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5 killer questions software engineers should ask on their next job interview

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Robert L. Scheier, Principal, Bob Scheier Associates

Maybe you're a JavaScript superstar who has taken down your LinkedIn profile to stop those annoying headhunter calls. Or maybe you're an everyday, solid player who gets "only" two to three nibbles a year.

Regardless of how often you find yourself going on a job interview, these five questions every software engineer should ask will help determine if you'll be happy for the long term.

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What's your culture?

You'll be living with the beliefs, values, and behaviors of your coworkers 10 to 12 hours per day. Does the corporate culture value technology, respect software engineers, give them a say in product development, and offer the freedom to do their best work without micromanagement?

To find out, ask what tools the company prefers for everything from development to testing, suggests Luca Bonmassar, cofounder and chief technology officer of Gild, a SaaS platform for finding, evaluating, and recruiting technical talent. If the interviewer can't answer, Bonmassar says, "it's usually a bad sign" that the company doesn't pay enough attention to the technology that is so important to you.

He also recommends asking about the development workflow: "How much of the developer's input goes into the product? Does the project manager dictate every detail of the schedule, what has to be built, or does the engineering team have a say in that, and how much?"

Ask about the relationship between engineering and other teams. Doug Schade, a partner and recruiter in WinterWyman's software technology search division, suggests asking "What level of autonomy do you give to developers when tackling projects?" Bonmassar says the lack of any mechanism for software engineer feedback is a "red flag."

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How will I be measured?

How your employer defines your "success" helps determine everything from your pay to your perks. But different companies will measure you differently, and trying to hit a mark you're not comfortable with can make your life miserable.

Some companies assess software engineers by their effort, such as how many hours they worked and how much code they commit to a repository, says Ari Weil, VP of products at Yottaa, an adaptive content delivery network provider. Others measure them by results, such as the number of rollbacks their code required due to defects or the number of projects their group completed on time and on budget.

Yottaa, for example, is "a very sales-driven company and very metrics-driven," he says. Yottaa assesses developers on measures such as whether or not the company can sell, renew, and grow opportunities with the software an engineer delivers and if a software engineer is able to keep up with changing needs of the business. These measurements may sound more exciting, but they're also more difficult to quantify than hours worked or code commits. Find out which yardstick an employer uses and decide whether you're comfortable with it.

What's the growth plan?

Tonya Shtarkman, lead technical recruiter at Riviera Partners, a San Francisco-based recruiting firm, says many software engineers feel "they have hit a ceiling within their current company and want to make a stronger impact, whether the engineer wants to climb the corporate ladder or stay close to the code as an individual contributor."

She suggests asking if there's a progression plan for software engineers to move up in the organization and if they have opportunities to attend conferences and workshops, build new products and features, and be mentored.

Many software engineers want an employer that will expose them to the latest, greatest technology tools so they can stay current. But Bonmassar warns that "it's usually a bad sign" when a company insists on an extremely specific skill set—requirements can change quickly and the company may start looking for someone to replace you in three months. A better long-term fit, he says, may be a company looking for "someone who is smart without necessarily knowing every detail of the tools and technology" they need right now.

He also recommends asking how much outside hiring a company plans to do versus promoting internally. The answer says a lot about your growth path as the organization grows.

What's your growth plan?

If you're considering working at a startup, you'll want to learn about their growth plans: "When joining a startup, there's always a level of risk involved, and startup engineers tend to be less risk-averse than big company engineers," says Shtarkman. "However, some level of stability is essential."

Research is the first step. Shtarkman also recommends asking questions such as "What is your burn rate?" (a company's negative cash flow) to understand how long the company can sustain itself without needing more funding or generating cash from operations. Jim Barnett, CEO of Glint, an online platform for tracking trends that can affect retention, suggests offering to sign a non-disclosure agreement to get a closer look at the books.

Will I like your people?

Talk to current team members: "I've had engineers accept offers at startups purely because they meshed so well with the team —sometimes even for that one special person they met with," says Shtarkman. "When all is said and done, companies are made up of people, and if you don't vibe with your teammates, there's little chance this is going to be a long-term career move."

Try for a chat with company insiders to get "a feel for the skills and likely strengths of your manager," says Barnett. "Are they collaborative, do they solicit input, do they give feedback, does he or she invest in their people and help them grow?"

Try for an informal chat with a member of the team with whom you'd work. Ask them what frustrates them most about their job. They're more likely to give you a realistic answer than the interviewer will, says Shtarkman.

The bottom line: Rather than focusing only on pay, dig a bit deeper to get a feel for the people and processes you'll be working with each day. That, along with the company's leadership and prospects in the industry, will tell you if you'll get a kick out of it or just a paycheck.

Image source: Candisa Leonardi/Flickr

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