System Design Interview Guide for Engineering Managers | Medium Prob

Apr 29, 2024
Optimize your system design interview prep with a personalized guide, focusing on relevant questions and topics tailored to your profile
90% of engineering manager candidates feel unprepared for their upcoming engineering manager interviews, at big tech companies like Netflix or Meta. System design interviews are a common component of the hiring process, yet the expectations remain unclear as they vary widely between companies, roles, and levels of seniority.
That’s why reliably mastering system design interviews requires more than just technical knowledge; it demands a tailored interview prep approach, to avoid getting lost in the breadth and depth of the topic.
Through this guide, I equip you with a comprehensive system design interview preparation strategy tailored for your individual profile and the companies you are interviewing with.
Unsure if this article is for you? It looks like you haven’t yet taken our free assessment test! In just under a minute, you can discover which of our system design interview preparation strategies is the best match for you. 👉 Take the Free Test Now!

Your Assessment Results

Based on your entries, my algorithm has determined that you have a medium probability of encountering one or more system design interviews during your engineering manager interview process.
Given your role as an engineering manager, we can make an educated guess that among the vast pool of potential questions, you are most likely to face high-level design questions. These questions typically focus on the architectural aspects of large systems. For example, you might be asked to design a collaboration system like Dropbox, a streaming system like Netflix, or a URL shortener like TinyURL.
Once you transition into a managerial role, it's common for the technical depth required in system design interviews to be of moderate complexity.
While you should still be prepared for technical deep-dives into certain aspects of your designs, the emphasis on detailed implementation may lessen as the managerial responsibilities of the role you are applying for increase.
Instead, interviewers will likely focus more on assessing whether you can maintain a high-level understanding of large systems, rather than testing your ability to delve into intricate technical details. This shift means that you will rather be required to explain highly complex high-level architectures instead of low-level design topics, such as advanced algorithms.
Naturally, you might be skeptical of a result generated by a seemingly opaque process. Allow me to explain the factors that influenced this outcome.

Probability of Encountering a System Design Interview

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The likelihood of encountering a standardized system design interview is primarily influenced by two factors:
First, the tier of the company you are interviewing with plays a significant role. Small to mid-sized companies, including startups, are least likely to have a standardized hiring process that includes a formal system design interview. At the other end of the spectrum, large tech companies, often summarized by the acronym FAANG, frequently incorporate system design interviews into their hiring process. For example, Netflix engineering manager interviews are highly likely to include system design rounds.
The second factor is your level of seniority. While junior positions across various software-related roles are unlikely to require system design interviews, the probability increases significantly from mid-level positions onwards. In particular, technical engineering managers and those in higher positions are very likely to face system design and software architecture interviews.

Most Common Types of System Design Interview Questions

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As you’ve probably already realized, the pool of potential questions is indefinite. However, I’ve developed a methodology to categorize these questions along two axes. Questions may target either high-level or low-level designs. High-level design questions focus on the architectural aspects of large systems, while low-level design questions delve into the detailed technical specifics and component-level considerations of systems.
The second axis assesses whether the systems in question are existing real-world systems or more generic, somewhat hypothetical constructs.
From these two axes, four quadrants emerge, allowing us to categorize all questions and then map the likelihood of these questions appearing in system design interviews by role.
Examples of system design questions in these quadrants include:
  • High-Level Design of a Generic System: Design a Vending Machine
  • Low-Level Design of a Generic System: Design a CDN
  • High-Level Design of a Real-World System: Design Dropbox
  • Low-Level Design of a Real-World System: Design a File Sync Service (as found in Dropbox)

Expected Level of System Complexity

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Within each quadrant where a system design interview question may fall, there's another important dimension to consider, which I want you to be aware of: the complexity of the systems relative to the role and seniority of candidates.
In my methodology, questions are categorized into five levels of complexity, where 1 represents the least complex and 5 the most complex. As your seniority increases, so does the complexity of the systems you'll discuss, although this complexity tends to plateau at certain levels, particularly in leadership roles.
The advantage of also clustering questions by complexity level is that it makes it easier to prioritize the types of questions you are most likely to encounter during your interview. This approach helps in building an effective preparation strategy, where tackling the most complex questions first is not recommended.
I use this knowledge to shield my coachees from frustration, ensuring a smooth learning experience and fostering personal growth.

