Help a journalist: best/worst tech inteview questions

What’s the best question someone asked you in a job interview? What was
the worst?

Hi, folks. I’m working on an article for that I think
will be fun and useful, and I’d like your help. It’s not specific to
Ruby; it applies to anybody writing or testing code.

Every techie here has been on a few job interviews. It’s tough, from
either side of the desk, because you’re trying to prove that you’re
brilliant in a subject that isn’t suited to a song-and-dance. You can
talk about projects you’ve worked on; you can claim expertise with
certain tools and languages; you can wave around references from
clients or previous employers. But that rarely helps you demonstrate
what you’re best at – whatever that is.

And then an interviewer asks a lame question that doesn’t even approach
that goal, such as, “What are your three greatest strengths and three
greatest weaknesses?” As dumb as it is, the interviewer doesn’t know
what to ask; what he really wants to know is if you’d be
a comfortable person to sit next to, 40+ hours a week, and if you’re
just BSing about what you know how to do.

Like I said: everybody’s been there. We’ve all encountered good
questions in an interview. We’ve all tried really hard not to roll our
eyes when we’re asked something pointless or offensive. So I thought
I’d write a short article listing the best-and-worst, which you’ve
asked or heard or heard of (which could also be a fun distraction

For example: the best job app I ever encountered was for a tiny
compiler optimization company in Maine. The written form had the basic
background questions, then some rather strange questions and a few
brain teasers. The point of the latter wasn’t to see if you could deal
with engineering trivia, but to see how you addressed the problem.
(That might have bugged me, except I knew the company owner – we’d
played D&D together, which is how I met him – and he meant it. Playing
a fantasy role playing game is another way to learn how
someone solves problems and copes with frustrations, but that’s another

Anyway, a pair of questions on that list were the best I ever
encountered, and I have used them when I’ve done journalistic
interviews with famous people: “What’s the most important thing you
learned in school? What’s the most important thing you learned outside
of school?” Imagine for a moment that you had to answer those
questions; they sure poke a hole through the puffery, don’t they? You
can only answer them as yourself, not with a “what makes me look good?”

I did take that job in Maine. The company policy was that all the
files were open, and everyone was free to look through them. So once,
while waiting for a long compile, I pawed through the Interviews
folder. I was astonished by the range of answers those two questions
elicited. The company owner (who filled out his own form) had written
“recursion” as the answer to the second question; someone else wrote
“the importance of God and my family.” That doesn’t tell you
everything about the person, but it sure tells you something.

The worst interview question wasn’t addressed to me, but was given to
my husband. He was interviewing for a compiler job at, er, a large
developer of commercial software. The developer who interviewed Bill
asked several questions like, “How would you design a language parser?”
and got very detailed. Those might have been relevant (certainly,
asking “how would you do this?” lets someone know how you’d code)…
except that it immediately became obvious that the
developer/interviewer was asking Bill to debug the code he was working
on right at that moment. I don’t think it’s part of an interview to do
the other person’s job.

So: what are the best interview questions you’ve heard? The ones you’d
hate to be asked? Tell me what they are, why you judge them so highly
or so poorly. I’ll compile them, try to find some commonality (such as
“brain teasers”), and turn them into an article. Ideally, it will both
make you groan, and also help you say, “Hey, that’s a good one to ask,
the next time that HR puts me on the interview schedule.”

Timewise: I’m hoping to pull this together by the beginning of next
week. Please tell me how to refer to you in the article (the ideal is
name/title/location, such as “Esther Schindler, a VB programmer in
Phoenix”). While I bet this could be a fun discussion here, feel free
to write to me privately (esther at

Esther Schindler
(which does publish some Ruby specific articles, such as Hal F.'s
“Exercise in Metaprogramming” at,1759,1928561,00.asp )