Tales from the interview: Lunch is not a competition


One thing that many interview candidates fail to comprehend is that lunch is not a competition. You're not auditioning for Fear Factor. No matter how many times we explain this, candidates don't believe it.

One of my colleagues took a candidate to lunch. As is typical, the candidate is asked whether there was any particular preference or phobia, and as is also typical, the candidate expressed no preference (trying not to look difficult). My colleague explained, "Okay, well, I like sushi, but please, if you don't like sushi, please just say so, and we can go to an Italian or Mexican place or even just grab a burger."

— No, sushi is fine was the response.

My colleague hesitantly took the candidate to a local sushi place. The two were seated and the wait staff came to take their order. From the way the candidate nervously read the menu, my colleague began to suspect that the candidate had never had sushi before.

"Okay, now remember, you can order whatever you want. You don't have to order the sushi. They have all sorts of cooked food on the menu, too. Just order whatever you would like to have for lunch. I'm going to have (among other things) the salmon roe with raw quail egg, but please, that's just my personal preference."

— Um, okay, yeah, I'll have the same thing.

"Are you sure?"

— Yeah.

The food was delivered, and the interview candidate sort of started at it suspiciously.

Fortunately, my colleague realized that without remedial action, somebody at the lunch table was going to starve and convinced the candidate to order some veggie yakisoba.

Disclaimer: This story is a reconstruction from a conversation from over two years ago. Some details may be incorrect. I can't believe I had to write this, but apparently some people carefully deconstruct every word of these stories in order to call out any flaws or weaknesses.

Comments (41)
  1. Matt Green says:

    If I was interviewing them and this happened, it would throw some doubt into the picture. I just see it as a symptom of someone being a yes-man. And I don’t know that I’d want to hire someone like that. Ordering the exact same entree as me (yet seemingly being unsure of it) at a restaurant that specialized in food they disliked, despite having ample opportunity to go elsewhere. It just seems so weak. If I’m a PM, and I create a crappy design, then I’d want the people who were working with me to ask me, "hey, how is your design going to handle X? Because it doesn’t seem like it does."

  2. Patrick Szalapski says:

    “I can’t believe I have to write this?”  Really?  Written communication is much more precise and subject to detailed scrutiny than spoken.  You are writing for an audience comprised of many developers and technical people–whose life work is to subject written code or settings to precise, detailed scrutiny, and then inviting comments.  I’ve got to wonder what you expected?

    [I expected people to understand the difference between a blog and a research paper. Perhaps I am overestimating the intelligence of my readership. -Raymond]
  3. Florian says:

    Just face it, Raymond: People like nitpicking, for whatever reason (maybe they want to show how smart they are ;-), and not everyone has a sense of humor. Don’t take it too seriously.

  4. SM says:

    I agree with Matt Green’s comment above.  I understand the desire to please people and not seem like a stick in the mud, especially on an interview.  But it seems like this candidate was given way more than an ample opportunity to choose something else.

    I guess some people are less assertive than others to begin with, which might also be the case here.  It’s hard to imagine one would actually think that not eating sushi would hurt his or her chances of landing a job.  I’d imagine if most people thought about that long enough, they’d come to the conclusion that they’d never want to work for someone who would hire them based on their preference for food — so they may as well speak up.

  5. Igor Levicki says:

    I would ask the interviewer: "Is this a trick question?" :-)

  6. James Schend says:

    The problem is that you write like an intelligent person, making people think it’s closer to a research article than a blog. Throw in a couple of "kewls" or "LOLZZ!" or something next time, see if that works.

    The real reason is that you’re supposedly a "teacher figure" and there’s a large proportion of people (you’ve had them in all your college courses) who love to show-up the teacher by proving they know more. When they don’t actually know more, they instead pick on something entirely peripheral to the main argument– like a typo in your example or something.

