The Dumbest Ways To Interview A Developer
March 24, 2011 § Leave a comment
The Dumbest Ways To Interview A Developer
If you were required to write code after becoming intoxicated, could you do it? Would you write better code? Worse?
This is exactly how Facebook selected their first interns, if we are to believe The Social Network movie. Who knows if it really happened or is a techie urban legend? Perhaps it truly contributed to selecting developers who supported Facebook’s meteoric rise.
Honestly, it seems ridiculous to me. Would you really want your developers coding drunk? What did this prove?
I will admit that I have written code with a buzz on (in college, of course). Surely it wasn’t my best effort – as proven by the lousy grade the assignment received. Certainly, alcohol should not play a part in evaluating someone’s coding capability.
Evaluating talent in a short time period associated with the interview process is challenging (with or without alcohol). Over the years, I have been through a lot of interviews on both sides and experienced many interesting approaches.
I personally have been asked a lot of dumb and irrelevant interview questions. Since it is already difficult to find the best developers in hot markets like mobile and social computing, interview questions should be crafted that not only help screen out the unqualified developers but – probably more important – don’t tick off the best developers.
It is fair and hopefully obvious to ask developers questions that directly relate to their claimed expertise. As I pointed out in a recent article, it is reasonable to use Google to look up common methods of solving problems during day-to-day work. Googling doesn’t diminish a developers capability, it enhances it.
However, developers should be able to answer the basics in an interview – without Googling.
One interview approach that’s essentially wasted time is to use brain teasers. My java-developer brother-in-law was recently lamenting about a so-called brain teaser that was asked of him during an interview. I forget the exact wording, but it had to do with figuring out what light switches controlled which light bulbs if you couldn’t see the bulbs as you operated the switches.
What the heck do light bulbs have to do with writing java code?
Plus you can go to sites where the most common brain teasers are asked and memorize answers. I found the light bulb answer on my first Google search. Or someone who interviewed at that company may have shared the brain teaser on their Facebook page.
Sure, developers need to have a sound ability to think through problems. However, I’d argue that this capability is more applicable to designers and architects. Developers typically need to take specifications that some designer created and turn it into software. Therefore, the ability to solve a brain teaser isn’t the greatest indicator of a great developer.
Then there are the “no win” questions. The purpose seems to be to box someone into a corner and see how they respond. This happened to a friend of mine who was on his third on-site interview with a software firm. All had gone swell and he was in the final interview with one of the founders when he was asked this question”
“Would you ever quit this job or leave the company?”
My buddy Joe was totally taken off guard. He had studied and prepared on how to answer the toughest interview questions, but not this one. With his future on the line, he evidently said the wrong thing. The exchange went something like this.
Joe: “What do you mean?”
Mr. CEO: “I only hire people who believe in the company and go the extra mile.”
Joe: “I am your man. I am passionate, hard working and take pride in my work.”
Mr. CEO: “But would you ever leave?”
Joe: “Well, I am not sure how to answer that question. I imagine that if the company and I continue to have a ‘win-win’ relationship, then no, I would not leave.”
Mr. CEO: “What if someone offered you twice your current salary?”
Joe: “I don’t know, maybe, I would consider that if things aren’t going well here for me.”
Mr. CEO: “Then, sorry, we can’t hire you. I only want people who will be here for the long haul.” That was it. Basically – don’t let the door hit you in the rear on the way out!
Here Joe had proven he was a solid developer, passing all peer and manager interviews with flying colors. Yet, one improbable question sunk his hopes. That just doesn’t make sense and everyone’s valuable time was wasted.
You know what else doesn’t make sense? Asking a software developer candidate to deliver a presentation. Granted, some developers do just fine at a white board, even in front of a big audience. And if the job requirements include the ability to present, then this is a reasonable request.
But if you are simply trying to determine if someone can write code, then how they solve a problem in front of a group of people doesn’t seem appropriate.
As an example, I can share the story of another friend of mine who works for a placement agency that places developers. Her firm had a candidate go through multiple interviews that culminated in a required presentation to a group. The candidate’s presentation went very well with a lot of back slapping afterward.
Yet when the recruiter followed up she was told her client would not be extending an offer. She was told that her candidate had looked at notes during the presentation and that didn’t exude enough confidence that the position requires.
Right. Should have left the notes at home. Are you kidding me?!?!
Finally, my least favorite question that I was ever personally asked has to be “What were you like in high school?”
I wanted to say, “What on earth does that have to do with me writing code?” But instead it led me down a rambling path of explaining why I quit the drum line in my senior year. My interviewer just stared at me disapprovingly. Obviously if I quit the band, then I would not be a reliable developer (as an adult no less).
When it comes down to it, you have to be prepared for anything in an interview and react as calmly and smartly as possible.
And if you happen to be offered a cocktail during your interview? Well, that’s your call. I’d venture a guess that Facebook no longer requires intoxication during their interviews.
I’d like to hear some of your experiences. What are some of the worst questions you were ever asked? Would any question actually cause you to turn down an offer or even walk out of an interview?