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Stop!  Before you accept that cushy job, make sure it’s actually as cushy as you think it is.  Managers have a long line of questions to ask in an interview, but what about you as a candidate?  What questions should you ask?

Here’s my top ten questions to ask before taking an IT job:

10. What happened to the last person in this position?

Did they quit, did they get promoted, did they die of a stress-induced heart attack, what?  Rarely is a position created completely from scratch, and you want to know why the last person left so you can avoid their fate.  If they’d been around for less than a year, I would ask the same question about their predecessor as well.

9. Have you had any layoffs in the last year?

Nobody’s going to tell you if layoffs are scheduled for the future, but you can at least ask about the past.  Maybe they did a round of layoffs and they’re perfectly positioned for future growth, but maybe they’re spiraling down the toilet.

8. What’s the on-call rotation schedule?

Will you be sharing the pager with someone, on call one week per month, or on call at all times?  If you’re on call, do you get a company laptop and wireless aircard to be able to respond, or do you have to hoof it to the nearest desktop, or heaven forbid, the office?  And to follow that up…

7. In the last year, how many times has the on-call person been called?

From 1997 until 2008, I was on call 24/7 – but I got maybe one call per month.  That kind of load is do-able, but if the on-call phone is ringing every other night at midnight, forget it.  Or at least budget psychiatry bills in with your expenses.  Speaking of expenses…

6. Is there a training or travel budget for this position?

In your struggle up the career chain, you’ll reach a point where suddenly you’re expected to do a little learning on the company dime in order to keep your skills sharp.  It never hurts to ask.  If the answer is no, ask if you would be paid your salary while attending an industry conference like the week-long PASS Summit on your own dime.  I know employees who have to take vacation time to attend these conferences, and that really hurts.

5. Can I access online tools to do my job?

More and more companies are barring employees from surfing the web.  This isn’t just a quality-of-life issue – although allowing Twitter would be nice – but it can also make life tougher when troubleshooting an IT problem.  The best help is on the web, not in Books Online.

4. Can I schedule vacations around the holidays?

I’ve worked in IT shops where everybody wanted to take vacation around Christmas week or New Year’s, but the low guys on the totem pole weren’t allowed to do it.  Seniority dictated the vacation schedule, so the old pros got the holidays off while the new kids on the block got shafted.  It shouldn’t dissuade me from taking a job, but it’s something to think about.

3. How important is my work to the company?

I’ve worked in shops where my database platform was the black sheep of the family, the platform of last resort.  I’ve worked in shops where it was seen as highly visible and mission critical.  The more valued this position is, the more you’ll be seen as an asset to the company – and less likely to be looked over at raise time, or worse, laid off.

2. What’s the telecommuting policy?

Database administration lends itself really well to working from home.  Denny Cherry and I sit around our houses most of the time, while some folks are cursed with driving in to the software factory every day.  Telecommuting cuts your expenses, increases your productivity, and raises your quality of living.  Some companies get it, and some don’t – but ask before you start.  This is one of those policies that probably isn’t going to change after you take the offer.

1. What does “success” look like for this position?

Here’s how I like to phrase this to my future manager: “90 days after I start, if you’re talking to your boss about what a great job I’ve done in my first 90 days, what kinds of things are you raving about?  What are the tasks that you wish this new employee could accomplish?  What would make you the proudest?”

The answer to this isn’t written in the job description.  We’re talking about things that will make your manager jump up and down with excitement, things that will make you a seriously valuable employee, and things that you want to put first on your task list when you start.

And a Bonus Question: Will I have to sign any non-compete agreements?

In IT, the answer to this is often yes, and they can be pretty restrictive – especially at consulting companies.  It’s not uncommon to sign away your rights to work for any competitors or any clients for years after you leave the company.  In a tight market or in a small town, that can pretty much eliminate your job options.  Better to find out ahead of time rather than after you’ve already accepted the offer, quit your old company, and started filling out your new hire paperwork on your first day at the new job.

