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Five Questions to Ask your Interviewer

By Miranda Dulin
August 01, 2021
5 min read
Five Questions to Ask your Interviewer

Don’t be caught like a deer in headlights when your interviewer asks if you have any questions for them. These five questions should help you suss out red flags. Additionally, these prompts will demonstrate to your interviewer that you prepared ahead of time and are interested in verifying that the role is the right fit for you.

1. Describe the culture in your own words.

Company culture is generally high on the list of considerations for potential positions. A Glassdoor survey determined that over half of the 5,000 respondents prioritized company culture over salary.

I can definitely say from experience that money only stretches so far to cover misery. I’ve taken a pay cut in the past to escape a toxic culture, and I’m not the only person I know that’s made this choice.

After one particularly robotic interview, I chose to add the phrase “in your own words” as an attempt to break the interviewer out of any pre-programmed material the recruiting department had provided them. I don’t want marketing and recruitment’s words spewed back at me. I want to know the raw thoughts of my potential team members without the benefit of months or years to perfect a marketing message.

If you use this question, be prepared to clarify what you’re asking. I had several interviewers explain that the company had different cultures at different levels or within other business areas. In these cases, I typically asked that they briefly cover each of the different cultures or explain those that would be most relevant to my potential role.

In my recent barrage of interviews, I received all kinds of answers to this question ranging from the refreshing “wholesome” and “we don’t hire assholes” to the concerning “deadline driven” and “Scrum masters are moving out of the PMO.”

Interviewee holding hands up in disgust of the described culture
Be prepared to recognize cultural red flags

You should know what kind of culture you’d jive with and what type of cultures you find toxic. If your reaction to the interviewer’s response is to make the shocked and disgusted face above, this might not be the job for you.

2. What is the team’s biggest challenge?

The role of a scrum master centers around helping a team grow and improve. It stands to reason that your initial focus might be on assisting the team in resolving an ongoing impediment that your interviewer can define.

In these responses, you’re listening for anything that you might feel is too big for you to take on. Or perhaps a challenge that is a sign of a systemic cultural issue that you consider a red flag.

In one interview, the company representative told me that the team’s biggest challenge was hiring team members. Hiring seems to be a common issue with today’s job market, and on the surface wasn’t that concerning to me.

Sun setting on shark surrounded island with marooned skeleton drinking from an empty bottle

However, after digging deeper, I discovered that the team only wanted to hire developers in a specific local because the development team wasn’t remote. Only the scrum master would be remote? No Thanks!

3. What is your Scrum Master pet peeve?

This question served three purposes for me:

  1. Ensure my style aligns with their expectations
  2. Uncovering what future co-workers value
  3. Continuous learning opportunity

Expectation Alignment

Several interviewers indicated that their pet peeve for a scrum master was not standing up to the development team or having no backbone.

There is a lot of reading between the lines that one might do with a response like this. Perhaps the interviewer is a Scrum purist and felt the Scrum Master didn’t enforce the rules to the extent necessary. Maybe the developers are pig-headed and refuse to follow best practices, and this role will always be an uphill battle in that regard.

Scrum Master pushing a rock up a hill signifying perpetual up-hill battle
Be concerned about expectations that feel like perpetual up-hill battles

My leadership style is to convince people to try experiments instead of dictating what a team should do. Would this be perceived as a weakness in this company?

Uncovering what your Future Co-workers Value

One product owner told me that he couldn’t stand when Scrum Master moved tickets around on the board. At first, you might assume he’s a bit of a control freak and wonder if that might be a red flag.

However, he went on to elaborate on why this was such an issue for him. Further conversation revealed that he liked to retain control over those things for which he’s held accountable. Fair enough, I think that’s actually an admirable quality. I wish more people took ownership of their work.

With this elevated understanding, not only will I know to avoid moving tickets without his input, but I’ll also now be able to identify similar scenarios that could strain our working relationship.

Continuous Learning

I found the entire process of job hunting to be an extreme waste of time. In the end, it paid off, but it’s a very high effort, and you won’t see much reward till the end.

To combat this, I wanted to treat each interview as an opportunity to learn something. Whether I’m offered or accept this position, I can still learn something from its interviewers.

The responses to this question helped me determine things that I might incorporate or change to help me be a better Scrum Master, regardless of where I landed.

4. What would you tell me if you wanted to convince me not to take this job?

The point here is to talk about the elephant in the room that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

The question is worded a bit negatively, but I found that it shocked people into being brutally honest.

Stakeholder aggressively yelling down at defensive Scrum Master
Evaluate the potential negatives of each position

One person told me that I’d have to be a glutton for punishment to accept the position because the stakeholders I’d be dealing with were toxic.

One thing to note is that there seemed to be two types of responses to this question. Some people, as previously mentioned, were as honest as they could be, even brutally so. The other kind of response tended to lean toward coaching me. I should determine what I valued in a role and then apply that to what I’ve learned about the role and decide whether it fits me.

The coaches would generally get around to saying something like, “If you’re looking to apply a cookie-cutter process, this isn’t that,” or “if you can’t deal with uncertainty, this won’t be the job for you.” These answers were still valuable as they highlight an aspect of the role that might have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Be aware that some people will interpret this question as “Will I like this job.” Having just met you, they’ll likely feel like they don’t have enough context to answer that, and rightly so.

5. What red flags have I given you throughout this interview?

This question serves two purposes:

  1. It lets me learn where my skills might be improved (either in general or from the perspective of getting better at interviewing).
  2. It allows me to correct their perception where they may have made incorrect assumptions.

Given that most of my interviews were for a Scrum Master role, I developed a habit of focusing on Scrum Master specific skills when I told them about myself. For one position, though, it was vital that I also have skills that might be more in line with a product owner (stakeholder management, for instance).

After asking this question, the interviewer admitted that they weren’t sure how much experience I had with stakeholders. In the last few minutes, I quickly gave them some details about my experience in that area, and I’m confident that I removed that red flag for them.

Interviewer feining that everything is fine by pushing her concerned frown into a smile so she can avoid conflict
Interviewers may wish to avoid conflict by holding back feedback

I should note that I found the phrasing of this question to be very important. Initially, I asked if I’d given the interviewer any red flags. The responses were almost always no. When posing the question as a yes or no answer, I believe it makes it too easy for someone just to say no to avoid conflict. When I posed the inquiry as more of an assumption (there were indeed red flags, and I’m prepared to hear them), interviewers were more forthcoming with information.

Works Consulted

TLDR

Big-eyed interviewee starring blankly slack-jawed and frozen in indecision
Don't be this chick when it's time to ask your questions
You’ll have a finite amount of time in an interview to perform due diligence. Don’t waste that time frozen with indecision. Choose thoughtful and revealing questions.


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Miranda Dulin

Miranda Dulin

Scrum Master

Table Of Contents

1
1. Describe the culture in your own words.
2
2. What is the team’s biggest challenge?
3
3. What is your Scrum Master pet peeve?
4
4. What would you tell me if you wanted to convince me not to take this job?
5
5. What red flags have I given you throughout this interview?
6
Works Consulted
7
TLDR

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