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Interview Questions From Left Field

I once had an interview for a programming gig that was going really well, and then he asked, "So, what do you do for fun?"

Let's see, I sit in front of my computer, sit in front of the tv, indulge in a pie every now and then...

I was flabbergasted.  I don't even remember what I said, but I was stumbling over my words for the rest of the interview.  I'll have to make up a complete lie for that sort of question the next time I interview.

Any other amusing questions from left field?

Joe Pants
Thursday, September 04, 2003

"What is the strangest interview question you've ever been asked?"

"That one."

Joe Blandy
Thursday, September 04, 2003

"How do you see yourself in ten years?"

"As your boss."

Steve Barbour
Thursday, September 04, 2003

My department needed a new developer.  The lead developer was quitting, I was getting transferred to lead developer, and the both of us were interviewing candidates.  I was surprised when he asked each and every one "what do you do for fun?"

I thought it very inappropriate and distracting.  I didn't understand what relevance it could possibly have.

When I got a chance to ask him why he kept asking that, he said one of the reasons they hired me was because of this open-source project I had started...  However, that was on my resume anyway, so it made sense for them to ask me about that specifically.  I still think it's a bad idea.  It makes people think you are hiring them based not only on their fitness for the position, but also on what they do with their personal time.  Sounds like a formula ripe for a lawsuit.

saberworks
Thursday, September 04, 2003

Interviewer: "Impress me" (then puts his feet on the desk and opens the newspaper for a good read).

Interviewee: (saying nothing, gets out his lighter and sets fire to the paper).

[Urban legend]

Bill Rayer
Thursday, September 04, 2003

"What do you spend all your spare cash on"


What was I supposed to say?

Daniel Shchyokin
Thursday, September 04, 2003

"How many cans of cat food are sold in America every day?"

Joe Developer
Thursday, September 04, 2003

I can see why that sort of question would be relevant.  It provides a view of you as a whole person, not just as someone with skill X.  The person interviewing you may be spending years of his/her life with you.  Wouldn't it behoove them to know more about you than just your experience with specific tools or technologies?

I also think that the original poster's response is a strong example of exactly why these sorts of questions are asked.  Unusual questions are often asked so as to get an *un*scripted answer.  If I'm interviewing somebody, I want to know how they'll react to a question when they don't know exactly how they're going to answer it.  It's a useful data point.  If the person being interviewed is so flabbergasted by an unexpected question that s/he stumbles through the rest of the interviewer, how will they react when in an unpredictable environment at work?

The Pedant, Brent P. Newhall
Thursday, September 04, 2003

"What do you do for fun" is (IMHO) a good question - work is more than skill, it's a relationship. A wise employer will ask some non-work questions to get a feel for the personality of the candidate. It's also a chance to see how they deal with interpersonal relationships.

It's not something to decide whether or not to hire someone, but it can have significant impact on deciding *who* to hire.

OTOH, "what do you spend your spare cash on" is invasive and possibly an illegal question.

It's all in the phrasing. :-)

Philo

Philo
Thursday, September 04, 2003

The "What do you do in your spare time / for fun ?" question tends to be pointed more towards determining what kind of a person you are.  Are you outgoing?  Do you enjoy being around people in large groups?  Do you like to sit in front of your TV and watch football?

Its essentially their way of asking, "Would I feel comfortable being around you 40+ hours a week?"  Is that beyond the scope of "Are you qualified?"  Yes.  Is it beyond the scope of things an employer should evaluate, I don't think so.

Strangest question ever asked, "Is it hot in here?" 
The entire office's air conditioning was broken, it was early July in DC, the office was at least 80 and the interviewing room had direct sunlight.  I think it was colder outside than it was in that room.

Lou
Thursday, September 04, 2003

Heh. I once worked with a guy who interviewed a female new college hire. Very attractive young lady who was wearing a fairly tight blouse.

Since our NOC was in the same zone as our offices (and the conference room), it was always sub-zero in there. He told us that he seated her, sat down across from her, then asked as he looked up from her resume "Are you cold?" only to realize that there were strong physiological indicators that a) she was cold and b) it had suddenly become an exceptionally inappropriate question.

We recommended he let HR know before the candidate did.

Philo

Philo
Thursday, September 04, 2003

We generally ask the "what do you do in your spare time" question as a matter of course in interviews.  I've been asked it more than once.  You want to know what type of person they are.

Even programming machines have interesting recreational activities.

Flamebait sr.
Thursday, September 04, 2003

It's prefectly reasonable for people to ask what you do in your spare time. A little more suprising to me was being asked what my favorite video game was (it was not a game programming position).

If a question about your leisure activities trips you up, it's a pretty good sign that you aren't going to fit in. People are going to be afraid to work with you if you don't have any.

Clay Dowling
Thursday, September 04, 2003

I will often ask questions like "what do you do for fun?"  at the end of the interview, not because I particularly care what they like but because I want to "sell" the candidate on moving to Seattle!  Good candidates choose where they want to work, and so I want to tell them that we'll relocate them to a fun place to live.

If they say "I like watching foreign movies" then I'll tell them that Seattle has a great foreign film festival and a _huge_ rare movie rental place.  If they say "I like kayaking" then I'll point them at the best places for sea and river kayaking. 

And if they say "I like sailing small racing boats" then I'll say "I have a spare wetsuit in the car, let's go!"  I know why _I_ moved across the continent to work here -- the job is nice and all, but being able to sail after work was a big selling point.

Eric

Eric Lippert
Thursday, September 04, 2003

What if they like tanning? Aren't you out of luck?

Philo

Philo
Thursday, September 04, 2003

News Flash:  Most people like to be friends with the people they spend 80% of their waking hour with.  You tend to be friends with interesting people.  People who do thngs outside of work...