    Back on-topic: the zany lunch interview was a sitcom staple for many years (probably still is, but I don’t watch sitcoms anymore), so people have this stereotyped situation in their head where they think the exact position of the pepper shaker on the table will get you hired or not. I don’t know what the solution is, other than giving the candidate $20 and saying "be back in an hour."

  7. Matt Green says:

    Patrick Szalapski, you do realize that all of life need not be subjected to the hyper-scrutiny engineering mindset, don’t you? Even in technical matters, your exact thoughts on the matter are not always requested. As someone who is recovering from this, I’ll profess that it it is exhausting for everyone else besides yourself. Not everything is a chance to prove your intellectual prowess.

    A similar situation seems to occur with alarming regularity in the car. I’m driving to somewhere new and inevitably miss a turn (even with GPS). However, I’ve spotted the destination, so I know I can get there. In the meantime, I need to turn around somehow. Many roads have places that where a U-turn is feasible, but not protected. Thus, I forego them in favor of a better place to make a U-turn. And, many many times, I’m met with:  "wait, stop, what are you doing?" And then I just have to look at them and reply, "Making a U-turn, I wasn’t aware this needed consensus." This happens much more frequently with engineers, it seems like a, "I’m OK with you doing this — as long as you do it my way."

  8. Patrick Szalapski says:

    Matt, I wholeheartedly agree.  

    Raymond, I promise not to nitpick about technicalities

  9. Patrick Szalapski says:

    Matt, I wholeheartedly agree.  "I didn’t realize this required consensus"–I’ll have to remember that one! :)

    Raymond, I promise not to nitpick–I will only react to the intent of what you write, as best as I can determine it.  I hope I didn’t react to the anti-nitpick frustration with a nitpick!

  10. John says:

    I promise to nitpick until the day I die.  Or maybe I will continue nitpicking from beyond the grave.  I haven’t decided yet.

  11. Ulric says:

    well, I disagree with Matt Green.

    It’s OK in your 30s and sure of yourself to be fussy and say what you want to eat.

    for people in general, you just want to go with the crowd.  Especially if you’re younger.

    That’s hardly being a "yes man" or weak of character. Here at work, it takes forever to decide where to go to diner for the same reason.

    It’s just lunch people, get real.

  12. Matt Green says:

    Ulric, I think it is a bit more situational than I’m presenting.

    In some situations, it is better to go along with the group. Say you are out with ten friends and you’ve decided to go to the sushi place, but you don’t like sushi. If you are already out with them, and consensus is against you, it is probably better to go along and figure you can find a non-sushi entree to order. However if you’re given the opportunity, and there is no consensus, you might as well contribute your opinion if requested. Why make yourself unhappy?

    As for organizing lunches with coworkers, since it often takes 30 minutes to decide, I just declare I’m going to establishment X and invite people to come along if they wish. I probably come off as a bit anti-social, but I don’t like debating these things endlessly.

  13. Eddie says:

    "Perhaps I am overestimating the intelligence of my readership"

    Hell yeah.  I’d say so.

  14. jeffdav says:

    I had a similar experience when I did my lunch interview as an intern.  Only the guy who took me was not anywhere near as informative.  He simply suggested we go to "a Japanese place."  Being from a city in the midwest where Sushi places just didn’t exist, I imagined the only sort of "Japanese" place I’d ever been was the steakhouse kind.  When we got there all I could order was the Teriyaki Chicken.  I think I was the only person who had ever ordered non-sushi there because they looked at me very strangely.

    Anyway, after about 6months of being the only person in any group who didn’t like sushi, I manned-up and learned to like some things.  Now I love it.

  15. RCCola says:

    "I manned-up"

    C’mon be p/c – you "personed" up [j/k]

  16. Rob says:

    Maybe he didn’t know much about sushi, and ordered the same thing as the interviewer because he thought that the interviewer would know what’s good and what’s not?  Personally, I wouldn’t take someone to a sushi restaurant unless they expressed an active interest in it, given that raw fish doesn’t have much appeal for many people.

