What I learned from applying to and interviewing for senior engineer roles
tldr; This was the first time I interviewed for a role in five years. After 2–3 months of searching for a role, I finally found one. It was by no means an easy search; finding a match needs all of cultural fit, timing, fit-for-the-job and the right compensation package to come together. This is a condensed story of what I learned en route to finding the right role. I also include what employers can look out for when hiring!
Note: I’ll be keeping all of this anonymous and general, as interviews are hard for all parties involved and it’s generally good etiquette to do so!
Why look for a new role?
Why was I looking for a new role in the first place? After a few years of contracting as a senior product engineer, I was looking for a new opportunity to invest my time and efforts in. While I had fun and interesting opportunities to work on while contracting, I was itching to work on something where I had a longer term stake.
Below, I’ve made note of a dozen leanings I made while applying for 10+ senior engineer roles. They’re from the perspective of the interviewee (i.e. the candidate) but I’ve also made notes for employers.
#1. There are lots of engineering jobs
Yes. “Lots” probably is an understatement. There are more software roles out there than there are candidates to fill them. And there are lots of sources: friends (my favourite), acquaintances, job boards (YC), job marketplaces (Snap.hr, Hired, Cord), communities, careers sites of companies you like, etc.
To make sure conversations you have are high quality, make sure to decide early what type of roles you’re looking for. For me, this was a “product engineer” or “founding engineer” type role at a small company. It wasn’t straightforward, as “product engineer” wasn’t a position that many companies were familiar with (US companies seemed to be more familiar with it). As a former co-founder and tech lead of startups, I’ve worn many hats during my career and I knew that I could provide more value in roles where I wouldn’t be siloed in engineering. By narrowing the focus, I was able to find the right places to find such roles.
Tip for job searchers: Ensure you are clear on what type of role you want. It’ll increase the quality of conversations you have with companies.
Tip for employers: Make sure to position your role for maximum reach while accurately describing what you need. While the nuance between “full-stack engineer” and “product engineer” may seem irrelevant, if you position a role as a “product engineer” role, chances are that someone looking for that exact role will appear. Show the salary if you can, often this stands out. It’s like SEO — position the role for the niche you’re targeting!
#2. Stay organised
As you’ll have seen in my above screenshot, I made a jobs pipeline board in Notion. There was no way that I was going to keep all the conversations in my head, so I made sure to write down the progress I made in Notion. Specifically, I made sure to keep track of:
- Status of the application (Applied, Interview scheduled / Interviewed / Awaiting next steps / Offer / Pass / Did not reply)
- Primary, secondary, tertiary contacts
- Interview dates and times
- Company URL
- Job spec URL
- Salary information
- Questions to ask the company
Tip for job searchers: Make sure to have all your notes and interviews jotted down in one place. You’ll thank yourself later.
Tip for employers: Chances are that the candidate is speaking with multiple companies. So it makes sense to be very clear about what you’re offering and how the interview process will work. You may stand out from other companies that aren’t as clear.
#3. Saying “no” is hard
It’s never easy to say no. But it needs to be said as early as possible if you’ve started a conversation but you’re fairly sure that the match isn’t right. Sometimes it’s not received well. A genuine sorry and thankfulness for their time is the best I can suggest in this situation.
Tip for job searchers: try to be respectful of others’ (and your own!) time, preempt conversations and say “no” early when the fit isn’t right. Be constructive in your feedback.
Tip for employers: a “no” doesn’t necessarily mean the door is fully closed, unless you make it so. If you invite the candidate to come back any time, they may take you up on it later (I’ve seen this happen with other engineers during my career).
#4. Getting rejected is hard
Some interviews feel like they’re going somewhere until you find out they’re going nowhere. Sometimes the reason you’re rejected isn’t clear — but that’s just the nature of interviewing. Understand that it’s all part of the interviewing process.
Tip for job searchers: Don’t take rejections too hard. Politely ask for feedback if the rejection is unexpected.
Tip for employers: It’s not obligatory but it’s a kindness to offer constructive feedback if you’re not moving forward with a candidate.
#5. Being “wanted” goes both ways
One of the revelations of being in the interviewee seat was that it’s quite important to feel wanted! If the employers are framing the hire as one of many roles they need to hire in Q3, you’re probably not going feel very wanted. But if the role is being framed as a key hire for an emerging or growing team, the conversation takes a different turn. Feeling “wanted” as a candidate is important.
This goes the other way too. You should express excitement for a role and ask questions that you genuinely want answers to.
