Do you get similar satisfaction from shipping great products and growing others? If so, you might thrive as an engineering manager. This career path is great for those who are technically inclined, but who also love people, processes, and project management. All of this is exciting... until you consider just how much ground an EM interview has to cover.
As with all technical/managerial roles, an EM's job will vary across companies and even across teams. This uncertainty adds a lot of (extra) anxiety to interview prep. We've spoken to many EM candidates, current engineering managers, and even directors/VPs of engineering about what EM interviews entail and we can assure you – practice a few key question categories, and you will be able to ace this interview.
To help, we've compiled a list of the top 30 engineering management interview questions you'll likely run into. Of course, a list of questions isn't necessarily helpful on its own. We've categorized them by type and given some guidance into what's expected of you and what's being assessed with each. Whether your target company emphasizes Technical / System Design, People Management, or Recruitment, or Hiring questions, our handy mini-guide will give you context and benchmarks to help you test your knowledge.
But first, orient yourself. We recommend watching this video sit-down with Dave Rensin, former Google Engineering Director and Pendo VP, as he talks through his thought process when hiring engineering managers and what makes a standout candidate.
When you're done, review the below list of questions to get a sense of what'll be asked. The breakdown below offers some tips around how to answer each question category and what's being assessed. Armed with context, example answers, and lots and lots of practice, you've got this!
- Tell me about the most complex project you've worked on. Watch our expert answer to this question here.
- How would you handle poor performers on your team? Watch our answer to this question here.
- What's the project you're most proud of? Watch our co-founder answer this question here.
- How do you structure 1:1s? Watch our expert answer here.
- How would you build a high-performance engineering team? Watch a sample answer to this question here.
- How do you coach and develop your engineering team? Watch our answer to this question here.
- Talk about your best and worst performing teams. Watch an answer to this question here.
- What do you look for when screening resumes? Watch an answer to this question here.
- How do you build credibility with new reports on a team you haven't built yourself? Watch an expert answer this question here.
- How do you set goals for your engineering team? Watch a sample answer to this question here.
- What product that you led are you most proud of and why? Watch our co-founder answer this question here.
- Can you give me an example of how you manage conflict?
- What would you do in a case where you disagree with your manager?
- How do you manage difficult conversations?
- What is the most difficult employee situation you have handled well? How about not-so-well?
❔ For more behavioral interview questions, click here.
📚 Be sure to check out our behavioral interview course.
Technical / System Design
Note that it's relatively rare for an engineering manager to face coding rounds, but it does happen. If you're actively interviewing, check with your recruiter as to what to expect.
- How would you design a relational schema for a calendar application? Watch an answer to this question here.
- Design a typeahead box for a search engine. Watch an answer to this question here.
- Design a reservation and payment system for a parking garage. Watch an expert answer this question here.
- How would you build TinyURL? Watch our co-founder answer this question here.
- Design Twitter's API. Watch our co-founders tackle this question together here.
- Design Facebook Messenger. Watch an expert answer to this question here.
- Design AirBnB Search. Watch a sample answer to this question here.
- Design a service that supports uploading and tagging images to a travel site.
- How would you design end-to-end user onboarding for an app?
- Design Amazon's Kindle payment system
- How does Alexa process voice commands?
- Design Reddit's homepage. Watch an answer to this question here.
- Design a cache controller.
- Design a web crawler.
- Design Dropbox. Watch an answer to this question here.
👨💻 For more system design interview questions, click here.
👾 Be sure to check out our system design interview course.
Closer Look at the Types of Engineering Management Interview Questions
As you can see from our top 30 list, EM interviews fall into two broad categories: behavioral and technical. However, there are many sub-categories within these groups you should have a solid grasp on before your EM interview.
First and foremost, engineering managers are managers and team leaders. Teams that are most efficient and productive are those that are highly collaborative, proactive, and function well within the larger corporate culture. When it comes to the engineering department, building and maintaining such teams falls upon the engineering manager. There's no denying that building great engineering teams is no small feat. It takes leadership skills.
What the interview assesses
"People skills" or "leadership" are hard qualities to define, and each company is different, but the dimensions most commonly assessed are:
- Ability to manage in all directions: Managing your team is a given, but you'll also need to manage up to your bosses and company leadership, and across to cross-functional partners and other EMs. Are you able to effectively alter your communication to different audiences? Are you able to represent your team's interest?
- Communication skills: Can you cut through the noise to give your team direction and support? Are you able to effectively communicate why the work you do is important? Can you take that knowledge and motivate a team?
