Posted on 9 mins read

Introduction

I was approached recently by an organisation about whether I’d be interested in working for them. The focus of this post isn’t that company (hence I’ve not mentioned their name), but more about a set of experiences I’ve had when changing jobs and how I think they’re important to keep in mind, along with specific topics of interest you should look to include, when considering future opportunities.

What Happened?

A recruiter, let’s say they were calling on behalf of the “Foo” company, contacted me to say they (and their CTO) had stumbled across and enjoyed a selection of my blog posts, and found my profile on LinkedIn to fit the type of candidate they were looking for.

My current work situation

I work at a company called BuzzFeed.

I’ve been here for almost two years now, and I came to them from the BBC.

Am I happy at BuzzFeed?

Yes, very. 🙂

BuzzFeed is the first company I’ve worked for where they:

  • Treat me like a human being.
  • Treat me fairly.
  • Support my need to work almost exclusively remotely.
  • Are truly diverse and culturally supportive.

As far as interviewing, BuzzFeed also got brownie points for…

  • Paying me for my time interviewing with them.
  • Paying for my accommodation and travel to NY (I live in the UK).
  • Not taking advantage of me †

† one example being, they already knew my salary and still increased it by a significant percentage

Did you talk to the Foo company?

Yes. Because I was interested to see how they compared.

How did they compare?

Well, I didn’t get past the initial conversation because they didn’t have a “remote role” for me, so I couldn’t say with 100% certainty how they would have compared.

But that said, there were a few key things I took away from the conversation that I feel are worth mentioning, as these things were specifically firing my internal alarm bell…

  • They tried to sell me on “we’re all engineers here”, which for me isn’t something we should be aspiring to (conversation for another day, but to me it’s an unhealthy attitude).
  • There was a seeming lack of post-mortems and/or blameless culture. I was given a response, if you can imagine, that was similar to a confused raised eye brow.
  • The concept of teams functioning differently to each other (which is fine), seemed to be confused with inconsistency and lack of direction.
  • Money focused. The biggest takeaway by far was that I was asked constantly “What would it take for you to leave BuzzFeed?” †.
  • No interest in techniques that could help improve their ability to work more efficiently.

† I realised they cared less about me as a ‘person’, someone the company could build a long term relationship with, and more about me as a ‘number’. I was just a resource, an entity they could acquire.

What was the problem?

This company is clearly (as they themselves stated) entirely made up of engineers, with the lightest touch of management. Through my discussion it became apparent that building new products with new tech was the focus and drive for those working there. But in that type of environment, being able to work effectively, efficiently and with good communication (along with making sure you’re working on the right thing and at the right time) is rarely the case in my experience.

For me, I’m at a point in my career where discussions about programming languages or tech stack X just isn’t something I worry about or get giddy about, because most of the time it’s how you solve a problem that’s important.

In most situations, if you do your due diligence and exhaust all means available to you to make the given tech work, you should be able to empirically prove it’s not working, and thus are in a better position to justify a more appropriate language or tech stack. This all becomes fairly trivial.

Note: in my experience, people tend to fall back on subjective opinions and hand wavey ‘facts’ rather than just cracking on with solving the problem at hand.

Remember, we’re engineers, we can solve a lot of these issues in many different ways. But I personally find the ‘human’ problem is something that is typically much harder to solve and ultimately will cause a lot more detrimental effect on our ability to learn, progress in, and emotionally stay connected to our jobs.

After my conversation with the Foo company I already had an unsettling feeling about them, but decided that I would do some research on Glassdoor to see if my gut feelings, stemming from the feedback I received, were correlating to other people’s past experiences working at the company. †

† it’s important to realise that with sites like Glassdoor you’re only getting half the story, so take it with a pinch of salt. For me, I already had a lengthy conversation with the company and so I felt like I had sufficient information on which to corroborate my experience against.

Turns out my gut instincts were reciprocated by others, and by that I mean: engineers either working still (or who used to work) at Foo had voiced concerns that if you want to get paid lots of money to work on software with lots of tech debt, and with management that doesn’t care about improving the situation with how teams collaborate and/or communicate with each other, then company Foo might be the place for you.