    The interviewee should have spoken up, but I think it’s a bit much to psychoanalyze him on this basis alone.

  17. CDarklock says:

    In way too many interviews, "you don’t have to do X" means "doing X will get you the job". In other words, not doing it will still keep you in the running, but doing it will disqualify everyone who doesn’t.

    This pattern generally applies to technical questions, like "you don’t have to do the transform in-place" or "you don’t have to write the optimal solution", but technical people often don’t distinguish between technical and non-technical situations. So when you say "you don’t have to eat the sushi", the candidate’s internal filter translates this into "eat the sushi to get the job".

    Also, in both high school and college, the interview process is represented as what amounts to a final exam constructed by a practical joker. You go to a company, and your interviewer asks questions to which you must give the "right answer". "Where do you see yourself in five years?" (Right there in that chair with your job.) "How many pints in a peck?" (Sixteen.) "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" (Technical position: they both have inky quills. Creative position: neither of them can be ridden like a bicycle.) So the interviewer, in many cases, will give an interview like this until he figures out it’s pointless… and the candidate will expect this to be the intent until he figures out it’s pointless. In general, it takes a few years of experience to realise that.

  18. reader says:

    I don’t see how my comments were “carefully deconstruct every word of these stories”, let alone calling out flaws and weaknesses in them.  The only things I talked about in yesterday’s post was:

    – suggest that “matrix” might be more intimidating a word than “array” and how that might’ve affected the interview outcome

    – point out that the problem is not a typical mathematical matrix operation you’d find in a typical library, to put an end to those who insist on going that route without knowing what the operation actually does.

    – miscellaneous responses to other people’s comments

    I suppose by making this post, Raymond will now accuse me of “carefully deconstructing every word of his disclaimer”…… Gee, maybe next time I’ll just post something completely off-topic, at least that way I won’t be accidentally “deconstructing” anything Raymond says.

    [I don’t remember (and Jeff probably doesn’t either) whether he used the word “matrix” or “array” in the original problem description as presented to the candidate, so issues related to which word would have been better are moot. -Raymond]
  19. Nobody in Particular says:

    Expectations may be affected by the reputation of strange interview traditions at Microsoft.  Questions like "How would you design a Bluetooth snot slicer?"  Repeatedly insisting on ridiculous assertions like "Brazil is north of Canada" just to see how the interviewee reacts.  Telling the interviewee that the rest of the interviewers have been swallowed by a black hole, instead of admitting that the candidate has already been rejected.  That sort of thing.

  20. Gabe says:

    Under the right circumstances, I can see where this behavior is good. It shows that the prospect is willing to learn about new things, at least up to a certain threshold. This is very important in an engineer because technology constantly changes and you have to be willing to learn about all the newest things, even if you don’t apply those things yourself.

  21. readerwhoapparentlywillaccidentallydeconstructsomethingraymondsays says:

    I do hope the candidate’s behavior with respect to lunch was not a factor in the interview outcome, since there are many possible reasons behind the action.  For example, there is the difficulty of reading someone’s intent, in the sense of hearing your spouse say he/she doesn’t want any expensive gifts for his/her birthday and you wonder if he/she really means that.  Another is maybe cultural differences, since in some cultures it might be consider rude to refuse the food the host offers to you, and culturally-conditioned habits can be hard to break even when it clearly doesn’t apply.

    At least we are now assured that eating raw quail eggs is not a prerequisite for getting a job in MS. ;p

  22. Tom says:

    I thought the advice for interview meals is "Just order the chicken."  (Exception: Do not order the rotisserie chicken from Microsoft cafeterias.)

  23. reader says:

    I thought the advice for interview meals is "Just order the chicken."  (Exception: Do not order the rotisserie chicken from Microsoft cafeterias.)

    there’s also the more obvious exception where someone’s a vegetarian……

  24. Sohail says:

    Aww, that’s cute. Reminds me of when I used to actually do interviews.

