I have stolen two things in my lifetime. At the ripe age of 8 years old, I swiped a book of matches from a local convenience store - claiming they were for my father - so that I could light them one by one and gaze, as a caveman did, at the mystery of fire. I burned more than one finger that day.
The second thing I stole was an interview question, some 25 years later, from an executive who was in my final round of interviews for a tech company I was applying to. I didn't get the gig, after all, but I did take with me a question I now use to screen all candidates who are in my hiring pipeline:
If you were responsible for building a network of ATMs (Automatic Teller Machines) for a large bank, what are some ideas you would apply to deal with scaling the system?
Of course, being the geek I am, I immediately went through the motions of talking about high-availability from the perspective of database replication, caching, batch processing, multi-server architecture, etc.
When I was done answering, I asked him for feedback on the question. i.e. Why did he choose that question since I was applying for a job leading a group of PHP developers?
His answer was riveting. He went on to tell me that, depending on your background, you might answer that question in a variety of ways:
- Engineers might tend to go to the technical backend of the network and talk about databases, servers, and the like. Typical practices.
- Someone with a design and/or usability background might answer in terms of streamlining the interfaces on the machines' screens. This may reduce the amount of time it takes sequential people to use the machines and, in turn, could reduce the length of a request cycle to the system.
- Managers may tend to think in a more concrete way. Perhaps a card-reader, locked door, and small space in the booths to throttle the number of people who can simultaneously engage. People management techniques.
- A person with a HR background might think in terms of location and staffing of the unit. Perhaps they would think about putting the machines in the back of stores, rather than a prominent location, to keep foot traffic reduced.
The point of the exercise, as you can see, is to determine the point of view of a potential employee. By asking a question outside the scope of what one would expect, it allows you to assess their viability in a broad array of areas outside of just the job you're hiring for. Do you have questions you ask of a similar nature?
So thank you, sir. We all appreciate the opportunity to steal this very excellent question from you. Now, if only I could remember your name to attribute proper credit.
Anecdotally, the recruiter told me I did not get the job for not being technical enough. I still chuckle about that from time to time.