27 things I learned about hiring in tech from looking for a new engineering management role

This spring, I spent some time looking for a new professional challenge. This search turned out to be much more interesting and intense than I’d expected. Along the way, I learned quite a lot about myself, the broader industry, and how to do hiring well, and wanted to share those learnings with you. —

Getting started

I’d been hoping to find a new role without doing public outreach, mostly because I hadn’t done that before and had no idea of what was going to happen (and didn’t think it’d result in much). Unfortunately, my search behind the scenes and applications for jobs hit a limit very soon. As I told a good friend about all of this, she convinced me with one thing she said that stuck with me since:

“Do not deprive yourself of opportunities.”

(And she was right.) So I pulled myself together, took a little time to update my “work with me” website (it’s been online for almost three years now, thanks to an idea that Jessica once shared with me), worked on a draft for a tweet, and after feedback from another manager friend, I changed the tweet to focus on areas of work I was interested in, instead of listing titles (short reasoning to summarise the whole rant that would be appropriate there: titles in the tech industry are not used consistently, are rarely comparable, and rarely mean much without context).

Slept over it for a night, changed my Twitter settings to “receive direct messages from anyone”, took a couple heavy breaths, and hit the “tweet” button for this:

Then I turned off my phone for an appointment. As I turned it on again the morning after, there were a bunch of former colleagues and fellow community members that had tweeted incredibly kind and wonderful things about me, which almost made my heart explode. And I had a couple more Twitter DMs, emails, replies, mentions, and, overall, more communication than I could handle. So I decided to start how I start best: with…

The spreadsheet of doom

I created a spreadsheet that would soon become the one thing that kept me from completely losing it. I started a bit more low-key, but expanded it over time, until it contained the following columns:

  • Company name
  • Contact name
  • Contact role
  • Application status
  • Berlin / remote
  • Details (company, role, inquiry)
  • Last interaction (date and kind)

Plus a few extra columns for tracking and decision making purposes:

  • Interview number
  • Time spent on interviews
  • Notes
  • Interview process notes (more on this later) 
  • My interest level (high / medium / low)
  • Ranking

One by one, I responded to messages and reached out to other people who’d been mentioned to me. Row by row, I filled the spreadsheet. And soon, I went into the first conversation. — Fast forward many weeks, here we are: at

27 things I learned from looking for a new engineering management job

7 things that may be useful for you if you’re looking for a job in tech

  1. Know what you want and need: Before starting your job search, write up your thoughts about the organisation, role, work areas, impact areas that you’re interested in, and details that matter to you, which you want to watch out for during your search. Keep updating this document throughout the interview process.
  2. Focus on areas of work: When you do (public or private) outreach, focus on the areas of work you’re interested in (instead of titles). Also publish further information about the areas of work you’re looking for and what matters to you.
  3. Figure out how to organise your search: Start your job search with a spreadsheet or another tool that helps you stay on top of things (including timelines, deadlines, when to follow up with whom,…). Keep updating this document over time.
  4. Make notes: Keep a separate document for each company you’re interviewing with. Take notes during interviews. (I sometimes had up to 6 interviews in one day, but even with only two interviews with different companies, this was really useful to help me focus and do my interview preparation and post-interview summary.)
  5. Help future you: Write up a short note of your thoughts and impressions after each interview.
  6. Make note of a company’s interview process. I deeply care about hiring and know how much very hard work and dedication it takes to do well, and that the way they approach hiring says something about an organisation.
  7. Go into first-round interviews with a default set of questions. I was most interested in the organisation (structure, status, plans,…), culture (diversity, inclusion, hierarchy, learning and development, Code of Conduct,…), Engineering (department details, work organisation, learning, tech stack, plans,…). Based on my pre-interview research results, I’d sometimes be able to skip a few of those. This was really useful as in many first-round interviews, there wasn’t much time for my questions, plus it helped me establish a baseline for comparison.

