[thelist] Help a journalist (again): best/worst interview questions?

Esther Schindler esther at bitranch.com
Wed Oct 4 15:15:29 CDT 2006

Hi, folks. I'm working on an article for DevSource.com that I think  
will be fun and useful, and I'd like your help.

Every techie here has been on a few job interviews. It's tough, from  
either side of the desk, because you're trying to prove that you're  
brilliant in a subject that isn't suited to a song-and-dance. You can  
talk about projects you've worked on; you can claim expertise with  
certain tools and languages; you can wave around references from  
clients or previous employers. But that rarely helps you demonstrate  
what you're best at -- whatever that is.

And then an interviewer asks a lame question that doesn't even  
approach that goal, such as, "What are your three greatest strengths  
and three greatest weaknesses?" As dumb as it is, the interviewer  
doesn't know what to ask; what he really wants to know is if you'd be  
a comfortable person to sit next to, 40+ hours a week, and if you're  
just BSing about what you know how to do.

Like I said: everybody's been there. We've all encountered *good*  
questions in an interview. We've all tried really hard not to roll  
our eyes when we're asked something pointless or offensive. So I  
thought I'd write a short article listing the best-and-worst, which  
you've asked or heard or heard of (which could also be a fun  
distraction here).

For example: the best job app I ever encountered was for a tiny  
compiler optimization company in Maine. The written form had the  
basic background questions, then some rather strange questions and a  
few brain teasers. The point of the latter wasn't to see if you could  
deal with engineering trivia, but to see how you addressed the  
problem. (That might have bugged me, except I knew the company owner  
-- we'd played D&D together, which is how I met him -- and he meant  
it. Playing a fantasy role playing game is another way to learn how  
someone solves problems and copes with frustrations, but that's  
another discussion.)

Anyway, a pair of questions on that list were the best I ever  
encountered, and I have used them when I've done journalistic  
interviews with famous people: "What's the most important thing you  
learned in school? What's the most important thing you learned  
outside of school?" Imagine for a moment that you had to answer those  
questions; they sure poke a hole through the puffery, don't they? You  
can only answer them as yourself, not with a "what makes me look  
good?" answer.

I did take that job in Maine. The company policy was that *all* the  
files were open, and everyone was free to look through them. So once,  
while waiting for a long compile, I pawed through the Interviews  
folder. I was astonished by the range of answers those two questions  
elicited. The company owner (who filled out his own form) had written  
"recursion" as the answer to the second question; someone else wrote  
"the importance of God and my family." That doesn't tell you  
*everything* about the person, but it sure tells you something.

The _worst_ interview question wasn't addressed to me, but was given  
to my husband. He was interviewing for a compiler job at, er, a large  
developer of commercial software. The developer who interviewed Bill  
asked several questions like, "How would you design a language  
parser?" and got very detailed. Those might have been relevant...  
except that it immediately became obvious that the developer/ 
interviewer was asking Bill to debug the code he was working on right  
at that moment. I don't think it's part of an interview to do the  
other person's job.

So: what are the best interview questions you've heard? The ones  
you'd hate to be asked? Tell me what they are, why you judge them so  
highly or so poorly. I'll compile them, try to find some commonality  
(such as "brain teasers"), and turn them into an article. Ideally, it  
will both make you groan, and also help you say, "Hey, that's a good  
one to ask, the next time that HR puts me on the interview schedule."

Timewise: I'm hoping to pull this together by the beginning of next  
week. Please tell me how to refer to you in the article (the ideal is  
name/title/location, such as "Esther Schindler, a VB programmer in  
Phoenix"). While I bet this could be a fun discussion here, feel free  
to write to me privately (esther at bitranch.com).

Esther Schindler
editor, DevSource.com

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