One of the (many) things I used to dread before interviews was what questions to ask my interviewer. I knew that coming in with nothing to ask made you look unprepared, but I never knew what I really needed to know about a potential job (other than a couple questions intended to prove I'd done my research). These questions are an amazing opportunity for you to collect information about different potential careers. Remember, job interviews are a two way street- you need to figure out that you want the job just as much as they need to figure out that they want you.
To help others through the interview question debacle, I've compiled a list of questions which target things that have surprised either me or my friends upon arriving at a new engineering job. A lot of this information may be included in the job description, so make sure to read it carefully and not for information which has already been provided to you. Note that this is most relevant for personal interviews, not technical interviews. If you have the opportunity to ask questions at the end of a technical interview it wouldn't be totally out of line, just know your audience.
BONUS TIP: For those of you who identify closer to the socially awkward end of the spectrum (you know who you are), make sure to consider your tone as you ask these questions. You want to sound conversational and not like you are grilling the interviewer in a murder investigation. If you aren't sure how you are being perceived, practice asking your questions to a friend or family member before the actual interview.
What is the position?I can't even begin to tell you how many job postings I've seen that say something along the lines of "Engineer needed to work with cross functional team to develop quality products and solve problems." Note that this could be a description for literally any engineering job on the face of the planet. All it really tells you is that somebody who knows nothing about engineering wrote this (probably somebody in HR who was just told "we need more engineers!"). So in your interview, ask some follow up questions like: What niche are you looking to fill in your organization that has motivated you to hire for this position? What other departments or people would I be working with? What product or type of product will I be working on? If you have technical people on your interview board, you can also ask: What type of engineer are you looking to hire? People with technical backgrounds close to yours will be likely to give you a technical answer to this particular question, while business people will be more likely to give you a general "somebody who can engineer" type of answer that won't really help you.
Use the answers to relate your skills to the job for which they are hiring before asking the next question on your list. Creating a dialogue will make the interview feel more natural for you and your interviewer, and will allow you the chance to sell yourself after the initial round of questions.
In addition to helping you get the job, these questions will help prevent the bate and switch. By this I mean some job titles say "engineer" but you don't get to actually engineer anything. Knowing what work will be required in the position will help you decide between potential offers down the line.
What engineering tools do you use for the job I would be doing?Many job descriptions do not list what software programs, lab equipment, etc. you will be expected to use. For these positions, finding out what engineering tools are used for the job you are expected to do gives you insight to how much they are willing to invest in helping their engineers perform their jobs. It also clarifies what the job will actually entail, and gives you talking points to align your skills to the work that they need completed. For example, if one job requires you do all of your sketches in Paint and another requires CAD, this may factor into your decision of where you would best fit.
|I wish this wasn't an "engineering tool" I've seen people use.|
Tailor this question to the types of tools you would expect to see at the job (especially ones you are trained to use!) since "engineering tools" is a pretty broad category. It will both give you a more meaningful answer, and let you highlight your skills (if they haven't already come up earlier in the interview).
Is there a training program? What does it entail?If you are going to do technical work at a full time job, there should be a legitimate training program. Some internships include training or a mentoring program, although they are rarely as thorough since companies cannot afford to invest in short term employees as much. No matter how thorough your education is, there is plenty to learn in the specific area in which you will be working. When the training program is more of a "trial by fire" program, consider seriously how much of an issue it would be if you messed up and didn't have a mentor to correct you. If you are working on the landing gear for an airplane, this may be a bigger problem than if you are working on televisions. On the other hand some companies have such rigorous programs that employees are fired regularly before they "graduate", which can be an extremely stressful experience.
How would you describe the company culture?It's an open ended question that I love to ask during interviews because I find that the unspoken reaction of the interviewer is often more important than the actual response. If they seem to be struggling to say something positive, that's indicative of a real problem.
How long has the position been open? Why is the position open?
These types of questions can help you assess if they are having difficulty filling the position or retaining employees. While these facts don't mean that a workplace is bad, you should take into consideration that there may be a reason everyone is leaving. Be careful when asking this, it can easily sound more aggressive than intended.
What is the career trajectory for this position? Where would you see me in 3 to 5 years? What are the advancement opportunities like?
If you imagine yourself quickly rising through the ranks at a new job, it's important to be sure that this is even an option. Some companies don't promote internally, others will quickly promote you out of an engineering role all together.
Are there any social activities outside of work?
Some companies have coworkers who go out for drinks weekly, or play softball, or some other type of activity. Others never associate with each other outside of work and pretend they don't recognize each other if they run into somebody at the grocery store. If you are moving to a new town, having a built in group of friends may make a difference to you. If you are a misanthrope, required coworker hangouts may be the worst thing ever.
That's all the questions I have for now, thank you!
Hopefully at this point they'll say something that naturally leads to you asking for their business cards. If you really liked the job, don't be afraid to follow up. Hardly anyone ever does it these days, so this can really help you stand out.
PS. What questions do YOU wished you asked during an interview?