Interview Insights


Formulating culture fit interview questions for software engineers

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Jason Wodicka

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Work culture plays a huge role in employee satisfaction, collaboration, and productivity, and assessing whether a candidate is a culture fit is an important aspect of the interview process.

Unfortunately, culture is a tricky concept to nail down, and developing questions that probe culture fit is difficult.

I recently sat down with Peter Bell at CTO Connection for a podcast about interviewing software engineers for culture fit. I’ve also distilled some key points from our conversation in this blog, if you don’t have time to listen or you’d prefer to read.

So, how should you formulate culture questions for software engineering candidates?

First, define your culture

Work culture is an emergent product of people working together: what they have in common, their shared beliefs, and what they deem important. Given time together, every team will develop a culture, but not every team will be able to state what it is when asked. Understanding a team’s culture well enough to state it is a necessary ingredient of interviewing for culture fit.

In order to be useful for interviewing, a culture statement has to meet the following requirements:

  • It must be intentional. Culture can arise spontaneously, but an intentional culture guides team members toward a common goal. For example, at one of my former workplaces, everyone went out for coffee together every day. Was that culture? Yes. Did it mean we could only hire coffee drinkers? No way.
  • It must be possible to disagree with. Teams often make the mistake of picking vague platitudes to define their culture (think: “Be kind and honest”). These are nice thoughts, but they won’t actually help guide decision making or help you pick the best candidates.
  • It must drive action. Your culture statement should be a yardstick against which you can measure a decision to test its alignment with your values. It should allow you to decide between two courses of action and resolve conflicts.
  • It must be inclusive. Work culture can sometimes be used subconsciously to exclude diverse candidates. Your culture statement should make room for team members of all backgrounds.

Some examples of culture statements that fit these criteria are Facebook’s old motto “move fast and break things” and this statement from Amazon: “Amazon strives to be Earth’s most customer-centric company, Earth’s best employer, and Earth’s safest place to work.”

Culture statements can be team-specific. For example, my team at Karat has a core principle that it’s important to speak up when you disagree with others, and to do it in a friendly, respectful way. That push for productive conflict may not be what every team needs, but it’s great for an engineering team that wants to push for the best solutions while also remaining human-centered and kind.

Creating interview questions for culture fit

Once you’ve defined your culture, you can create interview questions that help establish whether a candidate will fit within the team. Here’s one we ask at Karat:

Describe a time you disagreed with one of your coworkers and how it was resolved.

Our interviewer is looking for whether the candidate understood the source of the coworker’s disagreement and whether they resolved the disagreement by focusing on facts and evidence. These things are incredibly important to our culture and are good indicators of cultural fit at Karat.

Let’s try another example. Let’s take a small, rapidly growing startup whose culture statement is “Transformative ideas are great ideas.” The interviewer might ask:

What’s one thing you wish you could change about the way this industry operates?

In the case of this example, the interviewer should not be considering the quality of the actual suggestion (that’s irrelevant to the culture statement), but rather the candidate’s ability to think about big, transformational changes.

At Karat, we advocate for the use of standardized rubrics to help mitigate bias and maintain consistency in interviews. Rubrics are indispensable for cultural/behavioral questions.

Adding culture fit questions to software engineer interviews

In an interview where your primary goal is to assess technical capability, how can you also evaluate whether a candidate is a culture fit?

One tip is to choose one or two really strong behavioral interview questions that are indicative of culture fit. In a standard interview that’s about 45 minutes long, you’ll probably only have time for one or two non-engineering questions.

Another approach is to structure the technical portion of the interview to reflect your work culture. Here’s what I mean:

Make rules for providing hints

Sometimes in an interview, we can unintentionally guide the candidate toward our preferred outcome by offering hints. Having rules for hinting helps reduce bias, and can also help you evaluate culture fit.

For example, we use an actual compiler during our technical interviews. If there’s an error that’s preventing the code from running, we have rules about how long we’ll let the candidate search for the issue on their own before we hint at the source, and what that hint should be.

Depending on how important self-sufficiency, accuracy, and the ability to spot mistakes are to your work culture, you might decide to provide different levels of hints.

Visual chart showing different levels of support with hints for job interviews, including: What are you stuck on? What's wrong with line 12? or Why did you assume the data would be lowercase?

Make space for candidates’ nerves

Mercifully, the day-to-day work of a software engineer doesn’t usually involve someone staring over your shoulder while you code. But that’s exactly what happens in technical interviews.

Unless the job role or your team culture specifically values the ability to work under intense pressure, there’s no need to evaluate a candidate on this skill. As such, it’s okay to file off the sharp edges of your technical questions and formulate them intentionally to help candidates focus on the task at hand.

For example, you might add guidance to your technical prompt that tells a candidate they don’t need to worry about certain conditions or parameters while doing the exercise.

In addition, we highly recommend allowing redo interviews. We tell candidates before the interview begins that they have an opportunity for a redo should they feel they didn’t perform their best.

Redo interviews help you find the best fit by reducing the likelihood that factors like a candidate’s nerves, how their day is going, or their familiarity with interviewing will obscure their true talents.

Tell candidates exactly what you’re looking for

When interviewing engineers, interviewers will sometimes ask one question while hoping for the answer to another.

For example, if the job role requires sometimes dealing with extreme edge cases, the interviewer might take off points if the candidate doesn’t address these edge cases while solving a straightforward problem.

At Karat, we believe that you should be transparent with candidates and tell them exactly how they’re being evaluated. If solving for edge cases is a requirement of the job, then the candidate should be able to produce a solution when asked, without having to guess at your intentions.

That goes for behavioral questions as well. You’ll get more consistent results by asking questions that are directly related to your culture statement, rather than probing for hidden meanings behind a candidate’s responses.

Time for a new interview iteration

Assessing culture fit in job candidates can feel like a subjective exercise. But like all aspects of interviewing, you’ll get better results if you take a structured approach and deploy consistent practices across all of your interviews.

For culture fit questions, that means having a strong culture statement, formulating questions that directly relate to that statement, and letting your work culture shine through in other parts of the interview process.

That way, you can ensure your hires don’t just have the technical skills you need, but will also help your team achieve its collective goals through shared values and actions.

Karat can help you structure your interviews to ask the right questions and ensure you’re not missing out on high-quality candidates. Request a demo.

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