Software engineer interviews end strong with good questions

You are 50 minutes into a 60 minute interview for your dream software developer job and you are relieved to hear these words:

What questions do you have for me?

You relax.

The pressure is off.

The next 10 minutes should be easy.

But are they?

Why asking good questions helps you end an interview strong#

Do professional athletes play at half speed for the final 10 minutes?

Do musicians stop trying their hardest during the last 10 minutes of a performance?

So the final part of your interview, often reserved for you, the candidate, to ask questions is still part of the interview. You can still say or do something to help make the case to your interviewer that you should be hired.

As I interview prospective software developer candidates, there is an unconscious mental tally happening in my head. It looks like this chart:

Hire threshold chart

I start with very little information about each candidate, so everybody starts at 0 and needs to progress above the "hire threshold", meaning I need to be above neutral in order to advocate for a hire.

What you don't want to happen is the dip in the end where my thoughts go from hireable to not hireable very quickly.

Many people arrive unprepared for this part of interviews and it's a mistake. This is not your chance to take a break from what might have been a grueling series of technical or behavioral questions. This is your chance to close the interview strong and convince the interviewer that you are ready to move past the interview into contributing to the team.

Ask high-value questions in interviews#

I learned about high-value questions some time ago as a way for managers to initiate meaningful career conversations with their direct reports. They are also often used in sales as a way to help salespeople connect on a deeper level with prospective clients. This sales blog provides a helpful description of high-value questions:

True value-adding questions are those to which the client does not already know the answer. They require thought, encourage reflection, advance the conversation into new territory, and the answers add value to the individuals involved.

A common trait of common interview questions is that they are one-sided, meaning they seek information the interviewer already knows, so the only person benefiting from the answers is you. High-value questions, on the other hand, benefit both parties. The interviewer answering the question should learn some new insight that they hadn't thought of before while you, the candidate, can gather some additional information.

A few examples of high-value questions:

If you could remove one obstacle to get your product to the next level, what would it be?

If I were to interview one of your users, what will they say is their biggest pain point with your product?

If you could go back in time and tell yourself one thing when you started your job here, what would you say?

These are all questions the interviewer should be able to answer, but not necessarily ones they already have an answer for. They probably need to think about it, and that's a good thing!

These questions generate insight for everyone involved in the interview and should lead to an interesting discussion.

Wait, are you already hired?

Another notable trait about the example high-value questions above is they aren't interview questions, at least not typical ones.

Instead of asking the questions you want to know as the interview candidate, think about the questions you would ask on your first day on the job.

You might want to know things you should learn, ways the team is trying to improve, and how the product could be better.

Just remember to keep it to high-value questions and not "How do I get my parking pass?"

Why high-value questions work in interviews#

There are a few reasons why I recommend asking high-value questions work in most contexts, but especially in interviews.

1. Help people remember you#

If you ask unique questions and generate a unique discussion, your interviewer is far more likely to remember you.

2. Demonstrate your helpfulness#

People want to hire people who can help their team succeed. High-value questions that get people to think deep and gain insight will reflect well on you as the person asking the initial question.

If you show that you can help somebody think through something in an interview, they will be more likely to want to work with you. And don't be surprised if they start running things by you after you're hired.

3. Trigger reciprocity#

By asking questions that aren't just one-sided and benefit only you, you are adding value to your interviewer by asking high-value questions (that's why they're called high-value!).

You are also giving this value away for free and not explicitly asking for something in return (though you probably would like an offer letter, pretty please).

In the marketing world, this act of giving something away for free and later gaining something in return is called reciprocity and it is an incredibly powerful motivator. Think of the free programming courses, the free newsletters, etc. that people give away online that are later followed with a premium course, e-book, or paid offering.

Avoid general, common, or meaningless questions#

Many questions I am asked in interviews are unfortunately common or meaningless questions, neither interesting nor thoughtful and far too general to generate valuable discussion.

Often this happens because people just don't know what to ask so they ask questions that they might ask another developer they met at a conference.

A few examples:

  • What code editor do you use? (Meaningless)
  • What is your tech stack? (General)
  • How many people are on the team? (Common)

You should learn about the tech stack of the team, but I recommend asking it in a more specific way like "I saw in the job description that your product is built with React. Do you believe your team will still be using React in 3 years?"

Start with something specific and unique and the other details will be filled in as the discussion progresses. Your follow up questions can be more straightforward and possibly mundane, but that's okay. The point is to initiate with something unique to allow the conversation to land somewhere the interviewer probably hasn't been before.

Give something valuable to your interviewer, and they are more likely to recommend you for the position.

What is your favorite question to ask in an interview? Let me know on Twitter.