We surveyed hiring managers across a variety of sectors for insight on some of their favorite interview questions to ask during technical interviews – and why they ask them. Thank you to the hiring managers who shared their favorite questions!
Tell me how you transitioned from one group to another at your last job?
“I am trying to find out the circumstances and how the person handled it and discern between circumstances or ambition. Was it a promotion? Were they fired? Are they a job hopper?” says Chiara Hughes, head of corporate and technical recruiting at Carvana.
Tell me about a time you made a case for your company to purchase a new technology and how it went.
“The answer to this question gives me insight into that candidate’s strategic and analytical skills, as well as his or her ability to influence management. The “correct” answer would include explaining why there’s a need for the technology (and what problem it would solve), show how the product performs compared to the competitive set, and include an action plan for implementation,” says Darren Mar-Elia, Head of Product at the enterprise identity protection company Semperis.
If I were to come to your house for Thanksgiving, what’s a story your family members are going to tell me about you?
“I really like this question because it signals to the candidate that I’m excited to get to know them as a person, but it also disarms them and generally makes them warmer toward some of the more professional questions I’m going to ask later on in the interview,” says Chris Walker, Director of Operations at the custom software development firm, Praxent.
Tell me about a non-technical hack that you’ve done.
“Of course anyone you hire into a technical role will need to code, and code well. But I want to know how a candidate thinks. Is he or she creative? Logical? Methodical? Risk-oriented? It’s a non-technical question that informs what the candidate might do technically, as well as how they might fit into the team overall. And as a bonus, it’s usually a very fun question for both me and the candidate,” says Caroline Klatt, CEO of Headliner Labs, a NYC software platform company that specializes in e-commerce chatbots.
Tell me about a time that you were blocked in some way?
“This targets initiative. I ask, “How did you use that time?” Did s/he proactively go beyond the job description to try to remove the block? Or maybe use the time to do research on his/her own time/chase an interesting idea anyway and make a prototype/case for innovation?” says Chiara Hughes.
How will you continually be able to refresh your skill sets?
“Technology is changing so quickly, I need to find those candidates who can adapt just as quickly to new programming languages, application frameworks and technical tools and trends,” says Gabriel Shaoolian, Founder of Blue Fountain Media, leading digital agency.
What are you most afraid of – Penguin or Panda?
“Candidates will give some rather amusing answers to the tongue in cheek question, however it is referring to two of the largest Google algorithms, which can have a major effect on eCommerce businesses if SEO has not been optimised correctly. When an astute interviewee answers the question with discussing the algorithms and sharing their technical skills (with or without mentioning that they love pandas!) then it has been a successful interview!” adds Julia Miller eCommerce US Marketing VP at Maxwell Scott.
How do you define what success for your clients looks like?
“Since we work in a KPI and goal-driven industry, I ask this question to know if they work with their clients to define what success looks like because the answer should always be, “it depends.” It depends on what the client’s business goals are and how services can support those goals, then make actionable targets. I am judging candidates on their ability to communicate with clients and work with them to make meaningful goals,” says Mollie Delp, HR Specialist at Workshop Digital.
Have you built any side projects? Which one’s your favorite and why? Which technologies have you been trying out lately?
“Being a Product Agency, we’ve found that one of the best predictors of job performance is how much time engineers spend working on ideas and products of their own and researching new technologies. Pretty much all the best engineers and designers we know have built interesting side projects, not just to showcase their abilities, but to try and solve a real problem they found in their everyday lives. For any company that takes product design seriously, that drive to solve problems is pretty much the most important thing in all the job descriptions,” says Roberto González, CTO at Aerolab. “Along the same lines, one of the most revealing pre-interview questions for everyone at our company is if they ever started a product or company on their own. You’d be amazed at the responses you get to that question, and it’s not only a great way to get them to open up about their passions, it’s also a great predictor of how autonomous and proactive they’ll be when working at a company.”
Glenn Ehmke, a senior IT Manager, also enjoys asking about side projects. “This one is a favorite question of mine. I like to hire people who are passionate about what they do, and that programming isn’t just something they do at their job. They actually really enjoy it and pursue their own projects outside of work. This also tells me whether or not the candidate is always learning and growing their skill set.”
What is your favorite new industry development?