Your Best Preparation Strategy

Get actionable insights for your system design interview. I'll tailor a study plan to your background and target companies, focusing on common questions for software engineering managers. Starting from foundational design principles, we'll progress through individual components to complete system mastery. This structured approach ensures thorough preparation. Designed for busy schedules, this four-week plan keeps you effectively engaged. Here's what to focus on:

Study the System Design Interview Framework

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To effectively communicate your design, it's best to adhere to a standardized framework consisting of six key steps:
  • Requirements Engineering
  • Reasonable Capacity Estimation
  • API Design
  • Data Model
  • High Level Architecture
  • Design Discussion

Study Computer Science Fundamentals

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Refresh the computer science fundamentals that commonly drive discussions.
  • Horizontal scalability
  • Microservice architecture
  • ACID properties of transactions
  • PACELC theorem (extends CAP)

Study System Design Components

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Deepen your understanding of the most common system components to effectively integrate them into software architectures. By thoroughly studying these components, you will be able to justify your choices based on their advantages and disadvantages.
  • Load Balancer
  • API Gateway
  • Microservice
  • Message Queue
  • Relational Database
  • Non-relational Database
  • CDN Service
  • Caching Service

Study Supporting Features Independently

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Study how to independently draw and explain supporting features used across different systems (like a search engine in Netflix). This will enhance your agility in architecting unfamiliar systems on the spot.
A good starting point for your profile would include:
  • Search engine
  • Recommendation engine
  • User management
  • Analytics
  • Notification service

Study Systems Type by Type

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Study types of systems rather than individual famous implementations This approach will allow you to adapt more flexibly to unexpected questions. System architectures you are very likely to encounter:
  • Messengers (e.g., WhatsApp, Signal)
  • Ticketing systems (e.g., RedBus, Ticketmaster, BookMyShow)
  • Accommodation platforms (e.g., Airbnb,
  • Streaming platforms (e.g., Netflix, YouTube, Spotify)
  • Coding platforms (e.g., Topcoder, Codechef, Hackerrank)
  • Question-and-answer platforms (e.g., Quora)


Navigating the complexities of engineering manager interviews at top tech companies requires more than just technical prowess; it demands a strategic preparation approach tailored to your unique profile.
This guide has provided you with a structured preparation strategy, taking into account the varying expectations of system design interviews across different companies and roles. Armed with a clear understanding of what to expect and how to prepare, you can approach your interviews with confidence.
Remember to start with our free assessment test to tailor your preparation effectively. Good luck, and prepare to impress at your next system design interview!

Fast-Track Your Preparation

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If you're short on time and eager to get started, check out my highly-rated Udemy course. Designed based on the most common needs from my tech interview coaching clients, this course condenses the essential knowledge into less than 5 hours of video content. It's a fast track to mastering what you need to know.

Q&A Engineering Manager Interview Prep

What are Common Engineering Manager Interview Questions?

Engineering manager interviews often encompass a mix of technical and leadership-focused questions designed to assess both your engineering capabilities and your ability to lead a team. Here are some common types of questions you might encounter:
Technical Questions
  1. System Design: "Can you design a scalable system for a real-time messaging app like WhatsApp?"
  1. Technical Depth: "Explain how you would a distributed cache works."
  1. Problem Solving: "How would you troubleshoot a system where the response time has suddenly increased?"
Leadership and Management Questions
  1. Team Leadership: "How do you motivate a team under tight deadlines?"
  1. Conflict Resolution: "Describe a time when you had to handle a conflict within your team. What was the outcome?"
  1. Performance Management: "How do you handle underperformance in your team?"
Strategy and Process
  1. Project Management: "Describe how you manage projects from inception to delivery."
  1. Agile Practices: "What is your experience with Agile methodologies? How have you implemented them in your past roles?"
  1. Innovation: "Can you give an example of a time when you fostered innovation within your team?"
Behavioral Questions
  1. Decision Making: "Tell me about a difficult decision you had to make as a manager and how you approached it."
  1. Communication: "How do you ensure effective communication in a team that is geographically dispersed?"
  1. Career Development: "How do you support the career growth of your team members?"

What are Data Engineering Manager Interview Questions?

