One of the mistakes that unseasoned engineering managers make during their interviews is that they over-index on their technical abilities. Therefore, they tend to not think too much when answering leadership, team management and project management questions and gave high-level and generalised answers.
When you only have 60 to 90 minutes to showcase your skills and experience as an engineering manager, you need to be very strategic in how you want to present yourself and your capabilities to a prospective employer. Often, this is about what you don’t do or don’t say, instead of what you do say.
I have interviewed more than 100 candidates in the past year alone, and I have seen my fair share of bad interviews. Bad interviews are the ones where the candidate knows immediately that they didn’t do well and the interviewer also knows it. In fact, there’s nothing special about it. What’s interesting is when the interview itself wasn’t too bad, but the interviewer was reluctant to put the candidate forward due to one or two things that the interviewee said. Interviewers usually refer to them as yellow or red flags. When a candidate had such flags, even if they passed other questions with flying colours, interviewers had reservations about putting the interviewees forward and hiring them.
Without any further ado, I’ll share with you 10 worst answers that you should not give when interviewing for an engineering manager role.
1. On helping a low performer on the team
“Some people are just incompetent and they cannot be helped.”
The reality of working on a team is that you are working with those who are better than others and those who are not as good as others. What the interviewer would like to understand here is how you tried to help a low performer on your team. As an engineering manager, it’s your responsibility to ensure you enable each and every one of your team member to do their best. It’s not the time to make an ignorant comment. The statement makes it seem like you’ve just dismissed somebody without giving them a second chance.
2. On providing constructive feedback to team members
“I only ever give positive feedback. I don’t like to make people feel uncomfortable. I’m a good manager.”
Constructive feedback does not just mean negative feedback. The University of Tasmania has a very good definition of what constructive feedback is:
“Constructive feedback is providing useful comments and suggestions that contribute to a positive outcome, a better process or improved behaviours. It provides encouragement, support, corrective measures and direction to the person receiving it. Knowing how to give constructive feedback is a valuable skill.
Constructive feedback can be positive (letting someone know they’re doing well), negative (letting people know about ways in which things could be improved), or neutral (just an objective observation).”
Constructive feedback is a gift because it’s given with the intent to direct you towards a positive outcome. Those who provide constructive feedback are those who are real leaders because they have the best interest of others in mind and the willingness to elevate others for success — even if the process of giving such feedback can be uncomfortable.
3. On learning something new on the job
“I don’t really have time to learn new things. I am too busy attending meetings.”
Learning new skills is a part of the job in today’s business environment. Gone are the days when you didn’t need to learn new skills because you had been working in the industry and performing a similar job for a few years. While having to attend too many meetings is not uncommon for an engineering manager, it’s not an excuse for them to not be learning. Instead, as an interviewee, you could provide a more thoughtful answer on your learning style:
- How you’ve previously learned a new skill, be it a leadership or technical skill.
- What learning approach you used.
- What the main takeaways of applying that approach were.
- How you’d approach learning a new tool or whatever it is you need to learn in order to be successful in the role that you’re interviewing for.
4. On making mistakes and learning from failure
“Funnily enough, I can’t remember the last time I did something wrong.”
As an interviewer, I’d say “OK” and move on. However, in my interview notes, there would be something about a lack of self-reflection.
5. On dealing with conflicting opinions on a solution
“I escalate it to my manager and let them handle it. I don’t like to get involved in conflicts.”
The problem with this answer is not the fact that you’re involving your manager. Getting a third person’s opinion, whether it’s your manager or not, can be a good thing to do in resolving conflict. The real problem with the answer is that there is a lack of ownership here and perhaps a lack of care for your own craft. We’re in the 21st century, and employers do not want people who just do what they’re told. They want employees who are passionate about what they do, and as a result, they’re willing to resolve conflicts head-on.
6. On meeting deadlines and company goals
“I don’t think we should ever have deadlines. Good software development is a craft. Development work will take as long as they need and software will be ready whenever dev work is finished.”
Yes, it’s true. I fell out of my chair when I heard this in person. When you’re asked about deadlines, my advice is to broaden your perspective and understand how your work relates back to the company’s goals.
7. On why they become a manager
“I am an extrovert, a people-person. I like working with people.”
What does that even mean? If every extrovert becomes a manager because they liked working with people, half of the world’s population will be managers. The first official random sample by the Myers-Briggs organization showed introverts made up 50.7% and extroverts 49.3% of the United States general population.
Instead, try to think about the underlying reason why you became a manager, what lights you up in your role as an engineering manager and what keeps you going when things are not all rosy at work. Your answer will likely be different to another engineering manager’s answer but that is what makes a good specific answer.
10. On a process-related question
“I hate processes."
In my article, Four Things I Wish I Knew as the New CTO of a Startup, I wrote that not all processes are evil. It’s true. More than a decade ago, as a young and novice CTO, run an engineering department at a startup with no formal process for a year. Not having any kind of process meant it was hard for us to know if we were working efficiently. A lot of tasks couldn’t be shared because there is no way for a different person to know how to even begin doing something. Documentation was non-existent. I was lucky that there was no staff turnover in the year that I was there. Otherwise, handover and onboarding new people would be quite expensive, not to mention chaotic. Another problem with not having any kind of process is that I felt like I was a gatekeeper for many things. I couldn’t scale myself.
So before you dismiss a process-related question, share an example or two about how a process has helped or hindered you in being an effective engineering manager.
9. On reasons for looking for a new role
“I am leaving my current company because they are not paying me enough.”
This may be true, but without any other supporting information, it makes you look like someone who just cares about the money.
10. On why they are interested in the job
“I can’t answer this question because I didn’t actually apply for the job. My friend/recruiter/family member/etc. did it on my behalf and here I am!”
While it may be true that you didn’t apply for the role (I didn’t apply for the last three roles that I held), it’s not an excuse to have not done any research on the company and the role you’re applying for. Do not waste your time and other people’s time on something that you have no interest in.
Transparency and authenticity always win
Interviews are a two-way street. As much as you’re evaluating the interviewers and this potential employer, they’re evaluating you. While a one- or two-hour session with someone doesn’t give a complete picture of a person, in this case, that’s all you have. So make the most of the time you’ve got when you’re in an interview, show the best version of yourself, share your story, stay true to yourself and your values, and you will leave a lasting impression to your interviewer.
Are you tired of doing many job interviews, but never getting an offer?
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