As I’m writing this, we’re in lockdown due to COVID-19. Nobody knows for sure what the world of work would look like once we’re out of this.
But we already know that the economy is going to suffer, in a major way.
This, unfortunately, means that some of us will lose their jobs, and will be looking for a new one.
A friend of mine recently wrote a post about preparing for a coding interview. She recommends “Cracking the coding interview” to prepare for algorithmic questions.
My immediate thought was: “If I’m evaluated on theoretical material that’s completely irrelevant to the day-to-day of the role I’m interviewing for, I’d rethink my application”.
I won’t go here into trying to convince you why a whiteboarding interview is a red flag (search the web for ‘whiteboard interview’ for some interesting opinions).
But it did give me the idea to write about another, often neglected, aspect of job-hunting: Evaluating a potential employer.
In this post I’ll share my process of gathering and analyzing data during the interview process. This helps me evaluate whether a particular company is a good fit for me. I’ve developed it over the course of many years, and a few very avoidable employment disasters.
I hope you find it useful.

How can you assess if a company is a right fit for you?

At its core, it’s a simple system: Like a scientist, try to gather as much evidence as possible. then try to draw conclusions based on them.

On their own, many pieces of evidence may seem trivial, unimportant, or can be excused away. But, putting them all together, they tell a larger story.
For example –
An interviewer being late to the interview isn’t too bad – we all run a little late sometimes.
Not offering you a drink of water during your 3-hour session is annoying, but not a big deal.
Being unprepared, not having read your resume beforehand, is irritating, but forgivable.
But all together paint a picture. If you aggregate all the above data points, you could conclude that, most likely, this company is not respectful of candidates.
In that case, you can deduce that the company isn’t very respectful of its employees as well.

Evidence-gathering methods

1. Questions
Those are the most obvious route: Ask your prospective employer questions that aim to gain insight into the company. Asking the right question in the right way can reveal a lot about a company.


But asking too many questions will make me seem condescending / snobbish / difficult, and they won’t want to hire me!
Think of it this way – a good company would love the opportunity to show how good they are. They won’t shy away from questions, because they have good answers that help their sales pitch.
On the other hand, being afraid of questions is an indication of the opposite.
Avoiding a hire because of a candidate’s legitimate concerns is a huge red flag. If that’s the case – be glad that you won’t work for an organization that punishes people for asking questions.

2. Observations
Those are the things that you see and hear during your interactions with the employer. The more attention you pay, the more observations you make, the more evidence you’ll have to draw conclusions from. Observations can be about anything – the speed with which your email is answered, the phrasing of their reply, the chat you had with the receptionist while waiting for your interview, the size and shape of the office.. Any of the above can be a small piece of a puzzle that would give you a clearer picture about the company.
Making observations can be even more valuable than asking questions. Unlike answering questions, the company can’t control the narrative of your observations. Company representatives can give favorable answers, but they can’t control what you observe. Your observations are more likely to be unbiased, and more revealing.

Undoubtedly, you’ll discard some (or many) observations as insignificant or irrelevant. However, remember – you can piece together many small pieces to create a larger whole.

Not all signals will be as obvious as this

Deal breakers

Before we go into subtleties and clues, it’s worth thinking about what your line in the sand is. What you just won’t accept, no matter how good everything else seems.
For me, it’s honesty. If an employer is not being truthful, or not acting in good faith, there’s no chance I’d want to work there.
(Note: recruiters lying is par for the course, unfortunately. So this rule can’t be applied to them.. I’m talking about actual company employees)

story time:
I once interviewed for a small startup, who offered 25 PTO days a year – surprisingly above the normal 22 days.
When they sent over the contract for me to sign, however, I noticed that it stated 18 days off. When I questioned this, they said that the 25 days figure included the 7 national public holidays.
I’ve never heard of anyone calculating PTO that way. They were obviously trying to inflate their numbers to look more attractive. Even the recruiter was surprised.
And what do you know – I lived to regret not walking away from that job right there and then.

What are you trying to assess?

There are generally a few criteria that make for a good, or horrible, work experience.

  1. The company culture – what do they value and reward?
  2. How they treat employees – do they make an effort to keep employees happy?
  3. Day-to-day work – what do you actually do 9 (or 12) hours a day? and who with?
  4. Long-term future at the company – what can you expect after having served for a few years?