Data engineering manager interviews focus specifically on assessing your ability to manage teams that design, build, and maintain the infrastructure and architecture for handling data at scale. While there are overlaps with general engineering manager interviews, particularly in areas related to leadership, team management, and strategic thinking, data engineering manager interviews place a stronger emphasis on data-specific knowledge and skills.
Technical Expertise in Data Systems
  1. Data Architecture: "Can you describe the architecture of a data system you've recently designed or worked on?"
  1. Big Data Technologies: "What experience do you have with big data frameworks like Hadoop, Spark, or Kafka?"
  1. Data Modeling: "Explain a complex data model you have developed and how it supported business objectives."
  1. ETL Processes: "Describe an ETL pipeline you have set up. What were the challenges and how did you address them?"
Data Management and Strategy
  1. Data Quality: "How do you ensure and maintain the quality of data in your projects?"
  1. Data Security and Compliance: "Discuss a time when you had to implement data security measures or ensure compliance with data protection regulations."
  1. Data Storage Solutions: "What factors do you consider when choosing a data storage technology for a new project?"
Leadership and Operational Management
  1. Project Management: "Describe a project you led that involved a significant data engineering component. What was your approach, and what were the outcomes?"
  1. Team Building: "How do you build and maintain a highly effective data engineering team?"
  1. Innovation in Data Practices: "Can you give an example of an innovative approach you have implemented in your data engineering practice?"
Problem Solving and Optimization
  1. Performance Optimization: "How have you optimized data processing workflows in your previous projects?"
  1. Handling Data at Scale: "Describe a challenge you faced with scaling a data system and how you solved it."

Engineering Manager vs. Data Engineering Manager Questions

  • Technical Depth: Data engineering manager questions require deep knowledge of data systems, databases, data processing, and related technologies. General engineering manager interviews might be more broad, covering a wider range of technologies beyond just data.
  • Data-Specific Challenges: Specific challenges related to data volume, velocity, variety, and veracity (the four Vs of big data) are central to data engineering but may not be as relevant in other engineering domains.
  • Compliance and Security: While security is important in all domains, data engineering often has an added layer of complexity due to stringent legal and regulatory requirements around data privacy and protection.
  • Infrastructure Focus: Data engineering managers often need to have a strong understanding of infrastructure considerations specifically tailored to data handling and processing, which might be more specialized compared to the broader infrastructure knowledge required by general engineering managers.

What are Netflix Engineering Manager Interview Questions?

Interviews for an engineering manager position at Netflix can vary, but they typically focus on several core areas:
  1. Leadership and Culture Fit: Netflix highly values its unique culture, so expect questions that assess how you align with their principles like "freedom and responsibility" and "context, not control".
  1. Technical Acumen: You may be asked to discuss past projects in detail, particularly those that relate to the scale and complexity similar to what Netflix deals with.
  1. System Design: Designing scalable systems that can handle high throughput and data-heavy applications, much like the systems Netflix operates.
  1. Decision-Making and Problem Solving: Questions that probe how you handle critical decisions and solve complex problems under pressure.
  1. Innovation and Adaptability: How you foster innovation within your team and adapt to the rapidly changing tech landscape.
  1. Team Development: How you build, mentor, and lead your team to ensure productivity and growth.
For Netflix, a strong understanding of their business model and the technology stack they use (especially their heavy reliance on cloud infrastructure and microservices) will be beneficial. Additionally, demonstrating how you handle high-stakes environments and contribute to strategic goals is crucial.

What are Google Engineering Manager Interview Questions?

