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How to fail an interview for Engineering Manager role (or become the best candidate)

November 2, 2011 Leave a comment

Thinking like a CTO for a moment ..

You just learned that one of your best software engineering managers is leaving the company.    Rapidly growing, still private “always in the news” company made an offer that no one could refuse:  great salary, stock options, complete freedom to build and operate a team with critical and exciting challenges.

You start interviewing candidates.  It’s very likely that at least 100 good candidates will go through a recruiting process (if including candidates seriously considered by a recruiter) before 10 excellent candidates with a strong potential may emerge.

I realized that this blog entry is almost a necessity after interviewing three candidates recently.

Thinking like a candidate for a moment …

You will fail the interview very quickly unless you can demonstrate your commitment to software engineering management fundamentals.   Let’s work together and try to become the best candidate for the job of an Engineering Manager.    What are these fundamentals?

1.  Ability to take ONE objective (for example:  a new product) and methodically decompose it into MANY components, features, functions.   Can you decompose a computer into a logical component model?   See below for a a real life example from a recent interview.

2.  Once Number 1 is known:  ability to translate into roles and skills required to execute?  For example:  a UI intensive product will require some number of UI engineers.   How many do you need?  10 or 1,000?  Can you justify your answer?   The accuracy of your answer will lead to either the right amount of money spent or lots of money being spent.   Product profitability may be at risk.

3.  Once Number 2 is known:  ability to hire, lead and manage A+ engineers.  Do you know the difference between a great engineer and a stellar engineer?

4.  Put 1 and 2 on the same page.   Can you show on the schedule how all components / features / functions will be engineered and properly tested?

5.  Then execute.   Can you manage the engineering process and adjust, adjust, adjust – without compromising the objective?

“Can you decompose a computer into a logical component model” is one of my favorite interview questions.   If a candidate cannot envision the final deliverable and how the building blocks have to be engineered, he / she will not succeed.

One of the candidates interviewed by me recently provided many valuable insights that I’d like to share with prospective candidates and hiring managers alike.

“Frank” began to quickly identify components of a computer:   keyboard, monitor, CPU …

The first two components – keyboard and monitor – are very good answers.   Is CPU a good first answer?   I asked him to tell me if CPU is a valid component at this point.   He could not answer my question.   I asked him how the keyboard talks to the CPU.   Where is the linkage?    After some time, Frank correctly identified motherboard as the next logical component, which does have a CPU and a keyboard controller attachment.  Now the linkage can be made.

But why is motherboard an important component at this level?  He could not answer this question.

Because the motherboard …

– Is of a certain size and will drive the requirements of another component:  desktop case or laptop form factor
– Depending on the case, it may need certain cooling requirements (one or two fans)

The answers are not important.  What is important for an engineering manager is to demonstrate what I call ‘component awareness’ which drives many other requirements:  interfaces between components, requirements of other components, integrating testing needs.

Unless someone can see the bridge, one cannot hire structural engineers to build the bridge.  Which bring me to the next fundamental competency a candidate must demonstrate:  ability to hire, lead, and manage a team of A+ contributors.

Other than skills and experience, stellar engineers (true A+ contributors) have consistently demonstrated the natural ability to coach and mentor other engineers.   If you can hire engineers who can organically replicate excellence in the team, you will be a better engineering manager because you will deliver a much better product than your competition.

Please do not fail the next interview for an Engineering Manager.   Focus on the fundamentals.   Become the best candidate.