“I ask this question to see if they are keeping up with new industry development and news and to also see what they are interested in and most excited about. Furthermore, it gives me a peak into what they are currently testing and how they are running these tests,” says Emily Kirk, Paid Digital Marketing Manager at Workshop Digital.
Tell me about a time you were responsible for an entire development solution?
“This targets thought process. I am trying to find out if the thought process is logical, pragmatic, innovative, open to change/suggestion. I’m also trying to find out if the candidate just does strategy or if s/he carries the solution through to production.” says Chiara Hughes.
Let’s say you have a disagreement with a colleague about technical direction or strategy, how do you work to resolve it?
“The answer to this question would show me the candidate’s problem-solving abilities, negotiation skills and their ability to work as part of a team. I work at a small startup, and everyone works in close quarters, so it’s very important to me that any new hire is a good fit with the rest of the team. A strong candidate would ideally talk about their ability to understand their colleague’s perspective and how they would approach a potential compromise,” says Darren Mar-Elia.
What is the top character trait your friends would use to describe you?
“Soft skills are critical — even in a technical field — so I like to find out immediately where a candidate’s strengths are, and no one knows better than a close personal friend,” says Gabriel Shaoolian.
How do you design, develop and debug applications? What tools do you like to use best? Have you tried others before? What were the reasons you use the ones you do?
“There really is no right answer to this question. I like to use it to learn how the candidate works, and how it may, or may not, fit into our environment. I like thoughtful responses that really get into the technology used, trade-offs for different situations and truly learning about their past experiences,” says Glenn Ehmke.
In your past role or job, describe your level of experience with X product/solution?
“I love asking this question, because it does a couple of interesting things. One, It forces the candidate to speak. I’m judging on if the candidate can speak clearly and articulate under pressure. Interviews are high pressure situations, and this helps me determine how the candidate will do under a higher pressure client facing situation. The second thing that I’m looking for is for them to reveal their experience and identify if its relevant to what I am looking for. In addition the open ended nature of the question gives them enough wiggle room to either reveal they do know what they are talking about or if they are faking it. As a manager we want a candidate that can speak under high pressure as well as knows technically how to implement or manage key products. This is my go to question,” says DeWayne Burress, MTAC Manager at Matrix Integration.
What were your priorities during a specific project and how did you arrive at those?
“People in technical positions are really good at talking about what they did in a step by step fashion, but it’s surprisingly difficult for people to explain what their priorities were – and more importantly how they arrived at them. It’s not exciting to hear someone talk about only the priorities their boss gave them. You want to hear how and if candidates are able to think independently and this question can typically uncover a lot of red flags,” says Chris Walker.
What role do you typically take on in a team environment? What do you bring to any team?
“The purpose of this question set is to hear directly from the candidate on how they prefer to interact in a team environment. During the interview process, it helps in deciding if they will mesh with the team. Looking ahead, it also makes managers aware of what to expect if this candidate is hired to be on their team, and how to put them in a situation that brings out their best,” says Mollie Delp.
Describe your dream job?
“This is an interesting question that requires the candidate to expose some of their deeper desires. There are all kinds of answers, what I’m looking for in this question is as follows: is the candidate grounded in reality? What kind of career growth are they looking for? Can we provide that kind of growth and retain the individual long term? Typically this is followed up with, where do you see yourself in five years to quantify their growth expectations. If your dream job is to become a nascar driver, do I really want to hire you for an IT position knowing that I can’t help you plan that type of career development? The answer is NO!” says DeWayne Burress, MTAC Manager at Matrix Integration.
How do you feel about working late/ after hours/ on the weekend?
“This question helps reveal the work ethic of the candidate. For IT positions there are many tasks that clients require to be done during non-production hours. Candidates with a strong work ethic will not really bat an eye about this question they will answer quickly and be ready to move on. On the other hand, you can visibly see the body language change if the candidate is uncomfortable with this type of work,” says DeWayne Burress.
What is something (a task, project, communication) that, in your career, you never want to do again”?
“This one always catches people off guard at first because most employers don’t ask about things they hate doing. However, everyone has done something in their career that they hated doing, and that one thing just drained them of all of their energy to get it done. I want to know what it is that drains their energy and slows them down. If it is something that is similar to a vital task for this position, I am going to dig deeper to see if you are actually a fit and will truly like the role. If it is a task that isn’t vital to the role that I can promise you will never do again, that’s a selling point,” says Mollie Delp.