Now, what I’m about to say, I can say because of privilege (I’m totally aware of that and I try to keep that in check wherever possible)…

For me, getting paid is important (because ultimately it allows me to look after my family), but in truth there’s a whole world outside of just getting paid which is equally (if not more) important for being happy.

I’ve been fortunate enough with my privilege to be able to have that opinion, and I appreciate that for others this isn’t necessarily going to be the case, and so for those of you who don’t feel that way because of circumstances: that’s of course absolutely ok and valid. So with that in mind, I will cover what I feel are those other important topics next…

What’s important to you?

First, I just want to take a moment to re-iterate, that you need to find what’s important to you.

If you’re just starting out in your career, or your mid-way through, or you’re 20 years in like me, your priorities, your standards, and your values are going to be different depending on the stage of life you’re at.

For me (in a general sense), I’m looking for:

  • A well paid job (to enable me to support my family)
  • A stable work environment (again, family)
  • A diverse cultural environment (because diversity is important to me)
  • To be able to have impact (I like helping people)
  • To be happy (i.e. not stressed)

Now let’s be honest, who of us isn’t looking for those qualities? Everyone wants a good paying job, everyone wants to be happy and in some cases most people prefer stability over chaos. Maybe diversity, or having an impact, isn’t high up on your list of things because you’re just starting out and to be honest, at that stage in life just getting paid is probably going to be your highest priority.

At any rate, figure out your priorities, your standards and your values, when considering working opportunities.

But also remember that these things will change over time, and that’s ok too (sometimes we just need stability).

What should you talk about?

Well, first things first. It’s a good idea, at the start of any conversation, to ask:

What’s the focus of today’s conversation?

i.e. What’s important to the company (or individual) you’re talking with, and what insights do they want to take from this? Does it align with your agenda? If not, clarify what you hope to get out of the conversation, so it’s clear (on both sides) what intentions there are.

Otherwise, here are the list of questions/topics I like to cover…

  • What is the company’s story?
    • Give me an insight into the company’s history/background and how we’ve reached this point in time.
  • Presence
    • How many offices do you have and what are their locality?
  • Culture and Diversity
    • The company’s “values” will help indicate what’s important to them.
  • Hierarchy and Organisation Structure
    • Are you fairly ‘flat and lean’ or ‘tall and fragmented’?
  • Visibility & Openness
    • How does leadership share and handle critical/internal business topics?
  • Collaboration
    • Building new features across multiple cross-discipline teams (avoiding duplication)
    • Distributed Timezones
  • Community
    • How do internal & external staff interact?
    • How do teams across offices/locality bond?
  • Process
    • How are new features discussed, designed, evolved, released?
    • What is the leadership like?
    • How is documentation handled here?
      • Do they care about documentation?
      • Are they sharing information, or is there silos of knowledge?
    • Do you practice post mortems? (blameless retrospection, handling of failures)
    • How do you handle tech debt?
  • Communication
  • Responsibility and Ownership
    • What does the responsibilities look like for each of the following types of teams?
      • Engineering (Features/Products)
      • Site Reliability
      • Operations
    • How do teams work with regards to an ‘on-call’ rota?
  • Job Progression & Opportunities
    • Learning budgets?
    • Conferences?
  • Remote Working
    • How are remotes kept feeling included?
  • Work life balance and support
    • How do staff balance their work-life?
    • How do things work in a multi-region/distributed organisation?
      • e.g. cross-over hours between UK and US?
  • Tech
    • Finally we get to something engineering related…
      • What does the infrastructure look like?
      • What build systems do you use?
      • What is your deployment platform?
      • How often do/can you deploy?
      • How do you handle rollback processes?
  • Vision and Future
    • Where is this company going?
    • What are the end goals?

Conclusion

I think that pretty much covers everything of interest. To me at least these broad topics will give you a good indicator of what an organisation is like (or the potential they have), depending on how they answer these questions.

What are the sorts of things you ask in an interview? What matters to you? Let me know on twitter.