13 things to keep in mind when you’re hiring engineering managers (or any other role in tech)

  1. Know that people talk to each other: People in the tech community will reach out and tell others which companies not to talk to. Knowing people who will do this is a great privilege, and, unfortunately, this still a time when it’s needed to have these contacts. If you’re hiring people, assume that people talk to each other.
  2. Don’t look for unicorns. — Most engineering management roles have far too many and too broad requirements and overload the people who take them on. A combination of people management for 6-8 (or more) direct reports, plus technical leadership, plus hands-on work, will inevitably stretch people thin, and be harmful to this person, as well as their team. There’s still broad lack of understanding that engineering management is needed, and, even more so, what it should entail. Oftentimes, the much healthier setup would be to have an experienced engineer take on the role of technical lead, plus a good people manager who works with them. If you’re hiring engineering managers, ensure the roles are actually realistic.
  3. Talking with men: Most people who are in a position to (make a decision to) hire someone are white men. Most people who are in a position to (make a decision to) hire someone into an engineering department are white men. This is how the people who are representative of the homogenous status of the industry (especially within engineering departments) become gatekeepers for change, and are likely to perpetuate the status quo. Seriously, I talked to so many white men. Make sure that this doesn’t happen when people interview at your company – have people interview with a diverse group of people, and promote members of underrepresented groups into roles where they make hiring decisions. Give management roles to members of underrepresented groups (and remember that diversity goes far beyond white women).
  4. Be respectful of your and the applicant’s time: No matter what job postings or role descriptions say, many companies still don’t know exactly who and what they’re looking for. “Having a coffee”, “just chatting to see what happens” costs you and the candidate time and energy, and, even though they may be fine with it, it requires a certain amount of privilege from a candidate where they are even in a position where they can afford having such open-ended conversations – which means that it’s an exclusive approach. (And please don’t even think of asking someone to “pick their brain”.)
  5. Know your applicants: When you’re an interviewer, do your research on the person you’re talking to: read their CV, be up-to-date on what they spoke about with your colleagues. Or at least ensure you know what their name is, who they are, and which role they’re applying for.
  6. Making space for people: Give applicants time to ask you questions in each interview round (including round one), and ensure you make time for this within the initially scheduled meeting duration. Ensure this is also the case when your internal or external recruiters are screening candidates.
  7. Ensure privacy: If you use video calls for interviews, ensure to send each applicant an individual video call link, to avoid that candidates accidentally show up during another candidate’s interview.
  8. Remote engineering management roles are very rare, even with companies whose engineers are partially distributed, which is problematic for a variety of reasons (it’s exclusive, and means you’re lacking remote representation, which by itself results in a bunch of issues).
  9. Employer branding: Companies still use ping pong tables, kicker, and alcohol based events (like the infamous Friday beers) for employer branding and promotion. If your company is still doing this: stop it, it’s exclusive. And consider how the perks you offer exclude people.
  10. Diversity matters… or does it? —It’s still rare to find companies that have any numbers on the diversity in their teams. (Any numbers, let alone numbers that are up-to-date, or that go beyond binary gender or countries of origin.) It’s rarer to find companies whose management is not completely homogenous. It’s even rarer to find companies that are actively working on inclusion beyond using it as a buzzword.
  11. Know your culture smells if you talk about how great your company culture is, and the only people who weigh in on the greatness of this culture are white men.
  12. See the signs that you should rethink your hiring process if it takes you more than two months between someone submitting an application and your first time getting back to them (or your first interview with them). I learned much about this from my former teammates as well: lengthy hiring processes are incredibly exclusive, as they assume your applicants can afford it (because they’re able to stay in their current role, or that they have the time, savings, and lack of (care) obligations that allow them to take time off between jobs), which, in many cases, is just not given. — If you’re involved in hiring, remember that your hiring process says a lot about you, and how much you care about people within and outside of your organisation. And remember that this reflects back on you (see #1).
  13. Communicate, communicate, communicate. This is crucial to the experience you create and the message you send (especially as you’re interacting with people who may be at a very stressful point in their lives), so this should be a given. — Unsurprisingly, it’s not. Here’s how you can communicate better:
    1. Let people know that you’ve received their application (not just on a confirmation screen, but via email, so they have it on record).
    2. Communicate timelines (“you’ll hear from us by $date”).
    3. Stick to the timelines you communicated (or let people know if and why you can’t).
    4. Get back to them after every interview round within a couple of days.

