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I was wondering if this was a good question to ask a possible employer when interviewing for a developer position:

What is the greatest strength and weakness of your development team?

We all get this question when we are in an interview, so why not ask them in return? I think it is a very good question because we could find out about the team, and how this strength or weakness could affect us, but I don't want to annoy the interviewer.

Is there any downside to asking this question when interviewing for a developer position?

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well clearly the role they are hiring for is one weakness... –  jk. Jan 30 '12 at 15:02
    
What's the position this was asked for? –  Karlson Jan 30 '12 at 15:10
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I ask, "What is the worse part of this position?" I also ask sales people what their customers hate about their products the most. –  JeffO Jan 30 '12 at 15:48
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If you phrase it well, it also says to the interviewer, "I care about the team I may be joining, and I can see beyond my own nose.". –  Ross Patterson Jan 30 '12 at 18:28
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"What's your greatest weakness?" is one of Oatmeals 6 Crappiest Interview Questions. –  Chris Burt-Brown Jan 31 '12 at 0:19
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9 Answers 9

up vote 20 down vote accepted

It's not a bad question, however I personally wouldn't phrase it quite like that.

I'd start by asking about the development team and their processes, and try and pick up what's strong and weak about them myself. It's hard to give a good set of questions to ask because they'd be different depending on the answers given, what sort of position you're applying for, and what you value most in a development team.

Best advice I can give you is to try and keep the questions sounding more like a conversation, and less like an interrogation. Also, plan a list of things you're interested in finding out about in advance.

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It's worth noting that, depending on who's interviewing you, you may get a non-committal answer, a terrible answer, no answer at all, or something completely misleading. If a team lead is interviewing you, awesome. However, if you're talking to someone who isn't technically oriented (even if they will be your boss, or the person hiring you) this may not be the best question for the interview. If I had to do this and was comfortable in the conversation, I might ask what they would change about their setup; it's an open question that can show you weaknesses, but also their thought processes. –  lunchmeat317 Jan 8 at 3:16
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Don't phrase it that way. Everyone hates the phony (IMHO) "strengths and weaknesses" question. There is no need to turn it around and use it again.

Much better and more authentic questions that get to the same information would be the following:

  • Tell me about the history of your team, how did you get started, where did the team members come from? Where did previous team members go when they left?

  • Why are you looking to fill position x?

  • What are the most difficult challenges you and your team face working here?

  • Can you walk me through the lifecycle of a project this team has worked on? How did it start and finish? What is the team's relationship to the stakeholders, testers (if any), ops (if any) and maintenance?

  • When things go wrong, how does your team respond? Can you tell me about the last/current/biggest crisis?

Having an answer to these questions helps to give a picture of what it is like to work with that team. These are a comfortable opportunity for the hiring manager to really describe the pros/cons of the work environment. It is also easy to detect a phony answer to such questions that would indicate there is something being hidden.

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I don't know how valuable it is to ask, because by hiring you (and possibly other people), they are changing the dynamic of the team. They have clearly identified some current weakness, whether it's a lack of a particular skill or just a need for another developer to carry out the work, and are seeking to fix that weakness. As soon as they add the person or people to the team, the dynamics have changed and their answer might or might not be valid anymore.

It would probably be more insightful to ask about current team practices and desired process improvements. Where the team is now in terms of how the work gets done probably won't change dramatically between the interview and your potential start date (unless your start date is several months out), and asking about desired improvements to processes, methodologies, and tools might give you the opportunity to indicate that you might have the skills or knowledge to help with these efforts.

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This is a subtle way of evaluation of your interpersonal skills and your view of working in a group of people. Not sure what the legal would think about people asking that but would definitely see this as a year end review question then an interview one. –  Karlson Jan 30 '12 at 15:14
    
Hrrrm I wrote my answer before I read yours, but +1 for the 2nd paragraph. I agree that the OP would be better off asking about the current team practices and processes. –  Rachel Jan 30 '12 at 15:25
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Yes, there more than a few downsides to asking this question. First of all, how well does the person you are asking really have the ability to answer this question? If you are asking someone in HR this question, they may have little idea of what a legitimate answer is here. Even the manager may not know if the team is still relatively new and things aren't so well-known in terms of social dynamics and getting things done. The other side is how prepared are you for the linguistic gymnastics you may be starting with this question as there is more than a slight chance of any answer being so loaded with buzzwords or vague that it has little value unless you know how to follow-up with some harder hitting questions. For example if they claim that they co-operate and deliver well for a strength, are you prepared to interrogate that further?

On the flip side, I'd be more tempted to ask for a bit of team history:

  • How long has this team been together?
  • Who has how many years here?
  • What roles do the various people tend to play usually?

