How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Have you ever been asked a stupid question during an interview; one that seemed to have no relation to the job responsibilities at all?  Tech people are often caught off-guard by these apparently irrelevant questions, but there is a way you can turn these to your favor.  Here is one idea.

While chatting with a couple of folks between sessions at SQLSaturday 43 last weekend, one of them expressed frustration over a seemingly ridiculous and trivial question that she was asked during an interview, and she believes it cost her the job opportunity.  The question, as I remember it being described was, “What is the largest byte measurement?”.  The candidate made up a guess (“zetabyte”) during the interview, which is actually closer than she may have realized.  According to Wikipedia, there is a measurement known as zettabyte which is 10^21, and the largest one listed there is yottabyte at 10^24.

My first reaction to this question was, “That’s just a hiring manager that doesn’t really know what they’re looking for in a candidate.  Furthermore, this tells me that this manager really does not understand how to build a team.”  In most companies, team interaction is more important than uber-knowledge.  I didn’t ask, but this could also be another geek on the team trying to establish their Alpha-Geek stature.  I suppose that there are a few, very few, companies that can build their businesses on hiring only the extreme alpha-geeks, but that certainly does not represent the majority of businesses in America.

My friend who was there suggested that the appropriate response to this silly question would be, “And how does this apply to the work I will be doing?” Of course this is an understandable response when you’re frustrated because you know you can handle the technical aspects of the job, and it seems like the interviewer is just being silly.  But it is also a direct challenge, which may not be the best approach in interviewing.  I do have to admit, though, that there are those folks who just won’t respect you until you do challenge them, but again, I don’t think that is the majority.

So after some thought, here is my suggestion: “Well, I know that there are petabytes and exabytes and things even larger than that, but I haven’t been keeping up on my list of Greek prefixes that have not yet been used, so I would have to look up the exact answer if you need it.  However, I have worked with databases as large as 30 Terabytes.  How big are the largest databases here at X Corporation?”  Perhaps with a follow-up of, “Typically, what I have seen in companies that have databases of your size, is that the three biggest challenges they face are: A, B, and C.  What would you say are the top 3 concerns that you would like the person you hire to be able to address?…Here is how I have dealt with those concerns in the past (or ‘Here is how I would tackle those issues for you…’).”

Wait! What just happened?!  We took a seemingly irrelevant and frustrating question and turned it around into an opportunity to highlight our relevant skills and guide the conversation back in a direction more to our liking and benefit.  In more generic terms, here is what we did:

  1. Admit that you don’t know the specific answer off the top of your head, but can get it if it’s truly important to the company. Maybe for some reason it really is important to them.
  2. Mention something similar or related that you do know, reassuring them that you do have some knowledge in that subject area.
  3. Draw a parallel to your past work experience.
  4. Ask follow-up questions about the company’s specific needs and discuss how you can fulfill those.

This type of thing requires practice and some forethought.  I didn’t come up with this answer until a day later, which is too late when you’re interviewing.  I still think it is silly for an interviewer to ask something like that, but at least this is one way to spin it to your advantage while you consider whether you really want to work for someone who would ask a thing like that.  Remember, interviewing is a two-way process.  You’re deciding whether you want to work there just as much as they are deciding whether they want you.

There is always the possibility that this was a calculated maneuver on the part of the hiring manager just to see how quickly you think on your feet and how you handle stupid questions.  Maybe he knows something about the work environment and he’s trying to gauge whether you’ll actually fit in okay.  And if that’s the case, then the above response still works quite well.

posted @ Tuesday, June 15, 2010 10:46 PM

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# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Jay at 6/20/2010 9:33 AM
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Good Article:

As you mentioned in the last line of your article stating "that this was a calculated maneuver on the part of the hiring manager ..........". I completely agree to that. basically they want to see your thought process and especially in technical area you deal with techs & non-techs people. it is not about wright or wrong answer that comes later, very first is how quickly you think on your feet.

Thanks
Jay

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Ian at 6/21/2010 2:39 AM
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I currently work in agency software development at www.ava.co.uk. I used to work at the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation). I’ve been on both sides of the table. In my experience there is always one (usually junior) person on the panel who is primed to ask a ‘stupid’ question.
This question (for which there is no good logical answer) is designed to test how a person works in an awkward or no win situation which they will inevitably encounter.
The best response, which wins me (and the rest of the board) over: is to acknowledge (recognise) the nature of the question and give an honest and pleasant response – even if it is saying you think the question is irrelevant (I’m not sure how this applies), wrong (my apologies, but I have to disagree, I’m sure there may be a way to check if it is that important to you) or anal (smile or laugh and I don’t think there is a good answer)

# Mr.

Left by JohnFx at 6/21/2010 6:32 AM
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That's a pretty good approach, I like it. I have to admit though, I'd be tempted in this situation to wait for the part in the interview where they ask "Do you have any questions for us?" and ask "What is the company's official position on the designated hitter rule in baseball?"

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Ted at 6/21/2010 7:56 AM
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I am a hiring manager going through the process of interviewing people right now and no matter what their motivation in answering the question, I like how you are suggesting that you respond to these "stupid" questions. When hiring someone I am always looking to see how they interact and respond to questions and prompts. I wouldn't want someone who would "bs" an answer, you are ALWAYS better off saying that you aren't sure and then more importantly move forward and express that you can get the answer and engage the converstation. I can't tell you how frustrating it is when a canidate pauses, gawks and doesn't move forward with technical questions they don't specifically know. I wouldn't ask such a trivial question, but I have asked some questions where I would have been more than happy if the canidate just replied with an I am not sure, but if I had access to the internet I could get the answer. And by the way..."

