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I have held five jobs in my programming career, two which I hated and three which I loved. In the three jobs I loved, our team had the freedom to make our own decisions about our work. In the two jobs I hated, our work was blocked and quality suffered because decisions came from managers high up in the chain who did not understand our work. I could not tell that these jobs were top-down and bureaucratic until I was in them.

I am now searching for a new job. What questions can I ask during the interview to discover whether the company is top-down and bureaucratic?

Some examples from the jobs I didn't like:

  • In the current job, our team wants to add columns to our scrum board for "Blocked" and "In Code Review", but we're not allowed to because we have to follow the company's template.
  • I got a task to hide some text from a user if the user doesn't have an "LP Number". When I asked what an LP Number is and what use case we are solving, I was told to just do it. With git blame, I tracked down other developers who had written code with LP Number and asked them. They had no idea what LP Number was, but had blindly obeyed what they were told to do with it. I stubbornly asked until I was sent up the chain of command to the non-technical person who issued the command. When I finally found out why, I realized it was a deeper issue than just hiding text, which would actually be very easy to fix once and for all. I counted 18 past bug fixes that were all due to this one issue. But non-technical people's commands had resulted in checks for LP Number sprinkled all over the code base by programmers who had no idea why, but did as they were told. Everyone seemed to think it was very strange that I wanted to know these things instead of just blindly obeying.
  • In the previous job, we had some rules I couldn't understand. For example, we weren't allowed to query more than one database table at a time. If we needed related data, it was required that we load the entire table into memory and iterate it in the code. I asked in my team and in other teams why we had this rule. No one could tell me except that someone high up in the chain of command had decided everyone must follow it.
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    What makes you want any question other than the very obvious "which decisions is your team empowered to make"? Jul 17, 2022 at 20:49
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    "our team had the freedom to make our own decisions about our work." Can you provide examples of freedoms you were allowed at the companies you loved vs the ones you hated?
    – sf02
    Jul 17, 2022 at 22:04
  • @sf02 It was hard to answer that question concisely, but I tried editing the question with examples. Jul 17, 2022 at 22:29
  • @gnat Thank you for the suggestion, but I don't see any answers that tell me specifically about detecting bureaucracy and top-down management. Jul 17, 2022 at 22:30

8 Answers 8

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Ask something about processes and who has control over them. For example:

  • If a team wants to change the way it works to be more efficient, who has to approve that change?
  • Do all teams have to follow the same process?
  • Who decides what the work process will be?
  • What's the process to get a new piece of software or equipment I need? (Thanks Gh0stFish)

EDIT

The examples you have now put in the question are not really about bureaucracy or teams controlling their process. They are all about managers trying to give technical instructions without understanding and not allowing technical people to address underlying issues. If you want to guard against this sort of thing, try describing one of these scenarios and asking how the organization would respond.

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    This can also include more specific things like "If I need a specific bit of software to be more productive, what's the process to get it?" If a company can't easily give a (presumably) highly paid developer the tools they need without a long an bureaucratic process, that's a bad sign.
    – Gh0stFish
    Jul 18, 2022 at 9:14
  • The second question is liable to attract a wrong indicative answer; as it can come across at first blush as if you're asking about fair treatment between teams (as opposed to favoritism), when in reality you're asking about tailoring each team's process to the team.
    – Flater
    Jul 18, 2022 at 14:05
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    @Flater If the interviewer did interpret it like that, and responds "We have no favouritism here, every team has to follow the exact same process." then that tells you what you want to know - things are imposed top down. Jul 18, 2022 at 14:29
  • Do all teams have to follow the same process? This might work, but would you rather work for a company which had a small number of very basic company-wide rules, or which required every team to spend half their time producing detailed individual procedure documents and style guides? Unless you really like writing style guides.
    – Stuart F
    Aug 5, 2022 at 13:28
  • Not having the same process doesn't mean everybody has to write a detailed procedure document. Aug 5, 2022 at 14:38
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What questions can I ask during the interview to discover whether the company is top-down and bureaucratic?

Unless the company is very small the question should be directed at the team level. If your local management makes all the decisions it doesn't matter what the company policy is.

I have changed projects by one floor, and found a whole new world.

I have also experienced a change in team lead that caused everybody to jump ship in 6 months because it was clear the new person wanted to make all the decisions, but could never make up their mind.

Ask the people interviewing you how decisions are made regarding goals, tasks, and projects for the team you will be joining. Ask how many of the interviewers will be on your team. If the answer is none, that should concern you because that means they have no idea how your team operates.

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I like all the other answers, especially @mhoran_psprep's one but thought I'd zero in on a single specific question I used with good results:

How does the team brainstorm its top priorities? Specifically, how often are these priorities brainstormed, discussed, revised? Please describe the last such brainstorming, what was the process, and what were the results.

