Lessons learned on an Engineering Manager job search

Lesson 1: Even if the role doesn’t involve coding, you may have to prove you can code. Half of the companies I interviewed with put me through a coding challenge of some sort, even though the role is management and team building. Companies want to make sure you can understand what your team is talking about and maybe help out during crunch time.

My advice for those challenges is:

  1. Add a lot of debug output and run your code often. Interviewers seem to love that.
  2. Talk your way through everything that you do, and feel free to Google as needed.
  3. You want a quick and dirty solution, not a beautiful one. Aim for the crappiest thing that works, and then ask if there’s value in cleaning it up. Usually they’ll say no.

Lesson 2: It’s a numbers game. I applied to about 20 places and only ended up getting interviews with 4. I got offers from 2 of those so my offer-to-application ratio is 1 in 10. I ended up accepting an offer from a company that I almost didn’t bother applying to. They won me over during the interview process. So apply anywhere and everywhere, because you never know which company may surprise you.

Lesson 3: Start with the ones you don’t care about. Your first few interviews may be rough, especially if you haven’t done it in a while. Make sure to get those out of the way with companies that you don’t have your heart set on. That way you’ll have rehearsed answers to common questions and you’ll be free of the nerves by the time you get to the companies you want.

Lesson 4: Remember it’s an interview. This is one of the rare situations where vulnerability and being 100% authentic can get you into trouble. I had a couple interviews where I was a little too relaxed and treated it like a casual conversation. The point of an interview is for a company and a perspective employee to sell themselves to each other, not to build a strong relationship with your interviewer. My habits, which help me in building teams, failed me in interviewing.

Lesson 5: Read a few good leadership books. You want them to be fresh in your mind when you interview. I am not sure if I would have gotten the offer I accepted if not for the ideas I stole from The Culture Code, The Effective Manager, Extreme Ownership, Difficult Conversations, and Dare To Lead.

Lesson 6: Always ask these two specific questions:

  1. What is the worst thing about working at Company XYZ?” People are surprisingly willing to be honest here. I got some enlightening answers about hero culture, lack of senior engineers, and corporate red tape.
  2. What, if anything, concerns you about whether I’m a good fit for this role?” Only 2 or 3 people said “nothing” to that question. Everyone else had something to say. Sometimes I was able to clarify a misconception they had about my experience, and sometimes it was a fair and justified concern. Either way, that’s valuable.

Lesson 7: Negotiate your salary! Read Fearless Salary Negotiation and follow the steps it describes. It’s not hard when you know what you’re doing. When I average it out, I made about $1,000 per minute that I spent reading that book.

Good luck!


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