Get hired as an Engineering Manager - part 4: Interviewing

Get hired as an Engineering Manager - part 4: Interviewing
Mizuki Heitaro: Abstract Pattern Portfolio (1930)

We’re covering the entire process of getting hired as an EM together with Péter Batiz, an experienced consultant who’s been helping startups and scale-ups find tech talent for more than a decade. We divided the “getting hired” process into five parts:

🔎 Capturing your Preferences
📝 Perfecting your CV and LinkedIn profile
📥 Searching and Applying
💬 Interviewing - this article!
🤝 Closing the offer

Following our series, we arrived at the point where you start discussing your application with a company. In this part, we’ll explain what to expect and give some tips to prepare for the various types of interviews for an Engineering Manager position.


Before you start your first interview, there are a lot of things you can work on to increase your chances of passing them, and eventually getting an offer. Some of these preparations are not tied to a specific job application, so you can begin working on them while sending out applications, minimizing the work you need to do once you have an interview arranged.

Get yourself ready

Know the job description inside out, because that is the best document to understand the problem the company wants to solve by hiring an Engineering Manager. If something is unclear, take notes as potential questions to ask during interviews. Study your own application too, what customizations you did on your CV for this specific role, and what cover letter you included. Just like the job description is what you can rely on, your application is the most important thing the company will use to start to get to know you. By the end of your preparation, you should be able to answer the following questions (some of which might even be asked from you directly):

  • What do you think of our product?
  • Why do you want this job?
  • What makes you an ideal candidate for this job?
  • What will be a challenge for you in this job?

Prepare for the introduction. Practice a short version of your professional history. Talk about accomplishments, not responsibilities. What you achieved tells a better story of your experiences and skills than your title. Add a minimum amount of personal detail to help break the ice and build a human connection. Most interviewers are similarly stressed as you are, and the goal is to show that you’ll work together well. End with why are you leaving or why did you leave your last company. Avoid any temptation to badmouth and complain. Even the worst situations can be euphemized with a statement like “our cultural values grew apart” or “the opportunities for me to grow ran out”, giving you a chance to show empathy and an objective character. If you’re still employed, a great addition could be “I’m not planning to leave, but when I saw this position, I got excited because [some connection with the role, company, or product]”.

Have a list of stories ready to pull out for (almost) any question. This can be a superpower when you realize that the story you tell is more important than how much it answers the original question. (Politicians do it all the time – make sure you don’t overuse it.) Use the following structure when writing your stories:

  1. Hook: Connect your story to the question and give a high-level summary of what you’re about to say. For example, if the question was “Tell us about a mistake you made”, then you can start with “Let me tell the time I prematurely promoted someone”. The same story about unclear expectations could be used to answer a different question about career ladders or one about soft skills, mentorship, etc. The “hook” is different every time, but the story remains the same. 
  2. Problem/Opportunity: Describe the situation, and the circumstances in which the challenge or opportunity manifested. Make sure your interviewers understand what you had to solve. 
  3. Actions: Explain what you did, what options you were considering, what metrics you selected to improve, what risks and downsides you identified, how you made your decision, etc. Even in teamwork, show your personal role.
  4. Results: Show the impact of your actions. Use data if you can, but qualitative metrics are fine too. Make sure you tie your results to business goals. 

Find 4-6 diverse stories showcasing the best challenges you solved in various areas spanning from team execution to people management. Having these written down and practiced will be a solid help in answering behavioral interview questions. 

Now is the time to start preparing your questions too. Have a running list of things you want to figure out before accepting an offer. You might add to this list as you progress in the interviews, or cross some out without asking when the answer becomes obvious after some discussions. If you’re unprepared for "Do you have any questions for us?", you make yourself look uninterested, disengaged, and a bit desperate willing to accept anything that pays a salary. The right questions however not only help you evaluate the job but boost your chances of an offer too.

You will find example questions to ask and topics to avoid at various interview stages below. While these questions give a good opportunity to show the interviewers your thinking and experiences, make sure they are honestly reflecting your genuine interest, otherwise you’ll come off as fake.  

Questions that can be appropriate at basically any stage and give you some information about the company’s culture:

  • How has the company changed since you joined?
  • What happens during a typical day of yours?
  • What’s your favorite part of working here?

Don’t bring up sensitive topics (eg: “What’s the ethnicity distribution in the engineering department?”) or obvious questions (eg: “What’s the target audience of your product?”). Avoid being too critical (eg: “By now you should’ve moved to a microservices architecture, no?”) – being judgemental about anything the company does portrays you as a know-it-all or a showoff. You don’t have all the context, and anyway, you should assume they are doing their best to solve their problems.

