This week Google announced that their famous brainteaser interview questions are actually totally useless for the purposes of evaluating candidates.  Intuitively, this announcement makes sense to me.  I tried “Google-esque” questions in a few interviews back in 2011 (I also wrote a blog entry about it) and never found them particularly helpful in making hiring decisions.  Answering the classic “How many ping pong balls can fit in a school bus?” or “How many pizza slices are there in Manhattan?” always felt like more of a parlor trick than any indication of skill or ability.  Trying them once or twice, I found that they made me feel silly and they made the candidates feel intimidated, so I gave up on them.

Instead, I generally favor a more “behavioral” style interview.  Asking questions about how candidates handled past experiences, solved problems, and learned from their mistakes.  I won’t disclose exactly which questions I ask in interviews (one of my biggest sources of blog traffic are people I’m about to interview), but I will lay out the four broad components of what I consider to be a good interviewing technique for a one-hour interview.

1)   Introductions (~3-5 minutes)

Unless you’re interviewing someone for a role where they have to constantly talk to strangers and make a good first impression (e.g. Business Development), it’s very important to start by making the candidate feel comfortable.  Being in an interview can be very intimidating and, unless that level of intimidation is part of the job, it can unnecessarily affect the performance of an interviewee and skew the results of the evaluation.

2)   “Tell me your story” (~10 minutes)

Even if a candidate provides a resume in advance of the interview (which most do), I also think it’s a good idea to ask a candidate to tell their story.  What have they done in their career and why? What drives them and motivates them?  Hearing a candidate explain their work experience in their own words will help you figure out the direction of their career and what they’re really passionate about.  By paying attention to the areas they highlight you can tell which experiences they’re proud of and which experiences they liked the most.  The key point here is really about passion – it’s always a good idea to figure out what drives a candidate deep down in order to make an informed hiring decision.  This exercise also helps assess sales-type skills (candidates have to sell themselves) and it can even tell you how good a candidate is at telling a story with data (the data being their past working experiences).  Overall, I find this category of questions to be some of the more interesting and telling.

3)   “Tell me about your best work” (~30 minutes)

Another tactic that I think is useful is asking a candidate to explain a project or initiative that they worked on or led.  It doesn’t matter what the project is, just so long as it provides an example of their very best work.  It’s funny, but I always find that it helps for the interviewer to interrupt the candidate a few minutes into this explanation.  The best results here don’t come from one long explanation but rather from a flowing dialog where the interviewer is asking detailed questions about the project and digging into the value added by the candidate.  It’s also important that the candidate shows a comprehensive understanding for every piece of the project, why the project was important, what they did right and wrong, and what they learned from the experience.  The key here is to drill down into the details – what exactly did you do and what would you do if you had to do it again?  Everyone can talk about things at a high level; the details are where the magic happens.

4)   What questions do you have for me? (~15 minutes)

After 45 or 50 minutes of asking questions, it’s always good to give a candidate the opportunity to ask some questions of their own.  Most candidates have prepared questions, but I never really find the “canned” questions very useful (e.g. what was your biggest challenge, etc..).  Instead, I think it’s better if a candidate asks questions about the responsibilities of the job to which they’re applying, how they will work with other parts of the organization and really start to wrap their heads around the job to be done.  The single variable I think is most important is whether or not the candidate is going to “own” the job and if they start owning it in the interview then it’s a good sign that they’re going to own it when they start on their first day.

Not too many surprises here, right?  Well, I think consistency and simplicity are two very important elements for an interview.  If you make it too complicated and variable, how are you supposed to evaluate a large number of candidates against each other?

Let me know what you think of this outline.  Maybe I’ll check back in on the topic of interview questions in another two years after another study is released on interviewing practices.  Hopefully the next study doesn’t find that behavioral interviewing is worthless.  That would be quite embarrassing.

Interview Questions
  • Simon Dexter

    Andrew,

    I can see how success at Google-like companies may not necessarily be a function of test-scores/brainteasers and such. Simply put, when you get such high-caliber workforce from the start, traditional metric-based approaches break down. Yet I saw this sentence in the New York Times article:

    “…test scores are worthless — no correlation at all except for brand-new college grads, where there’s a slight correlation…”

    Again, no surprise: fresh college grads haven’t yet had a chance to demonstrate their competencies/ambitions, and metrics will surely assist in culling wheat from the chaff in this case.

    Also, I think your overall interview framework is solid – the important thing is to get down to the details, that’s where the devil is.