Job interviews are intimidating enough without oddball questions. Keep it real and ask something relevant to the job.
I am a software developer (among other things). It’s an occupation I have had for more than 25 years. I work with high profile clients developing mission critical applications.
As a consultant since 1997, I have done hundreds of interviews. And I can tell based on the questions I am asked if it is a team I want to work with.
Goals of an Interview
When I conduct interviews, my goal is to get to know someone. Of course, in my field you have to find out if the candidate is technically qualified for the role. That involves asking questions specific to the job. Sometimes it will involve some kind of code test. Unfortunately, there are people who pad their resume’s or embellish their experience. In my case, I have to dumb down my resume because together with my projects it is 10 pages long and a little intimidating for some.
I understanding how intimidating job interviews are and I am sympathetic to candidates because I’ve been on the other side of the table many times. For me, factors such as personality, eagerness, willingness to learn, ability to share and collaborate are as important as if you can code (or whatever your skillset may be).
I am interviewing a potential colleague. Even if the person is interviewing for a subordinate position, I treat them with respect. I am not there to embarrass them if they don’t know an answer to a question. Rather, I encourage them or offer suggestions to help them succeed.
Stump the Teacher
This is a pet peeve of mine. Some interviews I’ve participated in have asked me questions so far out that I simply had to say, “I don’t know the answer to that, but I can find it if you hand me your laptop.” Now that might be great if you are working on your PhD. But in real world applications I have never had to know the answer to some of the crazy questions I am asked.
And why did they ask? I am convinced it is either to make themselves seem superior or make you feel dumb. I certainly wouldn’t want to work with a group like that.
I understand some questions in an interview are out of the box. The employer or person interviewing you wants to see how you think; how you process information, ask questions, etc.
These are perfectly fine from that aspect, so I get it. And often there are many ways to answer the question. In other words, there are a lot of ways to skin a cat (btw, I don’t know where that expression came from since I would never skin a cat, but anyway, I digress). How would you do it?
Keep in mind, this question is specific to my industry as a software developer. It was recently presented to me in an interview. My first instinct was to say, “Are you serious?” But I went along and I think you will get the point when I explain it.
Philosophers Pasta and Forks
[Interviewer] There are five philosophers sitting at a round table.
(Here we go with philosophers and I am a software developer)
[Interviewer] In front of each philosopher is a fork. There are five forks on the table.
(The round table?)
[Interviewer] And in front of each philosopher is a bowl of pasta.
(Are these Italian philosophers?)
[Interviewer] Each philosopher has to be fed and each uses two forks to eat.
(Who uses two forks to eat? I’ve seen people eat pasta with a spoon and a fork, but never two forks. Where are these philosophers from?)
[Interviewer] How do you ensure everybody gets fed?
(And you scheduled this interview at lunchtime?)
I think about the problem and I am so amused by the absurdity that I give it a shot. Now before I go further in my answer, I already know what the guy is going for in some bizarre round-about way. He is asking about the concept of threading. But I will play along with his analogy and try to reply in terms that fit his narrative.
[Me] First, I ask the waiter to bring us five more forks.
[Interviewer] They only have five.
[Me] This restaurant must not get much business if they only have five forks. They could do more business if they had more forks. I would change restaurants but since you insist on eating here I will figure out another way to feed them all.
[Me] Two philosophers each pick up two forks. Three others philosophize why they aren’t eating and where did their forks go? When each philosopher finishes his pasta he asked the other guys if they are hungry. He gives the guy with one fork a fork and lays the other down or he gives him both forks and that guy starts eating. They continue until everybody is fed.
[Interviewer] Can you explain your reasoning?
[Me] Well first of all, it doesn’t matter if they are philosophers and it’s pasta. It could have been five monkeys and bananas but just like I’ve never seen anybody eat a plate of pasta with two forks, I haven’t seen monkeys eat bananas with them either. Also, it’s a round table. That has no bearing. The monkey philosophers could have been on different planets but then they would have needed a space suit and I’ve never seen a monkey philosopher eat pasta with two forks in a space suit. But that’s beside the point. The table also has no bearing on your problem. They could have round-robin eaten where each philosopher eats a little and passes a fork to another philosopher like a merry-go-round. Or you can patiently wait until one of them has a free fork or two and they can begin eating. But I would not recommend the philosopher waiting on the fork to keep asking if the other guy is done and can he borrow his fork every second. It would probably piss him off and then you’d have one philosopher stab the other philosopher with a fork and then you’d need an ambulance or something.
Why it is a Dumb Question?
In some ways, the example above was not really a “dumb” question. I understand the goals. It’s how it was framed that I find childish. Philosophers, forks, pasta, round table? Cut to the chase. If you want to ask a question to see if I know what “multi-threading” is then pose it that way. Give me a real-world problem. Maybe it is something you encountered in your career that was challenging to you. Ask your candidate how they might approach it. Afterwards, share your experience and how you solved. Make it more of a peer discussion. It is collaborative and shows a person who is already at a disadvantage as a candidate who would love to have the job that you care. You are sympathetic or empathetic to their situation because at one time (at least) you were on their side of the table. Don’t forget that.
Posing questions like this, in my opinion, tells me that you think you are some kind of genius, an asshole, or out of touch with reality and have more time to play games than I do. It is insulting and you’ve done yourself and your company a dis-service. You may pass over a candidate that is very intelligent who may be shy when put under pressure by some abstract question like this.