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Software engineering manager interview questions

How do you interview software engineering managers? The core job of an engineering manager is to support the team, making sure they have what is needed to do their jobs, whether that’s information, more people, space to explore a problem, or promotion of their work to the rest of the company. It can be an ambiguous role. Technical people like questions with firm answers so it can be hard for them to effectively interview someone for a squishy position.

Here are some questions I like to use to get a sense of who an engineering manager is and how they work.

A developer manager will be hiring other people, so I like to find out how they recruit and interview.

  • Describe your hiring process. How much support do they need, and is that appropriate for a company your size? Someone coming from a big company might be used to pre-packaged job ads, recruiters that do all the scheduling, and panels that screen resumes. Someone from a small company might not know how to effectively partner with an internal recruiter.
  • What are some questions you ask in the interview? Do they ask a lot of direct technical questions or do they leave evaluating technical fitness up to their team?

Newer developer managers often have trouble getting out of the weeds and still want to build.

  • How do you approach technical decisions with the team? Are they still trying to be the architect?
  • ‌When do you feel the need to assist or take over someone’s work? Are they the former superstar developer and has the mentality that they can do it faster and better? Do they understand how to let someone struggle a bit in order for them to grow?
  • Tell me about a time that you thought your team was making the wrong technical decisions? What did you do? How did things end up?

How do they view other teams? Only part of building successful software involves the actual building.

  • Describe your typical day. Who are they talking to? If it’s their team only, it’s a red flag. A development manager should be spending lots of time talking to other teams. If they’re spending lots of time in design sessions, they might still think they’re an engineer.
  • How do you work with product management? A great developer manager views Product as a partner, as the other side of the coin from them. A mediocre developer manager expects product to tell them what to build. A terrible developer manager thinks Product just needs to get out of the way.
  • Tell me about a time when you had to balance the needs of the technology with the needs of the rest of the business. Can they effectively work with other parts of the company, or do they view it as "us vs. them"?

See how they handle team issues.

  • Tell me about a time when your developers didn’t empathize with the users.
  • Tell me about a time when you had a developer that produced great work, but didn’t work well with teammates.
  • Tell me about when someone quit because of you. We’ve all been there. Are you self-aware enough to know it happened, and what did you learn from it?

I also like to understand how they smooth out the info going to the team.

  • Tell me about a time you held information back from the team until you had more information?
  • When might that not have worked? Specific techniques for keeping the team from whiplashing from one direction to another as business reality changes, but also doesn’t keep the team in the dark.

Finally, I like to understand their views on how to grow and nurture their team.

  • Tell me about a few people you’ve managed, then talk about how your approach differed (or didn’t) for each.
  • How often do you meet with your team members 1:1? What would cause that to change?
  • What do you talk about in your 1:1s?
  • How do you make sure the team is always growing and improving?
  • Tell me about a time when you needed to train your team but had no budget for training or conferences?

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