The questions every Data Scientist should be asking during their interview

Originally published on Medium


You may have just come out of university, from computer science, engineering, or some other related field, or you may have been working toward changing your career path. However you got here, the important part is that you are now looking at getting a job in data science.

The data scientist job is one of the most looked after. It has benefited from glamorous headlines such as “The sexiest job the 21st century”, and since their conception their number has kept on growing and growing. The positions vary a lot, some are heavily based around creating models to do prediction, others are all about writing pipelines to transform raw data to structured, or related to improving some efficiency; in general, it’ll be a mix of all of these things.

In any case, as long as you are qualified for the job, they will be looking for you, and not the opposite, but that is not how they will play it. As every good negotiator knows, the best way to get a good deal is to turn the tables around: they want you, but they’ll make you feel like you want them. Recruiters are pretty much trained at creating this feeling, and as every good scientist knows, the best way to fight is by doing an evidence based analysis, instead of letting your feeling decide.

How do you get this evidence now? Here are a few questions you should be asking, and things you should be looking for.

AI you say? Ask about examples

Often, these companies will try to pull you in by telling you how they use state-of-the-art technologies, and especially, they might use the dirty words: “we use AI”

AI you say? Please tell me more

These words should ring an alert bell. As soon as you hear them, ask examples. 90% of companies that say they use AI, do not in fact use AI¹. Don’t settle for some generic answer, ask about at least some details, whatever interests you the most. Chances are they only have very basic models (I’m talking linear regression here, if that) which they over-sell to their clients, and are trying to do the same with you.

If they’re not ready to give you any details, using excuses such as “intellectual property”, take your stuff and run away as fast as possible. They’re either lying, or secretive in a way that can only create a toxic work environment. For instance, an answer such as “we modified deep learning computer vision such as Faster R-CNN to detect, and the data scientists were in charge of the quality testing” would not in any way break intellectual property, but would have given all the necessary information to get an idea about the job.

If it turns out they actually do work with AI (whatever that may mean to you), you’ll be happy to know it. If they don’t but they explain what type of analysis they do and it’s still interesting, you’ll be happy to know it. Additionally, this kind of question also helps you for the interview process, since it will probably raise discussions in which you will be able to show that you are knowledgeable: win-win!

Enquire about their day to day work

This is heavily connected to the previous point. Companies try to attract talents, this is no secret. Talents usually work better, faster, and don’t need to be managed as much. To get them, they will not hesitate to make things look better than they are, sweet talk you with nice terms, show only the interesting side of things.

It’s your job during the process, when you’ll meet your future colleagues, to probe them as much as you can. Ask them about what they worked on the day before, what are the work loads of the job and how much does each take. You may find out that most of their work is based around excel sheets, or that the amount of administrative work is larger than you expect and wish for.

So you have stock options?

Some companies may offer stock options. If this is the case and it’s something you’re interested in, make sure to get more information about it. For instance, how long before you unlock them and at what cost? What are the re-selling conditions? If there’s a probation period or some other similar situation, make sure to ask if that probation period already counts toward the unlock time or not.

Ask about remote work

More than for the actual great benefits that remote work offers, I personally believe it tells a lot a out the company. If they’re awkward about it, that should raise alerts. I personally believe this is a symptom of deeper issues in the company, such as micro management, lack of trust and so on. In any case, don’t hesitate to ask for more information, whatever the question outcome is.

Negotiate your salary

This is a nerve-wrecking one, even as you get more experienced some people simply don’t feel at ease talking about money. Unfortunately, it is a common mistake. There’s no need to be bossy about it, just enquire, and simply ask. Worst outcome, they refuse, but it won’t affect the process, as long as you don’t push too much.

Check their website & social media presence

This is a bit of an extra point, but one which personally give a fair amount of importance too. Since I also enjoy writing articles, I like seeing companies which give time and space to their employees to write blog posts about their work. It’s become quite common and I believe it’s evidence that the company has a good work environment.

A final note

Unfortunately, many companies will try to take advantage of you in various ways. Whether it be by misleading you, not giving you full information, adding extra clauses which were not mentioned in the process. All of this is especially true for rookies, due to their inexperience. Make sure not to be naive or too nice, read your contract carefully, and if you notice some gray areas, ask about it.

Furthermore, a lot of the points I’ve made are about asking questions. This is usually well seen, except if it starts feeling like a police audition. Try as much as you can to fit questions naturally throughout the interview process, and if you feel you’re asking too many questions, here’s a trick: transform the question into a statement. Funnily enough, this process is a lot like flirting. You don’t want to be the police, but at the same time you want to know more. Use open-ended statements, leverage past experience to start a discussion, and so on.

Above all, be nice! Although this article gives a bleak image of companies, it is just as a means to protect and future-proof yourself. Most people are nice and will not try to take advantage of you.

Good luck!

¹Well done you’ve passed the test! That statistic is in fact entirely made up, although personal experience suggests it is not too far away from the truth.

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