Dec 9, 2020
How to do well in software engineering 'culture' interviews.
I enjoy culture interviews. No bullshit, I actually do.
Weird? Maybe… But this wasn’t always the case with me. As a self-proclaimed introvert, only a few years ago the word ‘interview’ was enough to strike fear deep into my heart.
But I have come to enjoy culture interviews. I know that I can do well in them because I have spent a long time getting good at them, out of necessity, and that in turn makes them enjoyable.
Now the shoe is on the other foot, and I am often the interviewer rather than the interviewee in the process, I wanted to write about how to do them well and share some of my methods and tips that have helped me in the past.
Monzo for a time was the UK’s most desirable startup to work at. It is competitive to work there, a lot of people apply and are unfortunately unsuccessful. Attest is currently Londons 5th Best startup to work for. Both companies put a lot of emphasis on their cultural interviews to ensure they maintain their top quality engineering cultures and I fortunately did well enough in both of their interview process’ to be offered a job.
Whilst this article alone is not enough to make you a strong interviewee, it gives you a handful of actionable and useful tips to set you on the right path. As with anything in life, practice makes perfect and interviewing is honestly no different. Practice with a partner, a friend or anyone that is willing to listen to you.
But without further ado, let’s get going.
A quick search online bought up the following definition:“Culture questions are used to single out candidates whose values, beliefs and behavior fit in with your company’s culture”. Company culture is a broad topic, including elements such as environment, the companies mission, leadership styles, ethics, values and goals. Maintaining culture and living by these shared beliefs is an important part of a companies success, both for the employees that are working there as well as helping draw in future talent.
“A strong culture increases net income for a company 765% over ten years” - Daniel Coyle
It is not uncommon for companies to publish their cultural values online for public viewing. For some strong examples of culture, I recommend looking over the following resources:
Defining culture means that staff members are much more likely to be passionate about the work they are doing which in turn promotes productivity and good relationships between co-workers.
Ensuring that those who are applying for jobs at the company share the same sets of professional beliefs and values ensures that you are bringing in people who are going to align with the company and the people who are already there.
Often we see this referred to as ‘cultural fit’ - although I hate that term. It implies someone has to blend in with what is already there, which in turn suggests that diversity is not necessarily celebrated if someone doesn’t ‘fit in’ to the company. Personally, I just like to think that culture is more about these shared sense of professional values.
The culture interview is designed to test for these professional values. This is done asking questions regarding past experiences in the applicants professional or personal life.
For instance: “Tell us about a time you disagreed with a colleague or a manager” is a typical question you would find in a culture interview. Not only does the interviewee get the opportunity of sharing their experience, backing up what is on their CV, but the interviewers are able to get a clear insight into how certain situations would be handled, extracting valuable information about what the candidates values and beliefs are.
Whilst culture interviews are not technically challenging, they can be perceived as hard by some. I believe this is due to a number of reasons.
Firstly, they are often difficult to prepare for because these interviews vary so much depending on the company you are applying for. There are so many questions that can be asked that it is nearly impossible to think about all of the answers prior to the interview (although I touch on the value of preparation later in this article).
With a systems architecture interview, you can practice going through the process of creating a scalable system, for instance. Whilst you don’t know the exact scenario/requirements that will be asked for, you know the subject matter and then can prepare as best you can on that topic. A cultural interview could essentially be about anything which means that you need to be able to think on your feet. Although I touch on later how you can prepare for these interviews.
Secondly, you need to use the skill of speaking. Answering the question or talking through a scenario in enough detail whilst making your point eloquently and succinctly, can be hard. It’s not good to waffle on forever, but in contrast, your answers should be long enough that the interviewers are able to extract the information that they need. The good news is though that this part can be practiced. Again, I will come back to this later in the article and run through some methods for practicing speaking.
Having been involved in defining both the cultural interviews at Monzo and Attest, I have a good idea what interviewers want to see from the candidates in these interviews. As I said earlier, a lot of this comes down to specific requirements of the company, however agnostically I think it can roughly be distilled down into three sections.
The foundation of any good company culture is trust. Trust can at times be a hard value to live by but there are plenty of examples where it is important in the workplace - being trusted to deliver critical feedback to their peers when it is due for instance, or to be honest if they are not coping with a workload that has been given to you.
Therefore this often means talking about a hard subject in an interview situation and being critical of yourself. Pick up those instances where you showed honesty and integrity or pick an experience where you know that you could have done something better and show that you can be honest about mistakes that you have made in the past.
In my Monzo interview, I spoke about a time when I struggled to deliver hard feedback to someone I was managing. I have heard people speak about instances where they couldn’t finish a project or needed help with implementing a particularly difficult feature and admitting they needed that help. This showcases integrity.
Whilst it might feel counter intuitive to talk about a time when you messed up or made a mistake, no one is perfect and no one is expecting you to be. Be honest, don’t just speak about the good times as it will make people suspicious.
This is very dependant on the role itself, so make sure you understand the expectations of the job you are applying for in good detail.
If you are going to be a tech lead, talk about past experiences where you showcased your ability to tech lead.
If you are going to be a frontend engineer, talk about past experiences that showcase your ability to be a strong frontend engineer.
You would be surprised at the amount of people that don’t make that connection, never mentioning any instances of leading people when they are applying for a leadership role and have the experience required - it makes it very hard for the interviewer to be able to judge whether or not you are able to do the role.
Don’t forget what you are there to do. Talk about it.
