Fog Creek Software
Discussion Board

Back to Interviews

Doug Cutting (Nutch) has a blog and commented about "quiz" type interviews - the sort of which Joel references in his article on tech interviews:

A comment points to Bruce Eckel (and others) making comments on how to tech interview:

This has some more insight which I find useful.  Chris Sells, for example, talks about giving the candidate the option of specifying an area of expertise.  Pretty intelligent since putting together .NET apps is considerably different (and not related) to reversing strings in C, not to mention that the interviewee should be looking for aptitude first and foremost.

I also like the idea of a person's code "portfolio."  This gives a candidate the opportunity to show something a bit larger than a toy as an example of their work. Of course many candidates work on things that don't belong to them but it still helps (it would seem) to see a larger picture of a person's development patterns.

Ultimately though, it's about a fit and I know that the quiz approach is good for building fast thinking and productive environments.  Soon enough I'll be out there looking for work and though this daunts me it's encouraging to see that interviewing can go beyond timed quiz/thoughtbludgeon sessions.

David Seruyange
Wednesday, July 14, 2004


Thanks for the artima article. It made a wonderful reading.

Interviewing for an ideal candidate and landing on the best one is indeed a difficult thing. It is only  co-incidental that I have been compiling my own thoughts in a three-part series on the process of  interviewing for the August issue of my company newsletter.

I liked what Bruce Eckel said in this article, "I ask candidates to create an object model of a chicken. This  eliminates any problems with uncertainties about the problem domain, because everyone knows what a  chicken is. I think it also jars people away from the technical details of a computer. It tests to see if they are  capable of thinking about the big picture."

Interviewing has been a recurrent theme for discussion on this board every so many days.

Within our organization, I've had the opportunity of interviewing candidates who come for Visual Basic  related jobs. Normally, they are required to attend a technical sort of interview with me, and then an  interview with my Project Manager, followed by an HR interview finally.

When I am asked to interview candidates, I start by developing a strategy for the interview, like Joel  advises in his article.

As everyone concurs, the ability to memorize syntax or vocabulary is not that important. If we're looking for  good programmers, let's first consider what a program is. A program, as I'd put it, is a recipie of the  following ingredients:

(1) Language Syntax/Grammar
(2) Vocabulary
(3) Logic

Of course, in a good program, there are other things such as aesthetics in the style the code is written,  optimization of behaviour etc. but those are at the next level. The basic constituents in a program are the  three things I've mentioned above.

A good candidate, in my opinion, can pick up any sytax sooner or later if he's already been programming in  one earlier. So, that's not the decisive factor here. Vocabulary is a function of memory and I am reminded of  what Steve McConnell said in his book, After the Gold Rush. I do not recall the exact words, but he said  something like if knowledge was a function of memory, then you would be considered more able if you  knew more facts. Assuming in one year, one can accumulate X number of facts, then in 10 years one can  memorize 10 times X number of facts. But in those 10 years, because of the change in technology, the facts  that the 10-year experienced programmer remembers are all obsolete.

So the only thing I look for is the candidate's logical reasoning. While interviewing a candidate for my team,  the first thing that I want to measure in a candidature is his _aptitude_ for his work. For VB candidates, I  want to know how much they have been following Visual Basic related articles on the Web. The first test I  put forward to them is an aptitude test for their skill set. The questions I ask are:

(1) Name at least five websites related to Visual Basic.

(2) Would you know at least three of the following people for their work:
Dan Appleman
Alan Cooper
Karl Moore
Steven Roman
David McCarter
Rod Stephens
Bruce McKinney

Those sorta things, basically. These questions are followed by questions of quizzical nature; the ones that  you describe. The ones that are the famously difficult questions asked by interviewers at Microsoft. The  questions Joel describes in his article as the Impossible Questions. That's a term now he borrowed from  William Poundstone's "How to Move Mount Fuji."

Here's an excerpt from the book about these sort of questions.

In the human resources trade, some of these riddles are privately known as impossible questions.  Interviewers ask these questions in the earnest belief that they help gauge the intelligence, resourcefulness,  or "outside the box" thinking needed to survive in today's hypercompetitive business world. Job applicants  answer these questions in the absolute belief that this is what it takes to get hired at the top companies these  days.

