Sunday, May 03, 2009

If I could ask only one job interview question

Someone asked me the other day (in response to my earlier blog about job interviews) what question I would ask during a job interview if I could ask only one question. Which is, itself, a very interesting question.

I initially responded by asking for more context, specifically: What kind of position am I trying to fill? Is the candidate in question applying for an R&D job (e.g., web-application developer)? Or is she applying for a software-industry position that requires no programming knowledge per se?

In general, as a hiring manager, the thing that interests me the most is the person's ability to get work done, and in technology, that, to me, means I want someone who is an incredibly fast learner. There's no way you can come into a job already possessing 100% of the domain knowledge you're expected to have; some on-the-job learning is bound to be necessary. Beyond that, even when you've adapted to the job, constant learning is a requirement. I've never seen a tech job where that wasn't true.

So one of my favorite interview questions is: "If you have a hard assignment that involves subject domains you know little or nothing about, what would be your approach to attacking the problem?"

If the person's first words are "Consult Google," that's fine -- that's a given, actually. But I want to know more. Consult Google, sure (consult Wikipedia, maybe), but then what?

What I don't want to hear as the very first thing is "Go ask someone in R&D" or "come and ask you." If your very first tactic is to disturb busy coworkers (without first doing any homework yourself), it means you're too lazy to at least try to find answers on your own. It also means you're inconsiderate of the value of other people's time. Newbies who ask questions on forums that could easily have been answered with a little prior research tend to get rude treatment on forums, for precisely this reason. You don't bother experts (with non-expert questions, especially) unless you've already done all the work you can possibly do on your own to solve the problem yourself. Only then should you bother other people.

Some good answers to the question of "How would I attack a difficult problem" might include:
  • Go straight to the authoritative source documentation. For example, if the problem involves E4X syntax, go read ECMA-357. If the problem involves XPath, go to the W3C XPath Language Recommendation. And so on. Go to the source! Then work your way out from there.
  • See what's already been done internally, inside the organization, on this problem. That means consulting company or departmental wikis, reading internal documents (meeting minutes, business intelligence reports, etc.), reading source code and/or code comments, and so on.
  • Find out who the acknowledged experts (in the industry) are on the subject in question and go look at their articles and blogs. Consult forums, too, if applicable. Post questions on forums, if you can do so without revealing private company information.
  • If you have a friend who is knowledgeable on the subject, reach out to the person and pick his or her brain (again providing you're able to do that without revealing proprietary information about your current project). I don't care if you bother someone outside the organization with endless questions.
Finally, if you need to, find out who inside the organization is the domain expert on the subject, and ask that person if you could have a little of his or her time.

In summary, I need someone who is smart and a fast learner, but also resourceful and self-motivated.

This post is getting to be longer than I thought, so I'll stop. Tomorrow I want to speak to the issue of what question I would ask an R&D candidate, if I could ask any question during a job interview. That'll be fun, I promise.

19 comments:

  1. I got asked, "do you have any questions?" at the end of a few interviews I went to for jobs. I always try and ask a few questions just to show I'm here for more than the day out.. I always tried to think of how I could have done better after the interview.

    The last job I got, the interviewer asked me the same question and I said, "yes, can I have this job? I think I could do well here"

    I got it!

    Now I work for myself but I want to try that again if I ever need it :-)

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  2. Andy, that's an excellent question to ask! ("yes, can I have this job?") To me, it shows fervent desire and interest, which frankly is often lacking in how candidates conduct themselves. It's surprising how few candidates ever say they really want the job. Bravo!

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  3. Andy: love it! :)

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  4. Andy: I love that question too. Once, I asked if the interview panel had any reservations about me as a candidate. In fact they didn't and said something that revealed they liked me - I got the job! I like yours better, though.

    As an interviewer, if I had one question I'd ask "Tell me about yourself." People often squirm not knowing where to go with it, but where they go really ends up telling me a lot about the person.

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  5. I get your point, but I think there's a flip side to this -- too many times I see people struggle with a problem for hours and hours, when they could have simply asked a more skilled person how to solve the problem. I see this especially with people who aren't skilled in the front end who end up jumping through crazy hoops to accomplish a simple task.

