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Interview Questions. Too Clever To Be Useful? :

I just got done reading the Google Interview Questions over at Gizmodo and came to only one conclusion about them, and it is the same problem I have with most “clever” interview questions. Why bother?00793

So you’re asking clever questions in an interview, what does this tell you about the candidate?

Can they perform under pressure?

Can they think on their feet?

Do they already know the answer?

Have they heard this one before?

I am sure that somewhere in the whole wide world, someone found that in the framework of an actual interview these questions have some utility, but mostly I find that they serve only three purposes for the company doing the hiring:

  1. To demonstrate how clever the interviewer, not the interviewee, actually is.
  2. Give a poor interviewer a crutch to lean on.
  3. Give a lazy interviewer something to ask rather than actually do real work during the interview process.

I guess I have been lucky when hiring employees for my company in that they are all people I have had the pleasure of working with in the past at other gigs. I don’t think I have ever asked a “clever” interview question in my entire career. I’d rather the interviewee demonstrate a clear understanding of their chosen profession than their ability to “answer a pop quiz.”

I have been asked “clever” questions, and they are mostly unoriginal and something the interviewer looked up on the internet.

What the questions are supposed to do is provide insight in to how you think, how you perform under pressure, and so on.

The problem is that the lazy interviewer doesn’t give a damn about how you perform, just whether your answer matches up. And the poor interviewer doesn’t have the skills to usefully evaluate your performance so they, again, focus on the answer you gave.

Usually if you don’t give the exact right answer they have memorised or have written down in front of them, in their eyes, you failed. It’s this pedagogic culture of only one right answer that John Gatto and many others rail against through their works. On the whole, the interviewer generally isn’t smart enough to actually understand the question themselves, or even come up with an original question, again, it is the lazy and/or poor interviewer.

I’m angry at lazy, poor interviewers the and companies they work for. But I am even angrier still at people, the potential interview candidates so enamoured of the company they want to work for, who focus so much on these questions, because the questions themselves are self-serving, self-fulfilling prophecies – “Look at how clever we are to ask these kinds of questions!” and so it goes “Gosh darn it, that must be a top-flight company if they ask interview questions only they know the answers to.”

Perhaps I am sore because I cannot answer the questions satisfactorily? Well, I have to admit I am of below-average intelligence and mostly self-taught due to life-long learning difficulties, but I found the questions neither difficult nor interesting.

So how did I do on these “mock” interview questions? I answered each and every one, except for #8, to a satisfactory level in under a minute, with the CTO of the company I am currently consulting for, acting as the “heckling interviewer.” And boy can he heckle. The heckling provided a “realistic interview scenario” to apply a little pressure.

Question #8, “How many lines can be drawn in a 2D plane” stumped me because I simply didn’t understand the question as stated until I got up and drew it out on the whiteboard. Total time to solve: less than 3 minutes.

And question #9 is just plain silly. The answer is obviously 0x10000000000000000. Proof that the interviewer was attempting to be clever but the interviewee can be cleverer. Also, the question ignores the fact that any competent software engineer knows their powers of two, off by heart, all the way up to 128 bits, in decimal. And if they don’t, they probably have no business calling themselves a developer. It is one of the basic skill sets of being a programmer.

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