When you’re exploring a new technical role at a startup it can be difficult to get an inside perspective of the company. A quick glance on Glassdoor might come back with a couple of reviews and a perusal of Crunchbase leaves you with vague news of their latest funding round.
Before you join one of these teams, it’d be nice to understand the company’s future, the engineering team culture, the daily responsibilities, and opportunities for career growth.
We’ve curated a list of interview questions that will help you gain an accurate understanding of the startup and role. For many of these questions, there’s no “right” answer. It just depends what you’re looking for in your next position. Bring these questions up in your interview process to help make an informed decision.
Future Direction of the Company.
Note: These questions are especially geared towards leadership, as they will be responsible for driving the company forward.
- Where do you see the company heading in the next 5 years and what challenges do you anticipate up ahead?
This question helps you determine if the company is moving in a direction that you also want to head towards.
For example, when it comes to engineering team growth, are they looking to scale quickly or will the team likely stay small for a few years? When it comes to company growth, what does the competitive landscape look like?
Addressing the company’s future direction and anticipated challenges will give you an idea of how forward thinking the leadership is (and how prepared they’ll be to face challenges).
- Where does the company stand financially?
Some key things to learn include how much funding they have and what their runway looks like. When was the last round of funding? When do they expect to raise the next round? Is there an exit strategy – do they want to sell the company or keep growing it?
Asking these questions will shed light on the leadership, including how they view finances and how they strategically plan for the future.
- How does the company balance new rounds of funding with hiring new employees?
Once a startup raises its initial round of funding, they typically enter a phase of rapid hiring. It’s important to balance that growth with revenue and staying profitable.
Their answers to these questions will help you gauge how stable the company is and whether the leadership team has a strategy to grow in a stable way.
- Is the company growing? If so, how?
Hiring new team members because there’s been a high level of turnover is totally different than if they just raised a new round of funding and are looking to grow the team.
Note: Even if they’re not currently growing in a significant way, it’s good to hear how leadership thinks about scalability in the future.
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Tech Team Culture.
- What’s the company’s mission in your own words?
It’s easy to find the answer to this question on the website, but it’s more meaningful to hear how someone in technical leadership answers.
Their view of the mission will impact their leadership of the development work if they understand what they’re building, why they’re building it, and feel excited about creating that product.
- What are the biggest problems you’re solving and what technologies are you using to solve those problems?
This question is a great way to get an insider’s perspective on the product they’re building and the purpose of the product. The answer to this question tells you about the significance of the engineering team. You’ll also find out what tech stack they’re building with – a valuable insight to ensure your skills align with their stack and that you’d like to spend time working with that stack.
- Can you describe the engineering team culture and structure?
You’ll be spending every day with these people, so it’s important to make sure you’ll enjoy working in that environment.
Some helpful things to know include how often the technical team meets, how they collaborate virtually, what the team structure looks like, and how they keep learning and growing together (think reading clubs, brown bags, etc.).
You might also want to ask what the growth plans are for the engineering team. Some candidates would prefer to stay on a small team, while others are looking for a growing team since it could provide leadership opportunities to step into.
It’s also worth asking what technical processes they like, such as code reviews or the frequency of shipping code. The answer to this question will help you uncover unique things about how the engineering team operates.
- What tech stack did you start building with and how has it evolved over time?
This question tells you a lot about the engineering team. Who makes the key decisions? Do the developers have a voice when it comes to choosing the stack? What is their thought process and strategy behind the stack they’re working with?
You’ll be part of future technology changes, so it’s helpful to learn about these dynamics among the engineering team. Interestingly enough, the tech stack is one of the main reasons engineers like working at startups.
- What is your team’s approach to tech debt?
Early stage product teams are producing tons of tech debt. They’re optimizing to get stuff out the door and get early customers. But it’s important to have a plan so the tech debt doesn’t overwhelm them down the line.
- What do the hours typically look like?
Do they value work-life balance or do they need team members who can dedicate long hours to the job? When’s the last time someone worked over the weekend to ship something? It’s important to know what to expect so you can be well prepared for the demands of the job.
This is a great question for someone who would work as your peer, since their role will likely require the same amount of time as yours.
Bonus Tip: Some startup engineers recommended that candidates look up the startup’s GitHub account since many of them provide public access to their libraries. By doing this, you’ll get to see who has worked on the code, as well as how the engineering team interacts and communicates. It also allows you to see what stack they’re working with and make sure that you have the right experience for the job.
- What is the title of this position and why are you hiring for it?
Titles can be ambiguous at startups and job descriptions tend to be vague. For those who want to blaze their own trail, that openness is exciting and fun. But before you take the position, you’ll want to understand what the role truly entails.
They’re hiring because there’s a gap on their team. This question tells you what the gap is and what they expect from the new employee filling that place.
- What is the engineering team structure and how would I fit in?
Get the lay of the land by digging deeper with these sorts of questions: Is it totally flat or is there a hierarchy? How are the technical teams set up? If you joined the team, who would be your immediate boss and peers?
It’s especially valuable to know who you’d be working alongside of. Do a gut check about the team you’d be working with. Startups tend to be tight-knit, so it’s worth making sure you’ll get along with the team!
- What would the first few months look like on the job and what would you expect of me in this time?
This is a good indicator that the startup has thought through what the role will entail at the beginning. Talking through this timeframe is also a great way to make sure you’re set up to succeed if you take the position.
- What does compensation look like for this position?
You’ll also want to know if equity is an option and at what percentage. What are the compensation growth opportunities down the road? When you’re having this conversation, it’s also worth asking about the perks and benefits since a lot of startup’s offerings are unique.
Note: For the women in tech, check out this guide to salary negotiation.
- How have you grown in your technical career while being at this company?
This is a great way to uncover the growth potential of this startup.
What things are other developers learning and how are they progressing in their careers by being at this company? Dig a little deeper by asking them what the growth tracks look like.
Career paths look different for every engineering team. Now’s your time to make sure you’re excited about the paths available if you join!
- How are employees promoted?
You’ll learn a lot about what a company values in their employees based on their answer to this question. Do they care more about credentials and seniority or do they focus on performance and contribution? It’s also a great way for you to start thinking about what it will take for you to move up.
Bonus Tip: If you’re inclined to join the team, clearly communicate what you want (and need) to be a successful contributor. Performance reviews and promotions aren’t necessarily as frequent in the startup space. The best time to start advocating for yourself is after the initial job offer, but before accepting.
This list is certainly not exhaustive. Everyone has different priorities for their ideal position. For some candidates, company culture is everything. Others might prioritize a role that enables the most career growth. Still others are looking for the highest compensation opportunities. Depending on your priorities, you might have to bring up additional questions or dive in deeper to certain categories.
You’ll also want to make sure you understand what startups are looking for in a developer and what questions a startup hiring manager might ask you.
As you walk through the interview process with a small business or startup, this kind of deep dive will ensure you can be confident in the decision you make!