More Articles on Interview Questions

If you liked this, here’s a few more of my posts about interview questions for job candidates:

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  1. These are great questions for all sorts of jobs. I remember being paged DURING the midnight premiere of Star Wars Episode I, of all things, and having to drive from Almeda to Greenspoint in Houston to respond… Ugh!

  2. Same here – I had one interview a few years back where they said, "You can't access your systems remotely. We don't allow VPN access. You have to drive into the office if there's a problem." Waiter – check please!

  3. nice…maybe leave out number 5 ;) {gasp, argh}

  4. Once again, another great article Brent. I would also add to it: What kind of hardware am I going to be working on? What is the working condition like? Does the schedule have flexibility (Doctor's visits and such)?

  5. Great list. Thanks Brent!

  6. Oooo, yeah, great points. Better gear means more fun, and better working conditions is definitely a big one. What's the employee kitchen look like? Do people leave for lunch, or do they bring lunch? Do coworkers ever go out and hit a bar after a really tough day, or does everybody scram as fast as they can?

    I've heard someone else suggest, "If I were to stand at the door at 5pm, what would I see? Does everybody go racing out, or do people trickle out slowly, hanging out and talking for a while?"

  7. Nice list. I agree with David's comment about schedule flexibility, I value this more than telecommuting because I think I'm one of those oddballs who actually gets more done at the office.

  8. I once worked for a company where the poor sap carrying the pager got called 6-10 times per night. Luckily I wasn't on that rotation! Because of corporate politics, I was on a pager rotation for a system with zero customers on it. I did get a prank page one night from a co-worker who left the number for a local strip club. When I called and told the guy that someone there paged me, he said "you wish" and hung up.

  9. Pingback: SQL Server Interview Blunders : Rob Boek

  10. Great article / list. Thanks for sharing. I totally agree on the hardware question that David brought up earlier. I have walked into a place that was pretty prominent but when I looked at the data center chills went down my spine. I could tell that they didn't care about being consistent and thorough in their work and chances are that was going to travel to all other aspects of their company.

  11. I also want to ask about the company philosophy wrt best practices & engineering discipline, make sure I get a chance to speak to potential colleagues–not mere "superiors", & want to know whether I get my own h/w playground w/ enough horsepower & spindles to matter.

    When I left for Microsoft the guy who replaced me at my old day job, Eddie Wuerch of ExactTarget, did something brilliant. He got the company to guarantee that he'd get to do enough in-house training–during business hours–to maintain his MCT.

    As the great Ronaldus Magnus used to say, "Trust, but verify". Get everything that matters in writing. At one former day job I was promised $10,000 after a specific period of time. It was a handshake deal, but hey, they wouldn't lie, would they? Well, aforementioned period of time elapsed & I was told the manager who made the promise didn't have the authority to do so. I was leaving anyway–that wasn't the only integrity issue–and the incident reinforced my decision.

    GREAT list, Brent. Keep up the great work!

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  13. I would accept any job without *asking* questions in this economy

    • That's only true for people who don't already have jobs. For those of us who are working and get an offer to go somewhere else, we need to ask a lot of in-depth questions before we go from the frying pan into the fire.

      • I don't know what it's like in other parts of the country, but at least where I'm at, there still seems to be a demand for good SQL Server DBAs. Entry level jobs are harder to come by, but for the highly skilled, there are quite a few choices. As this list shows, there is a lot to consider besides salary.

  14. Number 5 – If you ask me that I would be immediately concerned. A better question may be – to the interviewer – "What do you like about working here, and how long have you worked here?"

  15. My favorite “stress-induced heart attack”… I never asked that before. Maybe, we can add to your list “has anybody needed special counselling?” :)

  16. I have receive amazing honesty and insight when asking the following question:

    “what is the most painful thing about working here?”

    I think interviewers aren’t prepared for this and they tend to blurt out the truth. At one place I was told the same thing by 5/5 interviewers: that IT people aren’t really allowed to take their allotted vacation. At another place I was told several times that the directory only put people from outside the company into management positions. So it’s that kinds of honesty.

    Other times I’ve been told that “there’s nothing painful about working here”. In my experience, that’s just not possible. Check, please, indeed.

