July 09, 2013, 9:33 AM — You've probably seen them making the rounds on social media: the brain-busting, stutter-inducing questions asked in job interviews at places like Google (How many cows in Canada?), Apple (What are five ways to put a hole in a sheet of metal?), Dell (What songs best describe your work ethic?) and Novell (How would people communicate in a perfect world?).
Less likely to be discussed is whether such interview questions actually help employers find the right IT pros.
"We've heard candidates tell us that they faced three hours of pure tech-oriented questions that were specific and focused and extensively related to the job. Then at the end of three hours, they're hit with, 'Why is a manhole cover round?'" says Matthew Ripaldi, a senior vice president at IT staffing agency Modis in Houston. "It really put the person off."
There's Google, which can get away with asking offbeat questions, and then there are companies that imitate Google -- with mixed results, Ripaldi says. "There are companies asking those questions just to ask them, and it isn't clear whether they know what to do with the responses," he says.
That doesn't mean a challenging -- even difficult -- interview is automatically a turnoff. Over the past year, candidates interviewing for tech jobs rated their interviews as both more difficult and more positive than in the previous 12 months, according to Scott Dobroski, community expert at Glassdoor, a five-year-old social recruiting site that allows job candidates to share interview experiences.
"What this tells us is that making a tech interview more positive doesn't mean you need to make it less difficult," Dobroski says.
Hiring stakes are high
The debate over whether questions out of left field enhance or detract from the interview process is more than just an academic one for companies looking to hire IT talent.
The increasingly tight job market ratchets up the pressure to find, hire and retain the right people. And with recruitment and onboarding costs "in the thousands of dollars" per employee, Dobroski says, companies are intent on hiring the right candidate the first time out.
By the time a candidate reaches the interview stage, managers say that they're more concerned with learning about the individual's attitude, social skills and compatibility with the company's culture than they are with trying to assess his or her tech skills -- which the screening process should have already gauged. "We might ask a little bit about the tech stuff," says Joe Schmitt, a network support manager at U.S. Bank in St. Paul, Minn. "But really we're looking out for the right mix of curiosity, passion and initiative."
Schmitt, like other IT hiring managers interviewed by Computerworld, believes "gotcha" questions in general do a poor job of bringing those soft skills to the fore.
Instead, Schmitt taps the eight members of his network support team to conduct group interviews for open positions in their department. He himself doesn't attend; he wants candidates to feel comfortable asking about "the boss."
Schmitt has found his employees to be universally willing to help vet candidates. "I do my best to get the team involved. They like to know they're really making a good decision about a teammate -- someone they may be spending more time with than they spend with their spouse."
If gotchas are out, what kinds of questions do help reveal the qualities Schmitt is looking for? He goes for a line of inquiry that's both open-ended and specific. "Tell me a time when you successfully adapted to change." "What does a good day at work look like?" "What about a bad one?" "How do you resolve disagreements?"
And one of his favorites: "Tell me about something you documented for others." This gets at the candidate's commitment to teamwork as shown by the effort he puts into making his work accessible to others, explains Schmitt, who has been in IT for 15 years, five as a hiring manager.
Such questions bring out a side to candidates that a skills-specific question may not. "People tend to come prepped to answer the technical questions," Schmitt says, less so the situational or behavioral ones. "I feel we're getting genuine responses to those."
Social skills, social questions
Thad Neal has been in the IT business long enough to see the way the interviewing process has shifted. "When I graduated in 1990, the questions were all the standard ones: 'Tell me about your successes.' 'Tell me a time you overcame a failure.'"
Neal, a consulting director for Junction Solutions in Englewood, Colo., which provides ERP consulting services for the retail and food and beverage industries, has watched over the years as IT has moved from being one business function among many to serving as strategic lynchpin. With that shift in focus comes a shift in the balance of skills IT departments are interviewing for.
Since the people Neal hires will be working with external client companies, they must have a strong range of social skills in addition to technical expertise, but Neal isn't fazed by that requirement.
"Identifying social skills is pretty simple," Neal says. "How do they speak -- do they look you in the eye or down at the floor? How do they dress -- purple oxfords with silver ties or fairly conservative? What are their hobbies -- do any of them include personal interactions with humans?" he asks, adding, "and I don't mean playing Halo online."
Not every company has mastered the art of assessing social skills, Neal asserts. "We've seen a lot of hiring at other companies go wrong," he says. "People get too focused on folks' technical abilities. They're so fixated on the fact that the guy in front of them is the best .Net programmer out there that they're willing to look past the fact that he looks like an unmade bed."
Rambling isn't always wrong
Joseph Morgan, a data power architect at Netsmart in Kansas City, Mo., says his company is on track to hire 200 people in IT alone this calendar year. As a senior employee with 25 years of experience in the business, he is often called on to conduct interviews.
He is not a fan of gotcha questions. "Asking the kind of questions that get candidates flushed and fumbling isn't productive," Morgan says. "When people get defensive, it's a bad interview on both sides."
At the same time, he believes interviewers ought to stay away from questions that begin, "Tell me a time when you..."
"I generally don't directly ask these kinds of questions. If the candidate presents an example of his or her experience, I might follow up and ask how they handled it or ask, 'How would you handle that if you were faced that situation again?' This way, we're homing in on their experience, but we know the answer isn't some rehearsed fantasy."
Beyond that, Morgan advises interviewers to "get off their pedestal" and be willing to consider answers that are not precisely the ones they were looking for. Having enough confidence to let the candidate run with an unexpected answer has rewards, Morgan believes.
In interviewing a candidate for a senior developer position, Morgan once asked a pointed question about a particular programming construct. He was looking for a simple, direct answer. What he got was a long and more abstract answer related to data architecture.
"Though he didn't directly answer the question, he gave me much more insight into the way he plans for problems in general, and in that context, he was right on," Morgan says.
"Though I could have pressed him for the technical answer, the response he gave was basically stating that if the application had been architecturally correct, the problem wouldn't exist," Morgan says. "This was way more valuable to me than any technical answer he would have given."
In general, Morgan, like Neal, believes in the power of questions that push a candidate to the limit of his or her knowledge. "I'm looking to weed out the people who would rather make up an answer than to say 'I don't know,'" Morgan says. "If they try to BS in the interview, they'll try to BS on the job."
Wanted: Work-hard, play-hard atmosphere
Aundrea Marchionna has been in the IT business -- and on both sides of the interview desk -- since 1989 in a variety of programming and development positions. Her most recent job interview as a candidate took place last fall, when she applied for the job she holds now as a technical architect at MRM Worldwide, a digital and direct marketing agency.
For Marchionna, the best questions are straightforward and predictable: "How do you explain a technical process to nontechnical colleagues?" "How do you break down a large idea into manageable pieces?"
The worst interview Marchionna has had in her career was one, not too many years ago, in which the interviewer didn't so much try to stump her with tricky questions as mislead her about the company she'd be working for. "Basically, he lied about the environment there and what the job would entail," Marchionna says. "I wasn't with them very long."
The best interview, by contrast, took place on Halloween, at the company where she now works. It began with the human resources person meeting her at the door dressed as a penguin. "You could tell this was a work-hard, play-hard kind of place," she says. "But beyond that, the way the interview was conducted, in a group, gave me a sense that this was a team-oriented place. You could tell there was a good dynamic between the business and tech people."
In the end, the number of cows in Canada notwithstanding, "that's what we all really want," Marchionna says.
Wilkinson, a Lexington, Va., writer, is the former publisher of Brain,Child Magazine.
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