“Have you got any questions for us?”

I have a secret — until recently I haven’t really been in control of my career. I’ve been pretty passive with the whole job hunting thing.

When I move job, it’s generally because I get headhunted, by someone internally or by a recruiter, I like the brand, the role is a step up and I go to meet my new boss, and it’s just — bam. You know they are the one: the person you want to work for next. And that’s it, that’s my entire process. I ask myself, “Is this someone I’m happy to see every day?” and if the answer is yes, I take the job.

This summer, I decided I would job hunt differently. I’d be focussed, I’d make a list of what would matter to me in a new job ( a short list, around three items or so. That helps with the focus apparently) and most importantly, at that point in the interview when they say “Have you got any questions for us?” I’d have a whole list of carefully considered, finely honed questions that would help get to the truth of whether this was really, really the right job for me. These questions were based on many years experience and observation, advice from friends and mentors, and loads and loads of reading and thinking about how to design and build great products, and how to find an organisation that cares about this.

And now I’m going to share this list with you.

  1. Why is this role available?

Has the person you are replacing left? Why? Did they go on to somewhere you rate? (this is good as it shows you will be joining a team that do good work and so you will be able to build your portfolio and get the next great job. No harming in planning for a couple of years in the future too) Did they get promoted? Also good as it shows there is career progression in the organisation. Maybe the team is expanding? Good. Watch out if the person you are replacing has left or resigned with no job to go to, or if there have been several redundancies. This is bad — it shows a team or organisation in turmoil.

2. Where does the team sit in the organisation?

I don’t know if you have read this piece by Alex Schleifer, VP of Design at Airbnb …if you haven’t its worth a read, but here’s a quick summary: product, tech and design need to have equal power and input to create great products. He calls this the three legged stool, and compares organisations that don’t have this balance to wobbly stools.

I like a lot of what he says, and I agree — the holy grail for a design team is to report someone in the C-Suite responsible for design. Unfortunately this state of nirvana is pretty rare in the UK, and design usually reports in to the exec in one of four ways, via a digital officer or someone of that ilk, or via product, technology or marketing.

My personal preference is to report to someone senior who can balance the demands of design, product and technology.

Failing that, I find that the way I like to work best fits with product. I personally don’t like reporting to technology and marketing — I think product design works best in a healthy tension with these teams, rather than being subservient to them — but thats a whole other blog post.

This my personal preference mind you, but one I’ve based on how much top cover the team will get and how the part of the organisation you will be sitting with thinks about products and customers. You should have a think about where you feel you would be best aligned, and if you are unsure have a read of how successful, innovative consumer internet companies such as Airbnb, Facebook, Uber etc etc work, or how government is doing successful digital transformation. GDS and MoJ blogs are great places to start.

3. Tell me about your sign off process?

In one interview I was in, and this is no word of a lie, I was told that the sign off process was ‘If Lucy likes it’. Lucy appeared to be someone terrifying in marketing, and I couldn’t quite get to the bottom of how she got so much power. But what I did quickly realise was that this was a company with no process and with a design team so cowed and unsure of themselves they allowed themselves to be bullied. I decided to pass on this job as it needed someone more senior than Lucy to tell her to butt out, and such a person didn’t exist. Which brings me to my next point:

4. Who does the team report to? What does the org chart look like?

The further down the org chart the design team sits the less ability you will have to do good work, and the more likely it will be that no one on the design team will have any influence on anything more on the product than what colour a button should be — if even that.

Aim to work somewhere where there is a leader further up the hierarchy that really gets product design. This will ensure that the design team is represented at a senior and strategic level and isn’t simply a set of order takers for the exec.

Having this voice at senior level will make it easier for you and the team to follow good processes, use research to inform product decisions rather than be buffeted by the whims of HIPPOs

But if there isn’t someone like that… don’t worry. Find out if the person at the top of your tree has a history of making sensible data informed decisions and supporting design. Ask:

5. How do decisions get made and when?

Great products are the result of hundreds and hundreds of little decisions, getting made cumulatively, day by day, and also lots of big decisions too. Find out how these are made, who makes them, when they make them. As much as possible, you want to see daily product design decisions in the hands of autonomous teams building the products. You want to see the C Suite making big decisions, setting targets and KPIs and setting strategy.

I’ve heard of organisations where senior people, with little or no knowledge of the iterations and research it had taken to get a product to a particular point, voting on the layout of screens and the way the product works. If something like this is described to you, probably best to look for another job.

