careers hiring interview leadership management

Interviewing for a new role as a Engineering Manager: Culture and Alignment

This post is about ensuring you are are in alignment with your next role as an engineering manager in terms of culture and team expectations. There are many other posts about salary negotiation so this won’t cover that topic.

So you’ve decided that you want a new role as an engineering manager at a different company. What’s the next step?

Take some time to reflect on what you really want to do next

Before you start applying for new jobs take some time to do some introspection. What do you enjoy about your current role? What do you find frustrating? How do you want your new role to be better aligned with your career aspirations?

I’ve found Lara Hogan’s article Four steps to identifying your new role very useful to provide clarity in this situation. She suggests that you write down your must-haves, nice-to-haves, don’t-cares and think what you are optimizing for in your next role.1 After writing the list sometimes it’s a good idea to discuss with a friend, leadership coach or mentor. Is there anything that you missed? Are you being honest with yourself about what the direction you want your career to take?

Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Manager configurations

As you consider your next role, what do you want to your management responsibilities to look like? The expectations of a front-line engineering manager vary widely from company to company. These are some of the models I’ve seen:

  1. Manager of a small team of 3-5 people and the manager still making code contributions. If the team is growing quickly the manager will be responsible for hiring new team members and may eventually transition to full-time management. If the team is not growing, the manager may continue to make code contributions but limit critical path work.
  2. Manager of a larger team 6-10 people who is a full-time manager. If the manager worked as an developer on the team before they were the manager, they may contribute the occasional bug fix, conduct code review or help debug a production outage. If they didn’t work on the team before, it might be difficult to contribute fully to the code base due to time constraints of managing such a large team, but this depends on the person’s previous work history and current workload.
  3. New manager with no direct reports. Your role is to hire and build a new team!
  4. Manager of a large team with 11-15 people with team leads managing small teams of 2-3 people each.
  5. Manager of a very large team with 11-20 direct reports. This is a recipe for burnout 😣. It is really difficult to have the energy to focus on mentoring so many people to grow their careers. It’s also very hard to track the complexity of their work and how it impacts the team and adjacent teams. Managing such a large team may be okay in the short term if everyone on the team is doing well, but as soon as you have one or more people who are disengaged with their work or you need to conduct significant hiring, the workload becomes unsustainable. In this case, you need to have someone new take on some of your management responsibilities.

Caveats for Canadians applying for remote roles at US based companies

I’m not an employment lawyer, but here are my observations on the three ways that US companies hire Canadians who continue to reside in Canada (no visa requirements).2

  1. US company has a separate legal entity to employ Canadians as full-time employees. 
  2. US company uses the services of a PEO (professional employer organization) or EOR (employee of record) to employ Canadians and handle payroll deductions, taxes and employee contracts.
  3. Canadians work as contractors for the US company and handle all the paperwork themselves for payroll deductions and taxes. You aren’t usually provided any healthcare, sick leave or paid time off by the company.

If you are interviewing with US companies ask in the first interview how they employ Canadians and dig into the details. If you are a US based company please be transparent with your candidates on how you can hire them.3

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

Interviewing

Interviewing is intellectually and emotionally exhausting. Be gentle on yourself. Nadyne Richmond wrote excellent post called 10 lessons learned about job hunting on how to navigate this process.

I always consider an interview a two way conversation, not an interrogation. They want to know if the I am the right person for the role. I want to know if this role is the right one for me. I appreciate it when the interviewing company provides an overview of the hiring process ahead of time to set expectations.

I prepared a list of questions ahead of every interview. When the interviewer says “Do you have any questions?” I have a long list to ask and I repeat them with each interviewer. Spoiler alert: You will usually get slightly different answers each person and that provides you with a more nuanced view of the organization.

Why are you hiring?

Why is this role open? Did someone get promoted into a new role? Did the team grow in size and management responsibilities need to be delegated? Did the previous manager leave for a new position on a new team or a different company?

What is the scope and expectations of this role? How many people are on the team? What are their levels of seniority? What other teams do they interact with regularly?

How is morale on the team? How is the team thriving? How is the team struggling?

How do you approach technical decision making ? How do you track projects? How does the company organize their work?

How does the interviewing process look like for engineers versus managers? If the answer is “It’s the same” this is a 🚩 because the job is not the same and the the interview process should reflect that distinction.

Organization and Culture

What does this company prioritize?

An open ended question. Just let that question sit and wait for response. It can be very illuminating. Do they prioritize for engineering excellence? Sales? An exit plan for the founders?

Once you have dug into what’s important to the company take some time to think about how the work of this role aligns with these priorities.

If the purpose of the role is to implement major changes in the company, who are your allies to drive this change? Will you have an opportunity to speak with this allies as part of the interview process?

Imagine the role you are interviewing for is to build a new SRE team. What cultural or organizational friction is there doing your team’s work? What does it mean when all top level engineering goals describe delivering new features? Is reducing production outages and increasing system reliability a priority for the company? Or are you just being hired because someone said “Hey we need a SRE team, they will fix everything.”

When you’ve done your best work here, what about the culture has enabled you to do that? What to you find frustrating about the culture? What’s something that would only happen here but wouldn’t happen at other organizations?

What are some of the key financial metrics that the company optimizes for? Has the company ever made a decision that prioritized its values over revenue? Who are the company’s main competitors?

Velocity

I’m a huge fan of the research described in the Accelerate book that ties high performance technology organizations to specific metrics. I try to dig into how the company prioritizes optimizing developer experience and the velocity at which code can be deployed to customers.

How do you quantify team velocity? How long does it take to for code landed by a developer to be deployed and used by change to a customer?

