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

David Kaufman david at gigawatt.com
Thu Oct 5 23:31:46 CDT 2006

Hi Esther,

Esther Schindler <esther at bitranch.com> wrote:
> 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 [...]
> ...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.

I've been asked that so many times that once, when asked an interesting 
*variation* on it, it took me by surprise and elicited much more 
interesting (to both of us) answers,

I was on a first interview with a company I suspected probably would not 
hire me.   And he changed it up by asking the two parts of the question 
separately (and reversed the usual order):

"Six months from now, what am I going to like *least* about working with 

Being something of a perfectionist, a control freak, and an 
obsessive/compulsive seeker of order amidst chaos, and remembering that 
these traits seemed to have infuriated others often in the past, I 
answered that he'd probably be tired of me pointing out potential 
problems that I saw in a project really way too early in the design 
phases.  I explained that, being a perfectionist, I often found myself 
trying to reduce complexity and challenge what I saw as potentially 
troublesome design decisions very early on, before they were too late to 
change easily.  I also volunteered honestly that I tended to want to 
build systems better than originally planned, and that this desire to 
improve-as-I-go often lead to late completion of my work.

He seemed to accept that answer well enough.  But I didn't recognize the 
question as a variation on the old "3 greatest strengths and 3 greatest 
weaknesses" saw until he followed up with the corresponding "And what am 
I going to like *most* about working with you in six months?"

So I used the same answer. :-)  I got the job, and loved it.  I think 
you're dead on that often interviewers are looking for a "cultural fit" 
as much as a technical one.  The people at this small company, I learned 
as I got to know them, often engaged in lively debates, enjoyed clever 
wordplay, and respected quick-thinking, especially the art of delivering 
a smart-assed answer to an inane question.

I don't know what the worst question I was ever asked was, but the most 
sweat I ever shed in an interview was the *third* interview with that 
same company.  With three of my future bosses sitting around the 
conference room table, and me now thinking I might actually get the job, 
the same guy pulls out a retail product package (the job was web 
development with no mention of retail product packaging), hands it to me 
and asks me what I would say was "wrong with it".

I took the box.  It was empty, and when sold had contained a 
"Veterinarian Barbie" doll.  I had no idea what he meant, or how to 
answer.  I asked a few lame questions like, "you mean, with the box 
itself?  Or the picture, the text?"  He wouldn't give me anything other 
than a non-committal "There's no right or wrong answer.  We'd just like 
to hear what you think is wrong with it.  Take your time."

The others were no help, just looking on silently with interest.  I 
learned later that everyone is given this "test", and it has no bearing 
on their decision to hire someone or not, but their unscientific 
conclusions were that those who they hired that had solved it, all 
tended to work out well as employees, but among those who could not 
solve it, there was no correlated conclusion that could be drawn -- some 
worked out great and others tanked.  Mostly they just liked to watch the 
victim squirm, and at this moment they all just had to work very hard 
not to crack a smile.

So take my time and squirm I did.  With a running banter, because I talk 
a lot when I'm nervous.  "Other than the fact that Vet Barbie has that 
big round mirror on her head that doctors haven't used in decades... and 
this box is pretty old, beat up an worn..." trying to cover all my 
bases, "it's empty... nobody would buy an empty box".  He assured me 
that the problem was with the box not the contents, or lack thereof. 
After what seemed like ten excruciating minutes, but was probably more 
like two, after reading all the copy, every word, twice.  Scanning for 
typos or omissions, turning it over and over again, looking for any 
defect that could be "what's wrong", scouring the brightly colored, 
simple line-drawing pictures of a smiling Barbie wearing a white lab 
coat, with a happy puppy in a simple examination room, standard 
stethoscope and other standard doctor paraphernalia, exam table, eye 
chart on the wall, and an assortment of unlabeled apothecary remedies in 
jars on a counter.  My banter was running thin and I was about to give 
up, when it hit me.

I was so relived it pretty well bubbled out of me "Wait! Barbie's a vet, 
Not an optometrist!  What's she doing with that eye-chart on her wall?" 
They all busted out laughing with a "wait for it..." look, as my brain 
made the final clicking sounds.  I'd seen *what* was wrong, but not, 
before opening my mouth, why it was wrong.

"Oh, well right.  And yeah, the other thing too, of course.  Y'know, 
that dogs can't read."


a perl web application programmer, aspiring ajax slinger and wannabe 
user experience guru working in NYC 

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