Archive for July, 2012

Do Google style interview questions illuminate the talent in front of you?

July 31, 2012 3 comments

In December 2011, The Wall Street Journal published an article How to Ace a Google Interview. But do Google style interview questions help determine if the candidate represents the best fit for Google?

The best fit … any hiring manager looks for the best fit.   But can Google – and anyone else asking the same style questions – determine the best fit without creating a practical framework for the hiring decision incorporating both tangible  factors (experience, skills, problem solving depth) as well as  intangible factors (personality, composure, ethos)?

The best fit is not a mystery. Determining the best fit by the hiring equivalent of alchemy creates an enormous disservice to both the candidate and the company.  At stake:  the success of a company, its products, and customers.

Hiring decision is a highly educated, fact based hypothesis that the person receiving an offer will create significant value in the organization while working with others.

I will highlight at the end why the best fit is not a mystery and should never be a mystery.

Why don’t we create a virtual interview and ask the same question being discussed in the Wall Street Journal article?

“You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender.  Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual.  The blades start moving in 60 seconds.  What do you do?”

I suggest reading  How to Ace a Google Interview to appreciate the answers to the above question.   Throwing loose coins from the pocket with hopes to jam the blades isn’t likely to impress the interviewer.

Before providing my own answer, it’s helpful to understand the motivation behind the question.   If a software engineer is faced with a seemingly impossible situation, what will he / she do?    The truth:  direct answers to an impossible situation do not provide any valuable information about the candidate to the interviewer.  The person will only become a victim of his or her own failure while trying to answer the question.  And the interviewer will not recognize depth of one’s talent.

I also ask questions that may seem impossible to answer during my own interviews.   But I try to work with the candidate by providing clues and alternatives to learn more about the candidate’s problem solving approach.

So why would one ask these questions?   I have a completely different motivation for asking impossible question.   I want to see candidate demonstrate the following  ‘genes’:

–       Accept failure / it happens

–       Learn from the failure / convert lessons learned into actionable plan

–       Quickly change the conversation and refocus on either preparing for this situation or avoiding it all together? Remember one of the best books written on the subject, “Only The Paranoid Survive” by Andy Grove, former CEO of Intel Corporation?

–       Tell me in detail how they would prepare for this situation and be better equipped to handle it

–       The best candidates will even prepare an action plan for dealing with any aftermath of the problem being addressed

It’s time to put myself in the spotlight and answer the same question.

“I am very glad you asked me this question.   This particular problem already happened to a colleague of mine and I learned from the unfortunate incident.   Should this problem happen to me, I have 3 methods to deal with this problem:

–       I always have a portable laser device with me.   It will cut through the blender glass within 10 seconds allowing me to exit before the blades begin spinning.

–       If the laser device fails, I will use a high frequency sound generator.    The glass will shutter within 8 seconds.   I prefer to use the first option and prevent the broken pieces of glass flying in all directions.

–       If the first 2 methods fail, my portable electro magnetic pulse (EMP) generator will fry the motor inside the blender but will also affect the microwave nearby

–       All three devices have already received appropriate regulatory approvals

As you can see, the blender will be inoperable after my successful exit.   So I took the liberty to order 2 replacement blender glass containers after each incident.  The blender can be immediately returned to service for the benefit of our customers.  Do you have any additional questions for me?”

Google hires very smart people.   But in the business of software, even smart people can still fail by failing to create commercial value from an idea.

Here is a partial list of of products Google launched and discontinued:

–       Aardvark

–       Google Answers

–       Google Buzz;  launched in February 2010;  discontinued by the end of 2011;  less than 2 years in operation.

–       Google Desktop

–       Google Directory

–       Google Fast Flip

–       Google Health

–       Google Gears

–       Google Squared

–       … and others …

Many Google employees (including product managers who ultimately set the product direction and determine commercial roadmap) worked very hard on products listed above.    Imagine the aggregate investment of time and money invested in these products.   It’s not trivial.    This investment can also be seen as a lost opportunity because these bright product managers and engineers could have worked on something with a much greater commercial potential.

Would the outcome be different if Google focused on a different set of questions during the interview process?

“We are thinking of developing Google Buzz.   What do you think about it’s potential?  What about the competitive landscape and risks?   How would you maximize the chances of Google Buzz succeeding?

That’s why the best fit is not a mystery.   The questions during the interview process must be relevant, including the motivation behind seemingly impossible questions.

Final point: never leave the candidate alone with their own sense of failure – no matter how small or big  – during the interview.   Because you still have to coach and mentor a newly hired superstar who happened to answer the seemingly impossible question to your satisfaction.   Career long coaching and mentoring is a better predictor of success than an answer to an impossible situation during an interview.