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Got an interview coming up where you’ll be vetting an engineer?  Whether you are an experienced interviewer, or a novice, you know that your careful choice of interview questions will be a unique opportunity to peer inside the candidate’s thought process. Done well, you’ll learn far more than their abilities at a “skills and knowledge” level. You’ll succeed at discerning their higher-level thoughts and ambitions in the engineering profession.

Although “engineer” can cover a wide variety of positions ranging from software engineer to structural engineer and beyond, here we’ll try to get your creative juices flowing by posing three key interview questions that we think apply broadly to just about any kind of engineer.

Key Interview Question 1

Question:

What’s the most complex system that you’ve designed or maintained, and what made it so complex?

Rationale:

We love this question because it reveals two crucial insights simultaneously.  First, it gives the engineer an opportunity to shine, because it’s broad enough to give the candidate a chance to select from a whole career of experiences and select one that was particularly memorable.  Hopefully the response includes a sense of pride, purpose, and enthusiasm.  We’ve rarely met an engineer that discusses a difficult engineering challenge without cracking a joyful smile and reminiscing about what made the project memorable.

Second, it gives the candidate a chance to reflect on what about the project was complex.  See, engineers that like complexity for complexity’s sake, might be the ones that end up over-engineering what could have been a simple system.  But, engineers who are reflective about complex projects and articulate the ways in which it could have been simplified, are (in our experience) “learners” that grow in their career by accumulating an ever-deeper understanding which solutions are appropriately scaled for the particular challenge at hand.

A great engineer will answer this question with excitement about what was achieved, but also insight into what could have been done differently to ease the complexity.

Key Interview Question 2

Question:

Describe the traits that you most highly value amongst engineering colleagues that you have worked with, or ideally would want to work with.

Rationale:

Interview questions similar to this one, should strike a note with just about any engineer.  It’s hard to imagine an engineer that doesn’t look with an analytical eye at their peer group, and value those that are especially outstanding at what they do.  But, what’s the measuring stick for an “outstanding” peer?

If the measuring stick is raw technical ability, that usually misses the point.  If the measuring stick is a blend of raw technical ability paired with a sensibility for advancing the business of the company, then you may be on to a candidate that has a rare blend of engineering and business acumen.  That could be transformative for your organization.

We love seeing candidates reply to this question by describing traits that signal an high value on both engineering proficiency and a holistic view on creating great outcomes for the organization in which the engineers are toiling so diligently.

Key Interview Question 3

Question:

As the team grows around you, you may have the opportunity to become a deeper and deeper subject matter expert, or the opportunity to become a manager of people.  What thoughts do you have on navigating that career-path decision if and when it arises?

Rationale:

This question recognizes, point blank, a timeless challenge in the world of engineering management.  We’ve seen more than a few organizations where engineers feel like their career will stall if they decide to remain focused on becoming a deeper subject-matter-expert instead of a manager.  While our best clients are able to emphasize an opportunity for advancement on both paths (SME vs manager), they report that the matter can be a delicate one with candidates.

We don’t necessarily look to engineering candidates to have made the career path decision with finality, or a ready-made answer to interview questions like this one.  Instead, we look to engineering candidates to be thoughtful in their level of interest in these two career paths. We also look for them to be perceptive about the types of career development activities they might pursue to further refine their understanding of which path they might prefer.  Further, some candidates may even weave a path that successfully integrates both career paths. A candidate with an especially evolved career plan might articulate some foresight that hints at this.

Bottom line, putting this “elephant in the room” of interview questions out in the open, is a big win. It gives the candidate a platform on which to show sophisticated thinking about the engineering profession.

Interview Questions for Engineers – Wrap-Up

The best interview questions not only induce a “knowledge and skills” response, but rather go much broader. High-quality interview questions include ones that also probe for the candidate’s ambitions and thoughts on their profession. When an interview ends with deep insight about the candidate, beyond just skills and knowledge, both parties win by improving their ability to discern a match versus a mismatch.

We wish you the very best luck planning your interview questions for engineers. If you want to talk 1:1 about how our solutions can guide the process, hop over to our demo page anytime!

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