Thu · Oct 6

Ask a Female Engineer: Interviewing + Company Culture

We’ve recruited a group of female engineers with years of industry experience to try an experiment with us called “Ask A Female Engineer.”

Read our first post to learn more about the series. We recognize that the opinions of a few people by no means represent the opinions or experiences of all women who code. We’d love to hear feedback and more perspectives on these questions, so we’re continuing the discussion on Hacker News.

I'm a software engineer at YC and will be moderating these posts. If you have questions you’d like to anonymously ask, or if you’re a female software developer who would like to participate, please email

What about the application and interview experience would lead you to choose to join or not join a company? What kinds of questions and types of technical interviews do you consider most effective?

Ada : It's important to me that recruiters and interviewers are respectful. Nothing is worse than a condescending interviewer. It's most frustrating when this behavior surfaces during salary negotiations. For example, I’ve told recruiters about my salary expectations and had them laugh and say "no one gives that kind of [salary/equity/vacation/benefits]." This has happened to me multiple times, most frequently when the company was offering a below-market compensation package. It’s frustrating because I have worked other jobs and have interviewed elsewhere, so I’ve talked with other people in the industry and have concrete data proving that my salary expectations are reasonable. While I do understand if a particular company cannot afford to make a competitive offer, I do not like being told that I don't know what I'm talking about. There are ways to negotiate compensation, but this isn't it.

In terms of the interview itself – I hate pop-quiz-style rapid-fire questions. Things like "What is the time complexity of bubble sort? What is hopscotch hashing? What's the CAP theorem?" And on and on for fifteen minutes and twenty-odd questions. I'd much rather work through a new problem with the interviewer! (As opposed to fox-and-hare looped link lists or implementing a binary tree or something else I've done a hundred times in an interview and not once in my actual job.) My favorite kind of interview is when the interviewer asks me questions about a particular problem they’re actually working on, or a problem they've run into recently and had to solve in their own work. I prefer if the interview is a discussion with the interviewer and we work through possible solutions collaboratively so I can get a sense of whether I would actually enjoy working with the person. There’s another side to the equation too, which is being a female interviewer meeting with male candidates. I've recently been interviewing a lot of male candidates, often with a male coworker in the room because my company sometimes does pair interviews. There are many cases where it will subtly or overtly turn into a situation where the candidate is speaking and addressing questions or answers to my coworker. This happens even when I am leading the interview and my coworker is silently observing!

It would be super helpful if my coworkers, in this situation, would (a) keep an eye out for this behavior, (b) direct questions back to me instead of jumping in, and (c) point out this behavior as a tick against the candidate in the post-interview discussion. I don't expect us to disqualify candidates for this, but my current strategy of silently hoping the candidate fails the technical portion of their interview so I don't have to work with someone like that is probably doing bad things to my karma.

Jean : There are so many things that go into pursuing and choosing a job. I generally ignore cold calls or cold emails from recruiters. I will give a thought or two, or at least a reply to a former colleague who reaches out with an opportunity. But for me, historically, the first deal-breaker has been if a company won’t hire part-time employees. I've worked part-time for years while my children were young at many different companies. Some of those companies had men who worked PT for a year or more (mostly to deal with health-related issues, but it was unquestionably supported). Often others outside my group don't even realize I work PT. After that, it gets into what the work is, the vibe with the manager and team members, and state of the company itself. I've been both a consultant/contractor and an employee. Every job I've had has been through a network connection of some kind so there is some self-selection going on there, too.

One of my most memorable interviews was with the hiring manager for a job. We had chatted a bit and then he was talking about some of the various technical thoughts they had for the new product they were hiring for. It turned into a 45 minute whiteboard design brainstorming session. It was not planned that way nor was it a situation where they were trying to get candidates to solve their problems for free. It just spontaneously happened. But in hindsight it was an enjoyable and a relevant interaction. It gave a window into what he'd be like to work for/with and gave him a view into how I interact and approach problems. I took that job and we had a great working relationship for several years.

Klara : I’m really looking for a company that has an organized, well thought out interview process. If I notice that my interviewers are late, disorganized, or ask the same questions, it immediately raises a red flag for me. I want to join a team of people that are thoughtful and can execute. If you can’t run an interview process effectively it makes me wonder what else is broken.

Grace : I don't switch jobs frequently because I’ve found it very hard to find great places to work. I receive 2-3 emails from recruiters a day so there is a lot of noise around recruiting. I’ve found the most effective ways companies persuade me to interview is by getting to know me as a person first. I’m more receptive to an invitation to see the office and attend a company’s events. I want to get to know a team to understand if it would be a fit before I even consider interviewing. I have never been a fan of interviewing so I’ve gotten most of my great roles through my network, based on an informal coffee chat. Most of the time it’s not a long, intense process.

