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5 Ice Breakers to Start the Conversation With Hiring Managers

Hiring Developers

At the heart of every impactful hire is a meaningful dialogue with a hiring manager – but what does it take to turn a routine check-in with a software engineering hiring manager into a strategic partnership?

Engaging with software engineering hiring managers effectively can set a positive tone for the recruitment process and help uncover valuable insights about what they’re looking for in candidates. However, establishing an effective recruitment relationship with your hiring managers goes beyond simply gathering requirements for your job ad. 

I’m sure you’ve had instances where you’ve had hiring managers give you a laundry list of required skills requirements, hoping the right unicorn would pop up in your talent pool. These are the kinds of job searches that take months to fill, wasting precious resources and reducing the ability of the hiring manager’s team to complete their required projects.

A very sweaty hiring manager has the choice between 2 read buttons: "eating a spoonful of wasabi, or having an awkward conversation with the TA team".

You’ll have to start thinking like an investigative journalist to avoid these awkward conversations with your hiring managers. 

What’s really on their minds? What are their actual needs when it comes to candidates? What ideals will they sacrifice to get a candidate in the door?

Understanding their real needs will require creative interviewing. Lucky for you, here are five icebreakers that can help kickstart these conversations.

What’s the most exciting project your team is working on right now?

This is a great question to show your interest in their work. It also helps you understand what technologies or skills are currently in demand within their team and what projects the candidate would be working on.

The answer to this question allows you to easily match candidates interested in this type of project or may already have worked on something similar—meaning they may make a perfect fit for the team.

Expanding the conversation

Some additional areas you can explore with the hiring manager using this question:

Project innovation: Dive into the project’s innovative aspects, focusing on what makes it a standout initiative within the company or industry. Ask about any novel approaches, technologies, or solutions being applied, providing insights into the creative and forward-thinking environment the candidate would be entering.

Professional growth opportunities: Explore the specific skills and experiences a candidate would gain from working on this project. Highlight how these opportunities align with career advancement and continuous learning, which can be highly attractive to potential candidates.

Cross-functional collaboration: Inquire about the project’s interaction with other departments or disciplines within the company. Understanding these dynamics can reveal the collaborative culture and the importance of communication skills, offering a holistic view of how integrated and interdisciplinary the team’s work is.

Project’s role in strategic goals: Delve into how the project fits into the company’s long-term objectives and strategic vision. This discussion can illuminate the project’s significance and the impact a candidate could have, aligning personal achievements with the company’s success.

Feedback and innovation cycle: Discuss how feedback from this project influences future projects or technology adoption in the team. This can show a commitment to innovation, learning from experiences, and adapting strategies, which are attractive qualities for candidates seeking dynamic and responsive work environments.

By focusing on these areas, the conversation moves beyond surface-level details, providing a richer understanding of the project’s role in the candidate’s potential growth, the team’s collaborative nature, and the project’s strategic importance. 

This nuanced approach helps identify candidates who are not just looking for a job but seeking a meaningful and impactful role within a forward-thinking team.

Can you share a moment when a team member truly impressed you? What did they do?

Asking a hiring manager, “What do you want in an employee?” will either lead to generic qualities like “hard worker” or “punctual,” or you’ll get a list of technical skills they’re looking for.

A better way to get them to give you specific qualities is to ask them about a specific example of when they were impressed by someone on their team. This question opens up a discussion about the qualities and actions the hiring manager values in their team members, which can be crucial when evaluating potential candidates.

Expanding the conversation

Some additional areas you can explore with the hiring manager using this question:

Go beyond the task: Focus on instances where team members went above and beyond their regular duties. Whether it was an innovative solution to a persistent problem, an exceptional act of leadership in a critical moment, or a creative approach that transformed a project’s trajectory, these stories reveal what the hiring manager appreciates in team dynamics and individual contributions.

Collaboration and impact: Encourage stories highlighting collaborative achievements or instances where an individual’s effort had a clear, measurable impact on the team or project’s success. This can provide insights into how team members support each other and the value placed on collective achievement.

Innovation and initiative: Look for examples where team members introduced new ideas or took the initiative to address issues before they escalated. This can shed light on the team’s openness to innovation and proactive problem-solving, as well as the hiring manager’s stance on autonomy and self-directed work.

Personal growth contributions: Ask about moments when team members contributed to the growth and development of their peers. This can highlight a culture of mentorship and continuous learning, indicating a supportive environment that values knowledge sharing and personal development.

By exploring these dimensions, the conversation uncovers not just what is done but how it’s done, offering a comprehensive understanding of the qualities that truly stand out to the hiring manager. This enriched perspective enables a more targeted and effective talent search, aligning closely with the team’s ethos and aspirations.

If you could solve one big challenge your team is facing, what would it be?

This is a great way to get your hiring manager to present the most significant problem they’re trying to solve with the new hire, allowing you to hone in on the perfect candidate. The details they will give you for this question will align more realistically with what a unicorn candidate would look like. 

The question can help identify the gaps or pain points in the team that a new hire could potentially fill, giving you a more precise target for your talent search. If you can find a candidate who has solved a similar problem, you’ll be glowing in the hiring manager’s eyes.

This question prompts hiring managers to identify a technical or operational hurdle and consider the broader strategic challenges their team confronts. It’s an invitation to discuss the intersections of technology, teamwork, and business outcomes, offering a unique lens to view the team’s needs and aspirations.

