Interview Questions: When It's Your Turn

by Jesse Farmer on Saturday, April 12, 2008

This is part of my series about interview questions. As promised this is about interview strategy rather than specific technical interview questions. I'll continue with that next week.

Every tech interview I've ever had has four stages:

  1. Small talk and swapping brief personal bios.
  2. Questions about your previous employment and projects.
  3. Technical questions and brain teasers.
  4. Turning the tables: "Do you have any questions for me?"

The meat of the interview is in the second and third parts where you can directly show your knowledge, skill, and passion, but don't underestimate the value of the fourth part.

Don't be Afraid to Ask Hard Questions

Most people use the fourth part to ask "What is it like working here?"-type questions. If you think you're going to get interesting responses by all means ask those, but most interviewers I know lie to some degree to make their job sound approximately ten times more awesome than it really is. They probably don't want to admit that there are parts of their job they hate to themselves, let alone some interviewee.

Besides, if you want to know the bad parts about the job — and there will be some — just ask that question directly. They'll either be forthright or they won't and it's pretty easy to discern between the two cases.

Using the Questions to Show Off

In Joel Spolsky's article The Guerilla Guide to Interviewing he says that you want to hire people who are two things: one, smart; two, able to get things done.

Since Interview 2.0 is the common interview style in most technology companies these days you don't always have the chance to show off how smart you are, but the fourth part offers a path to redemption.

Let's say you're interviewing at Amazon and have a background in mathematics. You should be asking the engineers questions about the interesting mathematical things they do, have done, or have tried to do with their massive data sets. This shows that you're not only engaged with the interviewer and the company, but have knowledge that can be brought to bear.

The same applies if you're a marketer or whatever. If you feel like you haven't had the chance to show the interviewer all you have to offer then asking intelligent questions that you know something about is a great strategy.

A Hard-Learned Lesson

I learned this lesson the hard way. About a month after I left Sugar, Inc. and two months after I launched Appaholic I was interviewing at Facebook. For most of the interviews the technical/quizzy type questions went well. I had even sent in solutions to two of their job puzzles before I came in.

I was a little frustrated that most of the CS-type questions were about designing databases (as in, writing one from scratch) since I'd never had to do that before. You can never know too much, though, so I only blame myself.

When it came time to ask them questions, instead of using the strategy above and showing them I did have a solid grasp of the fundamentals they were looking for, I asked them the following question: "Facebook is a _____ company. What would you put in the blank?"

Every single person said "technology" and then I probed them about that. "But you guys make money by selling attention. How does that not make you a media company?"

This is a bad question to ask engineers, even high-ranking ones, because most engineers don't give a crap — they just want to create cool products and gizmos and bristle when people interject marketing and business mumbo-jumbo.

And boy did they bristle. I won't name names, but it was clear this wasn't a welcome question. My time would have been better spent asking them technical questions because it would've created a discussion they wanted to take part in.

I thought I was being clever but instead I torpedoed my chances of getting an offer there by annoying my interviewers and reinforcing their opinions about my technical skills.

Not one month later I sold Appaholic/Adonomics, so it worked out well, but I still view it as a strategic mistake. Lesson learned!