Cracking the Engineering Manager interview — Part 1

Practical steps to prepare for and ace your next engineering manager interview

Image credits: Nick Youngson

While coding interviews have become more or less standardized across the industry, there is still a big variability when it comes to hiring for Engineering Manager roles. What questions get asked in an EM interview, is a concern on many peoples’ minds. It certainly was on my mind during my recent job search a few months ago. I ended up interviewing for EM roles at several top tech companies and learned a lot through the process. I’ve also built EM interview loops in the past and have been a hiring manager for EMs.

What I’ve found is that while the interview loops may vary from company to company, there are a set of broad topics that are common and consistent. In this post, I’ll cover those common topics and give you an overview of what to expect. In subsequent posts, I’ll cover each topic in depth and how best to prepare so that you can ace your interview!

(Note that these posts only cover interviews for line-manager roles — EM roles that require you to manage a team of Individual Contributors. The loops may become more specialized for senior manager and director level roles)

Fundamentals of an EM interview

Engineering Managers in most tech companies are expected to play this intersectional role between People, Tech, and Product/Business. They are entrepreneurs for their own little startups (ie teams) and are held accountable for its success. The real question every company wants to answer is — “Can this person drive sustainable, long-term success for this area of the business?” So they model the interview process to capture signals that can give them reasonable confidence about the candidate’s ability to drive that sustainable, long-term success. Obviously, it is impossible to categorically determine that, so companies resort to reasonable proxies. The proxies that I’ve seen end up falling into these categories:

Venn diagram of Engineering Leadership — image credits: Sam Kolb

Let’s look at each of these in detail and see how they manifest in various interview formats across different companies:

People Leadership Experience

Engineering Management is fundamentally a people-leadership role. Your job is to lead (and be accountable for) a group a people to deliver results. To lead people to deliver results, you’d need to be able to hire and retain the best talent, develop and improve your team’s skills, and in general be an effective and empathetic communicator. Companies would often have 1 or 2 rounds diving deeper into your people management experience covering topics like: managing high performers, managing low performers, hiring philosophy, building a culture of diversity and inclusion, career development, resolving conflict, building trust etc.

These topics/signals are typically covered in the following interview formats:

  • A situational interview — the interviewer goes through a series of questions that follow the template of “Tell me about a time when you had to do X”. What the interviewer tries to do here is to eke out honest, relevant experiences from the candidate so that they can use this information as a proxy to determine the candidate’s probability of success in the new role. As a candidate your job is to effectively convey those experiences.
  • A conversation — Many companies don’t have a structure for this round. While they may have rubrics like “how differently do they support career development of junior vs senior engineers”, the interview itself proceeds like a conversation where you get “stage time” to share your experiences.
  • A role-play interview — you are presented with a real-world situation and are expected to address that situation in a simulated role-play scenario. This could be a simulated 1:1 with an engineer where you have to coach them through a problem they have. This could be a simulated team meeting where you have to build consensus with the team or mediate conflict. What the interviewer(s) look for in this round is your practical experience dealing with realistic people challenges that may arise in a day to day setting.

Business Leadership Experience

As an EM, you are effectively the CEO of your team. You are accountable for delivering impact to your shareholders. In this case, your shareholders are your boss (and up the org-chain), your customers, your cross-functional partners etc. Companies try to gauge your track record of effective partnership through the lens of prioritization, building alignment, mediating and negotiating conflict, setting a vision etc. You are expected to have strong examples from your previous experience as well as any patterns or guiding philosophies you follow. This interview is typically run by someone with whom you’d likely partner with in your new role — eg. your PM partner, your Data Science partner, a peer Engineering Manager etc.

The interview format typically follows a situational interview format or a conversational format, similar to the ones we talked about in the People Leadership Experience round.

Driving Results

Needless to say, an Engineering Management is role is all about driving results. Companies are keen to learn about your track record of delivering results as well as the process you took to get there. There is a good amount of focus on the process because companies want to determine how effective your approach and process was and whether those can be adapted to deliver results in your next role. Topics such as how you manage projects, how you define goals, how you coordinate high priority issues, how you allocate people to projects, how you’ve turned around a failing project etc typically get covered in this category. The general rule of thumb in these interviews is to start from the bigger picture and allow the interviewer to dive deeper into details.

Similar to the above two categories, the format typically follows a situational interview or a conversational interview format.

Motivation & Values

This interview is about you — your career journey, your motivations, and your aspirations. Engineering Managers set the culture for their teams, so companies use this interview to determine whether your values are congruent with what the company is looking for. While value congruence is determined throughout the interview process, many companies have a dedicated interview that allows them to dive into details. Topics such as why you moved into a management role, what values you care about, what is the next step in your career journey etc are often covered. Some companies also put a lot of focus on your self-reflection to ascertain whether you’re a leader who can adapt to change.

