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In a counterpoint to Johanna Rothman’s article on finding the geek who fits your agile team, Andy looks at the situation from the prospective hire’s point of view.

You’ve been through a couple of job interviews on this job that looks cool, and they just extended an offer. The money’s good, so you say “yes,” right? Maybe not.

Say you go on a blind date, and things seem to go well. The two of you have dinner and she asks you all sorts of things to find out what kind of person you are, and your plans for the future, stuff like that. Then you go on another date, but this time she’s brought her brother and her parents. The four of them bombard you with more questions about your life. Then, after a couple of hours, she says “I’ve decided that you’re the fella for me, so let’s get married.” Would you say yes, right then and there? You’d be crazy to, right?

Now, think about how often people accept job offers based on a few hours of having been grilled and then being told that they were deemed adequate.

Accepting a job with an employer is the start of a long relationship. This is a relationship where you’ll spend more hours at the office than you will spend hours awake with a spouse. You need to make sure the job is right for you.

Doing your work is only half of your life on the job. Just as your boss judges you on your work and how well you work with others, you should judge the company by your work and how well the company works with you. You need to assess the company culture.

Company culture isn’t about the people, but people are part of it. For example, if someone you meet in the interview process is a jerk, that may make you not want to work there. That might not be a good criterion, however, because people come and go over time, and that jerk could go get another job next week. Culture is more consistent. In this case, the problem is not the jerk, but that the company culture tolerates jerks.

Much of your understanding of company culture will come from your conversations in the job interview. Remember that the interview is not an interrogation where the candidate is asked questions and remains silent otherwise. It’s a conversation between potential colleagues discussing the business needs of the organization and how the candidate can fill those needs, as well as how the candidate will fit with the organization. Both employee and organization must fit with each other or the relationship is likely to be a failure.

Don’t set out to assess culture at the beginning of the interviewing process. You should save your detailed questions until after you’ve received a job offer. Most of your time and energy in the interviewing process should be spent working toward getting an offer. If you fail to get an offer, then it doesn’t matter what the company’s culture is like.

Once you have an offer, though, the balance of power tips in your favor, and it’s time to investigate culture in detail. Ask questions, meet with people, and observe as much as you can.

Ask Questions

Here are some questions that you may want to find the answers to as you get to know a company better. Note that the best way to find these answers might not be a direct question. An interviewer won’t determine if you’re a hard worker by asking “Are you a hard worker,” because the answer will of course be “Yes.” He’ll for stories that illustrate your work ethic. Similarly, if you want to know about how the company handles crisis, ask about the last time a project went bad. You may want to ask multiple people that question, not just your hiring manager.

In these questions, I use the word group to mean an individual workgroup in a department, but these questions may apply to the department or company level as well. Also note that none of the questions are meant to imply that one way of working is better than another. For example, a tightly-knit team is not better or worse than a group of independent workers except as you judge it to be a culture that you want to be part of.

Work Life Questions

The first things to consider regarding culture are questions about how things work, about what the company values, about what day-to-day life is like.

  • How tightly knit is the group? How much of the work is done as a team, and how much is on your own?

  • What are the working hours? How often is it necessary to work outside those normal working hours? Is that extra time seen as just part of the job, or is it seen as effort above and beyond?

  • What does the group value in others? What does your new boss value in the group, or the department? What does the company value in its employees?

  • Are failed projects part of life? Or are they a firing offense?

  • How does the team/department/company handle crisis?

  • What is intra-company communication like? Are there strict funnels of information, or are employees encouraged to talk directly with other departments?

  • Is the group open to change and new technologies? Or do they prefer the stability of what’s known to work?

Relationships Questions

The other part is even more nebulous, thinking about how people get along and what the relationships are like. (Make no mistake, you have a relationship with every single person you interact with, even if you think you’re just a heads-down kind of coder. Even direct avoidance of relationships with others is itself a relationship.)

  • What are the relationships like in the group? Do people seem to like each other, or are relationships strictly business? Are people friends outside of the group, or are work and home relationships separate?

  • Is there a group dynamic that extends beyond the work to be done? Does the group eat lunch together? Is there a regular outing for beer on Friday nights? Weekend trips to the rock climbing wall? Will you be the odd man out if you don’t go climbing with them?

  • What is turnover like in the department? How often does the team change? Will you be coming in to an established team that has been together for years?

  • Are there leaders in the group, either defined or de facto? Or is everyone an equal?

  • Do team members critique each other’s work? Or does everyone do things their own way?

Company Life

It’s also important to understand the culture of the company as a whole, and how the group you’ll be joining fits into it.

  • How is your performance assessed? Is your performance assessment based entirely on you, or does it include an assessment of the department as a whole, or the company as a whole?

  • Are employees rewarded beyond a paycheck? How? Pizza party? Cadillac Eldorado? A set of steak knives? If there are bonuses, what are they dependent on? Your team’s performance? The entire company’s?

  • How is the team perceived by the rest of the department? How is the department perceived by the rest of the company?

Again, these questions aren’t a checklist to take with you on an interview. They’re a starting point of questions for you to consider as you investigate the company you’re looking to work for.

Other Ways to Observe Culture

There are other ways to get a sense of company culture that are less direct but can sometimes be even more informative. One great way is to look at the company’s employee manual. Ask the hiring manager to see it. Take the time to read through it. Is it a thick binder filled with regulations as specific as saying where in your cubicle you’re allowed to hang pictures? Or, on the other extreme, do they not even have an attendance policy and say “so long as you get your work done, it’s all good?”

Is there a culture of recognition? I have an email folder called “Head Pats” where I accumulate everything nice said about me or my team from someone in the company. Many of these are from upper management thanking my group for a successful project. Does the hiring manager have such an archive? Ask if you can see some recent examples.

Ask for a tour of the offices in the middle of a workday. What do you see? Are people happy? Are they heads-down in work, or discussing things as a team? Is it a cube farm, or are there offices? Are there public spaces for collaboration? Is it sterile and buttoned-down, or are people shooting Nerf guns?

Don’t just look at the group you’d be working with. Take a look at, say, the accounting department, or customer service. Do they look happy to be there?

Finally, look around the Net for indications. Start with the company’s own website and blog. For example, even a cursory read of GitHub’s blog makes it clear that much of the culture revolves around social drinking. Maybe you can find blogs from current or past employees that can give clues. Search LinkedIn for those who have worked at the company. Maybe from surfing LinkedIn profiles you’ll find that people who work there leave within a year.

One final note: No matter what you’ve learned about the culture and how awesome the job looks, never accept a job offer on the spot. Wait at least 24 hours to make sure that it’s what’s best for you. You’re psyched, you’re ready to go, and that’s not the best frame of mind to make the final evaluation. Better to get away from the situation and look at it from a distance. If you have a significant other in your life, it’s all the more crucial.

When you get the offer, say “Thanks very much, I’m glad we’re at this stage. Of course, I’ll need some time to examine the offer. When would be a good time to talk to you tomorrow?” Don’t worry that they’ll back out on you. Any reasonable company is going to understand. If they pressure you into a decision right then and there, that’s a warning flag.

Andy Lester has developed software for more than twenty years in the business world and on the Web in the open source community. Years of sifting through résumés, interviewing unprepared candidates, and even some unwise career choices of his own spurred him to write his nontraditional book on the new guidelines for tech job hunting. Andy is an active member of the open source community, and lives in the Chicago area. He blogs at petdance.com, and can be reached by email at andy@petdance.com.

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