Ask a Stupid Question ...

I don't really enjoy having interviews -- all that nervousness, trying to make a good impression, trying to come off as an intelligent human being -- it just doesn't do well for someone like me. But more than that, I hate conducting interviews.

My biggest issue is what questions to ask. I already have a resume (and sometimes cover letter) in front of me, so I know what their on-paper credentials are. In a face-to-face, I want to get into the heads of those people, to see what their personalities are, and how they might work with our existing teams.

I hate asking/answering those silly cookie-cutter questions; I want something different. If you ask one of those boring standard questions, you're going to get a boring standard answer that's possibly been rehearsed, but always always always comes out sounding spun.

"What would you say is your biggest weakness?"
"Oh, hmmm ... well ... my friends say I'm too dedicated to my job, and I sometimes work too hard."

"What would your previous coworkers say about you?"
"They would probably say that I'm very hardworking, meticulous and pay attention to detail, and that I'm really a team player."

Excellent! You hit all the keywords I was looking for, so you get a 5 out of 5! Good for you! Instead, we need to find a different approach to getting at the real person. Some creative questions that feel more like discussions and less like tests -- putting the interviewee at ease is the first step towards getting genuine readings on their character.

If you need some serious problem-solving abilities, I've heard of companies that put you in a room, give you a problem and tell you to solve it in X minutes. Great. How lovely. But how about spruciing it up a little, with a question like ...

"If a train leaves Boston at 45mph, and another train leaves Chicago going at 60mph, what colour shirt do you think would go best with these pants?"

We could even twist those "what if" scenario-type questions, to see how they'd react in adverse interpersonal situations.

"What would you do if your coworker was taking credit for work that you had done?"
"What would you do if an irate customer demanded something immediately, something that you can't deliver?"
"What would you do if I slapped you like this?"

I've learned that when I conduct interviews, they're casual and laid-back, but professional. I'd rather it be a conversation, because it's as much the person interviewing the company as it is vice versa. The fit has to work both ways, or else that working relationship won't work. And I'm getting better at it! I wish all my interviews were like the ones I conduct -- job seeking would be way cooler and more fun.

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* Here's a funny coincidence: From my shortlist of roughly 12 to 15 applicants, our CEO picked out 3 names to interview. The inadvertent coincidence: all female.

11 comments:

Kevin Cheng said...

I consider myself a reasonably competent interviewer. Generally, I don't like brainteasers for the sake of brainteasers but there are those that really get at basic CS knowledge whilst disguising it quite well such that these people are re-solving public key encryption or parity checking but in the guise of locked chests or gnomes with coloured hats. These good brainteasers typically also have stages so that you build the problem up.

I also like to get free work out of them by picking their brains on a problem I might be currently encountering and brainstorming with them. The idea is simple - do you want to work with this person. How do you test that? Working with them. I don't feel the X minutes limit is helpful. It's implicit anyways and it's a good interviewer's job to nudge in the right direction with hints and ssuch instead of just feeling superior because you know the answer and the interviewee doesn't.

Also, asking more specific questions about their resume helps. They'll have prepared but that's fine. Questions like "describe a time when you've had to deal with a team member not pulling their weight" which by the way, T asked me in my on campus and I gave our 460 experience ;)

Kevin said...

From my recent interview experiences, regardless of the interviewer, I'd try to throw in little bits to make the interview a conversation... mainly because I don't care to be interrogated. Of course, at the end of the day, they're the ones that control the conversation, so you just have to make do.

On the other hand, for technical positions, technical questions are definitely called for -- because you can't trust everything on paper.

I can't say I've had much experience as an interviewer. I only helped with interviews for the person replacing me on my first co-op, and I was probably more nervous than some of the interviewees!

Van said...

I give really horrible, but often true, hypthotical situations relevent to the job and ask what they'd do. I also like to ask about how they'd deal in various sitations involving interpersonal/office politics type issues. Also always fun to try and bust them on potential stretches of the truth on their resume.

Ben said...

Interesting. What kind of interpersonal / situational questions would you ask?

"Suppose a colleague is really being a fvcker towards you. What would be your weapon of choice to meet him in the parking lot with?"

