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When interviewing for a job, is there a delicate yet accurate way to find out if they have insane policies, like "no open source", or "no installing software without permission", "not upgrading software until it's about to lose support", or "no visiting blogs"?

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+1 to the answers that mention "ask existing staff"... getting all the way through the interview process without having the opportunity to talk with the folks that actually do work is an insane policy all by itself. –  Bill Nov 4 '10 at 19:58
    
Please follow this proposal for that kind of question: Organization aspects –  bigown Dec 10 '10 at 19:56
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Policies can change due to change of management. Ideally you want to know someone well who already works there, and have them tell you how it is there ... –  Job Aug 3 '11 at 18:30
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Why do you need to ask the question in a delicate way? If they can give the right answer, they won't be offended. If they can't, they might be, but you don't want the job anyway, so it doesn't matter. –  Tom Anderson Jul 29 '12 at 21:56
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10 Answers

I don't think you can be too subtle, you can perhaps ask:

"The last place I worked at utilised some open source libraries - I found that useful as I was able to delve in and fix problems directly instead of waiting for a Vendor to get back to me. I can also understand that there can be legal concerns on using such libraries, do you have a policy here?"

"I assume that our machines are looked after by some sort of tech support? What's the process I'd have to go through if I had to install (for example) a trusted free text editor that supports Hex encoding?"

"I'm really passionate about my craft and I keep up to date with the luminaries in my field - what's the policy on visiting work related websites such as Oracle tech blogs etc?"

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This pretty much hits the nail on the head. +1 –  Terence Ponce Nov 8 '10 at 13:24
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Those are questions you can bring up at the end of the interview when the interviewer normally asks "Do you have any questions for me"

Just try and phrase them in such a way so the question links to the job you are applying for. For example, I might phrase these questions such as:

  • Does the company have an opinion about using Open Source software?
  • What is the company policy about installing custom software? For example, I use XXX which helps me speed up development.
  • Do you use a web content filter? I ask because the last place I worked for had one that severely limited my research capabilities.
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= +1 for For example, I use XXX which helps me speed up development –  Cape Cod Gunny Nov 6 '10 at 20:42
    
yeah there's really no reason to stress out about being tactful, because the interviewer will directly solicit questions from you. In fact, I wish I had these questions last time I was interviewed. –  jhocking Aug 3 '11 at 19:03
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Some companies have generally awful cultures and that often extends to having awful environments for software development. I think there are three issues here

  1. What is the companies culture?
  2. How does that culture extend to software development in that company?
  3. Assuming you are interviewing for a particular team, how similar or different is their culture?

For the first part, I'd ask

  1. Does the IT department manage the Developer machines the same way they administer all the other machine?
  2. What are the policies for adopting new technologies or new software?

For the second part:

  1. How standardized is the development environment?
  2. Can developers try out new tools and new technologies to introduce to the rest of the team?
  3. What restrictions are there?

For the last part, ask other developers

  1. What blogs do you read?
  2. What blogs and web sites do you recommend?

In each case, the questions are on the edges and the answer will likely more honest.

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I'd ask if the internet was considered a resource, i.e. things like Stack Overflow, or if there was a limited internet usage policy.

I'd visit https://www.glassdoor.com to find out all I could about a company.

I'd ask engineers about their normal day.

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+1 but remember you can't trust everything you read. Glassdoor.com may say the company is terrible, but in the end use your own judgement. The bad reviews always stick out more than the good ones, with anything. Make a note of what the bad reviews say and look for evidence - company might have changed since the review was written. –  Wayne M Aug 4 '11 at 12:56
    
With Glassdoor, consider the site, department and date the review was written about to gauge whether it is relevant or accurate; also organizational changes since then. –  smci Aug 29 '11 at 5:02
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Get a chance to meet their existing developers. What the HR person or manager thinks the policy is, and how it actually works on the ground, are often different. These are all questions I'd ask someone with a similar job description to my own, not the boss.

Bosses and HR types, on the other hand, generally understand that corporate culture is important, and that allowing a prospective hire a few hours contact with their team to make sure it feels like the right fit reduces risk for you and for them.

