There are six major engineering branches (Mechanical, Chemical, Civil, Electrical, Management and Geotechnical) “and literally hundreds of different subcategories of engineering under each,” according to Types of Engineering Degrees. As such, the idea of interviewing engineers can become daunting.
When you prepare for an interview with an engineer, it is natural to delve into the weeds of that candidate’s particular area of technological and engineering expertise. In addition to engineering-specific questions, you’ll want to inquire about their interpersonal communications, team-work, customer service and related skills that tie to overall performance and culture fit.
In the article, Engineer Interview Questions, Alison Doyle does a great job of tapping into an engineer’s problem solving, process and communication skills by identifying less-technologically-focused questions. For example, Doyle suggests the following three questions:
1. Tell me about the most challenging engineering project that you have been involved with during the past year.
This question is apt because it immediately pulls the candidate into a specific mindset of describing what type of project details they consider to be ‘challenging,’ and why. Assuming the interviewer probes beyond the initial question, the response will reveal not only what particular project stretched them, but also how they navigated through the challenges of that project and what the outcome was.
2. Describe the most challenging written technical report or presentation that you’ve had to complete.
Again, the question focuses on a ‘most challenging’ initiative, but this time it further focuses in on writing and/or communication skills. For a candidate to successfully navigate this question, you might expect details of the report or presentation, building a case for complexity and/or difficulty, but also evidence of their communications prowess (or, lack thereof).
3. What checks and balances do you use to make sure that you don’t make mistakes?
This is a great thinking question. For those candidates who may never have thought about a checks-and-balances system in this way, the question may spur their creative juices.
More than likely, a strong engineering candidate will have some sort of system in place, even if they aren’t consciously aware of it. It may be as simple as running ideas and initiatives by a colleague . Or, maybe they have notes or a digital system they use to assess tasks or project steps. The bottom line, though, is that you are seeking a candidate who can elucidate an ability to reduce the margin of error, thus improve quality, productivity and ultimately, corporate profit margins.
In addition to Doyle’s suggestions, I consider the following questions to be illuminating:
4. In what instances have you demonstrated leadership skills, and how would you describe your style?
Most employees, at one point or another and regardless of level, have been tasked to guide another person or team of people. This may be for a very specific task or could involve a longer, more drawn-out initiative. By prompting the candidate with this question, you gain a sense of how they define leadership as well as how they exude leadership in their day to day. In today’s more collaborative culture, it is important to have employees who know how to step up and steer the way, when needed.
5. What processes have you helped develop or singularly created that enhanced engineering performance capabilities? What was the impact of this process on your team’s/department’s/division’s performance and/or how did this impact something bigger company-wide?
This multilayered question is important. Because of the process-oriented nature of engineering roles, it is likely that the candidate can provide a solid story that describes a process they helped build. The key will be their ability to translate this initiative further into a bottom-line impact.
6. Have you been involved in cost reductions? Have you shaved expenses or been asked to work within a slashed budget?
In most economic climates, cost reduction factors into a company’s success at some point. Even if the company itself is doing well, it may be that a particular project has exceeded the allocated budget, for example. Or, perhaps a new competitor has challenged profit margins, creating a battening down of financial hatches. Whatever the case, a candidate’s ability to prove they can help cut costs or work within a suddenly decreased budget framework is important.
Doyle’s article inspired the final four interview questions helpful in shaping specialty-specific engineering questions:
7. Why did you select civil engineering as your field of major?
Of course, you can substitute civil engineering with mechanical, chemical, electrical engineer, etc. Answers to this question may unearth a plethora of insights about the candidate. Some candidates may answer from the gut and with passion when describing how they decided to major in this area of specialty. Others may offer a more pragmatic or mechanical response. Moreover, a candidate’s ability to be concise or to ramble on about their career-paving story could enhance, or detract, from their interview.
8. How much oil is necessary to pollute the ocean?
This is an intriguing question and one that most likely would be posed to an environmental engineer. A candidate’s ability to apply logical reasoning, prior experience or studies on the topic will reveal itself in the answer.
9. Describe the differences between Corsim and Vissim models.
Corsim and Vissim models relate to traffic flow; as such, this question would apply well to civil engineers. By demonstrating an understanding of the differences between the models, a candidate may prove they have the depth of knowledge to make the appropriate decision when called to employ either — or both — of these traffic analysis tools.
10. Describe the process you use for writing a piece of code, from requirements to delivery.
Designed for a software engineer, this question is helpful to extract a candidate’s ability to communicate a process. It will also help the interviewer determine strengths and potential weaknesses in the candidate’s chosen processes.