Interview tip: what’s the real question


Sometimes somebody asks a question, but the answer they’re looking for is not the answer to the question; it’s the answer to the question behind the question.

My 3 year old daughter demonstrated this recently in a conversation with my wife. After realizing we didn’t know where in the house she was, and having a statistically unrealistic duration of peaceful silence in a house with a toddler, my wife suspiciously called out:

Mom: “Oh [Daughter #1], where are you?”
Daughter #1: “Uh … , I’m not getting into trouble”

The same concept happens in interviews.

For example, the interviewer asks a simple coding question such as “write a function to compute the Fibonacci series (0,1,1,2,3,5,8,13…)” in [primary language the team writes in].  What they probably are really asking is “can you write actual code without having a heart attack?”, and they probably expect you to ask some clarifying questions (eg, iterative vs. recursive) and answer it in under 3 minutes. Then they can move onto the real questions.

That’s probably not the time to show that you can pull out the math kung-fu to convert the algorithm from O(n) to O(1) (closed form).

Comments (3)

  1. I respectfully disagree as your advice rests on the word "probably".  The question needs to fashioned in a manner that avoids ambiguity; otherwise the candidate is placed in the hopeless position of guessing what the *real* question is. Imagine what would happen if computer languages or library interfaces comunicated this way – chaos.  For example, a program (interviewer) calls GetVersion and KERNEL32 (interviewee) decides that the question is "Is this Vista?"

  2. jmstall says:

    I think this is a case of "you can be right or you can be happy".

    IMO, The interview process is not a fair playing field. Ideally, people would say exactly what they mean.

    Although you could argue that this could lead to extremely verbose conversations, and that you expect a good candidate to be able to have the intuition to accurately infer unspoken context.

    I heard a story of an interview loop where a candidate over analyzed a question with Interviewer #1. The next interview on the loop told him "I hear you’re a really smart guy. However, I’m going to ask you a simple question and I’m looking for a simple answer"

  3. BTW – Happy Holidays!  The interview loop you mentioned is a great example of communication skills; the second questions is succinct allowing little opportunity for guessing. While I will agree that the interview process is never "a fair playing field", I would maintain that team chemistry is the most important goal during the mating dance.  And establishing how well each side communicates goes a long way towards reaching that goal. Just my opinion.