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I know they are meant to be clever, to see how you act on unknown territory. But since similar questions are asked for years they are wannabe-clever and routine.

Would you give honest feedback risking to diminish your chances? Would you exclude this employer right away?

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closed as not constructive by gnat, Jarrod Roberson, Yannis Rizos Jun 25 '12 at 1:32

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possible duplicate of Why did an interviewer ask me a question about people eating curry? –  user8 Sep 19 '10 at 21:56
@Mark: First my question is 5 hours older. :) Second: this question is not about understanding why these questions are asked, but about how you would react to something you possibly don't approve. –  LennyProgrammers Dec 3 '10 at 8:34
This sort of question doesn't bother me in the least. They are just brain teasers to me and I kinda like to be presented with them. Something just kicks of in my brain. I feel challenged but in a positive way. I'm actually having fun while I'm trying to answer this sort of question. –  Diego Deberdt Jun 24 '11 at 19:03
I would tell them to go h... uh - to cut the crap with fake corporate BS, tell them to see the details on prior track record and finished projects (that I have provided), and contact me if they need crap done, and leave. Thats why I like to do the dev thing - so I dont have to spend time with incompetent corporate-wanna-be HR -types. –  user57523 Jun 24 '12 at 16:53
@Shakespeare: But this is a dumb question that tests nothing if you have heard it before - all it tests is your ability to recall trivia - unless you are interviewing for a job writing a program that makes manhole covers. If you have not, then it may give an indication as to how you solve a trivial problem. –  mattnz Jun 24 '12 at 23:41

12 Answers 12

up vote 25 down vote accepted

I will usually ask directly that I don't see the relevance, so could they please explain what they're looking for?

I shake my head at how poorly prepared some organizations are for interviewing people. I'm what you call an "Experienced hire". That means that you have to sell me just as much on your organization as I need to sell myself to you. If you don't understand that, don't be surprised when I turn down your offer.

These kinds of questions are usually from people who just don't know what to ask so they ask some question that they think is problem solving, but is really trivia or at best training. Or, they got hired in the 90s and are asking questions from their own interview.

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+1 The interviewers themselves and motivations make all the difference, even if it's the exact same question. –  Ryan Hayes Sep 15 '10 at 15:28
Usually, they just want to hear you talk. Who cares if its relevant to programming? Do you really think they think a question like that is relevant too? Of course not. –  rmx Nov 5 '10 at 15:43
Depending on the tone, this could effectively be rejecting the job. Only do it if being asked the question made the job a non-starter for you. –  Chris Pitman Jun 24 '12 at 21:42

Because a long, long, time ago, there lived a manager in a forest who thought he was a king. He was bored with 'king stuff' and decided to take a walk through his domain. He came upon a group of very intelligent, hardworking minions who thoughtfully put up a sign that read "Watch out for the hole". Being the king that he was, he was sure that this did not apply to him and that kings simply do not fall into holes. Well, he did, but not all the way. His kingly-rotund-derriere would not fit. He was extracted from the hole. His pants were pulled down in the process and one of the workers noticed the waffle pattern on the king's rump caused by the mesh of his Aeron chair. This inspired the design/royal seal for all hole covers.

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why not-so-relevant answers get so much upvotes ? –  Ayush Goyal Nov 6 '10 at 10:09
@Ayush Goyal - because these types of interview questions are not-so-relevant, and unfortunately those in the job market are not in a position to tell the interviewer how offensive it is to waste my time with these questions and leave us feeling dumbfounded about our chances of getting the job. –  JeffO Nov 6 '10 at 22:57

I read the comments here and have a bit of a laugh.

I've asked these questions in interviews, and other questions like them (I won't show my hand and say what they are but you can probably guess).

These questions CAN and ARE a decider of who gets hired.

In one case a few of us were in an interview, things were going well, and the guy got asked the "curly question with no right answer" at the end.

When asked, he got very agitated, stared at us all, and said something like: "thats a dumb question, I can't see the relevance of it, and I think we should move on". At the same time he was leaning across the table, aggressive, and seemed ready to hit whoever was closest.

As you can imagine, the question gave multiple answers: - can't work well under pressure - aggressive AND arrogant - does not WANT TO TRY and think on his feet

Sorry - but professional work in IT / software / engineering requires all of the above attributes. If you can be shown to have those behaviour patterns in an interview then the question did its job: No Hire.