In a similar vein to the first point, you should be looking to talk about instances where you learnt something valuable.
To demonstrate that you have a growth mindset is vital, regardless of what seniority level you are at in your career. It is a strength to be able to say that you make mistakes and then are able to grow from them, that is in fact a very valuable asset to have.
I will repeat because this is important. Preparation is the key to success.
Whilst you may not be able to prepare as specifically for a cultural interview as you would be able to a technical interview, it is still extremely important to dedicate time to preparation. As we see in the previous section, we understand what a company or the interviewer are looking for across three sections, however we can do more and go further to prepare.
Firstly, find out all you can about the company in question and their cultural values. As I linked off to earlier, many companies publicly post their culture decks or write about company culture in blog posts and this is a really great place to start. Familiarise yourself with any content that is out there for the company you are applying for.
The first place to check is the company’s website. Usually they will have a careers page (you may know this already if you have applied!) that goes into some detail about the values or culture of the company. Take a look on their blog as well, or on occasion you will find that the company has a seperate Medium site for more specifically related engineering articles. All great places to discover any relevant information.
Secondly, Glassdoor is a really great place to learn more about the company culture and the interview process of an organisation. This is a site that allows employees to write about their company and share their opinions on what it is like to work there, but it also allows those who have been through the interview process to leave reviews on the interview, regardless of whether they were successful or not. I got some incredibly valuable information from reading through the Engineering Manager interview reviews from Monzo, and had built up a picture in my mind of what the process was going to consist of. The caveat here is often smaller companies will not have a wealth of information on Glassdoor and this works better for larger companies.
Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, make a bank of ‘worthy’ experiences to talk about. The premise of the interview is likely going to be questions about your experiences in previous companies and how you dealt with certain situations. If you take the time to think of and flesh out some of these experiences so they are in your head before the interview then you will have to think on your feet less.
Various topics that are potentially going to come up are things like:
- When did you disagree with someone? Tell us about it.
- What was the most valuable feedback you ever received?
- Can you tell us about a time you managed an under-performer?
If you are lucky, you will have been able to find some example questions similar to the above from Glassdoor that someone previously had been asked in the interview. For the Monzo interview I was lucky enough to have found via Glassdoor five of the questions from applicants before me.
If not it is not the end of the world. Take a few hours before the day of the interview to write down and think about some interesting scenarios like the above questions. This will ensure you are prepared and can spend less time thinking on your feet. Practice, by yourself or with someone else, speaking over these scenarios.
If you do find yourself in a situation where a question has been asked that you do not feel prepared for or that you need to reflect on, then the worst thing you could do is start speaking about the first thing that comes to your head.
It’s a habit that people try and fill a silence by speaking and I have seen it so many times before. I will ask a question and straight away someone starts answering even if they don’t have an example ready yet. It’s easy at this point to start ‘waffling’ as I like to call it, and making a story much longer than it needs to be. Often you will lose the point you were originally trying to make, or even worse, forget the question entirely!
It is ok to take your time to think! Take a deep breath, and make use of this extra time. I would not be against someone saying “I’m just going to take a moment to think” in that scenario. Think about the point you are making before you try and make it.
Following on from the above point, saying less if often (but not always) more.
“But the human tongue is a beast that few can master. It strains constantly to break out of its cage, and if it is not tamed, it will run wild and cause you grief.” - Robert Greene
But actually, I caveat my own point by saying you don’t want to say too little. There is definitely a balancing act to get things right here, saying too little in response to an answer and it can certainly have a detrimental effect, but I strongly advise that if this is a new or difficult situation for you then edge on the side of caution and don’t try and say too much.
Succinctly try and make your point. Speak clearly and steadily. I would be looking at spending no more than two minutes speaking for each question answered. It is too easy if you are speaking for five minutes at a time to lose your train of thought and in doing so forgetting what you were trying to say in the first place.
Again, this comes with practice and the more you do these interviews the better you will get.
Culture is a subject that many people study in-depth, myself included. It is a topic people have written about, so it makes sense to upskill your knowledge on culture as a subject, much as you would do with a technical interview.
I strongly recommend The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle which is a study of some of the most effective organisations in the world and how their cultures make them effective. Understanding some of the concepts in this book and being able to bring that to a culture interview will stand you on very good ground!
I also believe that growing your speaking ability is a worthwhile investment of time, not just for interviewing, but something that you can take forward with you and use to your advantage in any job scenario. I recommend How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. This book completely transformed how I communicate with people around me and has been a incredibly valuable read. Building my communication skill was 100% the most worthwhile time invested in my career, not just for interviewing but for my own progression.
On pondering how best to finish this article, I just wanted to share my thoughts on interviewing in general. As someone who is shy, introverted and by all means not the best speaker in the world, I always viewed interviews as something that stood in my way of good opportunities. I was bad at them, that’s who I was, it was because of my character and because I was shy and that was fact. It defined me at the start of my career because I let it.
However, with time, I have become more comfortable with the whole process. This is due to practice. I think back to the first tech interviews I did at the small local agencies and how big of a car crash they were, and then think back more recently to interviews I had done at the most desirable companies in the country, the only thing that has changed is practice. Practice brings confidence.
To be confident in an interview is the greatest superpower of all. To believe in yourself and to believe that you can get the job is what counts. Remember, they invited you there to interview in the first place so on paper they think you are good enough. You just need to practice, over and over, and then start believing in yourself that you can do it.
As always, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via social media or via the contact page. I am happy to help out in any way that I can.