  • @emory Re: "I think it should be pointed out that the most flexible companies wrt employee schedules do not keep track of employee hours." The overworking employer I described did not track hours or vacation days. In practice, I observed that no matter how much I worked, the guy in the next desk was there before me and left after me, and he was praised. I have since come to view explicit work hours and vacation days as a sign of health. Expectations are clear, and if I am meeting them, I have no guilt about going home or leaving town. – Nathan Long Aug 15 at 13:27
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An interview is a chance for the interviewer and interviewee to find out if the applicant is suitable for the job and if the job is suitable for the applicant.

If you had failed to answer technical questions to their satisfaction, they would not proceed further (as you would not seem like a good fit).

Likewise, you have conditions you consider essential for the job (you mention not wanting to work more than 40 hours) and they could not tell you that those conditions will be met. As such, you should consider yourself under no obligation to continue with the interview process.

You're currently employed, and since you're in the interview stage with three companies your skills are clearly in demand. Take your time and find a job that's right for you. You don't need to jump at every opportunity.

15

I completely agree with a lot of the good advice here, but I wanted to add to the answers here since I found myself in this exact situation recently.

Similarly, the VP of Engineering at a company I applied to called me out of the blue and started hitting me with technical questions. After being satisfied with my responses, he let me ask a few questions all of which were very similar to yours. He could not tell me what exactly I would be working on. He gave a pay estimate that was much lower than market rate and the required hours were questionable. If this was the only interaction with this company, I would certainly have not taken the job.

I continued with the interview process which included another phone interview with a manager and an on site interview with two other managers, a senior engineer and the president of the company. During these conversations, I learned that this company had the most important benefits and opportunities I was looking for at this stage of my career and I ended up taking the job. Almost everything the VP of Engineering said turned out to be different once I continued the interview process and it turns out he is the only bad egg at the company.

If you have the time, continue the interview process and learn more about the company. One short phone call is not enough information to make an informed decision about something that will take up such a large portion of your time. At the end of the day you need to trust your gut and remember you are gathering valuable information about this company during each interaction with them and that will drive your decision to take or pass on this company.

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    +1 for seeing the process through. Certainly, there are some deal breakers out there. But I find it very hard to tell what working at a company will be like based on just one conversation with one person. – wildbagel Aug 13 at 20:22
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    That's good advice. Somehow my boss seems to think that the 'senior guy' should always be an integral part of interviews. Except that he hasn't learned anything in 20 years and insists on using totally obsolete tools as well. This really scares off the young people, sadly. – user90842 Aug 14 at 21:33
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Simply remember that, as we like to stress around here, interviews go both ways. Then read Joel Spolsky's – co-founder and CEO of stackoverflow – article The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing and invert the roles.

So in the referenced article, the candidate might be a developer, but you should switch the roles in your head.

The trick is telling the difference between the superstars and the maybes, because the secret is that you don’t want to hire any of the maybes. Ever.

[...]

Why am I so hardnosed about this? It’s because it is much, much better to reject a good candidate than to accept a bad candidate. A bad candidate will cost a lot of money and effort and waste other people’s time fixing all their bugs. Firing someone you hired by mistake can take months and be nightmarishly difficult, especially if they decide to be litigious about it. In some situations it may be completely impossible to fire anyone. Bad employees demoralize the good employees. And they might be bad programmers but really nice people or maybe they really need this job, so you can’t bear to fire them, or you can’t fire them without pissing everybody off, or whatever. It’s just a bad scene.

[Emphasis and omission mine]

As you are looking for full-time employment, you can only accept one job. Imagine you could only hire one employee! You should be even more wary than the article insists. Think about it: How much effort will it take you to change jobs once you realize you don't want to continue working there?

In my eyes, the very fact that you are posting here is already a red meta flag.

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    Yes, treat your job as if it was an employee. If it isn't treating you right, if it isn't making you money, if it's making you mad, fire it. There's plenty of other jobs out there that will treat you better and probably even pay you more. I spent 15 years being under paid and under appreciated as a computer tech, so I switched to programming. I spent another 4 years in the same situation, then in switching 2 jobs in 2 years, I almost tripled my pay and started to enjoy my job again. YMMV, and you generally want a job waiting before you fire your current job. – computercarguy Aug 13 at 17:29
3

Red flags are really difficult to act upon proportionally. I agree with the accepted answer that fundamentally, you've got to trust your gut feelings about things that might be very negative aspects of work culture for you.

But I also think you have to be extremely methodical and try to resist over-reacting to perceived red flags. It's about weighing opportunity cost vs risk. The opportunity cost is that turning this down may be turning down a job you'd actually enjoy. The risk is obviously how likely that is to be the case.

As a general framework, I'd suggest thinking about red flags having a couple of dimensions, with respect to the person you get them from.

  • proximity - how closely will you work with this individual? Both physical and in terms of work overlap. Are they sitting on the desk next to you or on a different floor? Will you have to collaborate with them on a daily basis? Weekly? Monthly? Will the way they do their job materially affect the way you have to do yours, or are you entirely independent of them?

  • seniority - how much influence does this person have on company agenda and culture. Can they make decisions and change things in future, or not? Can they hire and fire, or not? Are they in a critical role for the success/failure of the company overall, or is the influence of their actions and working style more narrow?

Draw these dimensions out, then the bigger the volume, the more risky the red flag is


High proximity, low seniority = pretty risky

high proximity, low seniority

Someone who will be your peer, is in your team and will sit next to you. If you get a red flag that you will have difficulty working with this person, this is pretty risky and it's reasonably likely this will affect your enjoyment of the job.


Low proximity, medium seniority = not really risky

low proximity, medium seniority

A middle manager in another function that's located across the office. They can hire and fire people, have the ear of the board regarding their function's operations and people, and set the agenda for people who work in that function. But as far as you can see, they have no connection to your function and you'll interact with them, and their reports, rarely. If you get a red flag that this person pushes unreasonable expectations onto their reports, it's not really risky - it likely won't affect your job at all.


High proximity, high seniority = hugely risky

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The extreme case. A board member who's head of your function, and who you'll be reporting into directly on a daily basis. They have full control of your agenda, they have full authority to fire you or shuffle your team or your position around, and you'll have to make yourself accountable to their expectations every single day. If you get a red flag that this person will expect you to work evenings and weekends regularly to meet output expectations that are well above what you can achieve in 40 hours a week, it's hugely risky, essentially certain, that you will not enjoy or do well in this job.


Whilst these are fun to come up with and I could go on, I'm sure I've made my point.

In your specific case, it looks like you have a situation of medium proximity, high seniority. Which means that red flag that the expected working hours will be above what you want is very risky and will likely turn out to be the case. More likely than not, it will be a good decision to trust this red flag and walk away.

1

I mostly agree with the other answers. However, there is one factor I think is important that may be overlooked here. Depending on the company size, a VP of Engineering has very little to do with the day-to-day of an employee's work. My VP never sees my timecard or even my manager's timecard. He has personally expected us to work overtime exactly once in the 12 years I've worked here, and that was a truly exceptional "we might lose our biggest customer" kind of circumstance. He only has a vague idea of our team sizes. He is setting policies and priorities for hundreds of employees, and has only a high-level overview of how those policies are actually put into practice at my level.

Personally, I would wait to completely dismiss what might be a great opportunity until you speak to someone closer to the trenches. Your description didn't scream "evasive" to me. It felt more like he just plain wasn't the right person to ask those particular questions.

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