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How to Handle a Difficult Interview Question

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  chco's Photo
Posted Aug 05 2010 08:03 AM

The following is an excerpt from Being Geek, a useful guide to cultivating your career as a Software Developer. Below we have some insight into how to handle a difficult question during an interview.
First, understand the question.

Tell me what you learned at your prior gig.

It's a big, ambiguous, open-ended question, and because you have the Nerves, you're going to want to just start talking, but before you say a thing, before you even think of an answer, you need to make sure you understand the question.

Sure, I learned all about design in my last gig and....

Stop, no. You're answering and you still don't understand the question. It's not what you learned, it's what did you learn that this specific person is going to care about? Who is this person, and why is he asking the question? If it's an engineer, it's the engineering version of the answer. If it's a program manager, go for the program manager version.

You're spinning these folks by altering your answer. They asked a big, huge, vague question and you, hopefully, learned a ton at your prior gig and are using some of that knowledge to give the interviewer an answer that will be relevant to him.

OK, can I start talking now?


Before you do that, you need to have an answer.

You understand who is asking and what he's asking, but do you have an answer? You don't open your mouth until you can feel the answer. My biggest interview pet peeve is when I ask a question and the candidate wastes three minutes of our time talking and never answering the question.

The flawed reasoning here is that you need to say something immediately. But since you don't immediately have an answer, you're going to open your mouth and, hopefully, verbally wander toward one. This strategy can work, but when it fails, when you're two minutes into a rambling answer that has nothing to do with what I asked, we're both going to know it. Two minutes have passed and all I've learned is that you're mentally messy.

Wait until you have an answer. Wait until you can feel it, and don't start talking until you do. If a couple of seconds have passed and the silence is becoming palpable, it's one of two situations:

a) You really don't understand the question, or
b) You really don't have an answer.

Here are three moves:

  • If you don't understand the question, clarify. Are you asking what I learned that I cared about or what I learned about relative to design? The clarification demonstrates active participation in the interview and I love it. I love that someone is past the Nerves and is engaged in the interview and actually listening.

  • If you don't have an answer, if you've clarified, maybe twice, and you're still drawing a blank, I have a cheap trick that is going to give you another 10 seconds: repeat the question.

    Yeah, repeat it. Word for word. It's lame, but you've got a mental logjam in your head. Maybe it's the Nerves. Maybe you really don't have an answer, but the simple act of sounding out the question can sometimes fire the right neuron.

    Don't look at the interviewer; the Nerves are going to tell you that they're wondering why you're stalling. Look at the ceiling, look at the window, and repeat the question.

  • You've clarified twice, repeated, and you're 10 seconds into another round of silence. Still nothing. The Nerves are screaming, but I want you to ignore them. The Nerves see silence as a weakness, but I believe silence demonstrates composure and thoughtfulness, and you're going to need that composure because your next move is to look them straight in the eye and say, "I don't know."

It feels like interview suicide, the admission of ignorance, but look at the alternatives: rambling, praying, and hoping that inspiration strikes.

Both problem-solving and open-ended questions are designed to show me how you think. Even though I'm giving you space for being nervous, when your answers come out as a rambly mess, I'm wondering how much control you have over your facilities. Where's your head going to be when we're three months into a shipping death march? Are you going to be rambly then? How about when you're demoing to the executives?

I understand the courage it takes to acknowledge ignorance during a time when you're pitching yourself as a worthy hire, and it's that courage that will make an impression.

Being Geek

Learn more about this topic from Being Geek.

As a software engineer, you recognize at some point that there's much more to your career than dealing with code. Is it time to become a manager? Tell your boss he’s a jerk? Join that startup? Author Michael Lopp recalls his own make-or-break moments with Silicon Valley giants such as Apple, Netscape, and Symantec in Being Geek -- an insightful and entertaining book that will help you make better career decisions.

See what you'll learn

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