Here’s a scene: you’re in the interview room at a really exciting company, being interviewed for your dream job. You’ve already aced the technical interview and really hit it off with the team leader and the other team members. You can already imagine yourself happily working there. But just before you start visualising your first ‘employee of the year’ award, another person walks in the room. They introduce theirselves as the HR manager and ask if you mind being asked some more questions. ‘So, Fred’, goes the first one ‘what is your biggest weakness?’ ‘Ermm..’ you fumble, ‘..Ben & Jerry’s, I suppose’. ‘No’, the HR person goes, ‘I meant as a professional developer’. ‘Why didn’t you say so’, says you, ‘in that case it has to be Herman Miller chairs. I’d sell my own grandmother for an Embody full mesh’. ‘No, no, that’s not what I meant’ they say, ‘I meant a weakness in your abilities as a professional developer’. ‘Why would I tell you that’ you reply, ‘I’m trying to sell myself here, not bury myself’. At that point all the positive vibes you’ve built up have evaporated, your self-confidence is shaken and you’re beginning to wonder if this really is the right company for you. Yes, you’ve fallen victim to the….CURSE OF POINTLESS INTERVIEW QUESTIONS (ta-dah-dah).
I mean, what’s the bloody point? Does anyone seriously believe that someone talking about how well they work in a team gives any kind of insight into that person’s abilities as a team player?! The only thing I learn from asking such a question is whether or not the person can bullshit or not. And I don’t care either way. No, the real reasons behind these questions is simply office politics. Power plays and self-importance are the motives here, not adding value to the hiring process. Certain people / departments want to feel that they affect the recruitment process in a meaningful way. After all, they have to justify their existence somehow and what better way to do it than pretend to be able to discern suitable candidates for positions that they don’t fully understand or appreciate?
I don’t know if it’s just me getting older and crankier but I’ve lost all patience with this sort of questions. Not only that, I now tend to actively avoid companies that ask such questions. I mean, why would I want to get involved with a company that considers my ability to bullshit, brown-nose and lie as an important selection criterion ?!?
Here are some of my favourites (and I use the term ironically):
"Where do you see yourself in five years time?" I normally go with "On my volcanic island base pointing a massive laser at the White House while demanding a billion, billion, billion dollar ransom". Seriously, what's the point of this? If you want to test the candidate's ambition, leave an empty hand-gun on the desk and tell them that if something happens to the company's CEO in the next five minutes, they can have their job. If the candidate grabs the gun, runs over to the CEO's office, points the gun to their head and pulls the trigger then congratulations, you got yourself an ambitious one. And in any case, level of ambition has absolutely no impact, I repeat: no impact, on someone's ability to be a good developer. The answer to this question is totally in-consequential, so why bother?
"How well do you cope with stress?" That's a simple one. Humans cope with stress in one of two ways: fight or flight. That's the way we're built, the way our body responds to stress. If you don't know this, you really shouldn't be interviewing people. If you're expecting an answer other than "I quit" or "I work hard till I burn out and then I quit" you really shouldn't be interviewing people. If you tend to ask this question a lot you really shouldn't be interviewing people.
"What is your biggest weakness?" I was asked this question once, after I had already secured a job offer at a previous interview a few days earlier. I looked the interviewer straight in the eye and said "I get violent when people ask me stupid questions". The interviewer paused for a second or two, looked at me with some concern and said "Oh...OK then". Unsurprisingly, I wasn't offered the job. Thing is, self-awareness is a very rare trait. Few people know themselves well enough to answer this question accurately. And the ones who do, wouldn't want to anyway, not while selling themselves at an interview. This question just serves to invite incongruous and dishonest answers. Next time I'm asked this I'm going to go with "child molesting" or "blowing up infidels".
"What don’t you like about your line of work?" Another easy one: "being asked stupid questions". First, if I told you what I don't like about my work would you remove it from my job description? No? ...I didn't think so! Second, if what I hate about my work is the main thing you're doing at your company then why would I be sitting here applying for the same thing I dislike? And if you think that I'm applying despite my misgivings, driven by some ulterior motive (i.e. money) then why oh why do you think I'd answer this honestly in the first place ?!
"Would you consider yourself an honest person?" Probably my all-time favourite. I hit them with the Cretan paradox: "I'm from <insert place-of-origin> and all <place-of-origin>-ans are liars". Watch them mulling over this for the next few minutes.
So, employers: please, please stop asking your interviewees meaningless, misleading, disingenuous, template-based trivia. Not only it doesn’t help pick out the best candidates, it may even drive good candidates away from you. Because, after all, who’d want to work for a company that asks stupid questions?