Expanding the conversation

You can explore this question in several ways depending on the needs of your hiring manager and the company, including the following:

  • Aligning team goals with business objectives: Explore how solving the challenge would align the team’s work more closely with the organization’s overarching goals. This discussion can reveal the team’s strategic importance within the larger business ecosystem and how a new hire could contribute to both team and business success.
  • Optimizing resource allocation: Delve into how overcoming this challenge could lead to more efficient use of resources, whether it’s time, budget, or talent. Understanding the resource implications can provide insights into the team’s operational efficiency and prioritization skills.
  • Fostering a culture of innovation: Investigate how solving the challenge could encourage a culture of innovation within the team. This can include discussions about how the team approaches problem-solving, experiments with new ideas, and learns from both successes and failures.
  • Supporting professional development: Reflect on the opportunities for professional growth and skill development from tackling this challenge. It’s essential to understand how the team invests in its members’ growth and how a new hire could benefit from and contribute to this environment.
  • Building a collaborative ecosystem: Examine the potential for increased collaboration both within the team and across the organization as a result of solving this challenge. This perspective can shed light on the team’s role in the broader organizational ecosystem and the importance of cross-functional partnerships.

How has your team’s needs evolved over the past year? How do you expect that to change?

This ice breaker allows the hiring manager to reflect on the changing nature of their team’s requirements, possibly highlighting new skills or roles that are becoming more critical. Understanding the team’s strategic direction can help ensure that candidates meet current needs and are well-positioned to grow with the team.

By helping them evaluate their past, present, and future needs, you’ll also find that this question can help hiring managers remove “required” skills from their job ad wishlist because it’s apparent those skills are on their way out.

You’ll also be able to create more accurate job descriptions and obtain a talent pool that has those skills now, is actively learning them, or is interested in learning them.

Expanding the conversation

Consider following up this question with some of these other deep-dive questions:

  • Technological shifts: Explore any significant technological changes the team has embraced in the past year, such as adopting new software, tools, or platforms. Understanding these shifts can reveal the team’s agility and openness to innovation, which are crucial for candidates who thrive in dynamic tech environments.
  • Skillset rebalancing: Delve into how the mix of required skills has changed, reflecting on the growing importance of certain competencies over others. This may highlight a trend towards more interdisciplinary roles or a greater emphasis on soft skills such as leadership, communication, and problem-solving.
  • Project and objective realignment: Investigate how the team’s primary objectives and projects have shifted in response to market trends, company goals, or internal challenges. This can provide insight into the team’s strategic flexibility and how a new hire might contribute to evolving goals.
  • Industry trends and technological advancements: Discuss anticipated changes in the industry or emerging technologies that the team expects to adopt. This forward-looking perspective can help identify candidates who are not just suitable for the current technological landscape but are also poised to help the team navigate future innovations.
  • Enhancing diversity and creativity: Reflect on initiatives or aspirations to diversify the team’s skill sets, perspectives, and problem-solving approaches. This angle emphasizes the importance of hiring individuals who bring unique backgrounds and innovative thinking to the team, fostering a more creative and inclusive environment.

In an ideal world, what skills and qualities would the perfect candidate have for your current opening?

While job descriptions list required skills and qualifications, this question encourages hiring managers to think beyond the basics and consider what would make a candidate truly stand out.

“Ideal” is the keyword here. Since you’ll likely have a better understanding of the current job market than your hiring managers, use this question as an opportunity to explain how difficult it is to find these unicorn candidates. 

This will open up a connection where you can work with the hiring manager to prioritize the qualities and skills so you can see what they’d be willing to sacrifice in a more realistic world.

Expanding the conversation

Exploring further in areas that will help you find the best candidates may include:

  • Hybrid technical skills: Highlight the importance of a candidate who not only possesses deep expertise in their core area but also has a broad understanding of adjacent technologies. This reflects the growing need for professionals who can bridge gaps between disciplines, contributing to a more cohesive and agile team.
  • Adaptive soft skills: Emphasize soft skills that are critical for adapting to the ever-changing tech landscape, such as resilience, emotional intelligence, and the ability to learn quickly. These qualities enable team members to navigate challenges, collaborate effectively, and drive innovation.
  • Leadership and vision: Discuss the ideal candidate’s potential for leadership, regardless of their official title. This includes the ability to inspire others, make strategic decisions, and contribute to the team’s vision. It’s about finding someone who can lead by example, foster a positive team culture, and guide the team through transitions.
  • Scalability focus: Ideal candidates should understand and contribute to the scalability of projects and processes. This foresight is critical for startups and growing companies that need to ensure their products and teams can expand efficiently.
  • Cultural contributor: Beyond fitting into the existing team culture, the perfect candidate would bring qualities that contribute to its evolution. This means aligning with core values while introducing new perspectives and practices that enrich the team’s dynamics.
  • Global mindset: For teams operating in or expanding to international markets, candidates with a global mindset and cultural sensitivity are invaluable. This includes language skills, experience working in diverse environments, and an understanding of global market nuances.

By focusing on these comprehensive aspects, the conversation moves beyond conventional skill sets to a holistic view of the candidate’s impact on the team and organization. 


The initial conversation with hiring managers is less about ticking boxes and more about uncovering the deeper narrative of the team’s direction, culture, and needs. Through thoughtful inquiry into projects, team triumphs, challenges, developmental progress, and the aspirational profile of an ideal candidate, you’ll gain clarity on both the present state and future requirements of the team.

The goal is a realistic, shared understanding of the ideal candidate—a combination of the necessary skills and the intangible qualities that contribute to a team’s success. This understanding helps us not just to match a list of skills but to find someone who can grow with the team and contribute meaningfully to its objectives.

Ultimately, the success of recruitment lies in a balanced approach that considers both the concrete skills necessary today and the softer, adaptable traits that will matter tomorrow. In taking this balanced approach, we aim to provide a clear-eyed assessment of the team’s needs, cut through the industry noise, and pinpoint the candidate who will help the team—and the organization—achieve its goals.

Some parts of this blog were written with the assistance of ChatGPT.