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Fabian Hinsenkamp
Fabian Hinsenkamp

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Personalized System Design Interview Prep for Engineering Managers

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.

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Your Assessment Results

According to the analysis from my algorithm, it appears likely that you will face system design interviews if you're interviewing for an engineering manager position.

For someone in your position, it's reasonable to expect that you will encounter questions primarily centered around high-level design. Such questions generally involve discussing the architectural aspects of significant systems. For instance, you may need to outline how you would construct a collaborative platform like Dropbox, a streaming service like Netflix, or a URL shortener like TinyURL.

As you step into a managerial role, the expected technical depth in these interviews tends to be moderately complex.

Although you should be ready to engage in detailed discussions about specific elements of your designs, the focus on exhaustive implementation details might decrease with the increasing managerial responsibilities of the position you are targeting.

Instead, interviewers will probably concentrate more on evaluating whether you can grasp the overarching structures of large systems, instead of your capacity to handle detailed technical specifics. This shift implies that you will be expected to articulate complex high-level architectures rather than discuss in-depth topics such as advanced algorithms.

You may be wary of trusting a conclusion drawn from a process that might seem obscure. Let me provide some clarity on the factors that led to this determination.

Probability of Encountering a System Design Interview

Probability of Encountering a System Design Interview

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

Most Common Types of System Design Interview Questions

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

Expected Level of System Complexity

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

Expected Level of System Complexity

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

Study Computer Science Fundamentals

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

Study System Design Components

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

Supporting Features Independently

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

Study Systems Type by Type

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

BigTech System Design Bootcamp Udemy course

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.

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