7 things I learned about myself

  1. What do I even want? — Before even considering looking for a new role, and over the whole course of my job search, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of life I want to live (yes, one of those easy questions). — I love my work, and it’s an important part of this life. I wanted to understand what really mattered to me, not only in my work, but also beyond. After the different roles I’ve had in the past (after all, I’m now in the 14th year of my career (yes it feels strange writing this down)), I’ve gotten a much better understanding of what I want to do, and where – as well as a clearer idea of the direction I want to take my life in. These thoughts became the foundation of my search.
  2. Never really stop interviewing — I spent a lot of time over the last years hiring people and working on hiring processes. On the one hand, it was equally strange and fascinating sitting on the other side of the table again, while, at the same time, I also noticed early on that I couldn’t really not interview – and ended up using this understanding to change my idea of job interviews a little to interviewing organisations (because, after all, that’s what it’s about).
  3. Using experiences to learn from them is great. — I’ve become a person who writes down her experiences learnings as she does things, because it will always be useful at some point (like, say, for a blog post like this one). Using this approach also helped at times when the whole endeavour became exhausting and frustrating, as I always knew that, in addition to the main purpose, it was also a learning experience for me.
  4. Privilege is a privilege. — I’ve always been really bad at actually building professional networks. At the same time, what I’d completely underestimated was the impact of the community work and public speaking I’ve done in the past, in terms of access it gave me now. (Again, a privilege, my friend.) 
  5. Statistics may bite you. — Even though I know how job postings work, and I know that women don’t apply for jobs unless they’re 100% qualified. I still don’t apply for jobs unless I’m 100% qualified.
  6. I have questions about how to engineering management, even. — A ~topic~ in this job search was, again and unsurprisingly, my not having an engineering background. This could be worth another post, another time, and was sometimes very frustrating, especially in those times when I had to even justify my career choices. And yet, it made me realise I want to join an organisation where I can support people through the experience and skills I bring, and that wants me on board because of those.
  7. Learning, pt 2. — This whole process, intense and, at times, exhausting as it was, gave me great insight into how different organisations work, their culture and values (in theory and practice), into how they work, how they hire, and how they approach management – and I learned a bunch of things that got me thinking and researching and changing some approaches to my work, which I’m looking forward to trying out in my new role.

And now, for some numbers!

I love numbers, here are some for you, just in case you like them too. (Accidental rhyme.)

Location

I’d been looking for a role that would have me work in Berlin or remotely. Of the 37 companies I was in touch with, here’s the breakdown of the locations I’d be working from:

  • Berlin: 26 (70%)
  • Remote: 4 (11%)
  • Other (roles in other locations or in Berlin with more than 60% time spent travelling): 7 (19%)

Having worked with semi- or fully distributed teams for a while now and knowing the benefits of this setup for individuals, teams, organisations and, after all, myself, I was very keen on keeping on working in such setup. Even before my public outreach, I had known that finding such a role would be hard to impossible.

Interviews, commute, communication, and other numbers

  • Interviews:
    • Number of interviews: 57 (fun fact: more than halfway into my search, I realised that the spreadsheet I was using to keep this number up-to-date had a formula error, and that I’d had 41 interviews instead of 20 already. Not my proudest moment.)
    • Time spent in interviews: 68 hours
    • Average interview duration: 1:12 hours
  • Companies
    • that I was in touch with initially: 37
      • that I had applied with: 6
      • that I had been referred to: 31
    • that I interviewed with: 16 (of 37)
    • that I had more than one interview with: 8
    • that I had more than two interviews with: 5
  • Time spent on communication, interview preparation, and commute (if necessary): 75 hours
  • Average number of interviews with one company to job offer: 10

In total, I spent 143 hours over the course of 6 weeks on this process, and this whole endeavour was quite something. I was really lucky to have the support of great colleagues and, most of all, a bunch of wonderful friends, and be lucky enough to have a chance to meet so many people and companies throughout this process.

Now I’m looking forward to a little more processing-/downtime, before I’ll soon start interviewing again – this time from the other side of the table, in a new role that I’m very much looking forward to taking on.

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