Interviews: As Useless as They Are Annoying?

intentional practices mission. vision. values roles and responsibilities May 30, 2022
Interviews: As Useless as They Are Annoying?


As CEOs and HR directors focus more on leadership, leadership potential and leadership (or leader) development, we might consider some of our common questions.


Remember that interview questions should rarely be asked simply for curiosity. There should usually be expected answers, but less factual information or looking for the “one right answer, than insights to analysis, evaluation and presentation.


An old guideline: “Show, don't tell.” This means that the best authors don't tell the reader information directly. They don't explicitly spell out what a character's personality is. Instead, they reveal information through dialogue and place the character in situations where that character's morals and mindset can show through. Showing a character is generally better than just dumping their personality on the reader.


In many ways, the same is true of interviews.


A skilled interviewer will get the interviewee talking about themselves in ways that reveal their abilities and disposition. This interviewing style tells them more about the applicant, and it's a much more honest picture, too. Asking an interviewee, “what are your weaknesses” will always earn you a canned speech but getting them to tell a story will often give insight into their work style and potential shortcomings.


So, if better interviewing leads to better hires, it's no shock to learn that the world's elite companies ask some unusual and effective questions.


Read on as we look at 10 of the top questions companies ask that shape the world around us.


My comments and applications are noted at the end of each question.


No. 10. What do wood and alcohol have in common? Guardsmark.

If you haven't heard of Guardsmark, they are a significant security company in the U.S. and U.K. The role of a security officer is a complicated one: the officer has to sift through tons of information, including visual information, and try to separate anything suspicious.


Questions like this one test the applicant's response time, intelligence level and how they tie together different threads of information.


Finally, the way the applicant “sells” their comparison to the interviewer shows how well they interact with other people, which is key to being a successful security officer.


If we asked it in an interview, what would you say to the response: “I have no idea”?


No. 9. What would you do if you just inherited a pizzeria from your uncle? Volkswagen.

Volkswagen asks this of people applying for a Business Analyst position.


They are asking the interviewee to analyze a business on a small scale.  What would the applicant do first? Review the financials? Inspect the facility? Put it up for sale?


By asking the potential analyst to work through the problem of inheriting a pizzeria, they discover what the analyst considers the critical aspects of a business's success or failure and what they would do to influence that.


It would be interesting to ask what an applicant would do if they were assigned to head a new program or service, starting Monday, with an improvement plan needed in a week.


No. 8. Given the numbers 1 to 1000, what is the minimum number of guesses needed to find a specific number if you are given a hint “Higher or Lower.” Facebook.

This question is used for applicants to be a software engineer at Facebook. This question is pretty straightforward once you know it's for a software position. It tests problem-solving and mathematical skills, and there is a correct answer.


Does the applicant try to “brute-force” solve the problem with pen and paper? Do they write a formula that outlines the math behind the question? How the interviewee sets out to solve the problem shows their work process and ability to create and code for a solution. You're asking the interviewee to think on their feet, but you don't want somebody to wing it when hiring a programmer. They should have the math needed to solve the problem.


I confess that I have no idea, but no one should hire me as a software engineer… I also think that the question is incomplete. A software engineer friend offered this advice: I would assume (but check this assumption) that someone has chosen a number between 1 and 1000, inclusive. When you guess a number, they tell you whether you are higher or lower. In theory, the guesses could then be considered a "binary search," where you divide the possible pool of numbers in half with each guess. In that case, the maximum number of guesses should be ten ceilings. In other words, 1000 is between 2^9 and 2^10, so a binary search could take ten guesses.


So there…


No. 7. How many golf balls can fit in a school bus? Google.

Like several of the questions on this list, this question is not so much about the applicant's answer as the process they use to get there.


By design, the question is meant to be challenging to answer. Virtually no applicant will know how much space there is inside a school bus, and the use of golf balls as a unit of measurement is designed to make the question harder.


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So, how does the candidate respond when they get thrown in at the deep end? Their path to arrive at an answer reveals a lot about their ability to think under pressure and solve complex problems when they don't have all the information.


In my opinion, an applicant’s response to the question itself, and it being asked, would be exciting and valuable.


No. 6. Explain to me what has happened in this country in the last ten years. Boston Consulting.

Consulting is about simply communicating complex ideas.