Asking what do you do for fun is hardly "left field".  It's casual conversation.  Clearly, you have no skills or background to handle this.,  Which makes you a BORE to work with.  #2 criteria behind technical skills is "Are you a decent guy to blow 12 hours a day with"  This is obviously a VERY important question. 

Bella
Thursday, September 04, 2003

I haven't had "hiring power" ever, but I have been involved in the interviewing process, and one of my favorite questions to ask interviewies was "what was the coolest project you've ever worked on?".  It got lots of interesting responses. 

Vince
Thursday, September 04, 2003

Then I emphasize that we had less than one inch of rain since June this year, and try to not mention the soul-crushing darkness of February.

Eric

Eric Lippert
Thursday, September 04, 2003

Actual interview question from 15 years ago:

"See that tree outside, by the road?  About how far away do you think it is?"


Different interview, for politically sensitive Canadians:

Interviewer: If you could work anywhere in Canada, where would you like to work?
Me: Out west; I've never been to that part of the country and I'd like to see it.
Interviewer: (In stentorian voice): WHY NOT QUEBEC???

Needless to say, I didn't get (or want) that job. :-)

David Jones
Thursday, September 04, 2003

During my senior year of college I interviewed for a job teaching English in Japan for 2 years.  The interview panel was three older Japanese men from the embassy and a female Japanese UCLA student.  At one point they asked if I had a sense of humor, and when I responded yes, they followed up with, “Can you tell us a joke?”  It being 1996 in Los Angeles, the best I could come up with was:

Ted: Knock-knock
Interviewers: Who’s there?
Ted: OJ
Interviewers: OJ who?
Ted: You’re on the jury!

The UCLA student laughed, but I had to explain it to the other interviewers.  I didn’t get the job.

Ted Graham
Thursday, September 04, 2003

Yeah I can't recall NOT getting asked that question.  It's pretty standard.  And if you don't have any hobbies besides sitting in front of the PC/TV, you are more likely to get burned out, so it is kind of relevant.  Almost everyone on my team is into some sport or music, and I know it helps during the crunch times, to at least keep one thing going.

Andy
Thursday, September 04, 2003

But there's a very real difference between being a burnout-prone bore and having very simple needs.  My idea of a good time is to simply *relax* during my downtime with one or two people I can shoot the breeze with.  But that comes off  as antisocial regardless of what I'm like on the job...

Igi
Thursday, September 04, 2003

Igi:

"But that comes off  as antisocial regardless of what I'm like on the job..."

It's all in the phrasing. Just say something to the effect of, "Well, in my downtime I like to just sit back and relax and just chat with a few friends." Which is pretty much what you said, and I don't see how it comes off as anti-social to me at all.


I think a big point of these questions has to be to see how forthright and automatically honest the candidate is - if the first thing you do is try to think of how you'll look and what you should say, and so on, that pretty much screams dishonesty, not being genuine, manipulative, unconfident, uncomfortable, and not particularly at ease with one's self, and so on. Most people will do that to some extent, but the details of the how and the what are important.

After all, anyone can look good and be confident when sufficiently prepared. It is, indeed, how one acts off-script that reveals the person and their assorted temperments, attitudes, and foibles.

The extent to which the mind-police have invaded employment and corporate america, however, do kind of make it rediculously hard not to be outright paranoid of checking, double-checking, and triple-checking everything it is that you say and how it could possibly be interpretted. That reminds me of Eugene Volokh's (famous libertarian lawyer fellow) upcoming book, "You Can't Say That!: The Growing Threat to Civil Liberties from Antidiscrimination Laws" - www.volokh.com.

Which, I suppose, casts an annoying pall on the answer which would, one assumes, be the true answer for at least a considerable number of interviewees:

"So, what do you like to do for fun?"

"I'm particularly fond of picking up women, getting to know them a bit over a few dates, and then having sex with them. Yes, I take great pleasure in that."

Ah well, that's just part and parcel of a lying culture - which is not to assume that all cultures aren't lying one's, but there you go. ;)

Plutarck
Thursday, September 04, 2003

"So, what do you do for fun?"

This is an acceptable question. Don't you have an interest in anything. Most intelligent people I know have their hands in many different fields from sports, to literatutre, music, politics, games, always learning new things (not only technology).

Tom Vu
Thursday, September 04, 2003

Fun for me happens to be technical.  If I'm coding C++ all day, I might fiddle with less demanding side projects in a significantly different field, like making Yet Another CMS or game or news aggregator.  Being social on-the-clock and being social off-the-clock are completely disjoint for me.

Joe Pants
Thursday, September 04, 2003


After reading down to here, I seem to have the impression that the "what do you do for fun" is associated with... well, the equation that "social == fun".

Over the years, I have interviewed several hundred people and hired something like 30.  I also ask the "what do you do for fun" question.

I do it because I want the person that considers activities involving creativity and problem solving as fun.  It doesn't matter much if the activity is solo or with a group.

And I also avoid the people that are the "party animal complete with lampshade" types... or the person with a strong need for social "stroking".

Joe AA
Friday, September 05, 2003

David : "Interviewer: (In stentorian voice): WHY NOT QUEBEC???"

Hmmm...let me count the ways :) I wonder if anyone outside Canada appreciates that at all heheh ...

jedidjab79
Friday, September 05, 2003

Answer to why not Quebec:

"Because you said what part of CANADA..."

I agree with Rick Mercer on the Quebec's frequent secession movements.  He said something like, watching Quebec look to leave Canada is like watching a guy threatening to jump off a bridge.  The first few times you say, "Don't Jump! Don't Jump!"  But after too many times of it you finally want to say "Do it! Jump!"

Cynic in Vermont
Friday, September 05, 2003

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