I've also been in the same kind of interview with somebody who realised immediately what was going on, asked more questions to tease out the ope-ended nature of the original question. Refined, made notes, did it all on a white-board in front of us, realised the parts that were spurious or irrelevant, and came up with an answer. The actual answer didn't matter. The process of getting there did. Got hired.

These questions are asked for a very good reason: They show a bit more about your PERSONALITY and also ANALYTICAL ability.

In any workplace of more than 1 person, a new hire needs to be technically able as well as have a personality that will fit with the group (to varying degrees). Frequently you can teach to extend ability, but there is nothing you can do about personality conflicts. Finding them early is a great thing.

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When I ask questions like this I make a point of explaining at the beginning of the interview that there are potentially going to be questions which are more about the way they think than the answer and not to worry about right or wrong. I also say that they're free to ask the questioner what they're looking for if they wish. If after that they're still not willing to engage then I view it very much as you do. –  Jon Hopkins Nov 25 '10 at 15:38
@JonH That seems like the right way to do it. The problem is that, as others noted, this kind of question or riddle can be used by rote, meaning they do not know what they are looking for. –  Mark C Nov 25 '10 at 19:10
Also worth distinguishing between "why are manhole's round" which really just call for a knowledge of trivia and "estimate the weight of a 747" which can - if asked and assessed correctly - be a fair assessment of estimating and thought processes. For me the key thing is there should be no element of the answer which is judged on predefined knowledge the candidate may or may not have (say about 747s), just on whether the process / assumptions made sense. –  Jon Hopkins Nov 26 '10 at 22:07
Some solid points are raised in this answer, and the approach really isn't all that uncommon. To be honest, the "right" answer (or approach) here can move a "maybe" candidate into solid offer territory. –  GlenH7 Jun 24 '12 at 22:56

Some of these are ridiculous, I agree. You have some interviewers that use these questions simply because CIO.com said it's a good interview question, but don't really use them in the way they are intended. Questions like "Estimate the weight of a Boeing 747" aren't for you to get the right answer, or even close to right. When I interviewed at a consulting company, I was asked this question, and I'm from a small town where I'd never even seen a plane that held more than two people! The interviewer said, "That's ok, just talk it out, I want to see how you think." I ended up getting the job and was COMPLETELY off. I just laid out my assumptions, estimated parts instead of the plane as a whole, things like that. Don't count out the employer totally (there are lots other things more important when writing off a place to work), but try see why they are asking it. Employers usually have a reason for asking questions, and time is short in interviews, so many have chosen it for a reason.

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The interviewers can see how creative you are in this case; the question is unexpected, so you have to think of an answer on the spot. Sometimes this is the place to go a bit silly and have a good laugh - they'll remember your name for it. –  deltreme Sep 15 '10 at 13:55
How often does the practice of software development demand quick answers to spurious questions? –  Randall Schulz Sep 15 '10 at 14:29
@deltreme 'Psychological' interviewing was a fad in the 90s. Most 'how to interview' books/articles I've read since then recommend you stay away from it. –  MIA Sep 15 '10 at 14:44
@Ryan Hayes - I think you are confusing programming with IT support. I have never had to get up at 2AM to do emergency programming. –  JohnFx Sep 15 '10 at 14:47
@Mark C: It depends on the size of the staff. In a smaller company, a programmer may very well be in the IT support rotation (or may be a one-person IT staff). –  Bruce Alderman Nov 5 '10 at 15:34

The point of these type of questions is that there isn't a "right" answer, they just want to see that you can think through a problem and solve it logically. Reacting with scorn or assuming that the questioner is dumb for asking it (and by association the whole company) is a dangerous and arrogant thing to do.

It is better to play along and give them what they want - and this doesn't mean an off-the-cuff answer, but instead demonstrate to them that you are able to look at the problem logically and come up with something that shows you can think around abstract problems. There generally isn't a perfect answer to these questions - in fact, you may well come up with something completely different to what they expect and yet still show that you have the ability to think logically.

