What to prepare for an Engineering Manager interview? Some call it team management rounds or some name it as people round and then there are a few who call it the process round. Well these rounds technically differ from each other but mostly what ends up happening is that there is a lot of overlap in these rounds in practice. So in effect this post talks about how will you manage your team and work and the questions that interviewers generally get into.
Some would say that the topic ain't right. One should rather focus on being a better manager and interviews will become like second nature. There is good reason for saying this as Engineering Manager interviews are a lot about situations that you might have faced and how you have handled them.
But I still feel that there is a large set of people in transition from a Lead Engineer or an SDE3 to a EM role who might find it more beneficial to have a guide list of different topics on the subject. My objective is very clear in this regard, to provide a collection of common scenarios that people like to evaluate in such interviews.
How do I know that this list is exhaustive?
Well I don't, but I have been a manager for 7+ years and have managed teams ranging from 5-30 member sizes spread across different functions, be it backend or frontend or mobile. Also I have interviewed with different companies in my past and till date I have never faced a scenario which I didn't find in this list. Having said that, I would love to hear about scenarios that you want to know about or might have gotten questions about and I will be happy to take them up in future posts (or maybe modify this post and add to this).
One last thing before we begin, all these questions and their categories are not defined in a strict way. I have categorised them as I feel right but they can easily be categorised differently. Also I am not going to write down answers for you but rather write on the lines of how to approach to an answer which is tailor made for you.
Lets jump in! I will break this into few sections.
- ** Bonus **
things related to your work / project
W.1: Give me an example where you used good judgment and logic in solving a problem?
This question is trying to understand your analytical nature and how you approach a problem statement. How do you break it down and reach a solution. Objective is not to assess the problem exactly but rather asses your process. Take up any project that you had to write a detailed Technical Requirement Document and which had a lot of stakeholder meetings and dependent teams. From there talk about different solutions and options you had and how you reached the final solution. Do mention data points / metrics that helped you decide. Now this question can also fit into a people side of questions as well but I feel answers based on your work do more justice to this question.
W.2: Tell me when you had too many things to do and you had to prioritize your tasks.
This question is trying to understand how you prioritize. Start by talking about impact analysis of each ticket. How did you define impact, did you take help from stakeholders, PMs etc. Then jump into Tshirt sizing or estimating a high level view of the work and post that how you drew the line till which you could take up in a sprint or a month or quarter whatever your unit of time is. Don't forget to talk about capacity planning of the people involved in that overall task list. Ideally this should have some framework across the company regarding priority / planning process which I will touch up a bit more on in the process side of questions. If you guys want a more detailed post on some sample processes then let me know and I can come up with a post on this topic trying to cover some common ways of prioritisation.
W.3: Give me an example when you set a goal and were able to meet or achieve it.
This question should be approached with a specific instance. To talk about it with an example, lets say that you see that there are too many oncall alerts you are getting in your team and that is hampering your regular bandwidth to pick up planned work. Plus the engineers in the team are unhappy about waking up in the middle of the night to answer to oncall pages. You can talk about a goal on how you took up a goal of reducing oncall pages from X to Y in lets say a quarter. How you monitored it week on week and took up small fixes in your system to resolve issues one by one. Now this is just an example but it can be on anything like developer productivity increment, cost reduction etc. Avoid topics like delivering a project as that's kinda expected as a bare minimal and might not get you brownie points. But if you don't have instances where you have performed non project delivery goals, please feel free to shape it and structure it in a way where you did continuous effort and improved a situation for the overall team. Be data oriented, be analytical and most importantly how you communicated your teams' success in achieving this. One other very important thing to note is not to fabricate scenarios which you haven't solved for cause it's very easily understood by the interviewer upon cross questioning a bit.
W.4: Tell me about a time when you had to influence someone’s opinion.
