The One-Question Job Interview

A lot has been written on the process of conducting successful technical interviews. Some great examples include Joel Spolsky’s “The Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing” and Jeff Atwood’s “On Interviewing Programmers”. I even expressed my own opinion on the matter a couple of years ago. Everybody’s got a recipe that seems to be working for them. Sorta. And yet, the fact that we’re still talking about it is an indication of an unsolved problem. The secret formula has not been discovered (or documented) yet.

If you’ve interviewed any reasonable number of people, you’ve probably been in a situation when candidates start all look the same - some are a bit better, some are a bit less so. You don’t see any obvious superstars and the gal you really wanted to hire have declined. How do you decide whom to choose? You might be tempted to go with nobody, because “we’re hiring the top 1%”, but you’re just being naive and delusional. So you are trying to come up with some sort of a process or find the best questions, problems or puzzles that would help you level the field and identify your best candidate. And of course that doesn’t work either because people’s experience is so vastly different and measuring them by the same stick just doesn’t do them justice. So you begrudgingly revert to the “gut feel” method. Ugh!

But fear not, I’m here to tell you that I have found the question. The answer to this question is the ultimate indicator of how well your future employee will perform at her job. You don’t need a complicated process, you don’t need the exhaustive (and exhausting) multi-person-hour interviews filled with highly technical questions designed to probe for breadth and depth of knowledge (the “quick sort” questions). This one question is going to answer all your prayers!

So what is that magic question, you ask? Not so fast!

For starters, even though we all know it to be true, allow me to tell you why pure knowledge is not an indication of future performance. On one hand, as some smart guy once said, you can’t know the slope of a line from a single point. There is no line! For all you know, the candidate might have reached their peak years ago and have been slowly declining ever since. On vice versa, they had a tough day and can’t quite concentrate on your vague questions. On the other hand, anybody who went to college knows that you can learn Chinese in one night. The closer you are to the final exam, the easier it is to master the subject. Anybody who went to college also knows that you won’t remember a single word of Mandarin as soon as the exam is over. So knowledge is not important. How about experience?

Experience is important but only because it indirectly answers the question. Experience shows you the slope. It also shows you how well your candidate was able to utilize the knowledge she possesses. If pure knowledge is being aware of all the A’s and B’s. Experience is being able to go from A to B. But experience is hard to measure. Years and titles (and compensation) give only a vague idea about the ballpark. “Junior vs. senior” kinda ballpark. So better, but still not ideal.

And now for the big reveal. The question that’ll tell you everything you need to know about your candidate is this:

“Do you believe (1) that intelligence is static or (2) that it could be developed over time?”

People who believe in static intelligence avoid challenges, they get defensive or give up easily when faced with an obstacle, they see effort as fruitless, ignore useful negative feedback, are threatened by the success of others and as a result achieve less than their full potential. Let your competitor “snatch” them from you.

People who believe that intelligence could be developed over time embrace challenges, persist in the face of obstacles, see effort as the path to mastery, learn from criticism, find lessons and inspiration in the success of others and as a result reach ever-higher levels of achievement. These are your superstars.

Now, I’m not here to convince you that the candidate’s mindset is by far the most important indicator of their future performance. There’s enough scientific research out there that demonstrates the link. And I’m being somewhat facetious when I say that this is the only question you need to ask. You probably can’t afford to train your employees to do their job for four years before they become productive - that’s what the overpriced colleges are for. You also wouldn’t want to ask the mindset question directly. Instead, you’ll ask your usual questions about achievements, about challenges your candidate faced and how she overcame them, what kind of technologies she used and what she thinks about the latest trends, and even the “quick sort” question, if you must. But instead of looking for syntax mistakes in their code, you listen how they indirectly answer the question.

July 3, 2014 |

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About Me

George Sudarkoff Climber of rocks, maker of things, husband of wife and father of kids. Manage DevOps @SurveyMonkey. Views are my own, but damn they are good views!