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September 2006

Interview Your Next Boss

By Elizabeth Lions

The dreaded waiting room. Every engineer is familiar with the feelings that can creep in during the few moments before you are called into a job 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 do it?

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 room.

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 leave?

  • If a project is not on schedule, what does the company do to make the deadlines?

  • How does the review process work? How often does it occur?

  • 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 them?

  • 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 company 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 todaysengineer@ieee.org.

Copyright © 2007 IEEE