Cracking the Engineering Manager Interview — Part 3: Situational Interview Preparation

In the first blog post of this series, we covered a broad overview of the Engineering Manager interview loop. One of the more popular formats in this loop is a situational interview.

In this interview, the interviewer asks a series of questions to go over the candidate’s background in a particular area (eg. People Leadership). The questions can range from targeted ones like — “Tell me about a time when you had to let go of an employee” to vague, exploratory ones like — “What is your hiring philosophy”. In either style of questions (or the entire spectrum in between), the interviewer is trying to dig into the candidate’s prior experience and determining whether those experiences will be valuable for the current company/role.

The only way you fail a situational 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.

Here is a simple 3-step preparation system that I followed:

  • Step 1: Identify all your relevant experiences
  • Step 2: Capture all the specific details from those experiences
  • Step 3: Practice communication with clarity and succinctness

Step 1: Identify all your relevant experiences

Go through all the potential questions or topics for the interview round (here’s a list of questions for the People Leadership round for instance) and find examples from your personal experiences that match.

For instance, on the question about retaining high performers, have there been instances where you’ve had to keep a high performer on your team motivated? I’d recommend jotting down all the examples/instances you can think of. Like with a brainstorming session, don’t discard anything — an experience/example that you might consider trivial might actually be an important one for your interviewer.

Step 2: Capture all the specific details from those experiences

Once you’ve identified the examples, try to remember the tiniest details.

For instance, for the high performer you managed, what made them a high performer? How did you determine that they were a high performer? What were their motivations and career ambitions? What specific things did you do to help them hit their career goals? How did you determine what specific things you needed to do to help them hit their career goals? Did you have prior experience managing high performers? Did you consult with your boss or a mentor? What were your personal learnings through the experience? Did you infer any patterns from your experiences that are serving you well now?

Step 3: Practice communication with clarity and succinctness

In an interview setting, for each question that the interviewer asks you, you’ll first have to quickly determine what the interviewer is trying to gauge. Some questions can be direct (eg. “Tell me about a time when you’ve had to manage a high performer”) while others can be vague (eg. “How do you manage high performers”). Irrespective of how they’re framed, these questions basically try to determine Your approach & experience with retaining high performers. So your brain has to do this lookup from the question to what the interviewer is trying to gauge.

Once you’ve figured out what the interviewer is looking for, your answer needs to convey all the relevant examples and details in a way that the interviewer, who has absolutely no context, can grok in 2–3 minutes.

This is incredibly challenging to do.

So, prepare and practice your answers to all of the bullet points we talked about earlier. One of the most popular techniques for communicating experiences is the STAR method. I found the STAR method to be useful in my initial practice, but I realized that it constrained me to a system that did not feel authentic to my communication style. So I ended up choosing an approach that was a mix of preparation and some improvisation during the interview.

I ended up following this structure to each question:

  • Share my philosophy / approach in 1–2 sentences
  • List some examples that lead me to craft that philosophy / approach in 1–2 sentences
  • Take an example and dive into it in detail for about 2 minutes — sharing enough context to get the interviewer on the same page as me, explaining the challenge, sharing specific actions that I took and the impact of those actions.

Nothing beats practice. So practice a lot. Write down answers if you have to. Speak in front of the mirror if you have to. Ask your friends, former colleagues, mentors, family members to run mock interviews for you. The more you practice, the better you’ll get at this round.

Remember that the only way to fail a situational interview round is by forgetting to share your relevant experiences or not communicating them clearly enough.

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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.