Great article.

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Jim Burnell at 6/21/2010 7:59 AM
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There is a third possibility.

There was an actual recent movement that started on Facebook to get the "hella-" prefix officially approved for 10^27:

http://www.crunchgear.com/2010/02/20/yes-we-can-make-hellabytes-an-si-recognized-term/

The movement seems be having quite a bit of success:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SI_prefix#Hella-
http://www.google.com/search?q=hella+si+prefix&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&aq=t&rls=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client=firefox-a

Perhaps the interview was actually testing to see if the interviewer reads blogs or keeps abreast of current events? Or likes weird geeky news stories?

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Charles Kincaid at 6/21/2010 8:03 AM
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I often ask these kind of questions. I have, in fact, been greeted with the reply you suggest. I respond with "As you will be dealing with end users and, in some cases, the customers of our customers this allows me to quickly asscess your ability to determine relevent data from irrelevant data and to handle stressful situations in a diplomatic and mature manner".

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Eric Russell at 6/21/2010 9:05 AM
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I guess the closest technical answer would be "Googolplex".
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Googolplex

I am occasionally asked to participate in technical interviews, most of which are conducted over the phone. Rather than ask the typical questions like "What is a clustered index?", for which anyone sitting in front of a web browser can easily Google the canned one liner, I'll instead ask open ended questions like the following:
"It says on your resume that you have expereince data modeling. So, tell me about an occasion where you designed a table and chose not to cluster the primary key. What was your reason?"
I'm never expecting a specific answer, although I am looking for hints that would indicate the candidate knows what a clustered index is. Their response will reveal a lot of things about not just their technical knowledge, but also their experience and thought process. For example, this type of question can weed out posers who cram up on cheat sheets the night before the interview or developers who robotically implement perceived "best practices" without fully understanding the design issues.

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Janie at 6/21/2010 9:14 AM
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Charles Kincaid, thanks so much for clearing up the logic behind the "stupid" question. Technical people are, by nature and training, very logical, black-and-white thinkers and when someone asks an illogical question out of the blue, the natural response is a defensive one and a not very way of stating it. At least now we can look at the question from the other side of the fence. Thank you.

Excellent blog Ajarn!

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by AjarnMark at 6/21/2010 9:30 AM
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@Jay, checking how quickly someone thinks on their feet is fine and good, as long as you can also determine how quick they are to act on their first thought vs. whether they then take the time to think through their answer. The last thing I want in a DBA is "an idea guy" who thinks fast, acts fast, and then causes more problems which he has to think fast and act fast again to resolve.

@Ian, that is an interesting approach. I'm curious whether you have good candidates decide that they don't want to work for a company that asks such types of questions. This could be a concern with the trivia question in my example. Then again, I guess it depends how much of a game you want to make the process, and what personality you want in the new hire. Some interviewers are looking for a candidate to challenge them and say, "that is a stupid question" while others are looking for someone who can diplomatically say the same thing.

@JohnFX, see my comment to Ian about challenging the interviewer. Are you asking that question to "make a point" that they are asking stupid questions, or are you asking it to show that you have a sense of humor. It seems to me likely that if you respond that way, then you have already decided you're not interested in getting this job.

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by AjarnMark at 6/21/2010 9:40 AM
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@Ted, I completely agree. If you don't know the answer, don't lie or try to "baffle me with BS". All that does is tell me that I can't trust you, and I am CERTAINLY not going to hand over the keys to the kingdom (SysAdmin privileges) to someone I can't trust. Besides, I do want to know how you would handle a situation where you don't know the answer. I certainly hope it doesn't make you freeze.

@Charles, Nice wrap-up.

@Eric I agree with that, too. I definitely like open-ended questions to gauge how a person thinks and how they can draw on past experience to address a current problem. I also like to ask them to tell me about certain things in their past because I want to know how they describe projects, coworkers, and former bosses because how you describe others says a LOT more about you than it does them. Sometimes I like to ask a few questions with straight-up answers, but I do that not to gauge whether they get the answer correct, but how quickly they come up with the answer, trying to gauge their familiarity level with it. But you're right, there is a risk there with people who have been "cramming for the test". So usually I will follow-up with an open-ended question. Sometimes I will also drop a hot-potato question on them such as, "what is your opinion of Identity columns as Primary Keys" which is an often-debated topic in the community. Here I want to see whether they are zealots for one side or the other, or whether they can argue both sides and give examples of where one approach is better than another for a particular need.

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Jim Burnell at 6/21/2010 11:37 AM
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My previous attempt to post got marked as spam, for no good reason.

I merely wanted to mention that, in the tech news lately, there is a movement afoot (begun on Facebook!) to get the SI to recognize the prefix "hella" to represent the next logical size past "yotta".

That is, a "hellabyte" would represent 10^27 bytes.

Google has already started using the prefix.

Perhaps the interviewer was actually trying to determine if the candidate kept up on the latest tech news.

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by Michael Valentine Jones at 6/25/2010 11:55 AM
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I am surprised that no one suggested the straightforward, "I don't know."

It shows that you are willing to truthfully admit when you do not know something, and they won’t have to spend an hour cross examining you to get to the truth when you actually don’t know something.

# re: How to Answer a Stupid Interview Question the Right Way

Left by AjarnMark at 6/28/2010 3:41 PM
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@MVJ, I do like a short, straight answer like you give, but I would also hope for some follow-up from you. Without anything more, then I have to try to figure out whether you mean, "I don't know, but I can find/figure it out with a little time and access to the Internet." or "I don't know and I don't care and I really don't want this job anyway. I'm just here because I have to act like I'm looking for work while I'm collecting unemployment."
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