Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board




Phone Interview Questions?

I've got a phone interview (first this year!) lined up soon for a developer role in a combined hardware / software company. They're a startup that have been going about 4 years with about 30 staff. After some research, I've got my technical questions worked out - basically I need to understand what they do and make sure my skills match.

They describe themselves as having a 'can-do'attitude, and the agent who fixed the interview said there are 'sales opportunities in the role'. Also they're trying to build revenue, which is fair enough. What extra questions can I ask to ensure it's a reasonable environment? And how can I find out if they grind their staff down with 80 hour weeks and spit them out six months later? I'm happy working hard, but not happy on 'death march' type projects!

Interested Interviewee
Thursday, May 08, 2003

If they're still describing themselves as in "startup" mode after 4 years, then you're definitely in for the "death march" scenario. Just my opinion.

Sargent Sausage
Thursday, May 08, 2003

I am not trying to jade you at all in saying this, but whenever I come across an organization or person that calls themself  'can-do', I seek (not always successfully) to find out if that simply means they expect a minimum of bitching, expect people to do what needs to be done without having to be explicitly told, and for people to look for solutions to problems instead of just whining about things that aren't perfect. If this is what they mean, then OK, that's healthy and aggressive and that's fine with me.

However, I've seen too many people and organizations where 'can-do' is something they hide behind to excuse being completely FUBAR'd and demanding endlessly and unreasonably of people. Typically, the LAST damned thing such people or organizations (so I've seen anyway) truly want to hear is what the solution to the TRUE problem is -- they'd much rather maintain the screwed up status quo, feeding people into a meat-grinder.

So, in my experience, the phrase 'can-do' raises a flag for me that simply makes me want to dig a bit deeper to see which side of the line they fall on.

I remember a senior guy who came into a company I worked for, unfortunately IMO, he was not an example of the military's finest, and he described himself in terms much like that. Ok, seemed reasonable for him to say so at the time of an initial intro, we thought no more of it. By the end of a year, however, he was pretty universally regarded as a liability instead of an asset. Partly it had to do with him being such a chameleon on issues -- you could be sure that no matter how big a load of shit dropped on everybody, he'd make sure that he'd work things out so that none of it stuck to him -- we used to joke he was coated with teflon (some of that is a reasonable real-world skill to have, but he took it too far. He really should have been in politics). However, as relevant to my point, he didn't want to hear about any sort of problem, no matter how serious or real it was, because if you recognized and reported a problem, you weren't demonstrating the proper 'can-do' attitude.

He wasn't taking the position of empowering people to solve problems first, then come to him explaining the solution--that wasn't it at all. He was one of those euphemism-based politicians who called everything a 'challenge' and didn't even use the word problem. Some sort of mental masturbation bullshit I guess he did with himself.

Sometimes, you know, on a project, if all the resources have been diverted, if they've allowed the scope to double, most of the key proposal assumptions to be violated, the due date to remain fixed, the few remaining people are killing themselves to try to keep things going and you're man-months behind, well, buddy, I'd call that a freaking problem. He was the type who didn't want to hear status updates like "well, since those 4 people were pulled off yesterday, there's nobody to handle X Y and Z anymore. Also, since you agreed to that extra piece of work that was out of scope originally, we now have such-and-such a situation..."

Eventually it got to where people didn't even bother telling him what the real situation was because he was a 'can-do' guy, after all, and didn't want to hear it, right?<sarcasm>. Oh - he didn't offer any suggestions for solutions, either, and except within a specific narrow technical area (which, granted, was important to us), had little capability as an analyst or a technologist, so didn't understand what we were saying when we'd explain specifically to him why we needed something or why something wasn't going to work or was factually inaccurate.

When things would blow up eventually, he always managed to work the situation around somehow so he came out of it smelling like a rose, eventhough everything around him was in smoking ruins. It was weird to watch.

At least it kept the entertainment level of working there fairly high ;-)

So, I'd watch out for the 'can-do' issue -- don't presume the worst, by any means, because you may project that attitude and screw yourself out of consideration, but beware that it can be the tip of an iceberg of problems.

Good luck trying to discover which it is in the interview. Hope it's a great position, great place, and you get the job.

anonQAguy
Thursday, May 08, 2003

clarification:
"...he was not an example of the military's finest, and he described himself in terms much like that."

should be

"...he was not an example of the military's finest, and he essentially described himself as being a 'can-do' guy."

anonQAguy
Thursday, May 08, 2003

Spy on them.

You say that they represent the only phone interview you have gotten in 4 months.

Find a Starbucks or popular food joint near their office and see what the employees are like.

Ask to speak to a current employee.

Just don't get caught.

p.s. and don't take me seriously.

--
ee

eclectic_echidna
Thursday, May 08, 2003

Find out what the 'sales opportunities in the role' means and what "trying to build revenue" entails.

Is this a small consulting firm or company that sells some type of software product? 

If the former, be prepared for the possiblity that as soon as you are hired you will be sent to whichever client your employer can find who is willing to pay for your services. In other words, there is a good possiblity that you won't be working on a team project or working with technology that will enhance your skills and make you more marketable.

One Programmer's Opinion
Friday, May 09, 2003

During the interview play a game of counting buzzwords. If I can't count them fast enough, leave. And also, an interview is the opportunity for you to know them too. Make you sure you have questions ready and have them answer. No trick questions just what you want to know about them.

Application Specialist
Friday, May 09, 2003

flag: "can-do attitude"
flag: "sales"
flag: too many buzz words a-la application specialist's post

too many flags... run.

though the too many buzz words maybe acceptible. i mean they have to have someone there whose job it is to do HR, and how much can an HR person be expected to know about a company beyond the buzz words?

www.marktaw.com
Friday, May 09, 2003

Oh yeah and if the person talking to you is from HR ask him what's his qualification to interview IT people. If they don't any qualification ask them why are they interviewing you.

I love HR but they can't be left alone to interview engineers or any technical position.

Application Specialist
Friday, May 09, 2003

Thanks for the suggestions, everyone. AnonQAguy - you really hit the nail on the head with your assessment of 'Can-do'. For a long time I always had a subconscious feeling of unease whenever I heard those words. Now I know why! I can see now that it has a positive meaning but it can also be a buzz-word used as an excuse for poor organization.

My task in the phone interview is to find which applies, as far as possible.

Also I found out the interview will be with the principal engineer. He's responsible for the product, which is a specialized hardware / software combination. He's one of the initial inventors and developers, so the interview will be pretty intense. In some ways that's good, I would prefer to know early on whether I can do what they want, and whether they're happy, before travelling for a face-to-face interview.

Interested Interviewee
Friday, May 09, 2003

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home