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Avoid a Job From Hell: 5 Things to Learn About the Engineering Team Before Accepting a Job Offer

Anyone with enough job experience knows that some jobs can leave you completely exhausted at the end of the day — while others make you excited, proud, and willing to do more. Sometimes people experience these opposite effects from jobs that are in fact quite similar in terms of responsibilities. So what can account for this difference?

There can be many reasons but quite often it’s the team. And more specifically, it’s often the team set-up, working styles, culture, and values. When choosing a job or a team to join, it’s wise to think about it as a long-term commitment. The better aligned you are with the team, the more likely you are to be successful and happy in a job.

The biggest problem is that people often don’t get a sense of the team culture, working styles, and values during the interview process so they need to take a leap of faith when accepting the job offer.

It’s important to understand if you’re aligned with the team because people are different and they prefer to work differently. There is no good or bad when it comes to personal preferences—what matters is whether these preferences are aligned with the team preferences.

So what can you do to avoid finding yourself on a team that has drastically different preferences? You can ask smart questions.

So here are some things you might want to learn about the team culture and working styles during the interview process. And here are some smart questions you can ask to learn them.

1. Hours

Let’s start with the basics. Some people are looking for jobs that will stretch them and they are willing to work crazy hours to prove themselves and learn quickly. For example, recent graduates might prefer teams that work as they don’t have as many competing priorities as people with kids.

Young parents might not be able to work 60-hour workweeks and take conference calls late on weekend nights. There is no good or bad but if a young ambitious individual can be disappointed by the laid-back team and a young parent can be seriously frustrated by a “go hard or go home” type of team culture.

Ultimately all companies fall somewhere between these two extremes. For example:

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Questions to ask:

  • What does your team do to help its employees maintain a work-life balance? Notice how the manager reacts and whether they are put off by this type of question.
  • Are people responsive via email or email after 5pm and over the weekends? This is a very specific question that will give you a very specific answer.
  • How often do you work with people in other timezones? With remote work becoming more and more widespread people often find themselves on early-morning or late-night calls with their co-workers in other countries or states. This is something you might want to know in advance.
  • Would this position involve much travel? Even though strictly speaking travel is separate from work hours, too much travel can seriously affect the work-life balance and require that you be available outside of normal working hours.
  • Are there certain weeks or months when your team tends to be particularly busy? It’s rare for teams and companies to be busy all the time. But the workload fluctuates a lot. So knowing about the peaks can tell you a lot about what working there will be like. An important note: be careful about asking these questions early in the process as they might reflect negatively on you. First, try to gauge whether the team is work-life balance oriented and perhaps even wait till you get the job offer before asking these questions.

2. Do they spend a lot of time together outside of work?

Depending on your priorities, you might either love the idea of joining your team in a bar or for a hike every week or two or might hate it. Wouldn’t it be better to know where the team falls on this spectrum before you join?

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Questions to ask:

  • When was the last time you did something together as a team? What did you do? The specific questions about the past are better than generic hypothetical questions. Not only you’ll get a sense of how frequently they do something together but also what type of activities they prefer.
  • What are some favorite things the team likes to do for offsites? What are some favorite topics the team likes to discuss during lunchtime? This question should help you get to know your future colleagues on a personal level and get a sense of how they like to bond.
  • What are some ways in which the team creates a friendly atmosphere? Notice whether the response primarily revolves around work projects or extracurricular activities.

3. How do they set goals?

Some people hate it when their manager gives them a very specific quantified goal every quarter—or worse—every month and holds them accountable. They would prefer to figure out things as they go. Others hate the uncertainty of unstated goals.

Regardless of what your preferences are, it behooves you to know about the team’s goal-setting process before you join.

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Questions to ask:

  • Do you set individual goals for your team? This should get the conversation started. Follow-up by asking how often they do it and how they do it.
  • How many different goals does an average engineer have on your team? This should give you a sense of whether they like to keep things simple or have a long list of priorities?
  • What happens if the company or team priorities change mid-quarter? Do they revise the goals? Does everyone still expect you to complete your goals?
  • What if someone discovers a better way to achieve the team goal but in a way that makes them fail at their individual goal? This will give you a sense of how flexible the team is and how they balance individual and team goals.

4. How do they prefer to give each other feedback?

Some people hate that moment when someone tells them “can I give you some feedback”? Others thrive on it. Some teams give each other feedback all the time. Others do it less frequently or only in response to a request.

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Questions to ask:

  • Do you encourage people on your team to give each other feedback? This will help you understand whether this is a priority. Follow-up with “How do you do it?”
  • Do you conduct 360 feedback evaluations for your team? You can also ask how often they do it and whether this is something that HR required everyone to do or whether this was the manager’s initiative. The latter will help you understand how important it is for this particular manager and this particular team.

5. Is this a co-located or fully distributed/remote team?

Would you love to work from home?

Or would you love to be in the office so that they could talk to people in person? And would get depressed if they spend too much at home staring at the screen and never talking to a real person except via a video-call?

Now, that more and more companies are becoming fully remote, it’s even more important to learn about this early.

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Questions to ask:

  • How many of our team members work from the same office and how many work from home or other office locations? Then, follow-up with clarifying questions about those locations.
  • What other teams do engineers often work with? Are those teams based in the same location? Quite often, the engineering team itself is based in one location but other teams you’ll need to work with—such as product managers or even other engineering teams—are based elsewhere.
  • What is your work-from-policy? Try to get a sense of whether they have a company-wide, a team-wide, or a case-by-case policy.

Learn More About Culture and Different Working Styles

Here are some books and articles you might enjoy

  • Book: The Culture Map: Breaking Through the Invisible Boundaries of Global Business by Erin Meyer. The author focuses on the differences between nationalities but a similar framework can also apply to differences between teams and companies.
  • Book: The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle. This a broader discussion of company culture and high-performance teams.
  • If you want to go really deep, you can look up academic publications on Organizational Culture Profile and Industrial-Organizational Psychology.

The Future of Job Search

Most of the time you cannot learn any of these things until you apply, pass an initial screening, and start to interview with a company.

This is incredibly inefficient because you need to talk to many companies and teams that were never a good fit, to begin with. And they need to interview a lot of candidates who were never a good fit, to begin with, either.

At A Happy Job we believe there is a better way. We’re getting companies to share more information about their teams so that job-seekers could learn what it would be like to work on a team before they even apply. Aside from that, engineering teams share their missions, the products they are working on, the tech stack they use, as well as their core values. If this sounds interesting, take a look at these engineering teams that are hiring now. Click on the company cards and then on the team cards to view team missions, tech stack, culture, and values.

Originally published in A Happy Job Blog on June 29, 2020.

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