Company research

Make sure you know what products the company is making money from. For bigger companies, the job description might include the department or team, from which you can figure out what subproduct you’ll probably be responsible for. If possible, use it: often even B2B products have trial periods. Document your experience, take notes of what stood out for you during the first use, etc. Be humble and unassuming: what seems like a suboptimal UX flow for you might be a result of months of internal discussions and could be optimized for an important use case unfamiliar to you.

A personal story about assumptions: Back in 2000 preparing for a job interview at Graphisoft, a CAD software developer, I noticed that it was not possible to purchase their product from their website. I was coming from a web development studio lead position, we were just after the dot-com boom, and e-commerce was getting more and more common. I figured it would be smart to point out during the interviews how adding a “Buy now” button to the website could boost their sales. What I didn’t know, as my hiring manager kindly pointed out, was that Graphisoft was relying on a huge international reseller network, and their entire sales operation was built on the personal connection these partners had with their customers. Of course the idea of online purchase came up in internal strategy discussions! Assuming otherwise, with a smug know-it-all attitude could’ve easily backfired. Fortunately, they explained the reason why they consciously decided to drive interest to local resellers instead, giving me a good opportunity to learn about their organization (and eat some humble pie). 

We’re not advising you to hide your opinion about the company’s product, to the contrary: just like winning a parent’s heart is easier by showing interest in their children, you can improve your image by showing how much you care about their product. Just be aware that you have close to zero context compared to the people working on it, so refrain from universal statements and be explicit with your assumptions. 

The second thing you should check about a company is their business standing. It’s hard for non-public ones, but not impossible. Crunchbase is a good source, even their free tier gives you valuable data. Also, check the company’s LinkedIn posts and their own site’s news section, and browse through a few recent Glassdoor reviews. Things you want to find out and be familiar with: recent investment rounds, mergers or acquisitions, main competitors, executive-level leadership changes, layoffs, and other significant events. The point is not necessarily to ask about these during interviews directly, but to increase your familiarity with their situation, help shape your questions indirectly, inform your decision at the end of the process, and show that you’re interested in the opportunity. 

Checklist of the basic things you should know about a company before the first interview:

  • What are their products and how do they make money;
  • Who are their main competitors and how do they rank more or less;
  • What markets are they targeting? B2B vs B2C? US vs International? etc.;
  • If there were any recent news about the company or its products;
  • Rough size of current staff;
  • Company mission and company values if published;
  • What other open jobs do they have currently;
  • Some history: how they started, growth phases, and other significant events.


A few things to check to ensure you have a good interview experience. Most of these are common sense, but we thought it’s worth listing just to be safe.

In the case of online interviews:

  • Don’t do online interviews from suboptimal locations, like bus stops, from the car, a busy café, etc. (All concrete examples!) It’s not just giving a bad impression, it’s also distracting you from being your best self. Reschedule rather than compromise if something prevents you from having an acceptable location for the call. 
  • Test your camera and microphone setup with a friend in advance if it’s been a while since you had videocalls.
  • Restart your computer to minimize the risk of a RAM-hungry app slowing down your videoconferencing software. 
  • Connect to your home router with a cable if possible. This can reduce network lags and random slowdowns that are not uncommon with consumer-grade wifi devices. 
  • Join the call a few minutes before the arranged time. I remember once I was late from an important call because the Zoom auto-update just kicked in when I wanted to join.
  • Don’t disable your camera. Even if you’re calling from a place with a messy background, use blur instead. Not showing your face was always a huge red flag in an interview setting, but with the rising problem of fake interviewers, this is more important than ever. Position the call window under the camera, especially if you have a multi-display setup, to mimic the feeling of continuous eye contact. 
  • Don’t schedule back-to-back calls, leave a bit of time to recharge between them to ensure you can be your best self. Use this time to capture your thoughts and feelings while they are fresh, so they are not mixed with the subsequent call. 

If you have in-office interviews, you should consider:

  • Doublechecking how to get to the company. It’s better to find a café nearby to sit in a bit than arriving late. Count some time at the reception, and arrive 5-10 minutes early. 
  • If you’re unsure of the dress code (for example, applying for a bank or a government office), it’s perfectly fine to ask the recruiter directly when scheduling. Either way, make sure you’re not too uncomfortable in your chosen outfit.
  • Bring a notebook with some prepared questions and plenty of place to take notes.
  • Make sure you’re not hungry, but also, don’t go interviewing right after a heavy meal.