Influence, this will play a big role in your managerial journey. Now a quite a few people relate influence to office politics and somehow it ends up with a negative connotation in general discussions. But it definitely is not. In this question talk about instances that you have faced where you had to convince lets say a group of engineers on whether to use Redis to implement a lock or just query the DB on a column with a very fast index. Lets say you are implementing some deduplication of a request. You have a few options for solving this. How did you convince a group on your implementation strategy with all read patterns and their analysis and showed data points along with graphs to say implementing a DB query solves the problem and that you guys don't need a Redis cluster to manage the lock. Now this might be a hypothetical situation but philosophy of answer remains the same, analysis of the problem, collecting instances / data / metric and validate your hypothesis and the most important part on how you presented your findings to the larger audience to get their buy-in.
W.5: How do you measure quality of your work?
Quality can focus on multiple aspects of you work:
1. Quality of deliverable can focus on your testing process, UT, end to end integration tests, automation tests, test coverage etc
2. Quality of your services owned can focus on health metrics, observability, alerts, business metrics observability etc.
Check with your interviewer as to if there is any expectation of certain area of the system / deliverable and if so then focus more on that part otherwise elaborate what you do in your teams as of now and align them to standard practices.
W.6 Give me an example of a time when you used your fact-finding skills to solve a problem.
This question is a slight modification of W.1 where you should focus more on the data / metric side of things.
W.7: Tell me about a time when you missed an obvious solution to a problem.
This is a type of question where people are trying to understand whether you learn from your mistakes. Here focus on situations where you have missed obvious solutions and how you gathered better solutions from your team / stakeholders. Do focus on your flexibility to change and understand better solutions. You have to accept and understand that your solution will not be the best solution always, in fact your solution will almost always be half baked and the rest of the team should help you shape it up to a good or rather great solution. Talk about instances where this happened and also talk about maybe how your defined processes helped identify this better solution. More on this later.
W.8: How do you manage existing tech debt?
Talk about getting keeping a backlog and how you keep prioritising it over quarters. Agenda is to understand how you balance tech debt vs feature development. How do you classify tech debt and product development.
how you structure your work and the way of work
PR.1: Explain your quarterly or long term planning.
Here you are expected to talk about your quarterly planning process. In continuation to W.2 you will need to focus on defining the process in detail and walk through each important step and define what your responsibility is in that step. Now going into the exact process is out of scope for this post and should be answered based on your experience in the past but if you guys feel that one post about this will also help do comment back and I will write a different post on the topic. By the way, I would highly recommend using a whiteboard and explaining the timeline visually instead of explaining it verbally. It will be far more clear that way.
PR.2: How do you manage dependencies in your team and across teams?
Here again you have to detail out your past processes that you have followed. Whether you have reached out to teams when issues have come up or whether you focus on calling out dependencies during quarter planning, all of this is what people are trying to understand.
PR.3: Tell me how you communicated your roadmap externally.
In this question, your interviewer is focused on understanding how you manage external team communication. Focus on what all documents you publish to your stakeholders, how you have maybe weekly or monthly updates. How do you get feedback from stakeholders and course correct and also give an example scenario with this which shows impact due to following of this process.
PR.4: What does Stakeholder Management mean to you?
First this is to define who all are your stakeholders. After that you focus on handling stakeholders, talk about getting priorities, communicating status updates, resolving escalations etc.
PR.5: How do you handle Project Delays?
First is talk about processes that you follow that help you identify delays at an early stage of the project. Once this is is done next talk about communication around those delays to the larger stakeholder group. Lastly talk about any mitigation strategies that you might have to remove the impact of the delay.
PR.6: Can you mitigate Project Delays?
Firstly understand that you won't be mitigating delays by burning your team out. You only have a few options that you can talk about, reduce the scope of the project, realign more people towards this project to speed things up, change implementation strategy to a simpler one to speed things up if it's that much business critical.
PR.7: How do you institute the right process at the right time? How do you know when you need something more formal?
This question tries to understand whether you create processes and measure the efficiency of that process. How do you measure the efficiency of any process that you have implemented. Do you have hard defined metrics. Do you take subjective feedback from the team. Focus on the overall feedback loop on your process and then elaborate further about effectiveness measurement.
PR.8: What kind of process have you followed in the past and what has worked well for you? What hasn’t worked?