If I do interview with a company, it's because I think it might potentially be a great place to work. The interview is a chance for me to see if that's actually true.

Marlyn : The best interviews are where I'm tested on things that I'll actually be working on if I join the company (i.e. not implementing bubble sort on a whiteboard). It's also important to have a solid opportunity to evaluate my potential employer. My favorite interviews have been where I got to work on a real codebase during the interview. I can see exactly what I'd be getting myself into if I took the job, and the company also sees how much value I can bring to them in a real world context.

Things about the interview process that would make me join a company: transparency and organization in the interview process and interviewers that seem like people I could get along with and learn from.

Things about the interview process that would turn me off: demonstrating a lack of respect for my time (things like lengthy take home tests without pay), disorganization, extremely theoretical technical interview questions, whiteboard coding and lack of a good business plan.

Ruth : I've done well on technical interviews but I still dread them. They’re often highly focused on algorithms, and since my job doesn’t actually involve crafting clever algorithms day in and day out, that means I’ll have to brush up ahead of time. I think seeing someone code is important but I'm disappointed in the ubiquity of exclusively algorithms-focused interviews. The best interview experience I've had included a non-coding interview that was weighted significantly in the interview process, and a coding interview that was less about knowing a particular algorithm and more about writing good, clean production-ready software. I would like to see questions I've never been given before. Things like “How would you refactor this code? How would you debug this code? How would you explain the mistake in this code to your colleague?” Maybe a question asking me to walk the interviewer through my thoughts on how to fix a bug, which might mean deciding between a hack and a time-consuming refactor.

What are the most effective ways for an early stage founder to create an inclusive environment?

Frances : Try to make sure from the beginning that you are hiring women. Try not to get to a place where you have hired 10 engineers and they are all men. It’s harder to retroactively adjust your company’s culture so that it’s female-friendly.

It’s also much less isolating to be one of two (or more!) women on a team rather than the only one. It’s probably pretty similar to how a man might feel spending every hour of his work day in a group only of women. Of course, you can’t assume all the women will be friends. That’s actually a joke among some of my women engineer friends because we’ve had men assume if there’s another woman on the team we will instantly be pals and therefore should sit next to each other, work together, and be treated like a unit. And there’s the other awkward, sort of funny problem where once there’s more than one woman on the team, some guys can’t keep our names straight. All joking aside, the likelihood that the women will be able to provide silent support for each other is pretty high. In the past when I’ve had other technical women on my team, it’s been a big contributor to my happiness and desire to stay at my job. Having another person who “gets it” that I can talk to when something frustrating comes up is a big relief.

Grace : Founders can use tools like Culture Amp to do anonymous surveys. Have an open door policy where women on the team can come to you to talk about issues. It’s important for the women on your team to know they can approach you. If one of the women on your team comes to you upset about a problem, ask her “What happened? Are you ok? What can I do to help?” Listen, acknowledge the issue, and work with her to resolve it.

I also think hiring someone who works with the founders on employee experience is a great idea. Someone who does things like man the front desk, plan employee events and think deeply about the startup’s culture. To me, that person should be a champion for employees and work hard with the founders to make the startup an inclusive environment for everyone. Even if you are in a tiny We Work office, having someone who is primarily focused on employee happiness is valuable. They can help with recruiting, scheduling, and so much more. They should be a caring, humble, and trustworthy person.

Ada : Don't just tell your female employees or, for that matter, any of your employees that you care about diversity as a quick aside while you're interviewing them – make it clear to everyone who works at the company that it’s something you care about on an ongoing basis. Show your employees and job candidates through your hiring practices, choice of a diverse management team, etc.

Tell everyone at the company "It's important to me that everyone, regardless of who they are, feels comfortable working here. We're looking for people who are a good fit for the team, but we're not looking for a homogenous group. Respecting different perspectives is an important part of our strategy."

I’ve noticed founders often only tell staff members in minority groups that they consider creating an inclusive culture a high priority. Making it known to the whole team sets a certain tone and foundation for the company’s culture. I’ve noticed employees tend to mimic the attitudes of the management team, so if you don’t demonstrate you care about creating a comfortable work environment for all members of your team, then some team members might not think about it either.

If you have questions you’d like to anonymously ask, or if you’re a female software developer who would like to participate, please email