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After a series of interviews with a software company, I have been invited to work with the team for one day. During the day I will

  • attend the daily scrum meeting
  • be assigned a low priority bug ticket to demonstrate I can deliver
  • be doing some pair programming with a random developer
  • have lunch with the team

These are all good, but what I want is to ask hard questions because everything is sugar-coated when you ask an HR representative. Questions like:

  • What is it really like working for this company / in this team ?
  • What is the most negative thing you can name when you look at working here?
  • Are you openly looking for a new job because of this company?
  • Did most of the previous developers leave because of working conditions?

etc..

I know that questions like these may sound harsh, so I'm trying to rephrase them to avoid sounding offensive or intrusive. What is the proper way to ask questions like these, or should I ask them at all?

If culture matters, this company is located in Germany.

  • 51
    Even asking the employees isn't going to help much. One place near me has massive turn over, super long hours yet all them employees say it's an awesome place. Might be that 10k bonus they get if their referral lasts 6 months though. – Snowlockk May 30 '17 at 13:53
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    Are they paying you for this day of work? Is that a normal thing in Germany? – jpmc26 May 30 '17 at 14:46
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    Regarding the specific questions: You are unlikely to get a useful answer to question 3: Most people don't tell their employer when they start looking for a new job, so they definitely aren't going to tell a stranger, at least not on company property. Similarly for question four, with few exceptions, say perhaps they already told you that most of the dev team recently left, in which case they would be expecting that question. – stannius May 30 '17 at 19:41
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    Interesting that you are going to do some free work for them before even getting hired... – 2rs2ts May 30 '17 at 22:19
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    Seeing that both top-rated answers provide an American point of view, being German, a software dev, too, and imagining me in the role of an employee working at that company already, I would not have had any problem with your questions. Probably I would have asked to connect on LinkedIn, exchange private emails etc. I see no big problem here in fact. – Sebastian May 31 '17 at 12:12

10 Answers 10

100

Those questions as phrased might end with an escort out the door.

You don't ask for negatives, EVER, and those questions, if answered would likely get the person fired.

You ask about challenges, not negatives such as....

  • What are some challenges you face as a developer
  • How long have the developers worked here, on average
  • How long has the most senior member of the team been working here
  • What do you like most about working here

Then watch what they DON'T say. Nobody is going to bad-mouth their employer on the job, but if they're slow to think of positives, then it's damning by faint praise.

For the 2nd and 3rd questions, if there is a high turnover rate, that's a red flag. You will get far more information by just asking open ended questions than by looking for the negatives.

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    @CaptainEmacs if you are overheard answering "yes" to "are you openly looking for another job", chances are, you will be, and soon. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica May 30 '17 at 13:03
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    Ah gotta love companies intentionally hiding how shitty they are by placing a gag order on employees. Nothing to see here, folks. – Kik May 30 '17 at 15:18
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    I like the question: 'Tell me about a typical day'. By doing a day on site though you will get a pretty good sense here. Was everyone still heads down at 5 when you finished, then they are working lots of overtime. Does the company support their staff, this will be evident by the lunch choice, computer equipment, etc. – Bill Leeper May 30 '17 at 18:19
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    "You don't ask for negatives, EVER" - maybe this is culture dependent? I've asked questions like "what negative can you say about your company" during interviews from the person interviewing me and it hasn't been a problem, I've still been offered the position. However, I agree about typical day questions, they do tell much. – eis May 30 '17 at 19:09
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    @RichardU Note that the OP said this was in Germany. If a German employee got fired for looking for openly looking for another job, there would be a major legal shit-storm. – Martin Bonner supports Monica May 31 '17 at 8:49
24

what I want is to ask hard questions because everything is sugar coated when you ask it to an HR representative. Questions like;

  • What is really like working for this company / in this team ?
  • What is the most negative thing you can name when you look past working here?
  • Do you openly looking for a new job because of this company?
  • Are most of the previous developers left because of working conditions ?

Whenever I interview at a company, I like to talk to my potential peers.

I always ask questions about the company and about my potential boss. But I try hard not to have my questions come across as negative. Some of your questions are okay, but you don't want these peers reporting back that you seem very negative.

  • What is it like working here?
  • What is it like working for [the boss]?
  • What do you like best about working here? (will sometimes get a response about what they don't like without asking directly)

Just having a friendly discussion will often give you the answers you need without having to be so direct and so negative.

10

It also depends on what kind of job it is. It sounds like a permanent role from the way you put it, but if I was going in for a consultancy or contract role, or I've been hired to fix a specific problem, I would ask direct questions related to the role. eg: What is the problem, where is the rot? What do you want me to fix? Where is the politics bad?

I want people to know that I'm here to do a specific thing: fix a problem.

