Interviewing - Understanding the Real Question

A week or so ago I posted some interviewing tips including some do's and some don'ts. Since that post I have had several former colleagues and former employees of mine ask me to post about some of my more unorthodox interview techniques. When I interview a candidate and I think that person has the right stuff technically and in experience, I look for the “other” factors. What “other” factors? …

… Have you ever watched that famous scene from one of the several Robin Hood movies where Robin or one of his merry men (hard not to chuckle here) are taking aim with the arrow and someone says something to the effect of “OK, you can make the shot. But can you do it amidst distractions?”.  And then of course he misses the shot when the girl whispers in his ear. My point … don’t let anyone whisper in your ear when shooting an arrow… no no no …. what I mean is that people get all pumped up for interviews. They practice what they say and are comfortable with it. So when I know I like the qualifications but I am unsure how they will perform when under pressure, I try some different techniques.

OK, it is not rocket science … its just a way of finding out how a person is going to handle a late night at the office, figuring out a solution to a problem they have never faced, the production web server crashing or some other work related crisis. Its just another test … nope, it ain’t perfect and it can be beaten, but it certainly has helped me weed out some candidates. Some people are great in all areas until I get to this point in the interview. I start asking them questions that get progressively more difficult to see how the react. Once I get to the point where they don;t know the answer it gives me a lot of insight. Most people get a little nervous (which is fine) at this point and some freeze completely. I have had several people just not answer at all when asked a question they don’t know the answer to. The thing I look for is the people who can handle themselves in a pressure filled situation when the answer is not obvious. Warning signs for me in this situation are:

  • the person won’t let us move on until they find the right answer (sometimes they will wait forever unless I make them move on to the next question)
  • yelling (yup, I had a guy just start yelling out answers. he wasn’t mad, I don;t think, just nervous yelling)
  • sudden case of the BS (this is never good … never lie … never never never!)

What I am really looking for is:

  • simply a brief “I don’t know”
  • even better answer is “I can find out by doing XYZ”
  • calm demeanor
  • thinking out loud … considering possible options

The key here is to realize that sometimes the question verbalized is not the question that you are answering. In this example I don’t care if the person knows the 7 layers of networking in order or the definition of 3rd normal form … what I care about is seeing how they respond to pressure. I want to hire people who can solve problems, not people who have memorized syntax or text books. People who can work with others by identifying a problem and going a step further and offering a few solutions and making a recommendation.

I always ask the questions calmly, professionally and always let the person go with it where they will. I really let them drive the conversation to see where they take it. I don’t do this very often as I only call upon this technique when I think I have a winner but I just need to see how they will do under pressure. In fact, some of the best people I have hired were the worst resumes that got in the interview door but just had the “IT” factor. This technique helped show me that these people could handle pressure and a lot of them really blossomed into great developers, business analysts, and managers.

Do I know what I am talking about? Eh, who knows. It has worked for me. Just something to consider when interviewing … always relax and be yourself and you’ll be a step ahead.

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Hi, I'm John Papa. I author this blog, create courses for Pluralsight and am a Google Developer Expert and Microsoft Regional Director. I travel speaking at events and train technology thought leaders