Interview rounds

The number and type of interviews differ from one company to another. We listed a few typical ones, more or less in the order that you might encounter them. In the current climate, especially for an Engineering Manager role, expect most of these to be a part of your process – though companies do differ, and it’s entirely possible that you won’t have a chance for an executive call, or won’t be asked to do a technical test or case study.

The recruiter call

This is usually the first contact, and it’s most likely online or on the phone. The recruiter describes the job and the company hopefully a bit deeper than the job post, and you explain your professional history and your motivations to join the team. The goal of this call is to rule out red flags and to validate that you’re a possible match worth pursuing. 

Many applicants undervalue the recruiter call or see it as an obstacle to pass in order to have a chance for more important conversations with engineering people. This attitude can easily backfire and make you miss an important opportunity to boost your chances of an offer. What this way of thinking fails to understand is that the recruiter also wants you to succeed. Their job is to hire people, and if you convince them that you’re a good candidate, you can boost their success metrics, and they can be your best internal ally. They are the ones who schedule interviews for you, who push or burry your application in the updates to the hiring manager, who debrief interviewers after they’ve talked with you, who can speed up or slow down a hiring process, and who represent your counteroffer if it comes to negotiating. Winning them over makes everything smoother for both of you and is a key to a successful hiring.

Therefore, try to build a genuine relationship with the recruiter. Be kind, flexible, and empathetic. Understand that they are usually not a technical person. Insisting on questions they can’t answer, theatrically saying “I guess I’ll ask this from a technical person” is not just inefficient but can also be perceived as disrespectful and humiliating – in a situation where your main goal should be building a positive relationship! Sure, you might want to rule out a position where you need to work with a specific stack, and it should’ve been in the job description, but the recruiter can’t help anything about either at this point. If all goes well now, you’ll have a chance to ask your technical questions in the next round.

We list a few example questions that can inspire you to create your own at this stage, though keep in mind that this is usually a shorter call, not leaving too much time for deeper discussions. 

  • What is the primary reason for this role opening?
  • What are the key qualities you’re looking for in a candidate for this position?
  • What does the hiring process look like, and what are the next steps?

Crucially, this (or at some companies, the hiring manager interview) is the only stage where you can expect to discuss compensation – the next chance will be after you receive an offer.

Basic negotiation tactics would suggest you need to delay sharing any information about your compensation expectations as much as possible. The reality is that oftentimes you simply cannot pass this round without clarifying how much you’d be willing to work for. A good compromise is to share a range, explaining that you have other important criteria in choosing your next job too, and that salary is just one part of the equation. Still, you do need to share a range, so try to set the bottom of it to the minimum you’re still willing to work for, provided everything else checks your boxes – and set the top of it to the amount you’d need to be paid if you’re forced to make big compromises in your preferences. Prepare this range specifically for the job you're interviewing for before the first call, and track where you are in the spectrum after each call.

Also, depending on the company, expect that a significant part of your compensation can be above your fixed salary (equity, bonuses, benefits, etc.). It’s appropriate to discuss benefits with the recruiter, especially if something is a big factor for you in accepting a job offer. The details of health insurance, company-supported daycare, home office, vacation policy, etc. will probably be explained to you by the recruiter, but if not, you can bring the topic up when talking about compensation, with something like “I’d like to make between X and Y per year, the amount depending on how the job details match my goals, experiences, and preferences – and additional benefits the company might offer. Can you explain these a bit?

Finally, some companies do various, mostly technical screenings at this stage too, to minimize the time impact of interviewing on other departments. There’s more chance to face these in strictly technical positions, but it’s not impossible for an EM one too. The questions are usually not in the expertise area of the recruiter, and your only goal is to ensure you’re not rejected based on one of your answers. Therefore, it’s not the time to get creative, go with the safest answer that’s most likely on the paper they are reading. Include keywords in your answers to increase your chance of passing this awkward round, and to the point above on building a relationship: try to be nice and respectful.

The hiring manager interview

This can be the most important discussion in your process: you meet your future boss and they meet the next member of their team. Both of you need to figure out if you can imagine working with each other. You should ask questions to gather information for that goal, and the hiring manager will do the same. They’ll ask for clarifications about your professional past, focusing on the personal impact of your role. They want to understand what exactly the EM title meant at your previous company because it's probably slightly different here. Expect behavioral questions too. This is where you can start using your prepared stories!

