Land a Dream DBA or Developer Job: Seven Questions to Ask

Looking back over all my years of interviewing and being interviewed, I realize that there are simple secrets to getting a great job offer.

The big secret is just this: ask great questions.

Interviewing Goes Both Ways

Asking thoughtful questions in your interview process, from screening to salary negotiations, makes you more powerful. It shows you’re engaged, informed, and in control of your career.It's easy to remember a great engineer.

A candidate who asks good questions automatically demonstrates that they’re selective, and they have choices.

But what do you ask? Here’s a checklist to go through before each interview to develop questions and remind yourself what to emphasize by your questions. By all means, write down your questions and take them with you.

1. Be the Candidate Who Loves to Learn

Ask at least one question about technology you’re unfamiliar with. Find out what technologies are in place at your potential job before an in-person interview and do an hour of research on those you don’t specialize in. When it comes up in the interview make it clear that you were inspired by the interview process to start learning.

Don’t pretend to be an expert in fields you don’t know about. Do be honest about your interests and show you have initiative. Ask questions about challenges they’ve hit and what informed their design and implementation decisions.

Before your interview, make notes on times when you faced a difficult task, learned something new, and were able to improve something. You’ll likely be asked questions about your experiences when you can tell your stories.

2. Ask At Least Two Smart Technology Questions

Most candidates just ask basic questions about what versions of software are running. This is a great chance to set yourself apart.

  • What are their pain points? This is something we care a lot about at Brent Ozar Unlimited®, but we don’t mind sharing our mojo with you for your interview. This is the most interesting question you can ask: tell me where it hurts in your technology. You’ll want to get lots of detail on this. Make notes and follow up on different points they cover. Ask this question of different people throughout a day of interviews and compare the responses. I promise it’ll be interesting.
  • Are they leveraging their strengths? When you’re familiar with the products they’re using, think about the strengths of that product. Ask a question in a way that shows your knowledge. If you know that the JurgenPlufen can provide high availability when clustered, then ask if they’re doing that. If they aren’t, ask why– the reason will let you know a lot about their business. Keep your tone curious, not judgmental.
  • What major changes have they made? Over the history of the company, are there any revolutions in technology they can tell you about? How did they handle that change, and what would they do differently now?
  • Are they open to other technologies? This matters more to some people than others, but it’s an important thing to know. Is this a company that looks for the right tool to solve an individual problem, or do they prefer to standardize to narrow the scope of support? There are pros and cons to both ways, but you need to know which way they go in order to see how you fit in.
  • Have they tried the New Hotness? This is something you want to be a little careful with, unless you’re always about the new hotness and it’s important to work for someone who’ll support that. But if they describe a problem and you think there’s a fairly obvious newer product they could by or upgrade they could make to support that, ask about it. You want to find out why they haven’t gone there– are they slow to adopt? Short on people? Short on budget for new technologies?
Good questions show you’re not only a skilled technician. You’re an engineer who takes the initiative to find out how to improve an environment.

3. Ask A Question About Process

You want to know what processes are in place at a prospective employer. You also want to show that you’re responsible.

As a candidate for DBA positions I made it a habit to ask during phone screens, “Can you tell me a bit about your change management processes?” More often than not, IT hiring managers were thrilled that I’d asked. When I asked follow up questions it was clearly hard for them to sit still.

Focus on exploratory questions– don’t be critical. For a later interview, you should think about scenarios you might be in and create a hypothetical question. “What if we decided to change the Yak so that it had air conditioning? Can you walk me through what the process of making that change would be like here?”

Be ready in case the question is turned back around to ask what YOU would recommend— that should be a home run.

4. Ask About the Business

Before you ever talk to the company look for technical blogs, or any blogs written by employees. These are a great source for information about how things work at the company, and also a great source for questions.

It's good to ask about what's important. But not just about tuna.
This is what the competition is asking.

Always check out recent news articles for the company as well. Care about the industry. Make sure you have a few good questions about that market and where the company is going– if you make it to higher level interviews with executives, these will be particularly useful. If you don’t have much experience in that industry, it’s perfectly fine to ask questions like, “I haven’t worked for a dairy but I’ve read there are three major players. As a smaller company, how do you position yourselves in the milking industry?”

Your overall goal is to show you’re not just a technologist, you’re a potential invested employee.

