6 interview questions for agile tech leads

The technical lead role is an important career milestone for many engineers. Here's an inside look at the questions interviewers ask and what they’re looking for.

3 People sitting waiting for job interview

Every team needs a leader who sets direction, helps organize the work, clarifies requirements, and resolves conflicts. Agile development teams typically have an assigned technical or team leader who is responsible for guiding technical implementations. This role is separate from the product owner and scrum master but frequently works alongside them.

The technical lead’s role on an agile development team includes partnering with a product owner to learn customer needs, prioritizing the backlog, and reviewing user stories. This person guides the agile team’s productivity in estimating user stories, committing to prioritized work, completing the development per acceptance criteria, and delivering reliable releases.

The role requires technical acumen so that teams have guidance on optimizing solutions, assigning implementation tasks, and prioritizing technical debt. More importantly, the role requires collaboration and leadership skills to support teams in delivering new software and practicing continuous improvement.

Oftentimes, developers and devops engineers are internally elevated to the technical lead role after demonstrating the required leadership and technical skills. In some cases, an organization may choose an external hiring process, and you could have the opportunity to interview for this critical role. Agile technical team leads can go on to become delivery managers and chief technology officers, so it’s a critical step on an engineer’s career path. Becoming a technical lead is an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to lead teams and deliver results.

As an interviewer, there are a variety of key questions that you can ask to assess a candidate’s qualifications for the agile technical lead role. For a candidate, these are key topics and questions to prepare for in advance.

1. Collaborating with customers and business colleagues

While the agile tech lead’s job focuses on guiding the team and delivering technology capabilities, candidates must also demonstrate their abilities to partner with customers and business colleagues. Bridget Poulos, senior director of go-to-market global talent at Bionic, suggests that technical leaders should be prepared to answer questions about how they work with their go-to-market counterparts. Questions in this area might include:

  • Who were some key customers and personas for a customer-facing technology you developed?
  • When working on an internal, employee-facing application, how do you better understand the targeted end-users and their workflow, data, and automation needs?
  • What steps do you take when releasing a new application or technology, and who do you partner with to ensure user adoption and drive the targeted business outcomes?

Organizations want detailed answers that show how candidates interact with people, understand business needs, and collaborate with stakeholders. “Candidates should speak to how they partner with organizations across the company and tackle the technical aspects of the job and tie that work back to the business,” says Poulos.

2. Solving technical challenges

A technical lead should be versed in finding solutions to technical challenges. Even more important may be their skills in facilitating discussions with the team and allowing them to develop solutions. When the team identifies solutions, can the technical lead describe them to product owners and stakeholders without diving into the implementation and technical details?

Mark Chaffey, CEO of hackajob, suggests asking, “Can you describe a complex technical problem you’ve faced on a previous project, how you approached solving it, and what the result was?”

The strength of starting with an open-ended question is that it should make it easier for the interviewee to showcase their knowledge and demonstrate their leadership style. “The interviewer should learn about the candidate’s technical knowledge, problem-solving, communication, leadership and teamwork, and learning and adaptability skills,” says Chaffey.

Chaffey continues, “A strong answer should demonstrate a clear understanding of the problem, problem-solving approach, decision-making skills, outcome, learning, and impact. Candidates should avoid giving vague descriptions, ignoring teamwork, blaming others, or failing to reflect.”

Once the interviewer understands a candidate's problem-solving skills, they may follow up by asking them to solve a problem in their technical domain. “This gets a candidate to think laterally and apply practical solutions to a real problem. It also makes it easy to understand if their problem-solving skills suit your organization,” says Josh Lemon, director of managed detection and response team at Uptycs.

3. Code reviews and capturing architectural tradeoffs

A third line of questions should flush out technical acumen and align with role expectations. A tech team lead’s responsibilities can vary significantly across organizations and teams, with some expecting tech leads to be hands-on coding with the team, while others expect them to function as a solutions architect.

Simon Metson, VP of engineering at EDB, recommends using a straightforward test to evaluate coding skills. “We use a simple, and deliberately so, coding test prior to the interview,” he says. “The resulting app, which should take an hour or two to complete, gives us something to discuss in the interview and assess how the candidate codes, solves problems, and communicates.”

Metson says the test isn’t just about technical chops, and is more about how the candidate plans for scalability. “The question I like to ask is, how they’d scale out the application so that instead of running for one person, it’s used by millions. That’s a good test of how they approach complexity, what technologies they’re familiar with or interested in, and how they think about teams and crossing organizational boundaries. These are often the differentiating factors between a strong coder and a tech lead.”

