Cracking the Engineering Manager Interview — Part 4: Business Leadership

Image courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Strategy-and-tactics-pro-.png

In the first blog post, we covered a broad overview of the Engineering Manager interview loop. In part two, we covered the People Leadership round in detail, and in part three, we covered preparation tips and tricks for any situational interview. In this post, we’ll dive deeper into another typical onsite round in the Engineering Manager interview — the Business Leadership round.

The Business Leadership round comes in many flavors — Driving Results, Strategy and Execution, Partnerships and Cross-Functional Alignment. Some companies may have two rounds to cover this as it’s a pretty broad topic. But at a high level, what companies are looking to test here is your ability to plan and drive results for the business. At the end of day, that’s what EMs are paid for.

What to expect in a Business Leadership interview?

Unlike the People Leadership round, the Business Leadership rounds are slightly more objective (but far from being as objective as a technical round).

When companies build their interview process, they typically pick situations that they expect their engineering managers to be good at, convert them into questions, and try to determine whether you’ve had strong prior experiences handling such situations.

For instance, one of the popular questions from the Amazon EM interview is — “Tell me about a time when you and your manager disagreed about something”. “Disagree and Commit” is an Amazon leadership principle, so they pretty simply ask you about your experiences demonstrating that value.

While questions for this round vary from company to company (based on their values), there are certain common themes that I’ve seen get asked repeatedly. Let’s break those down into specific topics and questions:

Vision, Mission, Strategy, Roadmap

Image courtesy: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Boy-with-binoculars.jpg

As an Engineering Manager, you are the CEO or the CTO of your team (depending on whether or not you co-lead the area with a Product Manager). As a result, it is expected for you to be able to identify, define, formulate, and articulate a vision for your team.

Some typical questions that get asked in this space:

  • How would you describe the long-term vision for your team?
  • How did you come up with that vision?
  • How would you measure success towards that vision?

While there are differences between Vision, Mission, and Strategy, EM interviews for line managers don’t get into the weeds on that. What companies try to determine is how sound your long-term plan is (in many cases, you’ll be interviewing for a domain specific role and your interviewer is likely to be knowledgeable in that domain). They may dive into specifics such as why you decided to pick Technology A over Technology B, or what business metrics your strategy moved etc.

In addition to testing the soundness of your long-term plan, companies also test your ability to communicate it effectively. Communicating a vision clearly to your team is equally as important as coming up with that vision in the first place.

Another typical responsibility of an Engineering Manager is to build a roadmap for their team. Since roadmaps are subjective and often tied to company secrets/IP, EM interviews don’t tend go in to the specifics of your former team’s roadmap. Instead, the questions you would run into would be along the lines of how you built your team’s roadmap. The focus would be on your process, as having a sound process is a proxy for your ability to build a strong roadmap in your new role.

In questions like this I would suggest you to focus on what you specifically do as opposed to general best practices. For instance, everyone knows it is a best practice to collect ideas from engineers on your team. But how exactly do you do that and why? Who else do you involve in your planning process — which customers do you talk to and what do you ask them? How do you determine sequence/priority of projects? These specifics will help you get the interviewer to understand how you operate and the practical methodologies you will bring to the table in your new role.

Goal Setting

Image courtesy: https://pluslexia.com/

What typically follows after a long-term roadmap is setting time-bound goals for your team. Most companies have a set process around this — OKRs, quarterly goals etc. Interviewers are less interested about what process your previous company followed, but more interested in how you leveraged that process to set strong goals for your team.

Typical questions here are — “how do you set ambitious goals for your team”, “tell me about a time when you had to balance product priorities with reducing technical debt”. While these questions tend to be open ended, interviewers usually look to discern the following:

  • How much time do you allocate to eliminating tech debt in situations where there is significant product pressure to prioritize features?
  • How do you figure out what your team’s capacity is?
  • How do you keep pushing your team to do more while not burning them out?
  • How much do you think about the bigger picture for the business when setting goals for the team?
  • Who do you involve in your goal-setting process? How do you get feedback?

Like with any situational interview question, it’s important to not only share your philosophy but to elucidate that with examples from your experience. Bonus points if you can find flaws in your own approach and suggest improvements for the future.

Building Alignment

Image courtesy: https://www.thinkingbusinessblog.com/2016/07/27/6-simple-steps-to-align-your-staff-with-business-objectives/

This is the section where your experiences with organizational politics get unravelled. Politics often times gets a bad rep because people associate it with backstabbing, power-grabbing, and belittling others. While that sometimes does happen in the workplace (you should probably run away from those companies!), the everyday politics that we’re talking about here refers to consensus building with people from different backgrounds, with different priorities, on different teams, and their different positions in the organizational hierarchy.

This is one of those sections where an interviewer will try to understand your management philosophy, and determine its congruence with the company’s values. Often times this round is conducted by a stakeholder/partner you’d work closely with (eg. your partner PM, your business partner, an EM on a sister team etc) Some common questions here are:

  • Tell me about a time when you convinced your team / your stakeholders to pick a solution contrary to popular opinion
  • How do you build alignment with your product partners?
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve said “No” to your boss
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve disagreed with your boss yet you committed to their plan

Be careful about the types of examples you give here. For instance, if you share an example where you tried to get everyone’s buy-in before you committed to a direction, that may not gel well with a company that values moving fast. I’m not saying you should lie about your experiences to suit what the company is looking for. But it would be prudent to pick real experiences that align well with the company’s values. The reason being, given limited interview time, what you say during the interview may be projected by the interviewer as how you always operate (which may or may not be true).

Project Leadership

Image courtesy: https://www.projectwizards.net/en/blog/2020/11/international-project-management-day

Expect to be probed and pushed a lot in this theme. Because this is where companies try to figure out how you operate when the rubber hits the road. The key thing you are being tested on is— how well can you guide your team to deliver on multiple projects in an ever-changing business landscape. The questions here tend to follow a standard pattern:

  • Tell me about a time when a project your team was driving got delayed?
  • Tell me about a time when your team had to ship something in a tight deadline.
  • Tell me about a time when requirements changed mid-way in the project?
  • How do you assign projects to different members on the team?
  • How are projects run on your team? Walk me through a project lifecycle.

Specific signals companies tend to look at are:

  • Do you delegate well or are you the one doing all the project management work?
  • When you make a decision to cut scope, push back timelines, or push your team to deliver, are you considering all the tradeoffs here (business impact, team morale impact, stakeholder relationships etc)? And are you making the a good call knowing all the tradeoffs?
  • Do you take ownership of problems or do you try to blame someone else?

How to prepare for a Business Leadership Interview?

Interested in learning more about preparation? Check out this blog post that talks about a simple 3 step process that you can use prepare for this interview and other situational type interviews in the EM loop.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Srivatsan Sridharan

Srivatsan Sridharan

829 Followers

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