Different people will be looking for different things in each of these categories. (e.g company culture – relaxed? friendly? high-intensity?, day-to-day work – latest tech? fast paced? slow and steady?)
The first thing to do is to consider what you’re looking for in each of these areas. It would be good to also rank them, so you know which are more important.
For example, I prefer to work with statically-typed, compiled languages, especially C#. But, a friendly, supportive and relaxed culture is even more important to me than that.
That’s why I’m now with a company that is incredibly supportive and friendly, which I love, working in ruby on rails, which I really don’t.

Once you have a prioritized list, you can set about trying to assess potential employers based on it. For each category, let’s see how:

Culture

There are many different opinions of what culture is (personally, I think of it as the house rules, or ‘how things are done around here’). But there’s widespread agreement on what culture is not – pithy creeds printed on posters.
Try to disregard company “mission statements”, mottoes and the like. They’re what companies want you to think they’re all about. They don’t necessarily reflect reality.
(remember – “don’t be evil” is the motto of the world’s richest spying agency)

Questions / observations to gauge the company’s culture –

  1. “What does it take to succeed here?”
    I like this one because, usually, the answer to “what’s the company culture” is a regurgitation of company PR.
    But, phrased like this, an honest answer would reveal the behaviour that the company actually rewards. It may or may not be what management says they value.
  2. “What do you do for fun?”
    The details aren’t important here. Going for drinks vs playing football in the park – that doesn’t matter.
    What you’re trying to understand here is: Does the company care about employees as human beings, or as cogs in a wheel?
    Do employees want to socialize with their colleagues? Meaning – do they have good relationships?
  3. “Do you like working here, and if so – why?”
    Very open-ended – it gives employees of good companies a chance to show off all of the good stuff.
    In other cases, it gives you a chance to watch your interviewer squirm as they try to come up with a diplomatic answer.
  4. “What would you improve at the company?”
    A complementary question to the last one. Don’t expect to get all the dirt on the company. Instead – observe the answer. Is it honest and truthful? Or some obvious platitude?
    That will tell you a lot about whether employees feel free to speak openly at this company.
  5. “How’s the work-life balance?”
    In case, like me, you care about having a life outside the office. “we work hard and we play hard” == “you work hard while we play hard”. Run away.
  6. “How are differences of opinions settled?”
    This can tell you whether the company is very hierarchical. How openly employees are able to communicate. And generally – how communication works in the organization.

How they treat employees

  1. Look at the facilities
    I read an account by a woman who, at every interview, would go to the ladies’ bathroom and look at the tampons they had. If they were the horrible cheap ones – she’d know that the company doesn’t care about employees’ welfare.
    You can tell a lot just by looking around – are the office and bathroom clean and well maintained? are employees provided with an adequate working environment? are everyone sat squished together in an awful open-space? do they have access to a decent coffee machine, or are they only provided with some plastic-y coffee vending machine? All these are an indication of how much the company values its employees.
    Note: Especially in tech, try to look beyond the gimmicks. A ping-pong table and a fridge full of coke may be nice, but ultimately don’t make or break your working experience. Dig deeper.
  2. “How do leaders support employees?”
    What you’re actually asking is: “Are employees considered drones, here only to serve management? or do you actually care about their needs and wants?”
  3. “What’s the employee turnover?”
    Mostly you won’t get a straight answer here, but observing the subtext of the answer can be useful.
  4. What’s the interview / onboarding process like
    Do they demonstrate a lack of respect for your time? (hours and hours of interviews, hours of unpaid work aka “take home tests”)? Are they testing for skills that aren’t relevant to the job? (remember “cracking the coding interview”?)
    An interview is a two-way street, and the company knows that they have to make a good impression too. If they screw up when they’re supposed to show their best side, do you think things will be better when you’re actually employed there?

story time:
I was once interviewing with a startup that seemed very nice. I met with the engineering manager and several engineers, who all made a very good impression.
I accepted an offer from them, and was requested to start about 4 weeks later. I wasn’t working at the time, so I requested to start sooner.
The engineering manager told me to contact HR; HR told me it was up to the engineering manager. I went back and forth like this for a while. In the end, I couldn’t get an earlier start.
On my first day, they didn’t have my laptop ready – I had to spend a couple of days shadowing another engineer instead.
They also had trouble finding a place for me to sit – I ended up with a weird desk-sharing situation.
All the above are certainly annoying, but, I kept thinking “This isn’t really a deal-breaker.” Especially considering the great impression I got from the engineering manager.
I later learned the reasons for these differences: The engineering manager was desperately trying (and ultimately, failed) to maintain his department as an island of sanity. If only I had put all these signals together, I would’ve saved myself the misery of working at a certifiably pathological organization.

