Sunday, March 31, 2013

What's Your Biggest Weakness?

With the big contest reveal coming tomorrow I thought a departure from the usual theme would be a good idea. A friend of mine recently interviewed for a job, and while it went really well, there was one interviewer who was hell bent on asking some really off-the-wall stuff. Well, if you've heard the expression "There are no stupid questions" before I'm here to politely inform you that there are, and if you're a certain type of interviewer you're probably asking them.

When conducting an interview, hiring managers always want to make sure they are getting the right person for the job. Candidates often come so well prepared and polished that it can be very difficult to get a good read on someone just from a couple hours of talking through the standard set of questions. Many companies will try to put candidates through a veritable gauntlet of interviews, with 4, 5, 6, or more people each getting 30-60 minutes to lob question after question, scenario after scenario at them; looking for hidden faults, but more often looking for a spark of genius.

No doubt you've all read stories about some of the fabulous questions that the likes of Microsoft and Google have asked their potential employees. Many of these are extremely well thought out, but are also remarkably unconventional and designed to help ferret out specific nuggets of information that would be otherwise hard to extract if they were to keep to the same sort of predictable script.

I was a co-op student at the University of Waterloo, so I'm no stranger to job interviews and some of the crazy questions that one can encounter. I was also a hiring manager for software development and testing for over a decade in a variety of industries. I've tried to come up with a list of generic questions relevant to each position with limited success, but one thing is certain: I outright refuse to ask certain questions, simply because they are stupid. That may come off as a bit flippant, and I don't necessarily mean stupid in the strict dictionary definition of the word, but nevertheless there are just some questions that aught not to be asked in a job interview.

For starters, don't ask people riddles. At least, don't ask riddle-type questions for which you already have an answer in mind. A friend interviewed for a job as a statistician and was asked, "How many piano tuners are there in New York City?" Initially, this would seem like a really stupid question, but it wasn't because the interviewer didn't want a precise answer. Answering 1328 versus answering 472 was inconsequential when compared with how the question was answered.

I've been asked how I would build a clock for a blind person. After several minutes of me trying to understand the requirements (example: plug in vs. battery operated vs. wind up) I was told, "Just take the glass off a regular alarm clock." The person's tone was incredulous as well, as if I had deeply offended them by not knowing the answer. This was a stupid question, with an even stupider expected answer (every time you check the time you'll change what time it is!).

Questions like this remind me of those Mensa questions or silly things you see on Facebook. "What's the next symbol in the sequence?", "Which number comes next?" These are little more than party tricks that, once you've seen a couple, you can figure out the answer without having to even think at all, let alone showcase practical life skills.

How about this? Interviewers of the world listen up! Instead of asking seemingly open ended questions that are just riddles in disguise, how about you take a minute and put on your thinking caps for a change and ask your candidates questions that allow them to use their knowledge and experience to provide a solution to a relevant problem.

Remember, that with so many highly skilled and talented people out there, the likelihood is that they are interviewing you just as much as you are interviewing them and we wouldn't want you to look stupid, now would we?

~ Andrew
 

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