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I know, why they got popular in the 90ies. Nowadays they are just boring and repetetive. –  LennyProgrammers Sep 15 '10 at 16:16
The rationale behind them hasn't changed which is why they are still in use. If you can't answer a question you've heard before without seeming bored then I wouldn't employ you. –  Dan Diplo Sep 15 '10 at 16:32
It's like manually summing 20 numbers where the numbers are different with each interview. If you are looking for mindless programmers, i wouldn't employe me either. –  LennyProgrammers Sep 16 '10 at 7:50
I once, in an English exam, was given the opening passage of a novel and asked to speculate, in essay format, how the book continued. As it happened, I had read it (Outcast, by Rosemary Sutcliff). It's hard to speculate when you know the answer. –  TRiG Oct 3 '10 at 13:30
@TRig - True, but in that case you'd just say you've heard it before, give the answer you know and move on. –  Dan Diplo Oct 3 '10 at 14:36

Would you give honest feedback

By "honest feedback", I assume you mean something like "I think that's a stupid question."

What do think this would achieve? Would this do anything more useful than show how much smarter you think you are than the interviewer?

Your task in an interview is a simple one: Get a job offer or move closer to it. Does telling the interviewer that you think his question is stupid help you in that goal? No? Then shut up.

A secondary goal is also "Impress the interviewer enough that he/she may be a valuable contact somewhere in the future." Does telling the interviewer that you think his/her question is stupid help you in that goal? No? Then shut up.

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Mostly good answer. I would change the primary goal though to be "Determine if this is a job offer I want, and then get it or move closer to it". –  Chris Pitman Jun 24 '12 at 21:52

Answer it?

As far excluding companies for asking them, not likely. In my experience, the companies that I want to work for have asked them. (Microsoft interview back in college, Google a few years ago, my current employer interview a year ago).

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The thing you have to keep in mind, depending on the size of the company you are interviewing with, is that the interviewer may rarely actually conduct interviews; it may not be part of their normal duties. So while you are nervously preparing, reading the latest "How to Ace and Interview" type resources, your interviewer might also be reading up on "How to Conduct and Interview"

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I'd answer it, but I'd make sure they knew that I knew they are very common questions found on blogs and in industry books. I'd probably nod my head and say 'Of course this is a very populuar one, but here's a few ways to solve it...', or maybe 'thats a new take on the old question about...', or even "I see we read the same blogs".

Honestly, it'd be a serious strike against any company that did that. It'd tell me they're a conventional bunch, who parrot what they read in IT magazines as 'best practices'. Especially if they gave me one of the well known questions without changing it up. Such companies would probably not want me working for them.

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"It'd tell me they're a conventional bunch": I'm not 100% sure whether the human resources interviewer really represents the general spirit of a company's IT staff. –  Dimitri C. Dec 2 '10 at 15:32

I would reflect the question back onto the interviewer. Having never been a mechanical or civil engineer, nor having worked in the domain, I would request context. If not given it, I would again reflect the question, mentioning that for a quality answer in an unfamiliar domain, I need some research time.

The answer probably revolves around standard shape of pipes. But that's just a guess.

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(It's so the cover can't fall down the hole) –  Chris Buckett Sep 22 '10 at 19:40

Give honest feedback, but act professionally and politely at the same time. If the interviewer insists, just answer the damn question. Slamming a door or arguing won't leave a good impression. You can always reject the offer later, but you're in much better position to make a reasonable decision once you have the offer.

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You are in NO position to make a decision without an offer. If you don't have an offer, there's no decision to be made. –  Andy Lester Oct 8 '10 at 22:43

These kind of questions are a poor portrayal of the perceived power-relation between interviewer and interviewee. They show the candidate they can ask whatever they want and expect the poor lad to jump through hoops trying to answer a question outside of his or her domain.

The interview is a business transaction where time, loyalty and expertise is traded with security, coins and perhaps an opportunity to learn and network. If the candidate is willing to accept contrived questions unrelated to these key factors, the employer can expect a much stronger negotiating position given the factors that do matter.

These questions can negatively influence loyalty and moreover bias the interviewer in his or her decisions. I've read that people believe it measures creativity or improvisational talent. Perhaps these factors are relevant for the job. But does an eloquent and witty individual equal a creative one? I would say it's quite the opposite: the silent thoughtful character is often most creative.

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