Interview Your Next Boss
By Elizabeth Lions
The dreaded waiting room. Every engineer is familiar
feelings that can creep in during the few moments before you are called into
interview. Your hands are
clammy as you fill out the application. You’re running through your
responses in your mind, in anticipation of the questions the
engineering manager will
ask. The receptionist smiles tightly as she takes your paperwork.
This is a place that will provide job stability, you
think to yourself, with opportunities for advancement and
good pay. You realize that you want this job.
Badly. From your perspective, this job was made with you in mind.
Or was it?
Instead of being overly concerned with the notion that the employer
would want your skill set, why not try something different and
interview your prospective next boss?
Many people forget that the interview process is a two-way street, and feel it
might be disrespectful to conduct some in-depth
probing during the face-to-face meeting. However, with a little
research and some tactful questions, you can use the interview to figure out if
a prospective employer's culture is a good fit for you.
The majority of the ‘bad hires’ within corporations
are not due to skill sets mismatches, but rather personality mismatches. Every company has its own distinct culture, its own
particular flavor. There are norms and unspoken rules that surround
the water cooler. These quirks will not become fully apparent to you until you
become an employee and are assimilated into a particular company's
culture. But you can use the interview to gain valuable
insight into what those values might be.
While most hiring managers are on their best behavior
during the interview, you can pick up on subtle signs and hints as
to whether it is a good place for you to
spend your eight- to ten-hour work days.
When evaluating a prospective employer, look to
three key elements to figure out if it is a good match
for you. The first is to get a feel for the company's
culture. The second is to gauge the
manager’s leadership style and to determine if you connect professionally. The third is to
evaluate the work itself — are you
qualified to do it, and, just as importantly, do you want to
The easiest and most superficial way to peg a company's culture is to
look at the office's physical surroundings. Start with
the lobby or waiting room. Before you are called in, take those precious few minutes to
look around. Is the office neat and orderly? Does is reek of
affluence? Is it a simple room or is it elaborately decorated? Is
there a mission statement visible? If so, read it thoroughly (if you
haven't already done so during your preparation). The waiting
room provides an important first impression to visitors and
vendors, and it can reveal a lot about a company.
As you walk through the main portion of the office
for your interview, look around again. What do you see? Is the lobby
congruent with the inner office, or is there a disconnect? Are there
rows of cubicles or private offices? Is management in upstairs offices or
isolated in a far
corner of the building? The physical layout can tell you the
about an organization’s standards of hierarchy and what they think
is appropriate. Figure out where you’d be in the mix. If you took
that job, where would you sit?
During the interview, continue to observe what is going on around you.
Don't let your desire to get the the job cloud your overall goal of
finding a good match. Answer interview questions directly and
succinctly, while allowing your keen eye to take in the vibe in the
It’s a good idea to bring a notebook so that you
can capture answers to questions you may have regarding the
company. It also helps to have a couple of notes in front of you to
remember high points about yourself and your career that you’d like to
convey. Most employers are impressed when an interviewee takes
notes. Jotting down a few notes during the meeting creates
the impression that you care enough to remember what was discussed.
While it's not polite to bombard the interviewer
with endless questions, it is appropriate to ask for details on
what you’d be doing in the job. Too often, the ad that appears
online or in the newspaper doesn’t match the actual job
description. And, oddly enough, the job description often doesn't match
what is in the hiring manager's mind.
Following are a few sample questions you might
consider posing to a hiring manager:
Why is this position open? Why did the last person
If a project is not on schedule, what does the company do to make
How does the review process work? How often does
How big is the engineering team?
How does the manager share credit/recognition for joint ideas?
How long has the manager worked there?
Is it possible to get a patent while you work there, or
does all intellectual property belong to the company?
Can you tell me about your best employees and how you like to work with
Can you tell me about your least favorite employees?
These questions are designed to flush out what is
really going on in a business. They are fair questions to ask any
prospective employer, and, if delivered tactfully, no one
will be offended.
After you’ve observed the environment, the co-workers
and the leadership, you should focus on whether the work is interesting and
challenging. Will this be a stepping stone to something greater?
What can you learn here? What can you contribute to the company
that another candidate could not? Inquire about the work you would
be doing. Try to figure out what value you would bring to the
and be sure to mention it in the interview.
After the meeting concludes, go home and review
what you observed before, during and after the interview. Often,
valuable information will unfold as you think back
on the meeting. Did you see anything that concerned you? Did you see
things that made you want to be
there? Is it the right place for you?
Always remember that the interview process is a two-way street.
And even a bad interview was well worth your time.
Elizabeth Lions is a technical recruiter at APCON,
Inc., in Wilsonville, Ore. Comments may be submitted to