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Let's say you are interviewing with a company for a particular role. You have enough experience for that role and skills as well.

How can you find out whether this company has a chaotic work culture? Either during the interviews or afterwards?

By chaotic culture I mean a management that is quite off-hands and doesn't prioritize when needed, doesn't create any structure or process, there's no orientation or training plan when you join.

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6 Answers 6

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I'm a software engineer. I always ask:

  1. Technical proficiency of my direct manager
  2. If the company has IT operations department, QA, and DevOps. If not, the engineers are responsible for these jobs, AND will get called at umpteen-o-clock when things aren't working correctly. In an enterprise environment, it's a setup for failure

You might adapt these questions with respect to the job you're doing. Without the right support, it's not a good situation.

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    Counterpoint - even if it has all the support infrastructure, if a team of 6 devs is running 5 projects at the same time in addition to regular maintenance and bug fixes and new features, it will again be a mess.
    – dakini
    Feb 22 at 6:58
  • How do you ask about the manager's technical profiency? "I would like to know what's your technical proficiency like"? Can there be issues asking this way?
    – Mugen
    Mar 7 at 4:23
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    @Mugen you slip in a few indirect questions that a technical person would know. A non technical manager won't know how to say "no" to stupid or impossible ideas sent forth by the business people.
    – Xavier J
    Mar 8 at 4:32
  • This sounds like a great idea! Could you please add a few examples of questions in your answer?
    – Mugen
    Mar 8 at 6:46
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More often than not, it is the team or department that has a chaotic work culture due to the nature of the work or special projects. Think carefully about your definition of a chaotic work culture, and ask questions to see if that is the case. What you consider chaotic I might consider tranquil, or at least due course.

For example, ask about how many different projects or workflows you might have to be on simultaneously. Or, if all workflows / tasks are in line with documented procedures. Check the ratio of number of people vs number of activities. Ask about how often ad hoc things need to be done. When you meet people ask them to describe in detail what their week looked like.

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You can try asking question about the work environment and its interaction with the workers. Try as much as possible to avoid biasing the question in way that puts the answerer on the defensive from the beginning.

Instead of asking "is the work culture chaotic?" I usually go with questions like

  • what do you like about working here, and what would you improve?

they might mention that there is not too much structure or a lot of freedom.

  • what do you think it takes to be successful in this position?

also here, they might answer that one needs to be able to work in a structure environment or be able to "deal with it" on a daily basis.

  • what would my typical work day look like?

This gives you a good insight on how much management knows about their reports' day.

And try to read through the lines and the body language. Once I asked the last question of the list above during an interview, the interviewers being who would have been my manager and the CEO/owner of the company: they looked at each other in panic and muttered a "uhm, well, you know... uhm.. it's up to you to decide your schedule" which made clear for me that they had no clue on how their engineers spent their working hours.

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Ask to speak to other workers one-on-one and in private. Then ask them such questions as:

  • What is your typical day?
  • What is managements role in day-to-day operations?
  • What software development processes are you part of?
  • How are estimates handled, and how are deadlines determined?

Second, ask where you would be situated, in which group, and take a tour. Note the facial expressions, demeanor, collaboration, noise, etc.

I once asked where I would be situated, and when I got the tour of the shop floor, and saw my tiny desk with a cheap $40 dollar broken chair, I declined the offer.

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There are several types of chaotic work cultures. You mentioned a management that quite hands off.

Another type is where salespeople are running the show and multiple priorities happen all the time, "emergency fixes" need to be made "right now so that we get this sale" or "so that the client doesn't fire us", and there is no time to plan or have a software architecture. This type of company will succeed as sales will continue to happen, but the "technical debt" will pile up like crazy. What happens is that the software grows in complexity because of all the patches.

So, the questions I recommend are:

Do you plan out software development?

How are "emergency requests" from sales handled?

Are people given time to clean up technical issues from past emergencies?

What happens when a VP says to "fix this right now"? Do people sit down and plan how that fits into the architecture or does someone write code and present a "solution" in 15 minutes?

How many times does an upgrade break a fix that was done for a specific client and how do those situations get handled?

How many times do clients report that the process broke down on their order? (I had one client where the order process was hacked together by a previous person, and it would occasionally drop part of an order due to not handling an SQL lock error but never report any error. When the system dropped 80% of a $100,000 order, the client was not happy.)

How often do people have to work holidays in order to salvage a project? (I worked one 36-hour shift over a Labor Day weekend.)

How does working here affect people's relationships?

Does this place have plans for handling ransomware attacks? (If you want to see chaos, watch what happens when ransomware attacks.)

What is the attitude of other departments towards IT? Are they happy with the solutions or are they trying to find their own solutions? (You might be surprised at how many sales departments want to hire their own developers to get solutions or how many HR departments are researching outside vendors to replace the internal system.)

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I understand your concern - it's somewhat difficult to judge the internal functionality of an organization or team from the outside. However, there's no harm in asking questions which can provide some hints. For example:

  • What is the development methodology followed in the organization / team?
  • What is the team size and hierarchy?
  • How is the release process for the product / deliverables?

You can also asked to be introduced to future team members / managers and ask them about the daily work experience / methods they follow to get things done.

Now while this may not provide you the complete picture, it should provide you an overall idea about how the team or organization functions on a daily basis. You can include specific questions about (hypothetical) situations which you consider can cause / trigger a chaotic scenario and based on their answer you can judge by yourself.

Another useful resource is to do some research about the organization using Glassdoor or equivalent sites.

that said, no matter what you do, the practical experience may vary. There are very chaotic teams in a methodical organization, and the opposite is also true. However, in general, that count is less, as the overall organizational stance greatly influence the individual team work ethics.

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