If there is no research team, if design research is separated from the design team or if it is not embedded and integral to the process, and there are no plans to make it so, then your day will probably consist of showing various pictures to someone on a higher salary than you and asking ‘is this what is in your head?’. Avoid.

6. Describe a normal day

As well as filling you in on what work you’ll be doing, this also gives you a fantastic insight into the culture of the team and the organisation you will be joining. Do the team spend time communicating or is it heads down, headphones on? Both are good, but what is the balance and what is right for you? Do the team eat lunch together? Do they eat lunch at all? Is it a culture of long hours or presenteeism? Do people work from home? How does that work? Do the design team sit together or are they in tribes and squads? Do they have a space with walls — this can be a physical manifestation of the importance (or not) of design to the organisation. Are you expected to answer emails and be on Slack evenings and weekends? Under what circumstances? Be clear to yourself what your tolerance for this is — it’s different for everyone, but yours must match the team’s.

7. Describe your ideal person for this role

This is when you find out that you find out that they are not really after a Design Director, more of a trade union rep crossed with a marriage guidance counsellor, or that they want someone hands on, head down. Or perhaps someone to fight design’s corner with the Exec and so they are looking for someone in a suit speaking the language of spreadsheets fluently. Really listen to what you are being told here, this is one of the points where you can work out if the job is right for you.

8. How many other people are at this stage of the process?

Are you on a shortlist of three or is it a billowing conversation with several people that has been going on for months? Vague, ongoing interviews are often a sign of an organisation that isn’t quite sure what it wants, is having internal problems or is so consensus driven that they can’t make a decision.

Beware a shortlist that has people from radically different backgrounds, eg a researcher, a designer and a UX practitioner — this may mean the organisation isn’t well versed enough in digital to be clear what it wants.

Beware the internal candidate too — often the job is theirs and the boss is seeking validation. Another thing to consider with an internal candidate — if you are successful will they support you or feel like you’ve stolen their job?

Use all this knowledge to help you decide how much effort to put into subsequent phases of the interview

9. What happens next?

You’ll probably be told there will be at least one other interview. Try to find out if there will be a task, or what the purpose of subsequent interviews will be. They maybe about fit with the team or understanding of company strategy. Try to find out what you can and then use the intervening time to do some digging on Linkedin, blogs and the background of the organisation and the challenges facing that industry.

Try to get timelines, either at the interview or soon after, and don’t be afraid to chase if you haven’t heard anything by the date you have been given. If things drift and drift this is usually a sign of a company not knowing what it wants or not ready to commit.

Ask for written feedback on your interview, you can always improve.

10. Why do you work here?

This is their chance to sell the job to you. They should be able to speak effortlessly and convincingly about why this is a great company. Bonus points if they are able to talk to you about the company’s visions and plans. This means the company actually has some and they have been communicated and remembered. This is surprisingly rare.

In one interview a chap told me, “In all honesty, if you were my friend I’d probably tell you not to work here”. I didn’t.

…and here’s a question I won’t ask in the interview, but I’ll try very hard to find the answer to — do they have a diversity policy? a flexible working policy? what’s the make up of their leadership team and if it is pretty homogenous, what are they doing to change it? This isn’t me being right on or looking for trouble, there’s two good reasons for this question.

The first is all about decision making, again. Remember I said that good product design is based off hundreds and hundreds of decisions, big and small? Well, a wider range of opinions from a wider range of people can lead to decisions that drive innovation and growth. And I believe this is why companies with more diversity are more profitable companies . Diverse companies are places anyone with an interest in good decision making should go.

Of course not all companies have got there yet — and thats not an issue. The issue is their willingness to be open to change and to try to increase the range of people they employe. I use Diversity Policies and HR as leading indicators of this.

From a personal level this matters too — of course it does. If you are going into an organisation to try to bring about digital transformation, or even just transformation in the way decisions are made, and you are the only person like you, this means you are a different sort of person doing things in a different sort of way. Double whammy. This isn’t automatically a problem of course, and the more top cover you have and the more the organisation is opening itself up to different ways of working, the less of a problem it will be.

Of course, you should save these questions for your second interview, or spread them across a couple of interviews, and make sure you ask with a smile on your face, and charmingly — this is not you grilling the company you are going to work for, but mutually finding out if you are a good fit.

Good luck on your job hunt, wherever it takes you.

Postscript

A good friend suggested also asking about maternity policies — no matter how old you are, male or female or other. She reckons the more people that ask and raise that as something to consider when joining an organisation, the faster things will change for the better.

Like what you read? Give Jane Austin a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.