Funny interview questions: how stupid are they?

Stupid interview questions? Worth ignoring?
Stupid interview questions? Worth ignoring?

I was recently debating with someone on Facebook about this article on the Top 10 Worst/Funny interview questions.

My answers to the questions were:

  1. Not sure, can I use google to find out find out the volume of a golf ball, and volume of a bus?
  2. Can I just ask Bing?
  3. Some kind of consideration of qualities usually associated with Mahatma Gandhi and how that relates to software development. Probably point out it’s not a battle, and that a gentle, peaceful approach with your colleagues is likely to achieve the best results.
  4. Some kind of dig at suggestion that one person can’t do it by themselves, but companies like Amazon have a corporate responsibility to support organisations that can help.
  5. Explain how you’d look at and analyse the nutritional information collectively for each outlet. Be aware employer is insurer and has keen interest in datamining and profiling.
  6. “Yes” + chat about something interesting you read on reddit /r/TodayIlearned yesterday.
  7. Explain how a scientific study works in very basic terms
  8. Talk about something you’re passionate about. DO NOT SING – unless you’re passionate about singing and are good. Explain how you collected your coathanger collection and lovingly take them to coathanger rallies for people to admire. They will find it interesting if you find it interesting.
  9. Say a number then talk about some kind of quirk – they’re not interested in the number (unless it’s a multiple choice question), but more interested in your explanation why. They probably want someone “a bit” weird.
  10. Simply have a good go. They’re looking at how you cope to the challenge – so just try.

I don’t think the questions that were being asked were particularly unfair – they’re testing things that you can’t prepare for. For instance, when, as a software engineer, your manager asks you to look at something urgently because a colleague is away, is your answer “No, I don’t know anything about golf balls or trains, I’ve no idea where to even start”, or is it “Urgh, I’m not sure, let me go and google a few things, I can’t promise anything, but I might be able to work it out.” – someone who will try, given a problem they have no idea how to solve, is a valuable problem solver.

My friend’s response, in my opinion, was just wrong – “I miss the time when official things meant going in for the serious talk… All this is, is telling is how much you can bullshit on the spot”.

To some degree they’re right – except that occasionally ‘bluffing it”, “having a go” at some moments, is the most useful skill you can have.

In my field, brutally ugly, ‘dangerous’ lashups involving cronjobbing crashing apache restarts, can save many many pounds of revenue for someone over a weekend, until the appropriate person is available to look at it.

In other fields, it might be like a lorry mechanic, breathing an extra days life into an alternator, before he can get back to the depot and have it replaced, or

Having robot staff who just follow instructions is good, and I expect there will have been many other questions about the candidates working style before these questions.

But robots are unable to work out what to do in situations they’ve not been trained for, the staff who can work out what to do in these situations, are clearly the most valuable.

Problem: How long will it take to fix it?

As a geek, one generally gets good at fixing things.

An interesting thing about technology, as opposed to say, carpentry, is that generally it’s very very small things that have significant implications. Frequently you spend a lot more time looking for the problem than you do actually implementing the solution.

Example:

  1. The symptoms: your website is taking a long time to load
  2. Diagnosis: check reproducibility, check server load, check for user error, check server error logs, see strange message in them and google.
  3. The problem: there’s a memory limit in the webserver program that’s set too low
  4. The solution: double a number in a config file and restart the webserver program
  5. The fix: do the solution (takes less than a minute)
The problem with this job, is that you're always 10 minutes from being done.
The problem with this job, is that you're always 10 minutes from being done.

One of the downsides of this, is that it’s really difficult to predict how long it’s going to take you to fix something. If fixing the problem is quick, yet correctly diagnosing the problem is much more time consuming, things can be frustrating for end users who ask the perfectly reasonable question:

When will it be fixed?

which as you can see doesn’t really have an easy answer – by the time you’re completely sure you’ve correctly diagnosed the problem, you’ve probably already fixed it.

Someone on reddit very eloquently summed up how you should explain the situation next time:

“Imagine you had lost your keys. You have no idea where they are. Now, tell me, when will you have found them?”

Inspired by a post on /r/sysadmin