Talk about any one process that you have setup and that had issues. Accept the shortcomings of the process. Objective of the question is to see whether you learn from your mistakes / wrong decisions. How you measure your success of a process. Focus on these points and you will have a very good answer.
how you manage the engineers in the team
PE.1: How do you build a team?
This is a very holistic question which covers topics like team structure, hiring process, hiring philosophy. Talking about team structure you should cover what sizes of teams have you formed, how many lead, senior and junior engineers did you have. On the topic of hiring process you will have to describe the entire interview loop, what do you evaluate in each round, how do you standardise each round and then any debriefs that you do, What do you yourself evaluate in any interview. These should give a fair sense of clarity of what your expectations are from any interview. BE STRUCTURED in answering this. On the last topic of hiring philosophy, it's more about how you shape your team, do you hire all very strong engineers or do you maintain a balance and reduce team costs etc.
PE.2: What are you looking for in an engineer when you recruit? Do they prefer to hire only experienced folks? Are they more comfortable with generalists or specialists?
This is more in line with the question PE.1. You need to talk about how you shape your team and balance between expertise and cost. If you end up having only senior folks then a lot of scenarios can come up such as lack of juniors to mentor, extreme competitiveness for promotion, no motivation for climbing ladder as most people are of same excellence and loses aspirational value etc. So how you balance between a Lead, Senior and Junior Engineer. Now sometimes teams need specialists and you will have to invest in one but that more extreme than the norm in my opinion. Again you will have to shape your answers based on your past organisations.
PE.3: How have you optimized the recruiting process in the past? Have they thought about the recruiting funnel and how you can optimize different parts of it?
Recruitment funnel is basically about how a role gets opened to how many candidates are there to how many pass each round to how many get hired to finally how many end up joining. This overall funnel will need optimisations depending on individual round being very tough to offer not being good enough to make people join. Lots of problems can be there. To be honest this step is slightly for a more senior position but it's never too early to know things hence maybe keep this as a good to know type question.
PE.4: How do you keep people motivated?
After the last good to have this is kind of a must know question. Here you need to talk about what in general team motivation means to you and what steps do you take to keep the morale high. How do you take each project and create a environment of success and meaning for that project. How do you connect each small deliverable to a meaningful company goal. How do you deliver on work satisfaction. Talk about compensation and how you keep it aligned with the changing markets. If at times compensation ain't cutting it how you also do Rewards and Recognition programs to keep the team / individual motivation high. There are a lot of ways to handle this question but most IMPORTANT point is to answer this with situation and a solution. How you can take a real world situation that happened in your work life and how you can connect that with each of the points above. That will differentiate a good answer from a great answer.
PE.5: What is the point of a 1:1?
One on Ones are mostly required to help each individual in your team to have a free and open channel of communication with you as the manager. Topics that one should generally cover include Feedback for the section between last time and this time, Career Progression Plan, Individual Development Plan. One other important part is to understand any feedback that the individual might have for you or the processes setup in the team. Basically get maximum amount of information.
PE.6: How do you deal with people performance issues?
Here talk about continuous feedback, give examples and highlight on progress that you have made with low performing individuals. Most important talk about instances and not some hypothetical case. If you are a new manager then maybe you can talk about hypothetical case but generally expectation is to talk about it with an example. Try to use 1:1 context to use the overall picture better.
PE.7: Have you ever had to implement a PIP? What are your thoughts on it?
Personal improvement plans, these are the more structured processes around handling a low performing individual. Talk about whether these are helpful or not and be candid about your opinion. How do you create a PIP and talk about what kind of goals do you setup for the individual. How seniority plays a factor in the time needed for PIP.
PE.8: What is your typical way of dealing with conflict?
This is a very important question and you can definitely expect this to be asked in some way or format. Conflict management or Conflict resolution is one of the important characteristic traits of a manager and here you need to have a very clear answer. Setup some case study from your past where you have resolved issues on lets say tech implementation choices or system design or something where two or more people had differing opinions. Hopefully you resolved it using logic and instances along with data and had a resolution based on acceptance of numbers. Give that entire picture, detail the scenario and show how you step by step resolved the situation.
** BONUS **
Personal questions and Generic questions
These questions below are a bit vague in their intent so you should always try to question back to the interviewer and understand is there any specific direction of the question.
