Cracking the Engineering Manager Interview — Part 2: People Leadership

Diving deeper into the People Leadership interview in the Engineering Manager Interview Loop

In the previous blog post, we covered a broad overview of the Engineering Manager interview loop. In this post, we’ll dive deeper into one of the most common rounds in the interview process — the People Leadership round.

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, nurture and improve your team’s skills, and in general be an effective and empathetic communicator. Companies try to test for these skills in this round. Let’s dive into this in a bit more detail.

(Image courtesy: https://pixabay.com/photos/watering-flowers-peonies-pink-2389940/)

What do companies look for?

Like with many rounds in the EM interview process, the People Leadership round is very subjective. You can’t come up with a formula or a way to analytically score the candidate. There is no 95% of the tests pass type situation here. So what companies try to do is to dive into the candidate’s past experience, eke out what the candidate did, pattern match that against what they want in their EMs, and finally determine a “yes” or a “no”.

Let me share an example that’ll make this point clearer. One of the most popular questions in a People Leadership round is — “Tell me about a time when you’ve had to manage an underperforming employee”. Let’s say you’ve had one experience in the past where you gave this underperforming employee various forms of support and feedback for 6 months before deciding to terminate their employment.

There is objectively nothing right or wrong with your approach. But you may “pass” or “fail” on this question depending on what the company is looking for and what the role entails. In companies with a strict performance management culture and a “hire fast, fire fast” attitude, your approach may be considered as slow or indecisive.

In companies that value nurturing employees, your approach may be considered as stellar as you did everything you could to support the employee before taking the hard decision to let them go.

There may be companies that don’t have a good approach to performance management and are looking to hire experienced EMs from the industry who can bring in a new process. In those companies, they may be looking to learn from you and hence may value people who’ve experienced performance management culture in different companies.

The point I’m trying to make here is that it really depends on what the company / role is looking for.

The People Leadership interview is very subjective. Companies make the best attempt at making this round objective by trying to have a rubric that matches what the company is looking for with the candidate’s prior experience. (Image courtesy: https://pixabay.com/illustrations/subjective-lens-hand-woman-5057615/)

Knowing what a company expects from its engineering managers is helpful. Many companies share these details proactively as part of your interview prep. If a company doesn’t share that information, ask your recruiter for it. Chances are your recruiter would not only share these EM expectations but also share some of the questions that are likely to be asked in the interview.

Woah! If I know what questions I’d be asked, I can ace the interview, right? Well, not really. The reality is that questions themselves don’t matter. What matters is:

Is your prior experience dealing with the scenario being discussed, congruent with what the company expects from their Engineering Managers?

You could try to game the system by telling the interviewer what they want to hear. Not only is that ethically questionable, it also sets you up for failure in your new role — remember that your interviewers would become your peers, your direct reports, and your boss.

The biggest and possibly only advantage of knowing the potential questions up front is so that you can pick and share relevant stories from your experience that align with what the interviewer is looking for.

What to expect in a People Leadership interview?

So let’s look at the topics that get asked in a People Leadership interview. While the specific phrasing of questions and how your answers are evaluated may differ from company to company, the topics being covered tend to be fairly standard across the tech industry.

Hiring

In this section, companies try to determine your experience with hiring talent on to your team. Here’s a list of things they tend to gauge from you:

  • What is your hiring bar? How do you distinguish between strong candidates and weak candidates?
  • How do you detect and prevent implicit biases from influencing your hiring decisions?
  • How do you partner with your recruiting team? When has the partnership worked well? When has it not worked well?
  • How do you decide when to hire someone on your team? How do you decide whether to hire externally or fill the role with an internal candidate?
  • How do you go about finding the right candidates for your role? What techniques do you use to close candidates in this competitive landscape?
  • What have you personally done to increase diversity on your team?

Coaching & Performance Management

In this section, companies try to determine your experience with retaining talent through coaching and career development. Here’s a list of things they tend to gauge from you:

  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to deliver tough feedback.
  • How have you supported career development of your senior engineers? How does your approach differ for junior engineers? What about people from under-represented minorities in tech?
  • Have you promoted anyone on your team?
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve grown someone on your team into a leadership position?
  • How do you keep your high performers motivated?
  • Did you have to let someone go from your team?

Team Leadership

  • How do you build trust with your team?
  • What do you do to build a safe and inclusive atmosphere in your team?
  • How do you keep your team motivated during challenging times?
  • Tell me about a time when you’ve had to manage a conflict between two engineers on your team.

How to prepare for a People Leadership Interview?

The only way you fail a People Leadership interview round is by forgetting to share your relevant experiences or not communicating them clearly enough.

In all other circumstances, it’s a question of fit — your experience either fits with what the company is looking for or it doesn’t.

Whether your experience fits what the company is looking for or not is outside of your control, so I’d suggest not worrying about that. Focus on what is in your control. And that is, to communicate clearly and authentically, your personal experiences.

It’s not easy to rummage through your brain and pull out a personal experience that is relevant to the question being asked in a split-second jeopardy style manner. If you can do that, great! Most people (like myself) can’t. Therefore it is really, really important to prepare well upfront. Retrospect and line up all your personal experiences and practice your answers either question by question or in a mock interview setting. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at this round.

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.

In the next post of the series, we’ll cover the “Driving Results” interview round in more detail.

More blog posts in this series:

Hit me up if you have any questions about EM interview preparation. I’m happy to help in any way I can!

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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.