Posted by: lrrp | June 28, 2007

All Things Bloggable by Brian and Stephanie ReindelThe top ten questions every programmer should ask on a job interview

In the spirit (or snare) of capitalism, we often believe that the job interview is an opportunity to prove our worth to potential employers. As much as that is true to some degree, every interview should be a time set aside not only to answer questions, but to ask them as well. In order to increase the probability that you will find a rewarding position, you have to step beyond the subjects of salary, vacation, and benefits, and put companies in the spotlight.

These ten leading questions will help you to better understand the position and company to which you are applying. Leading or clarifying questions are the key to a successful interview. They require the interviewer to become expressive, and they alleviate the need to interpret how much truth is behind a curt yes or no answer. You may feel awkward asking for such detail, but you will find in time that any company uncomfortable answering probably has something to hide.

How many hours are in a typical work week?
Skip the pleasantries regarding business hours. You can find this information on a Web site, or in the job posting. You want to know how many hours are billed for the average employee in a work week. Is it truly 40, or do most employees hover around 45-50 hours? Is this overtime, or is comp (flex) time offered? What about summer hours? Get the whole scoop, and you will discover that the standard nine-to-five work day is a thing of the past, especially for Web developers. How much it varies will differ from organization to organization.

What are the expectations regarding travel?
Almost all companies will require some travel, either for training, conferences, or for client meetings. The amount of travel is usually specified as a percentage, but this is rarely an accurate representation of the actual time spent on the road or in the air. Be sure to ask approximately how often, and for what duration, you will need to travel annually. Employers may be hoping you gloss over these details, since above average travel is a great barometer for a bump in pay scale.

On average, how long does an employee remain with your company?
Avoid questions about turnover, unless the interviewer uses the terminology. It has negative connotations, and you may receive an arbitrary response, like, “turnover is low”. This does not help you to gage employee satisfaction, so you want to get a more detailed response. In our industry, if there is a small staple of employees who hover around five to ten years, then that is a good sign. If the company is young, or a startup, then asking this question may not be a benefit to you.

What kind of on-going training can I expect to receive?
For quite some time I was afraid to ask this question. I was fearful employers would speculate that I must need training because I was not qualified. I have since learned that employers want employees who demand a more diverse set of skills. The best way to get this training, is for a company to pay for it for you. You may be allowed to attend training during normal business hours, or you may be required to take evening courses for college credit. Also, be sure to ask about mentoring programs, and whether or not certifications are a covered expense.

Can you give me an overview of the development process?
This question is better directed toward an individual in technical services. Human resources may have a basic understanding, but to paint a more accurate picture of the development process, it will require an answer from your immediate boss or a peer worker. Ask how well this process is documented, and if there are supplemental training materials and example deliverables available. Will you be required to learn while on a project, or will your first few days be spent reading about operating procedures? It will almost always be the former, but if you have written guidelines that map to what you are doing, ramp up time can be significantly decreased.

Who is your largest client, and what can you tell me about the work you do for them?
This is an excellent question for determining stability, and there are two schools of thought. If the client’s name is spread all over the employer’s Web site, as in case studies, and almost every programmer has their hand in development, then that could be a bad omen. By placing all the eggs in one basket, the employer is risking a major blow to revenue and possible layoffs if the client seeks an alternate vendor. On the other hand, an ongoing relationship with a stable brand could mean a more stable position for you. If you are someone who craves variety, you should also ask if your work will be focused primarily around this client.

Can you discuss any growing pains experienced by the company in the last two years?
With this question in particular, the intention is not to get an in depth answer, but to discern the level of honesty with which the answer is given. If clarification is necessary, inquire about any difficulties with employee retention, client satisfaction, or project overages. You want to get the employer to disclose information that is not necessarily sensitive or private, but that does affect their day-to-day operations. If they are uncomfortable or unwilling to answer, then that may be a sign they are facing internal struggles.

How is a typical performance review handled?
Be sure that you understand all the details surrounding performance reviews. This is one area that can quickly become a source of contention if there is miscommunication. How often do formal reviews take place? Is there a peer review process? Are there quarterly or semi-annual informal reviews? Can you receive a promotion or a raise without a review? When you start, will you need to set aside goals to accomplish for your first performance review? Who makes the final decision regarding a raise or a promotion? These are all important questions.

What types of social activities are organized throughout the year?
Even if you are not interested in attending social activities sponsored by the employer, this question will help you to better understand how much they appreciate your work. Even if it is only an annual holiday party, or summer picnic, it demonstrates a willingness to help you relax. Some companies will even sponsor competitive sports, or a league team made up of employees. All of this is an indicator that employee satisfaction and retention is given a high priority.

Can you tell me if I have the experience you need?
This question should always be the last question you ask, and it serves a dual purpose. You want to know how interested the employer is, and generally speaking, you want to know what expertise you are lacking. If you find that several companies are concerned about skills that you do not possess, then you should take formal training, or work toward a certification. Even if an employer will not discuss where you stand comparatively, they are usually happy to provide you with some constructive criticism. If you are called back for a second interview, use this to your advantage. Politely illustrate why you are still the perfect candidate, even if you lack some skills. Be sure to communicate your desire to learn.


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