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.

SQL Saturday 43 in Redmond

I attended my first SQLSaturday a couple of days ago, SQLSaturday #43 in Redmond (at Microsoft).  I got there really early, primarily because I forgot how fast I can get there from my home when nobody else is on the road.  On a weekday in rush hour traffic, that would have taken two hours to get there.  I gave myself 90 minutes, and actually got there in about 45.  Crazy!

I made the mistake of going to the main Microsoft campus, but that’s not where the event was being held.  Instead it was in a big Microsoft conference center on the other side of the highway.  Fortunately, I had the address with me and quickly realized my mistake.  When I got back on track, I noticed that there were bright yellow signs out on the street corner that looked like they said they were for SOL Saturday, which actually was appropriate since it was the sunniest day around here in a long time.

Since I was there so early, the registration was just getting setup, so I found Greg Larsen who was coordinating things and offered to help.  He put me to work with a group of people organizing the pre-printed raffle tickets and stuffing swag bags.

I had never been to a SQLSaturday before this one, so I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect even though I have read about a few on some blogs.  It makes sense that each one will be a little bit different since they are almost completely volunteer driven, and the whole concept is still in its early stages.  I have been to the PASS Summit for the last several years, and was hoping for a smaller version of that.  Now, it’s not really fair to compare one free day of training run entirely by volunteers with a multi-day, $1,000+ event put on under the direction of a professional event management company.  But there are some parallels.

At this SQLSaturday, there was no opening general session, just coffee and pastries in the common area / expo hallway and straight into the first group of sessions.  I don’t know if that was because there was no single room large enough to hold everyone, or for other reasons.  This worked out okay, but the organization guy in me would have preferred to have even a 15 minute welcome message from the organizers with a little overview of the day.  Even something as simple as, “Thanks to persons X, Y, and Z for helping put this together…Sessions will start in 20 minutes and are all in rooms down this hallway…the bathrooms are on the other side of the conference center…lunch today is pizza and we would like to thank sponsor Q for providing it.”  It doesn’t need to be much, certainly not a full-blown Keynote like at the PASS Summit, but something to use as a rallying point to pull everyone together and get the day off to an official start would be nice.  Again, there may have been logistical reasons why that was not feasible here.  I’m just putting out my thoughts for other SQLSaturday coordinators to consider.

The event overall was great.  I believe that there were over 300 in attendance, and everything seemed to run smoothly.  At least from an attendee’s point of view where there was plenty of muffins in the morning and pizza in the afternoon, with plenty of pop to drink.  And hey, if you’ve got the food and drink covered, a lot of other stuff could go wrong and people will be very forgiving.  But as I said, everything appeared to run pretty smoothly, at least until Buck Woody showed up in his Oracle shirt.  Other than that, the volunteers did a great job!

I was a little surprised by how few people in my own backyard that I know.  It makes sense if you really think about it, given how many companies must be using SQL Server around here.  I guess I just got spoiled coming into the PASS Summit with a few contacts that I already knew would be there.  Perhaps I have been spending too much time with too few people at the Summits and I need to step out and meet more folks.  Of course, it also is different since the Summit is the big national event and a number of the folks I know are spread out across the country, so the Summit is the only time we’re all in the same place at the same time.  I did make a few new contacts at SQLSaturday, and bumped into a couple of people that I knew (and a couple others that I only knew from Twitter, and didn’t even realize that they were here in the area).

Other than the sheer entertainment value of Buck Woody’s session, the one that was probably the greatest value for me was a quick introduction to PowerShell.  I have not done anything with it yet, but I think it will be a good tool to use to implement my plans for automated database recovery testing.  I saw just enough at the session to take away some of the intimidation factor, and I am getting ready to jump in and see what I can put together in the next few weeks.  And that right there made the investment worthwhile.  So I encourage you, if you have the opportunity to go to a SQLSaturday event near you, go for it!