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.