What is your favorite keyboard shortcut and why?
“Being a digital marketing agency, we are looking for candidates who are detailed oriented, but also efficiency driven. By asking them about their favorite keyboard shortcut, I get a sense of the comfort level with navigating a computer and excel quickly and efficiently. It is also an indicator of their drive for constant improvement and growth. (Selfishly I’m looking to learn something new myself! They get bonus points if they mention two and ask me about my favorite keyword shortcut),” says Emily Kirk.
Tell me about a time you had a failure or mistake and how you handled it.
“I ask this question in order to gauge what the candidate defines as a failure, how honest they are about it, but also how they handle themselves in those moments. Everyone makes mistakes, small and large, but all that matters is how they recover from it. I am judging their response to that failure. Did they immediately inform their boss and let them take it over? Did they tell their boss immediately but also came with a solution or hustled hard to turn things around? Or did they just say sorry to the client and end it there? I want candidates to care about the mistakes they made, learn from them, and work hard to turn things around,” says Mollie Delp.
Where do you see yourself in 5 years?
“There are a few reasons why I like this very standard interview question. First, let’s be honest, if you’re trying to hire top tech talent right now, you need to sell the candidate as much as they need to sell you in the interview process. Predictable questions give the candidate an opportunity to share a practiced well thought out answer, which builds confidence and makes them more comfortable.
The real value of this question is the follow-up discussion after the initial answer. I outline what I see as the four natural career growth paths in tech:
- going broad and learning as many technologies as possible
- going deep and becoming a subject matter expert on a select number of technologies
- getting into project or product management
- or moving into people management to have direct reports.
If the candidate had to pick one of these as the most appealing – why one, and why? I usually explain the full reasoning behind the question to the candidate: as a hiring manager, I have a responsibility to set you up for success for both your short and long term career goals. The short term is easy, that’s the position you’re interviewing for, any decent company and hiring manager will help you with that.
When it comes to the long term, I can offer an opportunity to get a bit of experience in each of these potential career paths to discover where your passions lie. In practice, how to provide these different experiences depends on the organization, but in general: broad tech aligns with dev ops work, deep tech with implementing a technically complex product feature, PM roles with acting as a Scrum master, and people management with mentoring interns.
Having this discussion with the candidate is particularly appealing to more junior candidates who don’t necessarily have all of the experience to know exactly what they want to do in 5 years, and it allows me to ensure that I’m building a well-rounded team with a balanced mix of long term career goals,” says Matt Baxter, the VP of Engineering at Jibestream, building the world’s most scalable and extensible Indoor Intelligence engine.
When do you consider a product to be finished?
“This is an enlightening question. Hear lots of answers, like after QA, after released, after client sign off. An ideal answer here is that it is never finished. There are always ways of enhancing the original product, keeping up to date with current trends, modifying to make it better, etc,” says Glenn Ehmke.
What tech blogs, sites, and social influencers do you follow?
“This tells me if they are staying up on trends and have a keen interest in their field (and sometimes I learn of a new resource),” says Gabriel Shaoolian.
Are there any questions that I didn’t ask you that I should have?
“I like to end an interview with this question. The wrong response here is that there are none! This gives you, the candidate, the chance to highlight an area of your expertise that I may not have even thought about or touched on. For example, you may have a lot of experience working with an offshore development team, you did your homework and know that my organization has an offshore team, but I never mentioned it. I would now know that you did your homework on the company and have that type of experience. A favorite response was, I really thought you were going to ask me how to create a Stored Procedure, and I was really prepared for that. The candidate was then allowed to shine on the one question that they spent the most time prepping for,” says Glenn Ehmke.
Another thing technical hiring managers are looking for in your answers? “I am really judging answers based on enthusiasm and knowledge. I am also trying to dig into whether the tone and responsiveness of the answers fit our company’s core values. If it is a more junior technical resource on the phone, I am hoping that the ideas are his/her own and that s/he’s not googling the answers or looking elsewhere. In general, I am always trying to determine if this person would be a positive and helpful person to work with every day,” says Chiara Hughes.
Thank you to all the hiring managers and technical interviewers for their insight. What are some of your favorite questions to ask (or be asked) in technical interviews? Share with us in the comments below.