Some managers like to share a problem they currently have and ask how you’d solve it. Be confident but humble. The main goal is not to show that you know the answer to a question, that’s just a small part of the interview. The goal is to convince them that you can be trusted with making decisions at the company. Show your way of thinking, and walk them through your decision-making process. 

Good questions you can ask at this point can be:

  • Can you describe the organization and how this role fits within it?
  • How do you measure success in this role?
  • Can you give an overview of the team I would be working with?
  • Can you provide examples of recent projects the team has worked on?
  • What are the biggest challenges the team is facing now?
  • How does the engineering function collaborate with the product- and design one?
  • What is your approach to managing technical debt?
  • How does the company support professional development and career growth?

There are no topics that are strongly advised to avoid at this stage, though don’t bring up compensation unless it wasn’t discussed in the recruiter call (which is extremely rare).

Technical test

Depending on the company and how hands-on is the Engineering Manager position you’re applying to, this will be a separate stage or part of another interview (usually the hiring manager one). If there are strong technical expectations for the position, you can prepare as you would for a Staff Engineer role – but usually, the expectations are less technical for an EM. 

A recent interview process I went through was fairly typical, consisting of a small coding exercise and a system design task. The coding challenge was writing an algorithm for a simple problem, in this case, giving the appropriate amount of various bills and coins as change after a payment. There are millions of similar exercises on HackerRank or LeetCode, or if you want to practice with something more exciting (and gradually frustrating), check out Advent of Code. I was allowed to use my own environment, shared my screen, and walked the interviewers through my solution. This is key: the goal of these interviews is not just about proving your technical expertise, but also about showing how you work, communicate, and collaborate

The approach I find useful in these cases is to make all assumptions explicit and confirmed by the interviewers, and then try to do a rough naive solution first, something unoptimized that simply just works. Once you have that, explain bottlenecks, missing input validations, potential optimizations, and ask if they would like you to address any of the issues. 

The system design exercise was about creating charts from a fleet of small hardware sensors. Explicit assumptions and asking questions are even more important here. (Do I need to care about the reliability of the network? How about its security? What’s the size and frequency of the data? How long do we need to store it? Can we control anything on the hardware? What are our other constraints? etc.) After all, this is just a discussion to see if you have the experience and knowledge to understand typical problem patterns and their solution options. 

Case study

While it requires serious time investment from candidates, it’s common to ask applicants at EM positions to prepare some kind of case study, or similar homework. This is usually a managerial problem that the candidate has a few days to solve and present to a panel of future peers. Typical case study exercises are about organizations, processes, metrics, execution- and people management, etc.

An actual example case study I had to present a few years ago was something like this (summarized from a 1-page document):

A start-up’s engineering and product team faces issues with organization, productivity, quality, and high employee turnover. Your task is to restructure the team, measure and enhance productivity, and improve release quality and developer retention. Provide solutions with justifications, focusing on creating a cohesive, efficient, and sustainable team structure and processes. 

The key to solving these tasks is to understand what the interviewers are looking for. To oversimplify: they don’t care about the solution, but how you got there and how you present it. There’s a misconception that companies outsource their problems to candidates for free. It’s rarely true, not just because candidates lack the necessary organizational context to be effective, but mainly because there’s no right and wrong solution – but there are right and wrong approaches.

A few tips to be successful here:

  • Be structured. Start with your concept, explain the steps, and then summarize them again at the end. Don’t dwell on technicalities, stay high level unless asked for details. 
  • Make your assumptions explicit. The first slide of my presentation to the above case study was a list of my assumptions: that the product is a web-based SaaS, without extreme traffic, “the house is on fire” problems and hard regulatory or SLA requirements. This way of thinking shows that you’re experienced enough to know typical edge cases that can require a specific approach.
  • Avoid generalizations. Understand that you don’t have enough context, and your solution is one possible approach. Emphasize that you have experience with your proposed solution, but of course, you can imagine something else working too. Try to think about the drawbacks and risks of your solution in advance, you might be asked about those during the presentation.
  • Narrate. Arguably any advanced LLM can solve these problems today and create a passable presentation. You need to convincingly present this work, to avoid casting any doubt on your knowledge and experience. Share your thinking, what were your considerations, how you ruled out options, which part of the task was easier and where are you less confident in your solution. This transparency can be a great jumping point for some follow-up discussions. 

These discussions are usually time-pressed, but if you have a chance, use the opportunity that you are likely talking with your potential future peers, and ask them about their work experience. What processes work well and what do they think could be improved; what’s the decision-making process at the company; how do teams and functions collaborate; what project management tools do they use; etc. Avoid asking too specific questions about the actual role you’re applying to, as often they don’t have that deep context and it’s rarely the best use of the time you have with them.

