The Double Interview

When a company evaluates a candidate, the candidate also evaluates the company. When I was contemplating changing my job for the first time (the company I worked for was in terminal decline) I sent my resume out far and wide. I went for a many interviews, among them was one startup in Bangalore. The interview process took almost two days to complete and in that time I met half the team. One of those interviews was with a man who taught me more about my field in the one hour interview than I had learnt in a month. I was impressed. I wanted to work there. I did eventually, and it turned out to be a major mistake in my life but that’s another story.

The key point is that I chose that company over others because I was so impressed by the people I met. I wanted to work with them. I wanted to learn from them. Surprisingly, this fact this basic principle is not universally appreciated. The kind of questions you ask during selection determines the kind of people you get.

Another interview experience I had was a humbling one where a lady taught me the most important rule of management. You have to care. Beyond respect, rewards and growth, employees want to feel that the people above care for them. It put so much of my own life in perspective. For years, I had worked in a brutal environment where many people left but a few stayed on. These were some of the brightest who could have easily got other offers. What inspired such loyalty?

The fact was that for all the regular and public abuse our manager hurled at us, he did care for us. He remembered everyone’s birthday without electronic aids. When I fell sick, he called up to check up on me and since I was living alone, he ensured I could get food and medicines. That level of concern cannot be faked. And though we hated the company culture and attitude, we could never hate him.

A few weeks ago, I met an old school friend who has lived in US for 10 years and worked for companies like Google and Uber. He told me that all major companies are moving away from puzzles to work related problems. Now instead of abstract algorithms, they tend to give open ended problems taken directly from the domain the person will be working in.

I can understand this shift. The old puzzle method which was so popular 10 years ago had some very obvious drawbacks. The main one being that they were difficult to think up afresh, so managers looked them up from the web. Of course the candidates knew this and prepared for weeks going through all the sites and looking up the answers.

Also, there was the problem of chance. There is an element of luck in how quickly someone solves a puzzle and the answer may not strike you in the short time allotted in the interview. But most of these problems arise from the way the interviewer chooses to use the tool. The key to puzzles is to understand how a person approaches a fresh problem. Even if someone is not able to arrive at the answer, if they approach the challenge willingly and logically, that should be enough.

Finally, I wanted to talk about the worst kind of questions. The ones that instantly me off. These are the targeted syntax based questions where you know or don’t know the answer. The only way you would know the answer is if you had prepared for this specific question. Let me illustrate with one example which remains my pet peeve:

In the C programming language, give 3 uses of the keyword “static”.

I was asked this question in an interview with an IT major. I gave 2 uses but the interviewer was unsatisfied. After the interview I checked the standard references and still got only 2 uses. I went for another round of interviews in the same company and was asked the same question and again only answered with 2 uses and was not selected. Years later, I stumbled across a 3rd use while checking a website that talked about interview questions. The website in question was written by a very senior British IT manager and entrepreneur and he felt that anyone who gave him the 3rd answer was a “real” programmer. I disagree completely. I don’t claim exceptional programming expertise. But anyone who answered that question will be someone who had learnt that this was a likely question (like you have now) and prepared by looking it up.

The worst part of it was that the 3rd use was pointless. I don’t remember it now, but that is because in 10 years of programming I have never had a use for it.

In the end interviews like everything in life, follow the principle that you won’t get more than you put in.

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