I'm not very experienced in the interviewing skills, and as far as I'm concerned, it almost doesn't matter if they pretty up their resume or not -- I know it's a carefully fabricated document anyhow. But I need to get into their heads and see that they'll fit here. After all, every new person hired is another that should propel the company culture; otherwise, they could be another person who will help tear it down and destroy the culture that built the company up!

Perhaps I'm being too cynical about the whole thing.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... I think that right now, I'm at the receiving end of the above questions.

As yet, I've never experienced them either. But I hope that I'll come across as a potential candidate if I ever do.

k.

Anonymous said...

Interviews are bullshit. I could get a job as a rocket scientist or a grabage pick up person. I interview so well that it's scary. Once I get thte interview - game over - for them. There is nothing that anyone could ask me that I would not give a calma nd rational answer to. I interview them. I've turned down more jobs that I can remember. I've turned down interviews because I know that they would hire me. I learned that from my suction down the vortex of hi tech hell. It's about the person and their motivations. Talking is better than interviewing.

Ben said...

Wow, Anonymous, you must be the sh!t. Ferrealz. Except I don't see how you could back up your claims, without even leaving a name?

I'm an awesome interviewer too. I once turned down a position for secret service, because I figured I would get bored of it after a few months. Plus, I made a lot of friends in politics and I didn't want to be in a position where they would be asking me for favours. Again. You know how it is.

It's funny, but I haven't had to look for a job for years. On my personal website, I have a link for "position available", and I get so many requests for me to fill their positions; the traffic had caused my host service company to shut down for a week and upgrade their servers! Needless to say, I've had to gracefully decline many of their offers in light of wanting a more personal life. And I've since removed the website because of all the crazy publicity and demand I was receiving.

But the ones I really can't avoid well are those casual per-chance conversations I find myself in -- at the bars or clubs, or even just at a supermarket in line to pay for groceries. It starts off as a side comment about something (say, the price of oranges this year) and in a few opportunely-chosen statements escalates into more serious banter. Next thing I know, they're so impressed with the depth of my vision that they want to schedule a talk with their bosses to see how I might be able to help their companies. I mean, it's like I get no privacy now, seriously!

(Ah-thank you, thank you.)

James said...

I just barrage the candidate with technical questions. What is Active Directory, How do you stop a process, what is a router, why would you want to subnet networks, etc. Get a feel for how much he really did and knows, and what he actually had hands on experience on. Some of the inexperienced people leave shaking. Some of our potential managers leave feeling not good. Some are angry we're asking them these questions that they cannot answer. The ones that pass our barrage of questions and we've hired are the smart ones who do real well. We also get a feeling how they interact with other team members, which in my opinion is very important. That's more of a gut feeling about the person and their potential adverserial attitude that we try to weed out.

Anonymous said...

I have a love/hate thing with interviewing others. Hate it because it takes up so much of my time. Hearing people answer or ask the same things, albeit in varied ways, gets boring fast.

I love it because sometimes people reveal or do things that are so inappropriate.

In one of my previous jobs, my coworker and I (tag team interviews are outrageously fun!!), were interviewing a recent Harvard graduate who just decided to blurt out she had no leadership skilled. *guffaws*

Brilliant way to not get yourself hired.

These days, I prefer conversational interviews over technical ones.

- aliasa

Kevin Cheng said...

actually, having no leadership skills is not a no go. not everyone can be the leader - somebody has to do the following. there is such a thing as a great performer who doesn't want to be a leader. it's why they now have "contributor" tracks in parallel with "management" to recognize that.

if someone told me they look for leadership skills in every person they hire well - i'd look to work elsewhere.

as to the rocket scientist anonymous - first you need to learn to spell or you can't get a job as an english teacher, secondly, if i asked you about the theory behind the SpaceShipOne and the potential flaws with it, you'd better have an answer that actually makes sense.

Ben said...

KC, he/she said as a "rocket scientist or a garbage person". Maybe it's a multiple choice for us to pick.

What would you ask during a garbage person (sanitation engineer) interview, anyway?

"How sensitive are you to offensive odours?"
"If there is a garbage can on the side of the road, what is your first instinct to do with it?"
"How often do you have to wash your hands to feel clean? Do you have OCD?"