Even if the tech lead isn’t coding, they must have the knowledge, skills, and tactics to perform code reviews. Organizations should consider asking candidates about how they perform code and implementation reviews, what tools they’ve used, how frequently they conduct them, what they look for that defines code quality, and how they’ve informed teammates when they need to improve their coding skills. As a candidate, you want to be well prepared for this line of questioning.

Marko Anastasov, co-founder of Semaphore CI/CD, suggests asking questions illustrating a candidate’s ability to think through different architectures and implementation options. He suggests asking candidates to discuss the tradeoffs between, say, monolithic architecture and microservices architecture. Interviewers should choose an architectural domain relevant to their program.

“The answer should not put one architecture over the other, “ he says, “A nuanced answer that balances the pros versus cons of each one shows that the candidate knows there isn’t such a thing as a silver bullet for software development and that each project has its unique needs.”

Other example questions might concern selecting between SQL and other database technologies, approaches to ensure devops observability, and minimal requirements for documenting an application architecture.

4. Team collaboration and agile practices

The Agile Manifesto names individuals and interactions over processes and tools as a core value. One of the 12 principles behind the Agile Manifesto is, “At regular intervals, the team reflects on how to become more effective, then tunes and adjusts its behavior accordingly.” This value and principle speak to the heart of the technical team lead’s role, making it a good topic to discuss during interviews. I suggest the following questions:

  • What is your approach to working with individuals and interactions, especially when teams are geographically dispersed or supporting hybrid work agile practices?
  • What agile processes and tool configurations do you consider minimal and non-negotiable with your teams? How do you handle the situation when one teammate doesn’t comply?
  • When do you practice retrospectives, and how are learnings translated into continuous improvements?

Emily Arnott, content marketing manager at Blameless, suggests going one step further and asking, “How do you prevent teams from feeling underappreciated or burnt out?”

While it may require training to recognize burnout, team leaders should take steps to thank hard-working team members and prioritize stress-reducing activities.

“More and more, companies want their lead positions to be involved in building social resilience in their teams, with plans to keep them motivated and unstressed,” says Arnott.

Some further interview questions along this line are:

  • What are some ways you thank teammates and have fun with them?
  • What steps would you take if you believed a teammate was burning out?
  • How do you respond to an overly demanding stakeholder who is unhappy with the team’s performance?

5. Delivering reliable and secure releases

Even when stakeholders are happy with the team’s performance, the technical lead always feels pressured to release more capabilities faster. Does the technical lead succumb to the pressure and release buggy code and unstable releases? How can interviewers assess whether a potential candidate follows devops best practices, including continuous testing, feature flagging, canary release strategies, and shift-left security practices?

Steve Sill, senior technical recruiter at LaunchDarkly, recommends asking,  “How do you mitigate risk when it comes time to release your project?”

Asking this open-ended question allows the candidate to showcase the release management practices they’ve implemented and their approach to balancing speed and safety.

“If the answer is short, I will ask them to elaborate as I am looking for details and true understanding,” says Sill.

I recommend these follow-up questions:

  • How do you know the application meets quality standards?
  • What security practices and tools do you expect every developer on your team to know?
  • What options would you recommend when deploying major upgrades to a mission-critical application that thousands of customers and employees use?

6. Personal development and learning objectives

One best practice is to conclude an interview by asking candidates about their goals and aspirations. Lemon suggests asking candidates where they want to be in two years, a timeframe that shouldn’t be hard for people to answer. Asking about two years requires candidates to look beyond near-term objectives while avoiding questions on long-term goals that people may not want to reveal during a first meeting. 

“Don’t be disheartened if they don’t want to stay in the role they are applying for, as this also shows the candidate isn’t afraid of being transparent,” suggests Lemon.

A lighter approach is to ask candidates about their development and learning objectives. Ask candidates what they have learned over the last year and their goals for the upcoming year. If they are taking courses, getting certifications, or attending conferences, that’s great, but I would look for more. Who are their mentors? What was a hard lesson learned on the job? What books have they read, and what podcasts do they listen to regularly? Most importantly, how do they put their learnings into action?

What you are trying to discover from their response is whether the engineer is more than a team lead and is seeking career advancement. These candidates aim to impact, lead teams towards longer-term sustainable successes, and set high standards for themselves. Their personal goals and learning objectives should illustrate how they turn goals into roadmaps and weekly activities, which is at the heart of the tech lead role and responsibilities.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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