Tip for job searchers: If you’re excited about a company, make sure to make it known. Interest is often reciprocated — we’re human, after all.
Tip for employers: Candidates seek purpose in their new role, so make sure to make the importance of the role clear. Justifying a hire as part of an initiative to increase headcount rarely comes across well.
#6. Speed is a key lever for employers
This relates to the previous point about feeling “wanted”. If employers move fast, you feel more wanted! This is why, as an employer, replying very quickly to emails and making same-day offers is important. If there’s momentum, it will be positively received.
Tip for job searchers: If an employer is moving quickly, that’s great news! Try to not get pressured if they arrive with an offer — take your time to make the right decision.
Tip for employers: Quickly moving from the initial message to an offer is a strong lever to make you stand out from other companies. When you find an ideal candidate, make sure to move fast — it’ll have a positive effect on the candidate!
#7. Certain stock options are worth more
If you’re entertaining working at a startup (in the UK), please look into the difference between EMI options and non-EMI. The tax implications when you exercise your options are big depending on which type you’re offered (hint, EMI is more tax-efficient). A friend of mine was bitten by this when he used to work at a startup.
Tip for job searchers: Make sure to ask which type of option is offered. It would be a shame to see your equity stake effectively halve when you come to exercising options!
Tip for employers: Most employees won’t know the difference, so try to help them out if you offer an equity stake. The kindness will be positively received.
#8. Do your homework on stock options
Again, if you’re working at a startup, you may be offered stock options. But not all options are created equal. Some startups will have a much, much better chance of success than others. Some are further along and already have product-market fit. Some have excellent credentials to succeed. Try to price in the uncertainty of startups by discounting the value of your equity stake by the chances of the startup succeeding. Other factors to consider:
- What valuations did similar startups get?
- What valuations did similar companies get at your stage of startup? Can you extrapolate?
Tip for job searchers: Create a spreadsheet to map out what the equity you get could be worth by the time the company exits. This is all guesswork at the end of the day but the point is more that you shouldn’t take the potential valuation at Series D at face-value (always discount)!
#9. “Culture fit” is difficult
Some cultures are fascinating. But don’t mistake fascination for culture fit. For example, I find Netflix’s engineering culture fascinating but that doesn’t necessarily mean I will work there. Good cultural fit is often grounded in the values you have as an individual and what the company values. Some examples:
- Attitude towards “ship fast”
- Attitude towards customer-centric development
- Attitude towards UX, design, usability
- Who are the founders? How are they like?
- Is your time being respected?
Tip for job searchers: “Culture fit” is often a gut feeling. Try to find out early if this is a company that you’ll feel good and excel at. Be clear about your strengths and see if they complement the company’s needs.
Tip for employers: Be clear about what you stand for. Show candidates how you work. Signal what you believe in. This will help both you and the candidate determine culture fit.
#10. Don’t rush your offers
It’s exciting to get to the offer stage! But if you have multiple conversations on the go, chances are that offers will come in a staggered pattern. This is largely fine if the offering company is happy to give you a bit of freedom to make the right decision. But if the offer has an “exploding” or tight deadline, it can add additional stress to the process.
A deadline is probably fine if there’s a week or at least a weekend to think about it but any sooner will be tight!
Tip for job searchers: Try to push back tight offer deadlines. If you’re a promising candidate, chances are that they’ll be happy to accommodate you.
Tip for employers: Try to avoid exploding offers, as it may reflect negatively. If you must, offer a week/at least a weekend for them to comfortably decide.
#11. Saying “no” to an offer is even harder
When you get multiple offers, you’ll need to say no to some. It’s not easy as each offer has unique things to offer. Be kind and get back to them as soon as you can, offering feedback if appropriate.
Tip for job searchers: Try to be mindful of the people who offered you a position. Each offer comes with emotional investment, so treat them seriously and be appreciative.
#12. Keep an eye on your energy level
Over the course of the 2–3 months I was searching for a role, I went through lots of ups and downs. I’m glad I spoke to each company but it was exhausting to speak to as many as I did, if I’m honest!
Make sure to keep your energy levels in check. It’s ok to acknowledge that your energy levels are low. Ideally I would have been done with my job search in my first month but I wouldn’t have arrived at the company I’ll be joining if I hadn’t taken as long as I did! It’s all a process, so manage it to fit your pace and energy levels.
Hope the learnings were interesting for you! Senior engineers are in demand, so you won’t have to look far to find opportunities. But it’s important you filter those opportunities appropriately, so that you arrive at a job you want!