B.1: What is the hardest lesson you have learned as an engineering manager?
Try to recollect where you have faced a situation which was quite hard to overcome. It can be people oriented where you might have to let go of people or it might be some subpar design that was done on production and you had to invest a lot of time to correct it. Maybe you didn't work on AB Testing some thing and that caused a lot of business drop. Or maybe it can be as simple as you dropped the production DB 😅. Jokes apart, try to focus on a situation which was not expected and you took a good learning out of it and then changed your processes to fix things so that it doesn't happen again in future. Now just explain that to the interviewer.
B.2: How have you grown as a manager over the last year?
Talk about your journey you have been through, talk about the highs first and put in caveats on maybe those major milestones in your career and whatever learning you took out of it. Talk about process learning, people learning.
B.3: Followup Question - What is an area you are working on improving?
In continuation to the previous point (B.2), talk about a current area that you are focusing on improving. Things like stakeholder communication, process improvement on quality side etc. Slightly broader topic. Be truthful and focus on areas that you know you are weak on at this point cause most likely in the interview session the person sitting on the opposite end has already identified those weak points. It's a brownie point that you have now already recognised those areas and are working on them to improve on.
B.4: How do you keep people motivated?
This is a very important question that you might face in such rounds. There are multiple ways you can talk about. How you connect each work item to an impact number and how it impacts your companies overall success, how you give visibility of each engineer's work to the larger audience, how you give value to the impact driven by each individual, how you do rewards programs, how you market correct salaries, how you give ownership of a charter of work with increasing domain depth of an individual etc. Lot of ways you can keep a team motivated and you should read more on this topic. From the above take one or two types of motivation and give instances where you have executed. There can be scenarios given to you as to how did you bring back a high performer guy who got demotivated to being a high performer again. Think of cases that you might have handled and focus on that. I know this answer doesn't do justice to the question but it's hard to summarise motivation in this short span. Maybe in future I can write a post on motivating an engineering team as a separate article. Send me a tweet if you feel it's an interesting topic and I will take it up. @debarko . #ShamelessPlug 😇
B.5: Why is management attractive to you?
Well this is a very tricky question as it can be easily used to measure your motivation to be a manager. There are multiple reasons one might wanna go into it. Be it your love for working with people, your intention of taking up a larger charter and drive impact, your intention of solving complex interconnected problem statements or it can just be that your org doesn't have any senior IC position. Whatever is your motivation please talk about it clearly and frame it nicely. This is a very personal question and you will have to think deep and think hard before answering this one. I would suggest research on the job more and then decide why you are planning to take up this responsibility.
B.6: Tell me about a difficult decision that you have taken in the last few years.
This is again an open ended question but I personally think the hardest decision is to let a person go from the company. For me personally that is the hardest decision that I would have to take being in a professional job. Having said that you should explain why you had to do it, what did you find as a learning and how are you fixing your processes to not repeat something in future. Talk about what you did to not to such a thing, maybe upskilling or shuffling teams etc. You can talk about better interview processes if you had to let go due to performance reasons, you can talk about better roadmap and vision creation if you had to let go due to over hiring etc. Here again concrete examples help. If you haven't been part of any such decision then maybe focus on some project that you had to scrap and what was the reason behind it.
B.7: How do you measure your success?
This is again those broad questions, you need to understand in what context. Most likely this question is coming from a standpoint of success of a project delivery. So do focus on post release stability of the feature, adoption and achieving the success metrics that was defined. Whether you keep a watch on metrics and how do you communicate a win etc would be good points to touch up on.
I hope you atleast have a list of questions that you need to prepare for. Practically you should practice all of this in your line of work as well and that will help you prepare for your interview much easier. One way to prep would be to write down your tailored answers for each question. It will take a few days but in the end you will have a much more sorted prep plan than trying to answer these on the fly.
Do follow the STAR approach to answering most of the questions as without instances it's generally not appreciated a lot. That part would be completely out of scope of this post hence I am linking a video here for you to watch. There are multiple other sources to learn this and a simple search on DDG will lead you to that.