5. Ask A Question that Shows You Listen

On a full day of interviews, you will be able to take information you get in one interview and use it to ask questions of other people. This is one of the great reasons to take notes in your interviews.

Be careful that your questions don’t seem to pit people against each other, or slight the previous person you talked to. You want to ask questions more like, “Harriet described the asynchronous processing she designed for the Femisphere system. Can you tell me how that works from an operational perspective?”

This shows you listened to Harriet and absorbed some of the concepts she discussed. Not everyone can do that! If you have follow up questions ready because you understand some of the operational challenges in the area, you’re in the catbird seat.

6. Ask A Question That Shows Your Strengths

Sometimes people ask what your greatest strengths are, sometimes they don’t. Figure out what your greatest strengths will be for that position, but do it so you can ask the right questions.

Let me get one thing straight: this isn’t BS. You want to pick a few real things that set you apart and make you satisfied about work.

Here’s some example questions:

“I like to identify big changes and drive them to completion in an active production environment. Is this a place where that’s encouraged? What are the barriers to large changes? What support is available?” Big changes work much better in some companies than others, and you want to know if you’ll always be holding your horses, or if you can make things happen. (If you ask this question, have two stories of how you’ve done this in the past ready.)

“I really enjoy specializing in certain areas of NERDERY and diving deep. This means I like to take four hours a week to do research. I can document what I learn and present it to the team. Would people be interested in that?”

“I am a generalist and I really enjoy reaching out to other teams and working out how components integrate. For example, would I have access to the configuration of the Gigabiggers and is their team open to having me sit with them once a week to learn about what they do?”

A question like this shows self-awareness, and it will tell you a lot about whether you’re going to sink, swim, or run for shore in that environment.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Interviewing is a bit like swimming. At first you have no idea how to do it, but you get thrown in the water and you learn it to survive. If you never practice then your technique suffers.

If you haven’t interviewed in a while or if you are changing industries and are not sure how you’ll do, ask for help. Get connected with bloggers or people in the industry on Twitter. Go to a user group. Ask people if they would be willing to do a 45 minute practice interview with you as the candidate. Listen to their feedback. When you practice, make sure you’re asking them questions as well as responding to questions.

Don’t be afraid to go on multiple job interviews. The downside is that interviewing is hard work, and it’s unpaid. The upside is that you can learn a ton, make great connections, and also find that you’re better at a lot of things than you ever realized.

Did You Land That Dream Job? What did You Ask?

I’d love to hear about your experiences as candidates and about the questions you asked. Did these make a big difference in your interviews? Do you feel that your questions set you apart from the competition?

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10 Comments. Leave new

  • Mala Mahadevan
    July 21, 2011 9:58 am

    Awesome post what you say about asking on change management methodologies and adopting new technologies..two questions i learnt the hard way to ask…thank you.

  • “…look for technical blogs, or any blogs written by employees.”

    Or lack thereof. That can also be telling of a company.

  • Great article! I’ve always been a fan of interviewing the interviewer, but you gave some neat suggestions & ideas that I had not encountered before. Definitely passing this one around!

  • These are terrific tips, but I think they apply to most jobs! And, as Michael noted, they’ll also tell you, the interviewee, that perhaps a job isn’t your dream job after all.

  • I’m glad to read your articles Kendra! And I’m happy that you came to my favorite blog :-).

    Now, coming to the article, I agree with you, the initial interviews are dumb, but as you play and listen you get all that better.

    After a few years at a very warm DBA position I started to go to interviews just for the fun and the experience. When you’re not forced to change jobs and have the openness of listening, it will be a great experience. You can lead the interview to your way..even if you fail at some points.

    Nobody’s perfect, and HR/tech interviewers know that. But as you learn to play the weak spots to your advantage you’ll get better results.

    So I will emphasis your last paragraph: practice makes perfect!

  • steve smith
    July 22, 2011 4:13 pm

    6 7. Or did I miss something in translation?

    • Hi Steve! It is seven questions and six bullet points, you’re right. In the technical questions category, I say you should prep at least *two* questions for that in the title. Possibly even more, but I always would make sure I had two going in, because that category is one of the really big ways to find out about the company.

      I had the title set at six first and then realized that I was really saying seven— and either way someone was going to notice. 🙂

  • steve smith
    July 22, 2011 4:20 pm

    That should have read 6 NE 7


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