    I’ve also done the double recursive: “if I ask your employees what their biggest pain point is, what will they say”. It tells me whether or not the manager is clued in to pain points and obstacles and kinda forces her to fess up, because if she fibs, then she looks clueless. Then I ask the reverse question to the staff.

    It works.

  17. HAHAHA, wow, I like that. I’m adding that to my favorite list.

  18. I NEVER sign non-compete agreements. Never. I speak as an independent software developer, not an employee. I was once an employee. Once. :-) Even then I wouldn’t sign them. They are absurd. I will sign, however, non-disclosure agreements. I have no need to disclose whatever it is that makes a client successful at whatever it is they do to generate income..

    As far as competing goes – I couldn’t care less about competing with my clients. We’re not in the same playing field. My clients are attorneys, doctors, fuel delivery companies, roofing guys, plumbers, marketing folks, and so on. I am not any of that, nor will I ever be. I am a software developer – they aren’t.. If they are worried about my competing with them then maybe I should rethink what it is that I do for a living, because maybe I could be so go as to be all of the follow! attorneys, doctors, fuel delivery companies, roofing guys, plumbers, marketing folks…. I usually remind clients that they want me to sign a NDA not a NCA because the NCA is actually illegal in California and pretty much every other state’s legal system laughs at them. Still, I wont sign anything I don’t feel comfortable with.

    If its coming down to the fact that non-compete agreements are going to be more commonplace than not, then I will have to have the client sign a non-compete agreement of its own. :-) I am SURE they wont like that. Something that protects me. You know, things like: they cant hire any other software developer for 2 years – across all of their locations. I get the exclusive contract to all of their IT needs -and/or- the moment our work ends, they must compensate me for the length of time that their NCA restricts me from earning money (by maybe, possibly, working for their competition), etc. You know, fair is fair. :-)

    My favorite question to ask as an employee was “how long have you worked here, why do you like it and what has kept you from leaving?” I could usually tell from that one question if I wanted to be part of that organization at all.

    Good post!

  19. If you are in a support position, ask about the ticketing system and how flexible it is. Can you search by MEANINGFUL arguments, like domain name, IP, error code,past tickets, etc. . Some companies have a “just fix it and move on” attitude, which means you’ll be fixing the same problem ad infinitum. Institutional memory is REQUIRED of a good environment.

  20. Excellent article. Could you please advice the best way to approach salary negotiations in an interview? Many job postings request salary recommendations and I do not know what is appropriate to respond. I do not want to under sell myself but I don’t want to lose the opportunity to get to the interview by requesting a salary that is too high. I was going to base it on my previous salary, but I am not sure what to do. Can you please advise. Thank you. Kim

    • Kim – head to your local bookstore or library and you’ll find a lot of books about salary negotiation. I wish I had a single killer tip that I could cram into a blog comment here, but this is a pretty big topic that deserves the kind of attention a book can provide. Hope that helps!

    • Kim, salary negotiations start before they ever call you in, because they already know what the cap on the position is…and while there are many ways to get what you deserve, always remember this: “You are not paid what you are worth, you are paid what you negotiate.” Be prepared to turn down an opportunity if the range they state isn’t to your liking, even before you interview.

      So, when they ask, “What are you making in your current position?” try to compare and contrast the two positions and convince them that they are comparing apples to oranges. What you are currently making is irrelevant to your consideration of this position. Then try and get as much as you can.

      When moving from a SS DB admin to an Oracle DB architect position, they wanted to know why I commanded so much more than what they were able to find through tax records, etc. I simply told them that they wanted someone with experience in modeling, development, and administration, whereas my former position only needed the administration aspect. With more responsibility, comes more compensation.

      And don’t let them give you a title in lieu of salary. Same goes for stock options…take stock grants, leave the options at the door, you may never benefit from them.

  21. Nice list. Would the list differ for people transitioning into the DB arena? I will be migrating from web development to DB work and don’t want to offend a potential employer.

    Thanks,
    Mark

  22. Excellent article.

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