Questions to Ask Your First Prospective Tech Employer

Working in technology today is a great place to be. The question isn’t really if you’ll get a job as you leave school, but rather which one you’ll take. New grads have a lot of power in the marketplace. I would encourage you to wield that power wisely as you weigh the first move in your career.

Earlier, I proposed some common pros and cons of working at different types of companies (startup, corporate, etc.) at the start of your career. But even within one category, there are a wide range of companies, and not all companies are equal. Therefore, I’d like to arm you with some questions that will help you differentiate a good opportunity from a bad one.

Don’t hesitate to ask questions as you interview. If you are direct and curious in the way you pose these questions, I doubt that your prospective employer will be put off by this practice. In fact, engaging in this way will show that you’re a thoughtful person who is carefully evaluating your options. If a potential employer doesn’t welcome questions, it’s an indicator that you might not want to work in that place.

1. Who will I be working with?

As you interact with people from a prospective employer, you are obviously being evaluated. But I would encourage you to also evaluate the evaluators. The single biggest determining success factor (aside from your own engagement and effort) in your first job will be the caliber of people who surround you.

Are they engaged? Are they smart? Are they driven to succeed? If the answer to those questions isn’t a resounding “yes,” you might want to reconsider the position.

I’d also recommend asking about the team makeup and size. You want to aim for a small to medium-sized team. Look for a balance between a team that’s small enough to have your contribution count toward team success (this puts the pressure on you to grow) and big enough that you’ll have mentors who can be your pairs and teachers.

You’ll also want to understand what a typical project team would look like. Is the team divided up into silos like “back end,” “front end,” and “design”? Or is everyone on the team encouraged to work collaboratively on software as a whole?

Where is the team located? Do people work in one specific place, or are they distributed? The ideal is to be co-located for maximum efficiency and learning.

2. What technical practices are in place?

Coming into your first job, you probably won’t be in a place to revolutionize staid technical practices. The odds are that you are going to be in a learning position.

Be discriminating about what you learn. Are the team’s technical practices at the forefront of the industry? Or have they lagged behind and become more heavyweight than they need to be? Effecting change in organizations is hard, largely thankless work. Be smart and avoid this type of work early-on in your career.

3. What industries are being served?

Some consultancies specialize in serving specific industries. Specializing makes it easier to hire professionals with focused experience and connections in the vertical. If you have a good anchor client, you can quickly and easily build a very profitable organization.

However, as you think about your first position, you want to get broad, rather than narrow, experience. Metaphorically speaking, you want to put a lot of eggs in a lot of baskets instead of putting all your eggs in one basket.

A good consultancy does the same thing. To maintain a robust, resilient business, they should be looking to spread themselves across many industries and many clients. If one industry or client experiences a downturn, it’s a small inconvenience for the consultancy instead of a major crisis.

4. Can I come in contact with many companies?

One of the really nice things about working at a consultancy is the fact that you get to interface with a lot of different companies as you work on different projects. You get to see pros and cons of different approaches to encouraging employee engagement. You see different management styles. You become exposed to different value systems. All of this can help you assess which values in the workplace connect with you.

5. Will I be exposed to how the business is run?

Another nice feature of a consultancy is that you know your work contributes to the bottom line of the company. Does the company expose its members to the financial model of the company? Would you be aware of how and why financial decisions are made by leadership? Would you be able to share your vision and voice at that level? Does the company practice open books management?

These are all questions that you’d ask not as a criticism or examination of the viability of a prospective company, but because you’d hope to be exposed to all of these elements so you can gain business acumen. And business acumen is a key differentiator between those who are going to lead and be led.

Starting your career at a place that will help you understand how to run a real, sustainable, profitable business is a fantastic first step.

You’ve Only Got One Shot

As part of my job at Atomic Object, I talk with a lot of college students—more than 300 so far this year. And I’ve found a lot of variance in how much they’re prepared for their next steps in life. Some already had a job lined up during their junior year. Others are moving into a master’s degree program. But others look like they’re in the midst of a stressful time in their lives as graduation advances ominously; they have no job lined up and aren’t sure where they want their careers to go.

As you complete your studies, I encourage you to take time out to do some deep thinking about what you want to do with the time you have on the planet. You’ve only got one shot. Make it something that works for you.