  25. George Jansen says:

    Jean Kerr once wrote a guide to the playwright’s lunch with producers, of which I remember the rules on alcohol. Order a drink: the producers are wary of prigs. Do not consume it: the producers remember the playwright to disappeared on a binge during the tryouts.

    And since we’re mentioning Japanese food, does anybody remember the business lunch in "Tampopo"?

  26. Harvey Pengwyn says:

    Relevant to the comments primarily… I have noticed the trend that if in any forum / blog people discuss any criteria for choosing between candidates someone will pipe up and say ‘that’s unfair because of [blah], you shouldn’t let that influence your decision’, to the extent that is clear that some people believe a lottery should be conducted of all people who apply (actually, excluding people who didn’t reply is probably considered unfair).

  27. Big Billy Boy says:

    If the interviewer makes clear that the lunch IS a competition, then the lunch can be a competition. Then it’s fair to take sushi eating into consideration.

  28. Geez, I wish interviewers would take me out for sushi.

  29. gerleim says:

    Thanks for the tip, I will take the next candidate I am unsure about to a sushi lunch ;)

  30. I don’t know how interviews are conducted on the planet Vulcan, but here on Earth, personality and preferences do matter…and the clock doesn’t stop for lunch.  

    I can’t believe I had to write this! ;)

    Technical competence aside, I once secured a job offer by knowing that Sonny Rollins is better than Sonny Stitt.

  31. Jonathan says:

    @Gabe

    Being willing to try new things is different from being unwilling to express disagreement.

    Sure, it’s great if the candidate said:

     "Well I’ve never tried Sushi, but it’s always sounded interesting.  Do they have non-sushi items?  Because I could order that and then maybe you could recommend a couple sushi-type items I could try.  I’m always willing to at least sample new things"

    But that’s not how the guy Raymond was describing came across.

  32. self punishment says:

    Those who attend job interviews at MS have only themself to blame.

  33. kokomo says:

    candidate1: water for me.

    candidate2: water for me too. With lemons please. *chuckles awkwardly*

    candidate3: I’ll have a *insert beer ID*.

  34. Merus says:

    I always figured that the point of the interview was to see if the company and I would be a good fit. If they’re going to play mind games and read into me deciding to go for the Italian during the interview, they’re probably going to be friggin’ strange to work for.

    Actually, I probably wouldn’t order a beer, either. I don’t think so good when drunk.

    I am always amused by how the nitpickers, when they are called out for discussion an incredibly trivial and banal topic, always say that they didn’t see what was so wrong about it. Yes, we know you don’t see it as a problem. That IS the problem.

  35. Cheong says:

    For me, it’s kind of strange that I seldom eat cooked seafoods, but like to eat wide range of sushi.

    Really like the taste of fish meat seasoned with japanese soyabean sauce and wasabi. :D~~~~~~~

  36. Sushi says:

    One of the more perculiar things I find living in Japan is eating sushi with Japanese hosts.  Once they realize enjoy sushi they inevitably try and push your limits.

    Frenzied scanning of the menu ensues after each dish is consumed.  Trying to find the most obscure fish/roe/shellfish.

    They often seem slightly disappointed when I tell them "Yes, I have already eaten Fugu" (Blowfish).

  37. Christopher says:

    "How would you design a Bluetooth snot slicer?"

    Find another company that already manufactures one and buy them out, of course. ;)

    And I like futomake.

  38. Interviewee Homer S. says:

    Come on, pal! Fugu me!

    • Homer
  39. KenW says:

    "Those who attend job interviews at MS have only themself to blame."

    Says the person who tried to get a job at MS and wasn’t asked to interview.

  40. Ray Trent says:

    "I promise to nitpick until the day I die.  Or maybe I will continue nitpicking from beyond the grave.  I haven’t decided yet."

    I feel compelled to point out that for most people, there is a period of some days between death and being interred, so you’ve presented a somewhat incomplete dichotomy.

  41. Ray: Maybe the time between will be the nitpicker’s vacation.

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