Entering Tech? Prepare for the Weird Job Interview Questions

June 11, 2016

10:08 am

Startups and the tech world in general love non-conformists: the traditional route is bad, but a disruption is great. That approach carries over into job interviews, naturally… the interview is where you find out if someone is a good fit for the company culture. Which has given rise to a well-known trend: the weird interview question.

Glassdoor loves collecting bizarre, challenging questions. Space Exploration Technologies might ask you “When a hot dog expands, in which direction does it split and why?”

Google’s pretty notorious… one request once posed to a would-be product manager: “Choose a city and estimate how many piano tuners operate a business there.”

What’s your favorite color? Tell me a story. Design a spice rack for the blind. These requests can’t possibly all be categorized. Which is funny, since another thing techies love doing is making sure they can Google the answer to any question. In fact, this can create an arms race of weird interview questions. Fast Company ran a short history of tech and its interview styles recently. One of the more interesting tidbits featured Squarespace’s attempts to distance itself from being known as a ‘weird interview question company’:

“Squarespace, as a burgeoning tech company, is in an interesting position. It has hundreds of employees and real name recognition, but it’s still relatively small. Companies that are storied for asking hard riddles or posing philosophical questions to interviewees can get away with these sorts of practices. Burke says that since its brand cachet isn’t to the point of Google or Facebook, he doesn’t want to be associated with questions meant to confound.

In fact, the company once did ask a nontraditional question; During a series of video interviews a few years back, the company concluded with, ‘What’s your favorite ’90s jam?’ The point, says Burke, was to add some levity; to get people to feel silly and more comfortable with the process. And while most people thought the question was funny, it did end up on some online lists. Now Squarespace uses ‘strictly work-related questions.'”

The perfect weird interview question serves a lot of purposes: it breaks the ice, it tests people’s ability to stay focused, it reveals how they think, and it forces them to be creative. Often, the interviewer is more interested in someone’s response to the question than to their answer. Does the person choke up? Do they use poor logic as they talk through the problem?

But the actual answer matters, too. One Quora author, Leah Alissa Bayer, has a favorite question: “Other than stapling, what are five ways you could use a stapler?” She cares about how intelligent the answer is, even though — or perhaps because of — how dumb the question is:

“Most of the remaining applicants will give 4 or 5 versions of the same thing: a paperweight, a door stop, a flower press, a hammer, etc. They’re all technically different, but very similar in use. A creative problem solver is going to give a wide range of options. On the job, this is what we expect from our best team members, too — throwing out the unexpected, constantly generating a variety of feasible ideas. I want to see that you’re focused but limitless. A staple gun, a club, a projectile, a musical instrument, replacement parts, sewing apparatus, exercise weight, match starter…”

Perhaps the best advice for job interviewees nervous about figuring how a hot dog splits and who needs a piano tuner? Don’t worry so much. Just take a deep breath and think through the question. If the question’s light-hearted, you can be, too.

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Adam is a writer with an interest in a variety of mediums, from podcasts to comic books to video essays to novels to blogging — too many, basically. He's based out of Seattle, and remains a staunch defender of his state's slogan: "sayWA." In his spare time, he recommends articles about science fiction on Twitter, @AdamRRowe

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