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+1 - also you can often gauge the culture better from how another developer reacts and talks about the job. I've often thought a job was good and then talked to someone on the team and their general attitude was of the walking dead: soulless and just going through the motions. I ran away quickly. –  Wayne M Aug 3 '11 at 19:01
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First thing's first - ask all you are worried about, don't leave anything to assumptions. I cannot stress this enough - I once assumed something and later regretted it.

Secondly, and this is (IMHO) quite important too : Ask them if you can walk around company offices.

Observe the people working there. If there is something wrong, you'll "just know it". Part of this comes from stressed people releasing all sorts of pheromones, and the other part comes from the eery, inexplainable silence, one of the sort of the wood being chopped in the forrest in which there is no one to hear the sound of it falling.

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+1. If they won't show you the area you'll actually be working in, it's a huge red flag that something is wrong (What are they hiding?). Often though if there's something wrong you'll sense a "disturbance in the Force", as it were. –  Wayne M Aug 3 '11 at 18:34
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Consider a set of more direct questions after you've been made an offer. No need to be rude, but if you have any concerns...

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After an offer is too late to find out that, say, nobody is allowed to use the internet, no open source is allowed (where it would help), and the like. Best to ask during the interview so if you find out, you can refuse an offer. –  Wayne M Aug 3 '11 at 18:58
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From my experience in working at in house IT at large companies (banks, insurance etc.)

"no open source", - this is not in anyway insane policy. Depending on the OSS license this kind be quite valid. Saving money (up to a reasonable limit) is not usually a big problem as every project has a budget and as long as you can fit in it is OK.

"no installing software without permission" - this is very valid from infrastructure support, security and legal perspective. e.g. Installing wireshark can lead to dismissal.

"not upgrading software until it's about to lose support" - depends on which software. If it still using VS 2003/2005 for development team yes. If you are talking about upgrading 10000 desktops from XP to windows 7 and office 2010 then not. Those needs business justification.

"no visiting blogs"? - yes this is a bad policy.

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I don't agree with the first 2 answers... "no open source" is 99% of the time just based on misinformation, ignorance or self-interest on the part of the decision-maker. "installing wireshark can lead to dismissal"? Really?? It is an incredibly useful tool for debugging network apps. I don't know how I (and my team) would have solved certain problems without it. (and by the way, it was for an insurance company) –  JoelFan Nov 8 '10 at 14:02
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And the "licence issue"? That is only going to apply if you are in the business of selling software... incorporating open source into a product and selling it as your own. No bank or insurance company does that. Show me ONE case where there was ever a problem just USING open source or incorporating it into internal software. –  JoelFan Nov 8 '10 at 14:21
    
@SpashHit - I am not saying you cannot install Wireshark if it is required for your work. But in a bank if you install without permission then it could be seen as an attempt to hack. –  Pratik Nov 8 '10 at 20:49
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The best way I've found is to either outright ask, wording in in a very polite and casual way, and to ask to be shown around the office - do not settle for being led to a conference room and then stay there the entire interview.

If the company is unwilling to show you around, chances are they are hiding something and you should beware. A conference room is always full of "corporate BS" and makes the company seem amazing, with lots of awards and a very posh look, but looks are deceiving and the conference room's only purpose is to give the illusion of greatness.

Also, ask to talk to potential co-workers for a minute or two (not supervisors, although you should be talking to them too), and broach it with them. Ask what open-source tools they use on the job, ask what reference sites they use on the job if they're stuck (e.g. Stackoverflow), ask what blogs they read first thing in the morning (Double question here: You are asking if they keep up to date and also asking if they "settle in" in the morning with coffee and taking a quick read of developer blogs before starting to code), things like that. Again, not being allowed to talk to other developers is a red flag, and from talking to a possible co-worker you might glean the overall culture - if the person looks down constantly and mutters instead of sounding enthusiastic, or if when you walk through the rows of cubes there's no conversation at all, just a group of zombies typing away at keyboards, those are all big red flags that while the culture might not be "insane" it's very toxic.

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GlassDoor and Jobitorial are two options for this kind of intel.

Another strategy might be to go to local user groups and seek out people that work for the company and engage them in conversation. Tell them you are considering applying there and ask them questions.

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My exact same answer, beat me to it. –  rlb.usa Aug 3 '11 at 18:48
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