In waterfall and "wagile" (agile on paper but really - waterfall), top-down companies and teams the question will invariably be met with:

  • deafening silence and blank stares of the "how dare you?" sort
  • "oh it's part of our ceremonies" - but wouldn't be able to come up with specific recent examples
  • "oh it just happens ad hoc once in a while"

... which are all a clear indication of top-down decision making.

The answer you're looking for, would be something like:

  • hey, that's a great question! We don't have an answer yet - but we totally get why it's super important - and have been brainstorming this very topic for the past few weeks (or months but hopefully not years), and will be brainstorming it right after this interview. If you join us, we sure hope you'll join that brainstorming, too!
  • it's part of our ceremonies, there's a git issue (Confluence page, Jira issue, etc.) dedicated to this and we're taking it seriously. Examples of recent brainstorming and top priorities revisions are logged, and we really like the ground level initiative this is fostering and the results so far!

The reason why I think this question is an ultimate litmus test of how top-down (or not) the team or the company is:

  • If the team or the company is truly focused on delivering a long term value to its customers and shareholders, it has a laser sharp focus on what that value is and how it's changing.
  • It also has a laser sharp focus on translating and integrating that value into every team's work prioritization mechanisms.
  • If a given team does not regularly brainstorm its top priorities and how they connect to those of the company - this means the team and/or the company are not interested in delivering value to shareholders and customers.
  • That is the sign of a top-down company that is more focused on relationships, self-preservation and not performance or initiative.

P.S. Sure, the priorities are ultimately decided by the management. Companies and businesses are not democracies for a reason. The key here is whether team members are given a voice and encouraged to use it. In top-down companies they're not.

Has anyone tried asking this question in interviews? What was the answer? Was the answer indicative of how top-down (or not) the team or the company was?

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What questions can I ask during the interview to discover whether the company is top-down and bureaucratic?

Basically, you ask questions that distinguish what you want, from what you don't want. In this case, it might be best to ask the questions of a peer. They are more likely to be able to judge things from your viewpoint.

During the interview process, you should talk with one of more of your future peers. (If they aren't already assigned to talk to you, then ask to talk with one).

Ask them what it is like to work at the company, and what it is like to work for their manager. Ask what they like, and what they don't like.

If you don't hear what helps you distinguish between a company that gives you the freedom to make your own decisions about your work from a company where your work will be blocked and quality will suffer because decisions come from managers high up in the chain who did not understand your work, then relate some of your examples. Gauge their reactions and responses.

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In my limited experience, small companies tend to be less bureaucratic than big ones. There are fewer toes to tread on, so you have more freedom; and with less skill available, you often need to ‘muck in’ and do what needs to be done even if it's not in your exact job description or field of expertise. That tends to allow more opportunity for bigger-picture thinking and creativity*.

Of course, it depends on the company and its management. But if the above sounds attractive, you might want to skew your search toward small (perhaps very small) companies — which of course happens before you reach the interview stage.


(* That sort of freedom to step back, ask “Why?”, and try to understand and solve the actual business need creatively, rather than blindly following what you're given, is not something I've had much luck describing to people outside the field — recruiters, especially. Their attitude seems to be “Well, if you want to be creative, then go and be a bloody artist or something!”)

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  • You're right, it's difficult to explain! Small companies are probably a safe bet, but all three of the jobs I liked were actually at large corporations. They were just large corporations that let teams drive themselves. So I know it's possible if I can just work out how to identify them. Jul 17, 2022 at 22:44
  • the worst hierarchy I worked for was at a 20 person company. There are more small than big companies, so variation in small companies is bigger. Beware the dictactorial owner boss. Of course, it's still less bureocratical, because the process just is ask the boss. But that boss can be extremely top down.
    – Benjamin
    Jul 18, 2022 at 6:11
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    In my experience, small companies can have worse (or at least more intrusive) bureaucracy and top-down management than big companies. Jul 18, 2022 at 8:52
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    I would caution this too. I worked in a small place but the CEO wanted to be too involved with everyones projects and wanted them to do exactly what he wanted the way he wanted it done.
    – R Davies
    Jul 18, 2022 at 9:10
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The stationery cupboard test.

When I was a contractor, the quickest way to understand the organization's bureaucratic tendencies and attitudes to problem solving was how they managed stationery.

If there was a cupboard that working professionals could access to get the materials to do their work, good sign.

The more gatekeeping and form-filling required to get stationery, the more bureaucratic the organization.

I haven't tried asking about it in an interview. It would be most successful as an informal question to people on the team, I suspect.

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For a skill-based professional job, one interview is never enough. Ask for a one-on-one meeting with a peer. If you don‘t get that, or only after accepting an offer, then walk away.

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Ask about refactoring.

Refactoring is explicitly an internal, engineering requirement. Almost no top-down management can initiate a meaningful refactor without proper feedback from the engineers. If they did, they would have no idea what the deliverables are.

Then again, upper management is usually kept out of refactoring talks completely, so you may need to talk to the engineering team without their presence.

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