What is the process to roll back a change deployed to a customer? How do you handle incident management during a production outage?

How long do code reviews take? Does everyone have their code reviewed at a similar cadence? How are code reviews assigned?4

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

I always look at the C-level suite page or “about us” page for a company. If it it looks like this πŸ§”πŸ»β€β™‚οΈπŸ‘΄πŸ»πŸ‘¨πŸ»πŸ‘©πŸ»πŸ‘±πŸ»β€β™‚οΈπŸ‘¨πŸ»β€πŸ¦° the company leadership appears to be pretty pale and male. An inclusive and equitable organization means that people from different backgrounds have positions of power and leadership at the company, not just work there as early career engineers. I also google the company name and the word controversy to see what this brings up.

Every question in this article (The 40 best questions to ask in an interview how to go deeper than whats the culture like) is pure gold and I just pick a few questions from it for every interview.

What specific initiatives has the company launched to improve diversity and inclusion? Did these initiatives come from the C-suite or are were they initiated by individual contributors or managers? Are there metrics to track these initiatives on an ongoing basis? Is executive compensation tied to improving these metrics? Is improving DEI metrics a top-level OKR for the company?

What do you do as a manager do to build an inclusive team where everyone has their voices heard? How have your designed an inclusive hiring process that mitigates bias?5 Is the existing team all white men?

Are there employee resource groups(ERGs)? Do you have an example of feedback from ERGS that has led to a policy change at the company? Are ERG leaders paid for their work?

What is the title of the most senior underrepresented person at the company and what do they do? What factors determine whether or not someone is successful in growing their career within the company?

Alignment with direct manager

I view the relationship with your new manager/director as a partnership. It’s crucial to determine if you are in alignment with their approach and style of leadership. Is this a person that you want to work with and can trust? What can you skills can you learn from them? What can they learn from me?

How quickly is the company growing (or not). What does the hiring plan for this team look like for the next year?

Does this team work with a product manager? What does that relationship look like? Is there a dedicated project manager that works with the team? What about user research and design?

How do you like to run your 1:1s? How do organize team meetings? What topics do you cover? Can you describe a situation where you had to provide critical feedback to someone? Can you describe a scenario where you had to deliver a difficult decision to the team that you didn’t agree with? How did you communicate this? Can you describe a decision that you in the past for the team that you regard as a mistake? What did you learn from this process?

How do you approach career development on your team? What does the career ladder for engineers look like? How do you envision the path for career progression in this role? Is there a standard and documented process to promote someone with supporting written documentation provided by their manager? How are promotions calibrated across teams? Can you describe the process the last time you promoted someone?

Once you have an offer

I really like the idea of reverse interviewing. After you have an offer ask to talk to more people to learn more about the role and ask more specific questions. You have an offer, time to ask more questions and make 100% sure that this is the right role for you.

It might be good to talk to a person who used to report to your potential new manager. Ideally someone from a previous role so that there isn’t the power differential that may impede honest feedback.

Starting a new job

So you have a new job and you are excited! Just like when interviewing for a new candidate for a team you should be able to check off a “strong yes” that this is the right choice for you.

I recently read the Art of Leadership by Michael Lopp. In a section about interviewing he writes

I really like the transparency and honesty of this approach!

Once you have started a new job, revisit your list of must-haves, nice-to-haves and what you optimizing for list. Does the job still meet those expectations?

Many jobs place you on a probation period for the first three or six months of your role. Basically it means that they can let you go without severance (depending on the location) within the probationary period if they think you are not a good fit for the role. However, this goes both ways. You can also decide that the role isn’t the right one for you. If the job is significantly different from the one that was described in the interviews or a shift in company priorities has materially changed the role maybe it’s not the right job for you.

Another approach is to put your job on a PIP (performance improvement plan). Write down a timeline and areas for improvement. If the job doesn’t meet the performance improvement criteria in the timeline you have established, time to start looking for something new!

Thanks to some people in the Rands Leadership slack and the Women in Tech slack for validation and inspiration for parts of this post.

What do you look for when interviewing for a new role as an engineering manager?

Further Reading

Footnotes

  1. I acknowledge that the ability to optimize for what you want in a new role is a privilege that many people do not have.
  2. Employment regulations vary from province to province so if a US company can hire in one province it doesn’t necessarily mean it can hire in all provinces.
  3. I once had seven interviews with a US company where I was told that it was a permanent role with health care, PTO and sick leave. Upon receiving the offer letter it stated it was a month to month contract with no benefits. When I pointed this out to the recruiter he told me “Canadians don’t need company provided health care.” I responded with “Sir, we are in a pandemic” and I declined the offer with a detailed email to him stating that they had violated my trust and wasted my time. From a negotiation standpoint a contract role should pay more than a full-time role since vacation, sick leave, health care and even the cost of your laptop are probably self-funded.
  4. I once interviewed at a company where the recruiter stated that it was the manager’s job to conduct all code review. To me, this is an organizational smell that you don’t delegate well to allow engineers to improve their code review skills. Also, it also might indicate that the velocity of change in the organization is slow when one person is the only person is assigned the work when it could be distributed.
  5. In an interview I had a hiring manager ask me “How do you build a diverse team given that the biggest problem with diversity in the tech industry is that not enough women enrol in Computer Science classes in university?” Uh no, it’s 2021 and the pipeline isn’t the main problem. Please do some reading. I stopped interviewing with this company after this conversation.

1 comment on “Interviewing for a new role as a Engineering Manager: Culture and Alignment

  1. Pingback: Engineering Manager looking for a new place to thrive – Built to Run

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