Day-to-day work

The culture and behaviour of the organization at-large are important. However, you’ll be spending most of your time with a small number of people, doing a certain type of work. You want to make sure that both fit you.
Remember the saying: ‘People join a company, but they quit a boss’. A company can have the most amazing culture, benefits and facilities, but they all amount to nothing if you don’t fit in with your team and the type of work that it does.

  1. Try and actually meet with the team
    see if you connect with these people. Can you imagine yourself working alongside them every single day?
    For me, it’s a (slight) red flag if your interviewers aren’t actually the people you’ll be working with. this type of system means that, if you were to join the company, you’d have no say in who you work with.
    On the other hand, inviting candidates to lunch / socialize with the team is a big green flag.
  2. What does a typical day look like?”
    How many meetings / admin a day / week? are there any other duties that you’re expected to carry out?
    Story time:
    On my first day at this one job, my manager casually asked “By the way, do you know VB?”. Yeah, I forgot to ask about other duties, and they “forgot” to mention that legacy system that needs maintaining. Oops!
  3. “How does a typical task go from an idea to being in front of a customer?”
    Who decides what to do, who does it, how it gets approved, how it gets to the customer (CI / CD) etc.
    This will give you an insight into the work process. For example – how much freedom and autonomy (and responsibility) you can expect to have. Or how up-to-date their practices are.
  4. “What technologies do you use?”
    Personally, I don’t care. I worked professionally in C#, javascript and ruby. How much I liked the work was barely influenced by the tech (except for rails, of course). But, you may feel differently.
    Make sure that you’d be happy to work with the stack they have. Another very important thing is to make sure that their tech isn’t outdated.
    Perhaps you’re planning a career as a specialist Fortran programmer. In that case, you probably don’t have to worry about updating your skills. Otherwise, you’d want to leave that company having acquired some marketable skills.
  5. Look at the code
    When I’m in advanced stages, I always ask to look at some production code at the company. I’d estimate that I have a better than 50% success rate.
    This can give you a clue as to the standards of work at the company. (also, being willing to show the code to a candidate indicates that the people there are proud of their work! a big green flag)
  6. “What is something you’d improve about the way you work / the work itself?”
    That’s just a sneaky way to ask ‘what parts of the job suck?’

Long-term future

You may (or may not) be looking to stay at a company for a number of years. If that’s the case, you have to make sure that you have place to grow.
You want to leave a company having gained 10 years of experience, not one year of experience repeated 10 times!

  1. “What training opportunities does the company provide?”
  2. “How do promotions / performance reviews / pay rises work?”
    For me, anything other than a clear, well-defined process means “we’ll give you a raise if and when we feel like it”.
    Spoiler alert: much like your husband, they never feel like it.
  3. “What’s the ‘career ladder’ at the company?”
    For example – do you have to go into management in order to advance?
  4. “How often does the company adopt new technologies?”
    Their technology may be current today. But, unless the company makes a conscious effort to keep up, it (and you) will stay behind.

Conclusion

We all have different preferences. Different types of circumstances and environments that would make us happy.
The first step is to explicitly recognize what works for you (you will not get it right the first time – it took me quite a few different jobs to find out!).
Then, actively gather evidence about how the company ranks in these different areas. Put all of these pieces together, to reach conclusions you can be fairly confident of.
Then see how a prospective employer ranks in the metrics that matter to you.

Good luck!

Bonus question – COVID-19 response

Something I’ve seen online – a great question to ask employers in the future is around their response to the COVID-19 emergency.
Did the company take care of its employees? Was it understanding, proactive and fair to its customers? Did they take taxpayers’ money unnecessarily?
You can tell a lot by the way a person, or a company, behaves in a crisis.

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