Asking questions during interviews is a critical way to show employers how you think and what you value. In this blog post, I’m going to share a question that I make a point of asking whenever I'm interviewing for a job.
This question delivers results. I’m confident that it's a big part of why I got my current job, and I’ve seen it work for others as well.
When my sister was interviewing for her first job, I recommended she ask this question. When she did, the interviewer’s demeanor completely changed. He said, “I love that question. I’ve been interviewing candidates for this program for almost a decade, and that is the best question anyone has ever asked me.” Less than a week later, she had an offer for the role.
I learned this question from a close friend who worked in enterprise sales. He used it to deepen his understanding of a company’s goals and – in the process – lay a groundwork of trust. It’s fitting, since interviewing with a company is, in a way, a form of enterprise sales. You’re pitching yourself to a business. Understanding their goals and building trust with them goes a long way.
I love that question. I've been interviewing candidates for this program for almost a decade, and that is the best question anyone has ever asked me.
Below, I'll share the question with you and teach you how to use it to stand out as a business-oriented thinker. I'll also go over remixing the question for different types of companies. Finally, I'll show you how this question reveals red-flags from potential employers and what those flags mean.
The question is:
What is the champagne-popping outcome that I can help you reach?
Go beyond the words
This question turns heads because it displays a unique and valuable trait: business-oriented thinking. Companies struggle to find employees who can think from from the perspective of the business. Many folks get too bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of their work and lose sight of how it affects the company’s bottom line.
To show that you are impact-driven, you must go beyond merely asking the question. Show interviewers that you are a business-oriented thinker with your follow up questions and the way you discuss your past experiences.
Ask about how the business makes money, the market they operate in, who their users are, and the challenges they face. Get curious. Show that you’re an intelligent newcomer with a genuine interest in the space.
When you describe your past experiences, frame problems and solutions in terms of business-outcomes, not just engineering challenges faced.
Example: impact-driven storytelling
By framing your past experiences in terms of the business pain-points that you solved, you'll become a more engaging storyteller and show that you're an engineer who can see beyond their own keyboard.
Let's compare two ways of approaching the same story about some billing code:
I inherited a messy Python codebase for payments logic, which I heavily refactored. I integrated with a new payment provider, which made the code much more maintainable. I built a frontend interface for it using React, and I moved the backend code off of the EC2 instance that it lived on and into Heroku.
This framing is very focused on the technical details involved. It focuses a lot on the what but not on the why.
Here's that same story – this time, with a focus on the why:
When another engineer left the company, I inherited the code that managed outgoing international payments via bank transfers. Roughly 10% of those payments were failing, and each failure cost the company $45 - even for small payments. We were sending dozens of payments per day, and that number was rapidly increasing. After researching various payment providers, I recommended that we integrate with Payoneer. This was a solo fullstack project, which I took on. I worked closely with the Finance team as I built a payment-approval dashboard, to ensure it met their needs. Ultimately, the integration saved us about $200k in the first year. I’m happy to go into more detail.
The business-oriented focus in the second version highlights that this candidate will seek out high impact activities, rather than just solving technical problems that they find interesting. Ending with an invitation to discuss the experience more allows the interviewer to dig into whichever parts they feel are most relevant.
Whether you're asking the champagne-popping moment question or telling a story about your past work, the goal is the same: to show the interviewer that you are motivated by impact.
Remix the question
Feel free to change up the wording of the question to better fit the company you’re interviewing with.
If the company is working on a big contract with a client, you might ask: What is the champagne-popping moment we want to unlock for the client?
Or maybe they provide a product or service to consumers, and you can ask: What’s the champagne-popping moment that we want our users to reach?
Listen closely to the answer and ask follow-up questions. Dig into how potential clients make buying decisions or where there’s currently friction in the customer journey.
Spot red flags
One of my favorite things about this question is that it’s very effective at surfacing red flags. In particular, it will help you steer clear of employers with unclear or unrealistic goals.
If an interviewer can’t clearly express the champagne-popping moment they’re working towards, that usually indicates one or more of the following.
First, it could be that the company sets unclear goals or doesn’t set goals at all. That’s a sign of inexperienced leaders. Without clear company goals, employees struggle to understand how they can drive impact. There’s probably quite a bit of aimless direction-changing going on (sometimes called thrash), and it almost certainly involves throwing away work. Very frustrating.
Second, it could be that the company does set clear goals but is bad at getting everyone on the same page about them. (The MBA lingo is establishing alignment). A lack of alignment is better than having no goals at all - but not by much. If folks don’t understand the goals or their importance to the business’ overall strategy, it’s likely to lead to thrash and rework. It’s no fun to work somewhere where everyone’s rowing in a different direction.
Finally, it could be that the company does set goals and that employees do understand them but there are too many goals. In other words, the company may lack focus. Again, this isn’t much better than the other scenarios. It’s hard to have everyone rowing in the same direction when the boat is supposed to arrive at eight destinations at once. In fact, the boat is pretty much guaranteed to arrive late, and the folks at the oars won’t be smiling.
When you ask the champagne-popping moment question, listen closely to the answers you get. I recommend you ask this question to several different interviewers. The similarities and differences in responses will tell you a lot about the company’s focus and alignment.
The secret handshake
Businesses want to work with impact-driven folks, and my advice to you is to seek out an impact-driven workplace. (These organizations are more likely to succeed, and they’re more enjoyable work environments.)
The champagne-popping moment question is like a secret handshake between impact-driven candidates and workplaces.
By asking it, you’re offering your side of the handshake: communicating that you think about business-level problems. The answers you get will either reciprocate the handshake: showing clear focus and alignment, or they won’t. Either way, you’ll stand out as an applicant and learn more about whether this is the workplace for you.
What interviewing tips do you have?
I'd love to hear your thoughts on the champagne-popping moment question and how you plan to use it in the future.
And if you have any tips of your own to share, I'd love to hear those as well!
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