Prepare meaningful questions to ask during your interview

Over the past several years at Zynga I have had the opportunity to do a lot of interviews.  These have ranged from interviewing CTO‘s to SDET internships.  One thing that has always stood out and bugged me like crazy has been when the interview candidate asks a really stupid (not to mention useless) question during the interview.

The problem stems from many interview training modules.  They always instruct candidates to prepare a couple of questions to ask the interviewer.  I totally agree with this instruction.  I believe that the problem is from the candidates misunderstanding the directive.  The key directive is to ask a relevant question of importance – not to simply ensure you have a question queued up.

Your question needs to provide value.  Either to you as the candidate or to the interviewer to help them understand you better.  There are also times that you will want to ask questions regarding the interview process or clarification on next steps.

Here are some examples of questions that I hate:

Q: What team (or project) do you work on?

The reason I dislike this question is that it is totally irrelevant to the interview, the candidate and the candidates future position.  A lot of times we are on projects that are internal code names.  Google+ was named “Emerald Sea” before shipping.  Zynga.com was named “Project Z” before shipping.  Some might argue that a question like this can spark conversation – but let’s give an example scenario of this interview question.

Candidate:  “What team are you working on?”
Interviewer:  “I work on a team called Project Z.”
Candidate:  “Sounds interesting – what exactly is it?”
Interviewer:  “Well unfortunately its a project that is not released yet so I can’t really describe it”

Now – please tell me exactly how this benefited the interview process or the candidate’s knowledge of what their work life will be like.

Recommended Replacement:  “What would my day-to-day schedule look like if I was offered this position?”

Q: How long have you been with <Company>?

I don’t like this question for the same reason as above.  It offers no benefit to the interviewer or the candidate.  One time when I was asked this question I responded by simply saying “I don’t know I lost track.”  It was actually rather fun because I caught the candidate off guard.  The candidate was unsure whether to inquire further or just move on.

Think about the possible answers to this question.  If I responded by saying “2 years” or “3 years”… does that really make a difference on the candidates assessment of the company and whether or not he/she will take the job if offered?

Recommended Replacement:  “What does <Company> do to help foster long-term employment relationships”

So what makes a good interview question?

It would not be fair for me to simply gripe about bad questions.  Instead I need to explain what makes a good interview question.  Think about the following points in regards to the question you want to ask during your interview:

  • Does this question help me as a candidate get a better understanding of the potential job?
  • Does this question help my interviewer get better insight into me as a candidate?
  • Does this question clarify something about the interview process itself?

I have always, always been impressed by candidates who are able to ask a question that satisfies one of the above criteria.  When a candidate just asks a brain-dead question – I actually hold it against them.  If the interview is for a high ranking position, such as a Sr Engineer or CTO, then bad questions asks can even be a no-hire flag as Sr level employees need think critically and ask important questions.

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