This question gets interviewees to summarize events and present them to the listener -- something they will do in their work for the company.


The way the applicant presents their summary to the interviewer shows how good they are at communicating and swaying people to see things as the applicant sees them. Finally, you can learn a lot about the applicant by what they consider important from the last ten years. This gives insight into their personality, outlook and even how attentive they are to the world around them.


One of the complaints one hears about larger not-for-profits is the inability or professional staff to communicate to staff with less education and experience…. and of course, our predilection to keep our views private… unless they are left-wing…


No. 5. How would you investigate a technology without letting anyone know you were investigating it? Apple.

A fitting question for Apple. A company as famous as Apple for secrecy wants to know its workers are capable of the same.


Given Apple's position as a leading tastemaker, they have a strong incentive to keep the competition off their trail for as long as possible and thus gain an early lead in the race to their “next big thing.”


Seeing how an individual worker would approach that problem gives Apple insight into the worker's thought process and creative thinking skills.


Given the challenge of change, this is not unreasonable given that the technology may not be pursued, so why cause undue stress or anxiety. Some would choose full and open disclosure and others not, depending on the culture and commitment to improvement.


Sometimes a private investigation is more appropriate, whether technology or a new performance management system.


No. 4. You are shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a glass blender. The blades will turn on in 60 seconds. What do you do? Goldman Sachs.

Investment banking is a high-stakes industry where the best-laid plans can change in a millisecond.


This question throws the interviewee into a very high stakes, life-or-death situation with which they (obviously) have no prior experience.


Interviewees' responses tell the interviewer a lot about their creative problem-solving ability to analyze a situation quickly. Finally, since the question is absurd, it tests the interviewee's ability to “play along” even in circumstances outside their comfort zone. This tells you whether the person is a “that's not in my job description” type or willing to do anything to get results.


Given the continuing crisis in funding, this may be more relevant than it seems…


No. 3. Explain a database to your 8-year-old nephew in three sentences. Google.

Google has gained a reputation as a company that makes cutting-edge technology approachable, even to the least tech-savvy among us.


Beginning with its roots as the internet's leading search engine, Google's MO is to provide us with the information we need in a format that's understandable and relevant to our needs.


By asking interviewees to explain a database, they ensure that the potential hire understands the tech concepts behind the work that they'll be doing.


However, by asking them to explain it in three sentences and in a way a child could understand, they also test the applicant's ability to turn this deep knowledge into something easily understood and used.


That's Google's mission as a company, so individual workers must also possess that talent.


I think that this is an excellent question to rephrase to explain programs and services to stakeholders, funders, and community leaders… and yes, eight-year-olds. How well do we communicate complex ideas to different audiences in a way that has meaning for them?


No. 2. You are testing a prototype vending machine that takes a $1 bill and gives 75 cents of product but isn't giving out change. How do you assess the problem? Apple.

Another problem-solving question.


This asks the interviewee to think through an issue, decide what the likely cause or causes could be, and come up with a plan. The question isn't meant to test what the interviewee knows about vending machines but how they approach a problem when they don't know where to start.

A few answers: Put a quarter in the machine, then hit the change return button. The change return is blocked if you don't get your quarter back. Or, try to buy a product using three quarters. If the machine does not vend, the device has been incorrectly set to charge $1 and was not giving change.


Just think of a few customer service challenges in your environment…


No. 1. Why Are Manhole Covers Round? Microsoft now used by Google and others.

This classic has been asked since the days of Microsoft's rise to the top of the computer world. Since then, other companies like Google have asked it as well.


This fame (or infamy) is why it tops our list, but it's also an excellent question that has been proven effective. This question is psychological and tests how the interviewee approaches a question that


1) has more than one correct answer and

2) requires them to think on their feet.


Watching how the interviewee arrives at an answer, draws evidence to support their idea and “sells” it to the interviewer demonstrates their creativity, confidence, and persuasive skills.

A few answers: possibilities range from the obvious “because manholes are round” to the practical “a round cover can be rolled, letting workers move it more easily.” Or even with “let’s start by referring to them by their proper name “Montreal conduits” or as “maintenance covers”. There are no doubt women and others who are employed to use them, or should be <smile>.

These questions were sent to me. On checking, they have been taken from this source without modification:


And what are your best questions and why?



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