The executive call

Depending on the seniority of the position and the size of the organization, you may or may not have a chance to talk with a CTO or CEO. This is another typical call where you can rely on well-prepared stories. Underline the impact and business outcome of your actions. Besides behavioral questions, you can expect ones about your career goals and aspirations, to ensure those match what the company can offer. 

These discussions can also give you a unique chance to understand the organization you’re considering joining. Prepare well with questions that can help you gauge critical aspects of the company. A few examples:

  • How do the company’s core values influence day-to-day operations?
  • How are key decisions made within the company?
  • Can you describe how collaboration happens across departments?
  • How does the company ensure remote employees feel included and engaged?
  • How do you support and develop your engineering managers?
  • How does the company encourage innovation and experimentation? 
  • What is the attitude towards taking risks and potential failures?

Avoid too specific topics, they might give an impression that you have a hard time seeing the big picture and easily get lost in details.

Team interview

Many processes include a peer- or engineer-interview step. If possible, try to meet the actual team you’re applying to lead. This can give you a great chance to test if there’s chemistry, understand the good and bad side of the work, what challenges the team is facing, and what they expect from their manager. Even if you can’t meet the team itself, questions about these areas can give you useful insights. 

Questions you can expect from engineers are usually about technical leadership, decision-making, team representation, and career support. A few examples:

  • How did you handle tech debt in your teams?
  • What’s your approach to resolving a technical disagreement between two seniors on your team?
  • How do you ensure technical considerations are represented in product decisions?
  • What do you expect from a Staff engineer compared to a Senior one?

The advice above is valid here too: be explicit with your assumptions, ask clarifying questions, understand that you don’t have all the context, and be empathic. Make your answer a discussion starter, and try to start building a human connection.

Questions you can ask from developers that give you good information:

  • What do you expect from your manager?
  • What’s the goal of the feature you’re working on currently?
  • How would you describe code health in the stack you’re familiar with?
  • What change would have the biggest positive impact on your current developer experience?
  • How does the team handle tight deadlines or high-pressure situations?

Offer call

If everything goes well, many companies like to make a final call to present their offer. The stated goal of this is to give you a chance to ask further questions and clarify any missing details. The hidden one often is to get you to accept the offer on the spot. We’ll discuss more this phase in the final episode of our series, but for now, if you’re in this situation, resist the temptation to accept the offer right on the call. You’re overwhelmed with positive emotions clouding your judgment. Be very thankful, but explain that you need a few more days to think through the offer. This will give you some time to identify missing information and decide if and how you want to negotiate in a more objective setting. 

One way you can ask for some time respectfully is to just say that this is an important decision for you that you don’t want to take lightly, and would like to consult close friends and family members before committing to what you hope will be a long relationship.

Don’t stretch this too long though, in the current job market, there’s a good chance a company already has a plan B candidate they can extend an offer to. Aim to give a definitive answer in a few days max, otherwise, you risk having the offer rescinded.

Final thoughts

As you’re probably familiar with from the other side of the table, hiring decisions usually involve multiple people, some of whom you don’t even have a chance to talk to, and can take a long time. Especially in the current job climate, where there’s an abundance of job-seekers for the few open positions, companies simply have no incentives to move faster than what’s comfortable for them – but they risk a lot if they hire someone who ends up a bad fit for the role that might be the only EM opening they have for a long time. So don’t be surprised if the whole process takes half a dozen rounds with frustratingly long delays in between. It’s not uncommon now that a month will pass between the application and the offer, and if you’re applying for a Senior EM or above role, the entire process can take even more time. 

Because of the high number of applicants, low time pressure, and high risk of a bad hire, companies can now delay the rejection of someone until later rounds, which might feel unusual and unfair. Interviews used to be go/no go decisions, now the question is not if the candidate is good enough to proceed, but who are the best ones to advance to the next round. Don’t take it personally, it’s the current sentiment that drives these decisions. You would do the same as a hiring manager. Understanding these circumstances can help you set appropriate expectations, so you can maintain your interest and show the best side of yourself despite the challenging circumstances.

If everything goes well, eventually you’ll pass all rounds and the recruiter or the hiring manager will let you know they are ready to make an offer. There are important considerations you should take into account at this point, and we’ll explain them in the next article about closing the offer.

Thanks to Benjamin Heinbuechner for giving valuable feedback on an earlier version of this article. 

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