    There's value in learning, but an organization has to weigh the cost -- interrupting a $100/hour resource for an hour *is* less costly than a $50/hour resource researching a problem for 4 hours. And if the $50/hour resource is constantly interrupting the more expensive resource, then it may be time to re-examine how the project is staffed.

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  6. I agree with Rebecca. It depends on the level of the resource and the type of problem, but mentoring can't be undervalued.

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  7. Anonymous10:42 AM

    I had a friend who was a top marketing executive at a big healthcare company. She was interviewing the perfect candidate, great resume, terrific personal skills, etc., etc., for a sales & marketing position. She kept waiting for him to ask for the job (i.e., close), and he never did. She had to give the job to someone else. Tech applicants are not evaluated as harshly on their closing skills, but simply asking for the job does put one way ahead of most applicants.

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  8. Anonymous11:30 AM

    Actually, newbies being treated rudely on forums is a sign of a general personality disorder in humanity and especially geeks. I really don't want to bother with a paragraphs long dissection, but the claim that it's somehow a rational response for a community to behave that way is preposterous. Luckily, now I don't need to destroy this way of thinking anymore. The popularity and success of stackoverflow.com disproves it every day.

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  9. Anonymous11:47 AM

    Job interviews are a bunch of crap. I can never think on the spot of what to say. Yet am great at doing the research and going to the source, etc...

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  10. @Rebecca I agree... to a point. I've found (I'm usually the ask-ee), that once a person asks a more valuable source once, he/she can very often tend to start relying on that person... so one interruption expands into many interruptions. It's the old cliche, teach a person to fish, etc.

    The best employees are the ones who know when to ask a question... they gauge the amount of time it will take them to find the answer against the value of the interruption.

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  11. Ok I don't agree with the don't ask your co-workers idea at all. I mean you are telling me that I should possibly waste a lot of valuable time reachering the internet waiting for reply's from topic experts that may or may not have time for me. And who am I to ask a friend whom is probably also bussy for time while I haven't even asked the experts within my own organization?

    And if those people cannot even set aside 5 to 10 minutes to get a new guys up to speed about something, even if that is just pointing to the right location for the documentation than that is not really oing to be a pleasant organization to work in.

    If I can't move forward within an hour searching myself I will ask someone to point me in the right direction. I would even go as far as saying that it is very unprofessional if you just keep searching for it yourself and wasting hours or even days while a co-worker may spend a few minutes to an hour and you can be productive.

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  12. Anonymous2:12 AM

    I agree with Mark!

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  13. Anonymous7:29 AM

    I disagree about closing, i interviews are like dates. if you show that you care too early it wont work. i bet you did not get as much money as you could if you'd use cold approach. However if desperation turns you on than go for it.

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  14. Anonymous10:35 AM

    Why we should give the job to you instead to the others candidates?.

    In the answer i would look for 4 things: he or she is the best person, would be happiest person with that job, has the most capacity of learning and has the most tecnical knowledge according to the job.

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  15. Why not ask coworkers? It is funny how people expect candidates to be team players but still work in isolation.

    The forum analogy given is utter bullshit. On a forum, you waste *everyone's* time (including those that see that forum in the future). With a colleague, you spend a few man-minutes, at most.

    If that colleague is not skillful enough to tell a new recruit where to find the right resources, the fault lies with the experienced employee, not the new joinee.

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  16. Anonymous3:47 AM

    http://www.webdesignerdepot.com/2009/05/7-mistakes-to-avoid-on-your-next-job-application/

    read the last point, i bet you disagree, but at least read it.

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  17. Wow!

    I have learned many useful resources from your blog. I really appreciate it. Thanks a lot for sharing this useful information and hope to read more from you. :)

    Questions are an integral part of a job interview. The key to brave them is to know their answers before hand. Put into practice answering the anticipated job interview questions. Carry out a kind of mock job interview with the help of your family members, friends etc. Keep in mind that you should be boosted to the fullest with utter confidence to answer those job interview questions which you have not practiced answering or not rehearsed.

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  18. Anonymous8:00 AM

    In my company, if you don't know X, but there's already a designated expert in X, and you don't ask that person your (for them, trivial) question, it can look like you're trying to waste company time by becoming the new expert in X. To avoid stepping on toes if for no other reason, you should ask that expert for the established company way of solving X.

    But then, my company makes tangible goods (i.e. not software) and doing things incorrectly could lead to very expensive problems further down the road.

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