Monday, February 11, 2008

Sharing Answers to Interview Questions

The other day I was looking up some test-related topics on the Internet, and I came across an entire thread dedicated to interview questions and their answers. Readers were enthusiastically thanking the people who posted the questions, making note of answers and thinking this was going to further their career.

Now, I'm all about being prepared. When I prep for an interview, I generally ask a friend to mock-interview me, to get me into the right mindset. While at Microsoft, I was a frequent interviewer but still found it a challenge when the tables were turned. Mock interviews hgelp remind me of the types of technical questions I will probably face, the need to speak slowly and clearly, and above all, how to stay cool under pressure.

There is a difference, however, between mock interviewing and trying to memorize an answer to an interview question. I've seen this happen during campus recruiting (at some very prestigious schools, mind you, where you think the students would either be beyond that or they'd be smart enough to know it's not going to work). Memorizing the answers to interview questions is dishonest, it's a disservice to the interviewee, and it's a disservice to the company.

Let's tackle the honesty part, first. In the US, there is currently an epedemic of dishonesty in our schools. Kids regularly cheat -- they've done it throughout the ages. But now the kids who are cheating actually feel no compuction about it! They find nothing morally wrong with sharing homework, or even cheating on a test!

In the workplace, the same standards of honesty seem to apply. Everyone has had the co-worker who takes credit for work he or she didn't do. The misfortunate have worked for the boss who misrepresented his work or flat-out lies about a pending promotion or the likes.

Because it's mainstream doesn't make it right. DIshonesty is viewed by every major religion and philosophy as wrong. Somehow our society is beginning to overlook those norms, though, and that moral foundation appears to be eroding.

Cheating on an interview is a serious disservice to the interview candidate. Generally, here's what happens... In an interview, when I sense a candidate is responding with a memorized answer, I immediately change the question. Not to something entirely new, but I morph the boundaries of the current question, just enough that a memorized response won't apply. Three things generally happen: 1) the candidate is absolutely flustered and pretty much gives up, 2) the candidate plows ahead (using the memorized answer) and totally blows the opportunity, or 3) the candidate, who actually does have a command of the topic, responds smoothly. In two of the three cases, however, that candidate is finished-there will be no 'hire' recommendation coming from me, and as hiring manager that usually means the end of the interview.

So the candidate makes themselves look bad in my eyes. But what is actually worse is the candidate who actually gets hired based on a misperception of their abilities. That candidate is generally placed into a position for which they are unprepared and underskilled. They are uncomfortable, they struggle, and ultimately end up fired because of their poor performance. Now that individual has a huge black mark on their resume!

It also hurts the company. When a candidate is hired, the company is looking to that person to further their business objectives. The failure to deliver on those objectives has a negative impact on the company bottom-line. It also takes time to fire an employee, meaning the company wastes more energy.

If you're about to begin the interview process, reading up on sample questions is fine. I bet, in fact, that reading the answers to those questions will also be OK, if it's done with the idea that the interviewee will learn the principles being probed in the question, and if they will push themselves to answer variants of the question. Digging deep and acquiring topical fluency (the ability to not just answer a question, but to deal with permutations and demonstrate an understanding of the underlying concepts being probed) is a great thing. As a matter of fact, I strongly encourage testers who want to improve their theoretical skills to do this very thing - in groups, sit down and bounce around the answers to questions like this. But don't bet your next career step on a memorized answer--in the end, no good can come of it.