Tales of people proving their mettle by solving riddles exist in cultures around the globe. The "ordeal by  trick question" was possibly raised to the highest art by the monks of Japanese Zen. Zen riddles are the  antithesis of the Western logic puzzle, though one might describe them as demanding an extreme sort of  outside the box thinking. A student of Zen demonstrates worthiness by giving a sublimely illogical answer  to an impossible question. Zen master Shuzan once held out his short staff and announced to a follower: "If  you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now  what do you wish to call this?" In traditional Zen teaching, the penalty for a poor answer was a hard whack  on the head with a short staff.

So Microsoft's "not exactly fair" questions are not exactly new. The company repackaged the old "ordeal by  riddle" for our own time.

Finally, I follow them up with a more extensive technical bout. But again, there the intention is to ask the tricky questions - those that are answered by relying lesser on memory and more on logic. So, there are less like, "What is the maximum limit of the Interval property of a Timer control in Visual Basic". I don't think those questions will help me win a good candidate. I have a terrible memory, but I consider myself good. Memory is not the key here. I'd tend to ask things like, "Give a programming situation where you could use interfaces (Here, what we are refering to is not the GUI interface but the user defined abstract classes and COM interfaces)." or What are the issues you would bear in mind when planning for Internationalization for your Visual Basic application?" or "Give two programming situations wherein it would be necessary to write recursive functions."

Unfortunately for the companies I've seen here in India, interviewing is a ritual. They follow preset patterns  and it seems like employers don't realize that investing early in the interview process can be beneficial in the  way of prevention of wastage of money on wrong hiring decisions. Most interviews here go like,

“So, tell us something about yourself.”

That’s sure for a starter - as customary as the soups in a restaurant menu, no? Admit it. Every 9 out of 10  interviews start on that customary note.

Then come the MBA type routines, the ones that are more hackneyed than the dance routines in our  Bollywood movies.

“What’s your strength?”

“What’s your weakness? Greatest weakness? On top of that it’ll be like, Ok, name five.”

That reminds me, there was a thread here on JoS sometime back about the weaknesses part. It was  interesting. You can read it from here:

The first time I attended an interview, it was some 8 years back I guess. A consultant had called me. As I  entered the room, I saw this lady in the solitary confines of a dimly lit second floor attic. She seated herself  and threw open a bundle of question papers on the desk and asked me to answer all of them in writing.  Saying this, she bid me adieu, entering into the lav.

While I sat for the following two and a half hours, sedulously answering each of those questions, she was  absconding, timely answering bio calls and in between making herself a cup of tea. There were a wide  variety of questions in that test:

“What are your weaknesses?”
“What are your strengths?”
“What are your threats?”
“What are your opportunities?”
“What are your uncle’s threats? Is he a threat to you?”

My, my…

“What are your virtues, your dad’s and those of your grand-dad too, please? Make it a double – include  grand-ma.”

“How many kittens in your house?”

“Your favourite pet (Tick one)”

“Describe an extra-ordinary situation you coped with in your career, in not more than 15 words and not less  than 12 words. The last words must be, ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ ”

None of them any useful, though.

Then there was a story-writing thing, I recall. I was given three pictures and asked to conjure up a tale tying  the images together into a story. Heck, I actually wasted a good 45 minutes doing that, while my proxy  employer was attending calls of nature. I am sure she washed herself after defecation with those  answer-sheets in case she’d run out of tissue.

You guessed it, I never heard from her. Sometimes I wonder if anyone did hear from her solitary confines or  not. God grant her soul peace!

I strongly believe that a good interviewer must read the candidate’s resume well, but before the interview. During the interview, the interviewer must concentrate only on the interview. Do not read the resume and interview the candidate at the same time. You tend to lose focus that way. Besides, if you’re keen on reading the resume while the candidate is in front of you, you miss out on the more important aspects of his personality that you can witness that are not otherwise notable from the resume.

Some interviewers just bury their face into the candidate resume. Man, look up! The guy you are reading  about is sitting in front of you. This is the time. Read him. Don’t waste your time reading a piece of paper.  Decide now, if he’s the one you’d want to be working with. Look at him. Note the way he talks, his gestures,  his emotional balance, his mannerism, his IQ. Pass a joke. Share a light moment. Throw a brainteaser and see  if he’s willing to solve it. These are things I’d look forward for as a candidate in an interview, as much as I’d  like to pose to a candidate.