Interviews for an engineering manager position at Google are rigorous and designed to assess a wide range of skills, including technical expertise, leadership ability, and cultural fit. While specific questions can vary depending on the exact role and the interviewing team, here are some common types of questions and areas of focus that you might encounter during a Google engineering manager interview:
Technical Questions
  1. System Design: "Design a system for a large-scale service like YouTube or Google Maps." These questions test your ability to handle complex, distributed systems.
  1. Algorithm and Coding: Even as a manager, you might be asked to solve coding problems or discuss algorithms, especially those that can optimize processes or solve scaling issues.
  1. Technology Depth: "Explain how you would improve the latency of a web service" or "Discuss how you handle database consistency in a distributed system."
Leadership and Management Questions
  1. Team Leadership: "Describe a time when you had to lead a major project. What were the challenges, and how did you address them?"
  1. Conflict Resolution: "Tell me about a time when you resolved a conflict between team members."
  1. Performance Management: "How do you identify underperformance in your team, and what steps do you take to address it?"
Behavioral Questions
  1. Decision Making: "Describe a difficult decision you made and the process you followed to make it."
  1. Communication Skills: "How do you communicate technical information to non-technical stakeholders?"
  1. Adaptability: "Tell me about a time when you had to quickly adjust your team’s priorities due to changing organizational goals."
Strategy and Vision
  1. Visionary Thinking: "What do you think are the most exciting technological advancements in your field, and how would you implement them at Google?"
  1. Innovation: "How do you encourage innovation in your team?"
Google-Specific Questions
  1. Googleyness and Culture Fit: Google places a strong emphasis on cultural fit, which they sometimes refer to as "Googleyness." This includes questions like "How do you handle failure?" or "What motivates you at work?"
  1. Approach to Scaling Systems: Given Google's scale, questions about scaling services to millions or billions of users are common.
Project and Process Management
  1. Agile Methodologies: "How have you implemented agile methodologies in past projects?"
  1. Project Delivery: "Describe a project you managed from initiation to delivery. What were the outcomes, and what would you have done differently?"
Practical Scenarios
  1. Scenario-Based Questions: "Imagine you are rolling out a new technology across the company. How would you ensure its successful adoption?"
Preparing for a Google engineering manager interview involves a thorough understanding of software engineering fundamentals, solid leadership and management principles, and a strong grasp of how to handle large-scale and high-impact projects. Practicing system design questions, brushing up on coding skills, and preparing detailed examples of past leadership experiences are crucial steps in preparing for such interviews. Additionally, understanding Google's mission and values will help align your answers with what Google is looking for in potential candidates.

What are Amazon Engineering Manager Interview Questions?

Interviews for an engineering manager position at Amazon are structured around Amazon’s leadership principles, which are central to the company's culture. Candidates are evaluated not only on their technical abilities but also on how well they align with these principles. Here’s an overview of common types of questions you might encounter, structured around both technical skills and leadership attributes:
Technical Questions
  1. System Design: "Design a system to handle high volumes of transactions, such as an e-commerce checkout system."
  1. Technology Challenges: "Explain how you would resolve scalability issues in a cloud environment."
  1. Operational Excellence: "Describe a time when you had to optimize system performance to meet operational targets."
Leadership and Management Questions
  1. Team Leadership: "Tell me about a time you led a project that was behind schedule. How did you handle it?"
  1. Conflict Resolution: "Provide an example of how you dealt with a conflict within your team. What was the outcome?"
  1. Hiring and Team Building: "What qualities do you look for when hiring for your team? How do you ensure they align with Amazon’s leadership principles?"
Behavioral Questions (Amazon's Leadership Principles)
  1. Customer Obsession: "Give an example of a decision you made that was driven by customer needs."
  1. Ownership: "Describe a situation where you had to take charge of a problem outside your area of direct responsibility."
  1. Invent and Simplify: "Tell me about a time when you simplified a complex process."
  1. Are Right, A Lot: "Discuss a time when you had to make a tough decision without much data. How did you proceed?"
Scenario-Based Questions
  1. Deliver Results: "What is the most challenging project you’ve managed? How did you ensure its success?"
  1. Bias for Action: "Can you describe a situation where you had to act quickly before all the information was available? What was the impact?"
  1. Frugality: "Give an example of how you accomplished more with less."
Culture Fit and Adaptability
  1. Learn and Be Curious: "What new skills have you learned in the past year?"
  1. Think Big: "How do you encourage your team to think innovatively?"
  1. Earn Trust: "How do you build trust within your team and with stakeholders?"
Specific Situational Management
  1. Strive to be Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company: "How would you handle a situation where a project pivotal to customer experience is at risk?"
Preparing for an Amazon engineering manager interview involves a strong focus on the leadership principles. You should be ready to provide specific, structured examples (often using the STAR method: Situation, Task, Action, Result) that demonstrate your experience and alignment with each principle. Technical preparation should also not be overlooked, especially in areas relevant to Amazon’s technology stack and the role you are applying for. Understanding the balance between deep technical expertise and strong leadership skills is key to succeeding in these interviews.