- Culture fit: Do you embody company values? Are you open to feedback and differing perspectives in order to get things done? Can you help resolve conflict?
While engineering managers will undoubtedly be asked behavioral questions about their team management style, they will also be asked how they manage individuals. These kinds of questions will investigate how candidates would manage their day-to-day responsibilities as an EM. Aspiring engineering managers can expect questions such as "What is your attitude around using 1:1s with the team? or "How do you coach and develop an underperforming member of the team?" The most successful answers to these questions can demonstrate a thorough knowledge of individual and team dynamics and your competency in navigating them.
At the end of the day, as is the case for every manager, as an engineering manager, you are only as good as the productivity of the team you lead. It is the responsibility of the EM to manage the performance of their teams. This means ensuring that each member is actualizing their full potential, and provided proper coaching or feedback to help them get there. Many managers struggle with managing the performance of their team without micro-managing or other alienating managerial behavior. Hiring managers know this, so they ask many performance management behavioral questions to evaluate your abilities. Performance management questions usually are of one of two categories:
- Structure and processes. This refers to your methods for measuring and improving team performance.
- Handling difficult situations. These questions focused on your experience in handling challenging performance scenarios. This may include questions about coaching poor performers or even firing team members.
The most successful candidates can demonstrate that they have experience in monitoring and improving their team's performance over time. Hiring managers also want to see that candidates can proactively recognize the signs of poor performance and effectively handle them as they occur.
Recruitment and Hiring
Engineering managers are team-builders and typically hiring managers. Expect behavioral interview questions surrounding the recruitment and hiring process as hiring managers often have final-say as to who joins the company – a huge responsibility. Recruitment and hiring questions are designed to evaluate how you screen potential candidates, interview applicants, and present potential hires to upper management. The most successful answers to these questions can demonstrate a thorough knowledge of the distinct steps of the hiring funnel.
No team, engineering or otherwise, is an island. Each is a single part of a grander whole. As an engineering manager, you are the face and representative of that group to the whole. It will be part of your responsibilities to interact with the product, design, and engineering teams involved in your team's day-to-day execution. This kind of communication is often referred to as cross-functional collaboration. Because this kind of business communication can be much more complex and nuanced, EM candidates will be asked behavioral questions focused on cross-functional collaboration. Generally, you'll be assessed on:
- Your ability to communicate effectively with different stakeholders including PMs, designers, support reps, and even marketing and sales. As an EM, you'll also report to higher-ups. Each of these groups may require a different approach in order to get your message across.
- Judgement. EMs receive requests constantly. You'll need to evaluate your team's bandwidth on the fly, and often, say no. It's important to be able to intuit what information is needed in order to make these decisions and how to ask for it tactfully.
- Conflict resolution. Disagreements and miscommunications will happen. Dealing with this gracefully and effectively is key for an EM.
As an engineering manager, you'll be expected to plan and deliver complex engineering projects alongside engineers, product stakeholders, and other managers. The EM interview questions that assess these skills are referred to as project retrospectives or technical deep-dives. These are typically conversational interview questions where candidates have a deep discussion surrounding a technical project they have directly been involved with during their previous experience.
These questions can vary widely depending on the company. For instance:
- Amazon requires candidates to submit a 1-2 page written assignment before arriving at the on-site interview. The assignment is usually a question like, "Tell me about the project you're most proud of."
- Stripe wants its candidates to provide a presentation on a recent project.
- Dropbox includes a full hour-long round for its candidates' project retrospectives.
While engineering management is obviously a manager role, it is still fundamentally a technical role. However, being an EM typically means your technical responsibilities will be bigger picture than they were as a software engineer, for example. Ultimately, this means that your primary engineering focus will be on system design rather than coding. For the most successful strategic decision-making, you will need to know how distributed systems operate - how each individual component processes information, communicates, and scales. Without such an understanding of the high-level view of the system design of your team's technical project, your ability to make decisions will be reactive at best. You should expect many system design questions like the ones we included in our list during the technical rounds of your EM interviews.
We know that these questions, especially, can be very intimidating for many EM candidates. That's why we developed an interview prep course focused entirely on System Design. Check it out here.
More Engineering Management Interview Prep
Nothing beats actual practice when it comes to engineering management interview prep. Luckily, there is an abundance of resources on Exponent to help you practice for your upcoming EM interview:
💬 Get prepared with example EM interview questions
📖 Read through our Engineering Management interview guides
👯♂️ Practice your behavioral and system design skills with our interview practice tool.
👨🎓 Take our complete Engineering Management interview course.