Whatever you do though, it's going to be a balance. You want to ask the questions to get clarity on your potential future employer, but you don't want to come across as negative, you do want to come across as someone who is deeply interested in having a career at this company. Above all, be honest.

  • What is really like working for this company / in this team ?
    • What are the best opportunities for improvement in this company? Where do you think I can help this team improve?
  • What is the most negative thing you can name when you look past working here?
    • All companies have challenges, what are these and how do you think I can help overcome them?
  • Do you openly looking for a new job because of this company?
    • Why did the person I am replacing leave?

It's also worth baring in mind that your colleagues on the day are going to be making sure you are the right person for the job as much as you're finding out if it's the right job for you. They're going to expect you to be asking probing questions and they'll be able to read into anything you ask and understand the real motivation, so just be open, honest and candid.

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    "•Why did the person I am replacing leave?" I should have put that in my response. EXCELLENT POINT! If you get a vague answer to that one, run like the devil himself is at your heels. – Richard Says Reinstate Monica May 30 '17 at 13:06
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    @RichardU I wouldn't expect too many details on that. Any given person you would talk to might not necessarily know the details of why the person left, they may just not feel comfortable sharing what might be considered private information or the employee who left may themselves have given vague reasons for leaving. – Dukeling May 30 '17 at 16:03
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    @RichardU I wouldn't consider any employee quitting or getting fired (for any reason) to be a red flag. That happens, it's not necessarily indicative of severe problems with the company. It seems unlikely that you'll be able to find out whether the employee left for good or bad reasons by just talking to current employees. – Dukeling May 30 '17 at 16:12
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    An employee might also leave for highly personal matters such as an illness or a death in the family, in which case colleagues either might not know the reasons or might not feel comfortable telling a stranger. With that in mind an explanation like "personal reasons" is not necessarily a red flag. – Llewellyn May 30 '17 at 17:37
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    @RichardU Even if you get a straight answer, knowing why somebody else left the company might not tell you anything useful. Two examples from my own experience: (1) Someone who "left" after the police came into the office (accompanied by a senior manager!) and arrested him for child pornography offences (2) Someone who literally threw a punch at another employee (from the HR department) during a meeting. Do isolated incidents like that tell you that you really really don't want to work with the other 1,000 employees working in the same building? – alephzero May 30 '17 at 19:26
4

Show that you ask in order to responsibly evaluate the offer and prepare for their reality. (And yes, test them a bit.)

I am an employee in a software industry in Europe, also reaching to US-based companies. On interviews, besides other questions, I typically ask about the negatives in constructive way, friendly and openly. I address the questions both to manager which communicates with me (he/she will be most likely my future manager) and also to employee who is introduced to me to discuss technical aspects. Some examples of questions are:

  • "How many overtimes typically happen during the month?" (→ Tell me the truth now before I'll find it out later by myself.)

  • What are typical causes leading to these overtimes? (→ The answer will point to some pain points I shall know of.)

  • "How do you set the balance between code quality and matching deadlines? I understand sometimes it is needed to submit 'ugly' code in order to match a deadline; do you typically allocate some time to refactor such a work later?" (→ Am I going to work on project(s) with decreasing code quality because someone does not really care about the future debt?)

  • "I worked on many projects where many people came and went and because of this they became increasingly difficult to maintain. This is normal thing. But is setting deadlines on such a projects a bit more looser?" (→ You see, by this question I want to avoid trap of messy project with tight deadlines which makes everyone including the customer frustrated and unhappy.)

I always show I am asking this because as part of my assessment of the work (it is basically a risk assessment which should have its place during job negotiations, not after signing!), it is not anything personal. I never received a negative reaction over these questions. It is obvious they are practical and in near future they will impact me. Most of the time the other party was relatively honest. They know I'll find out the truth later anyway so they don't want unnecessarily lie to me. Moreover, they realize they are hiring experienced person who will not turn them down for seeing some negatives, but who attempts to responsibly evaluate whether these negatives are acceptable for themselves or not. Later, if something negative really happened (for example I was told there is a good quality of the code base but there turned out to be lot of copy-pasted source code) I had a point for my defense ("During the interview, you told me there are no such issues.").

If I feel that my question could look suspicious, I typically add explanation why I am asking. "I am asking you about frequency of overtimes because I experienced some projects where we worked overtime 20 times in 20 days. At the bottom line, our performace suffered. I have nothing against some overtimes, but I enjoy projects managed with certain foresight."

At the worst case they will show you the door and you know they are not ready to handle certain problems. You were not dumped, but they did not pass your test of honest and open business.

(And similarly to you, I had some office time with them – participation on a couple of their work activities – yet before signing the contract.)