I’ve seen a few different formats with which this interview is run:

  • Hiring Manager chat — Many companies have an initial hiring manager screen or a post-interview hiring manager chat that covers these topics. The flow is usually conversational. If it’s during an initial screen, expect to be asked a standard set of questions. If it’s after the interview, expect to be asked questions from areas where the interview panel didn’t get strong signals on.
  • Topgrading interview — In this format, the interviewer(s) ask you a standard set of questions for each work experience / company you’ve worked at (eg. why did you leave company X, why did you join company Y, what were your strengths and weaknesses at company X). The idea for the interviewers is to identify patterns in your values, approaches, and thought processes, as well as evaluate your growth mindset.
  • Chat with an Exec — Sometimes you’ll have a senior leader or an executive run this round. They may not have a set of questions but expect them to meander through various topics that they consider important.

Problem Solving & Coding

Engineering Managers are engineers at the end of the day. They are expected to help their teams solve technical problems using analytical thinking, logical reasoning, and code-based execution. Most companies don’t require EMs to be writing code on a day-to-day basis, but they do expect EMs to know how to solve problems by writing good quality code. The assumption is that this skillset is crucial for three aspects:

  • They can roll up their sleeves and write code alongside their team if needed — this can certainly happen in smaller companies or during oncall incident remediation.
  • They can teach/mentor junior engineers on best practices when needed (eg. when the team doesn’t have enough senior engineers)
  • They can command the respect of their senior engineers on technical best practices and challenge them when needed (senior engineers often look for their EMs to be their sparring partners)

There are different approaches companies take to measure this:

  • A standard coding interview — you are given a problem or two, you have to reason through different approaches, pick the most efficient approach, and write code to implement the approach. Unlike in IC (Individual Contributor) interviews, coding speed is not typically measured here. You are expected to be rusty in your implementation but you are expected not to be rusty in your thought process and knowledge of best practices. So most interviewers will help you with syntax or will allow you to search online. Reasoning through different algorithms and data structures, good quality code, and thorough testing become important in this round.
  • A code review interview — you are given a block of code and are expected to review the code. The focus is on your ability to quickly understand the logic of the code, identify gaps in correctness or testing, and offer suggestions on best practices. Some companies may even make this into a role play style interview with the interviewer being the engineer whose code you are reviewing in a review session (eg. the engineer could push back on your suggestions and you may be expected to coach them through the conversation.)
  • A take-home project — you are given a take-home assignment, and are expected to implement a working solution with production-quality code. There may be a follow up interview where you walk the interviewer through your code and share your perspectives. In addition to solving the problem efficiently, good code quality and thorough testing become important in this round.

Technical Domain Experience

On smaller teams, an Engineering Manager may have to play the role of an architect or a tech lead, potentially making impactful technical decisions. On larger teams, an Engineering Manager may have to guide their team to make the right technical decisions. Either way, EMs are accountable for the technical decisions taken by their team. Therefore, it’s crucial for an EM to have the relevant domain knowledge, a track record of making the right tradeoffs, and a sound system of technical decision-making.

Companies try to capture these signals in a variety of interview formats:

  • An architecture or system design interview — you are given an abstract business problem and are expected to come up with an architecture to solve that business problem in a scalable, cost-effective, and future-proof way. This follows a similar structure as an IC System Design interview — companies often repurpose the same interview, with the same evaluation rubrics, for ICs and Managers. Understanding requirements, evaluating different approaches, proposing an architectural solution that works, making the solution scalable and extensible, become important in this round.
  • A project deep dive interview — you are asked to present a project you’ve lead as an EM and facilitate a Q&A with your interviewer(s). Companies may either ask you to prepare material up front (eg. slides) or use a whiteboard to demo the project. The conversation tends to be similar to that of an architecture interview, but the focus is more on the “retrospective” (how did you solve this particular business problem) as opposed to “prospective” (how would you solve this potential future business problem).

To recap, EM interviews typically cover your people leadership experience, your business leadership experience, your track record with delivering results, your motivations & values, your problem solving & coding skills, and your technical domain experience. Most questions that get asked in EM interviews are ambiguous by design. The key skill required to ace all these interviews is your ability to convey your experiences in a manner that is relevant to the company you are interviewing with.

Read the next blog posts in this series here:

(Credits to all the EMs and Directors whose brains I’ve picked over the years to build my knowledge and understanding of EM interview loops. You know who you are, so thank you!)

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Srivatsan Sridharan

Srivatsan Sridharan

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Engineering Manager. Part-time novelist. I write about travel, food, engineering, books, movies, and life.