That would be far more useful to my mind than the question that may be perceived as rather loaded to my mind. While I can admire the effort, I'd wonder how well would any company have studied the team dynamics to find their strengths and style to the point of being able to disclose them.


The comment about asking this to the person without knowing how well they answer gets into those "linguistic gymnastics" I mention above as I can easily foresee someone stating something akin to, "We hire only the best here," or something else that is boilerplate for an answer that would require some probing to discover the answer was just someone trying to be polite rather than offer an accurate answer. Another generic answer would be that "everyone gets along so well" that one could wonder if there are hidden hostilities or is the team really a bunch of mature people that do work well together.

Rather than ask for weakness, I'd restate the question to be, "What is your development team's greatest challenge?" so that it isn't taken to be someone intentionally trying to stir up trouble but rather trying to gain some insight into how the team is seen.

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I agree that asking this type of question knowingly of an HR person would be counterproductive. However, if you do not know the person is unable to answer the question, then asking it will most likely reveal that fact, and that tells you a lot (e.g. that the company is sending the wrong people to do the interviews). –  Joris Timmermans Sep 13 '12 at 12:14
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At some point, they should have at least addressed the positive if they want to encourage you to join the team. Any quality manager/team leader should be asking him/herself this question on a daily basis. Nobody and nothing is perfect. You're not likely to continue doing what works if you can't recognize it.

If they find this offensive or don't feel it is your place to ask such questions, you may not want the job. Any aversion to the question could a sign of insecurity or at least poor communication.

Personally, I like people who attack problems head on because they willing to recognize them (Isn't that step 1 of 12?).

Often, there are issues beyond the leader's control: budget, legacy code, size of staff, good people leave for higher-paying jobs, the nature of the work means developers have to accomodate team members in different time zones, upper-management has some micro-management tendancies, company-wide policies like dress code, office hours, etc. Any of these can negatively impact or limit a team.

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Asking a team their opinion of themselves is not as likely to be as telling as a question about how their response to events resulted in an outcome. These type of questions are known as behavioral questions, and are based on the idea that past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior.

When preparing behavioral type questions, a common way to model them is by using the STAR method, meaning the question is structured in such a way to lead discussions to a specific situation, task, action, and result of the situation being discussed.

For example, "Since joining the team, what has been the team's greatest success, what created the opportunity for it, what team actions had the most impact on making it happen, and what was the effect of this success on the company?"

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One of my stock questions for my possible future employer is "why do you love working for your company?"

It aims at getting the same kind of information, but in a positive and optimistic way. In great places to work, you'll find that often your interviewer will start gushing all kinds of great information you really want to know to make your decision!

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I find it a really weird question. What kind of an answer or information would you expect?

If you are applying for a development position, I would expect you to ask more about technical aspects. Like for example, "what methodologies are you using?", "what tools are you using?", etc.

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-1 Your answer implies that developers are coding monkeys. A lot of professional programing is about building a kick ass team. For example a Scrum team should set up it's own rules and thus understand team strengths and weakness. –  Farmor Jan 30 '12 at 18:05
    
@Farmor What a BS comment. Every team should set their rules. Plus, if they knew their weakest point, wouldn't they fix it? –  BЈовић Jan 30 '12 at 22:42
    
I don't follow you. You write "Every team should set their rules" This is exactly my point as I write "a Scrum team should set up it's own rules". Don't you agree with this? Also sometimes you can know a weak point but don't fix it as the solutions is either unknown or to hard. For example a team can have the problem that it is to homogenous but having trouble getting the right competences. I feel my team lacks a really good JavaScript expert and that we are all back end experts. –  Farmor Jan 30 '12 at 22:52
    
@Farmor A team without rules is called cowboy coding. Off course that scrum teams set their rules (this sums up scum pretty much, and it is completely different from cowboy coding). Lacking an expertise is easy to fix : hire someone competent. There are more serious problems some teams are facing - but they have no knowledge how to improve. –  BЈовић Jan 31 '12 at 7:37
    
@Farmor - I believe BЈовић simply doesn't understand the actual problem you have with his answer. As I read it, what you seem to try to say is that a good "soft" question can tell you a lot about a position, company, interviewer or candidate, so it's good to have those in your arsenal as well as technical questions. –  Joris Timmermans Sep 13 '12 at 12:09
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I think it's a great question, although I would ask it a bit differently. In the past, I have asked questions such as:

  • What are the biggest technical challenges at your shop?
  • How's the range/spread in skillsets among your team?
  • How much of a problem is silo-ing at your shop?

These questions help you indirectly expose information about how the team operates. Technical challenges reveal the team's attitude towards (new) technology. Range-in-skillsets reveals the professional background within the team. Silo-ing reveals issues of code ownership and ego.

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