4

US silicon valley based opinion here. I think the above answers are great but I don't think they cover asking constructive questions instead.

I agree with Richard in not asking questions that people may be uncomfortable answering. Of course if no one seems to have good things to say take it as a red flag.

But for the companies that aren't clearly red flags it's more about the match between the two of you. All companies like all people have positive and negatives. I think it really depends on what you want to know / live with. What's important to you for you to be happy?

When you ask those questions try making them constructive, as if you're already on the team and trying to make your team more productive, happier, etc. For example when I'm interviewing I focus on wether I'm going to be able to change the things that aren't good for me. If something isn't working for me will I be encouraged to help improve the company and make it a better place to work for everyone. Is that kind of attitude welcome there.

For me a question like :

"What is the most negative thing you can name when you look at working here?"

is far less important than

"What is a practice that you disagreed with (or something that bothered you)? Were you able to improve it? What resources did you have available to help ...?"

Instead of:

Did most of the previous developers leave because of working conditions?

Try:

What kinds of things do those who leave go on to do? Do you still keep in touch? (gives you ideas about where you can go, what the culture is like)

Where else did you consider before choosing Company, why did you make that choice? (it gives them a chance to sell the company but also talk about their other options)

I'm really passionate about X (ex hiring diversity, wine, your kids, etc), in fact I did Y (interview training, wine club, bring your kids to work day etc) at my last company. It was really Z. Do you have anything like that here?

Substitute in whatever it is that you want to know about. I think when selecting an employer it's less about what's not perfect but wether or not engaging in improving those things matter. At the end of the day both you and the company are going to change at least if you stay there for any period of time. Are they, the company going to respect your needs and wants and can you, the company, and your coworkers compromise.

2

After a series of interviews, you have been invited to work for the team? Does this mean you haven't been given a job, but you're still being asked to do work for them? This seems like an unusual arrangement. That aside, given that you haven't gotten an offer yet, you do have a rare insight into the day-to-day workings of the company that many would not normally offer.

It is safe to assume that your (potential) future colleagues may be reluctant to talk ill of the company, especially if they want you to join AND their boss is nearby! What I've found in situations similar to this is to ask questions that do not necessarily warrant negative answers, such as "How does working here differ from where you have been before?" or "Do you normally finish at this time?".

The key is to ask neutral or positive questions (like Joe's examples). From there, you will have to read between the lines.

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    As far as I know having a "test day" is not totally unusual and is seen as a great opportunity for both parties to check if not only the skills and requirements match but also the team and personalities. – skymningen May 30 '17 at 12:02
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    I'll be paid an average salary of a developer of my experience for 1 day. It's more like getting to know each other and see if the company and I fit together well. – JuniorDev May 30 '17 at 13:16
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Asking such questions makes no sense for two reasons

  • You will not get honest answers.

  • Even if you hit people who will give you honest answers, these questions are too vague, since you let other people make up their mind for you what is good or bad. Identify a few points which really bother you, and address these in a few neutral or positive questions.

2

I once attempted the same with a prospective employer. I asked this to my interviewer who was a senior member in hierarchy in that organization. "What are the 3 things that keep you motivated to work in your company? And, what are the 3 negative things that you would like to improve in your company to make it more productive/enjoyable/fun etc.?

He was impressed by my questions and thought for a minute before answering. Irrespective of what the other person answers, if he takes more than a few seconds to answer the positives then there is some problem there! Also, if he is prompt in coming up with his first negative, then definitely there is some problem!

This trick worked for me.

1

It's really easy, you ask:

What can be improved? (about the company, team etc.)

People tend to accidentally tell the truth in response to this, and you sound eager to make things better.

Don't guide them with any specific topic (besides a high-level scope, like company, team, or product area). People will always jump to the thing that irks them the most. Just let them.

1

One question I've been asking for more than a decade (and for a programmer, I interview a lot, for a variety of reasons):

If you could change one thing about the company without veto, what would it be?

This doesn't work for example with the CEO of course. But your interviewers are going to not be ready for this question. They'll recognize it for what it is: A question about what they don't like. It's better than asking "What would you improve?" because it doesn't overtly imply something negative, and it's not a loaded question.

While I'm here, some red flags I always watch out for: Any mentions of team or individual communication problems. If that's the one thing someone would change, it's a big red flag. Any mention of leadership problems, for obvious reasons. If people don't answer immediately and pause while thinking, that's actually a good sign. If you think about this question, you'll recognize that it will give you huge amounts of insight into the company. For example, I interviewed at Google some years ago, and six out of the seven interviewers I had said some variation of the same thing, "I wish I could work on problems that challenge me" (incidentally the data I gathered with this question is the reason I turned down their offer). Good luck!

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