I am reminded of Zen here. One of the posters on this forum gave us a link to an anecdote that I am  reproducing here:

Zen demands constant mindfulness, but no more so than at mealtime. There is a saying in Zen,
"Do not walk and eat at the same time."
Many times we see busy people walking the streets at lunch, chomping on a slice of pizza as they hurry back  to work. Whenever the time comes to eat, even if just for a moment, sit, relax, and give thought to the food. It  need not be a formal saying of grace, although many religious people begin that way. Just be mindful. As  the Chinese proverb says,
"When you drink water, remember its source."
Take nothing for granted-that is spiritual living. Even those computer mavens who seem to live on coffee  and junk food should be thankful for the sustenance. Anyone who's ever fasted or gone hungry can tell you  there is preciousness in all foods.
Some students mistakenly regard the saying,
"Do not walk and eat at the same time"
as a hard-and-fast rule. In Zen, there are no rules, only guides. The key point is to be mindful. The Zen  teacher Seung Sahn offered a variation of this lesson at a retreat in San Francisco.
"Do not eat and read the newspaper at the same time," he said. "When you eat, just eat. When you read the  newspaper, just read the newspaper."
The next morning, a student saw the teacher eating breakfast while reading the newspaper.
"I thought you said not to eat and read the newspaper at the same time," the student said.
To which Sahn said, "When you eat and read the newspaper, just eat and read the newspaper."

Sathyaish Chakravarthy
Wednesday, July 14, 2004

"just eat and read the newspaper"

How are you going to read the newspaper if you just ate it?

Mr Fancypants
Wednesday, July 14, 2004

>How are you going to read the newspaper if you just ate it?

I didn't reproduce the whole text. It was just an excerpt. I should have added. The Zen master implied, "You'll start eating from the far end, so you can continue reading one end of it while you're munching the other end."

Sathyaish Chakravarthy
Wednesday, July 14, 2004

That reminds me of the one interview I took with a "test."  It was for a recruiter, not even the actual company, and the person who interviewed me had no technical skills. I was given some oddball scenarios about doing MSXML stuff with data islands and a browser.

I think I asked which language was preferred - javascript or vbscript - to which the recruiter gave me a blank look and tried to BS an answer.

I used javascript since I thought they'd prefer it since it's syntax looks a bit more complicated.

The whole situation reeked but there I was: 1.5 hours to get into L.A. by 8:30am, $15 parking in the recruiter's building, and an hour scrawling javascript.  I even psuedo coded my approach as a nod to the recipient of the test before implementing the solution in javascript.

And, needless to say, I never heard back.  I should have just written something in perl - one of those obfuscated perl type programs that when compiled, would spit out some derogatory epithet for the company.

David Seruyange
Wednesday, July 14, 2004

This might be a bit off topic, however some months ago when I was chasing some p/t work (anything) I responded to an advert for a 10hr p/w job making phonecalls to let clients know the status of their job (it was for some builders).

I called them and was told to come to the office at 6pm Wednesday.

When I showed up, there was about 80 people all crammed into this tiny room, I wove my way to the reception where I was given a name tag. I looked around, 80, mostly women, spruced right up. Some pretty, some ugly, all wearing there best clothes and highest heels, well except mean I read 'casual nice' as being the right attire, not 'dressed to the nines'.

I was shocked, what were they planning, finally we were all called to attention and told we were about to embark on a group interview. I was stunned. I wanted to scream. I politely listened through his speal waiting for the first opportunity to leave.

For goodness sake, this was a 10hr p/w job making phonecalls, not a job at microsoft. The interviewers had even had the decent to request resumes so they could eliminate candidates. Heck this is the type of job that should take two hours for someone to flip through resumes and select a couple of candidates for interviews. Not a four hour group interview.

I looked around the room as I waited for my opportunity to leave, it was sad to see how dressed up everyone was, how they were all trying to stand nicely, smile nicely, and nod there heads in the hope to catch someone's attention.

I wish I had told them all to leave, not to demean themselves like this, instead I muttered something to the lady next to me about how disgusted I was and gladly went home to my husband.

You have to wonder about some interviewers....

Aussie chick
Wednesday, July 14, 2004

So... Sathyaish Chakravarthy... you live in some sort of alternate universe or what?

They ask you how many kittens you have in job interviews?

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Sathyaish Chakravarthy, I think you give David Sedaris a damn fine run for his money. Carry on.

Thursday, July 15, 2004

Dear Confused,

That remark was an exaggeration. I fear I ought to have tempered my writing a bit. I am learning.

Thanks for the complement, though.

Sathyaish Chakravarthy
Thursday, July 15, 2004

*  Recent Topics

*  Fog Creek Home