Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Interview: Good or Bad? Google, Amazon, Microsoft brain-teaser interview questions

This is a good question to understand a candidate's ability to problem solve.

Super vague and opiniated history of question

Just historically, Google and Microsoft have asked these questions since 2000. And see how much they have grown since then. The extremely vague and generic macro outlook to me rather indicative that something was right during that period of time. My guess why this was more effective in the beginning because the people who wrote the questions knew why they were asking the question.

Now there are too many people who do not understand the intentions of the question.

Not For Interviewers

The biggest problem to these questions is the interviewer. Majority if not all interviewers do not even understand the intention of the question. The main reason is that interviewers just ask a list of questions that need to be answered. The company gives them the list, and they ask it. So like many other questions, they think the right answer is the correct answer.

I've interviewed with many companies who have asked these questions, and none knew the intention of the questions. I know this because I knew the answers to all of them. There were a couple new ones but they were far easier than FAANG. When I answer them, the interviewer are easily impressed and moves on. In many cases, I would even give them other questions I knew of and they would be even more impressed.

Even if the interviewer has some clue to the question, they have no way to score a candidate like they can with technical questions. Also interviewers are not hired to have problem solving skills, so how well can they judge another person's problem solving skills? 

So basically, this is not an interviewer question. This is a hiring manager's interview question to ask and only if the hiring manager understands why they are asking this question.

Why the question?

The point of the question is to understand the candidates problem solving skills. In my opinion, this is one of the most important skills I look for. The main reason is that technology is always changing and I can train information, but I cannot train (or at least have no time to train) problem solving skills. I am looking for the candidate's ability to take the problem, break it down, ask questions, etc. 

The question is actually meant to be nearly impossible to solve for most candidates. That is probably why arbitrary questions became a thing too (like "how many tennis balls fits in a jumbo jet"). Because everyone became so obsessed with the actual answer than the reason why they asked it. And knowing the answer is quite useless for software engineer employees. If there's an answer, it is cheaper for the company just to buy the answer. What the company needs is an employee that can solve the problem that doesn't have an answer to it.

Bad Hires from Traditional Interviews

One example in my life on this difference was this one time that we hired a highly certified employee. He had many, many Microsoft/Cisco certificates. He had a lot of work experience. His projects were never completed. Near the end of his employment, the owner had me help him with a project and he couldn't tell the difference between a class and an object. I told the owner that he wasn't worth the time to train. We could hire a college grad that could do more.

Another example was a college "graduate" that was tasked to setup a computer with Windows. He was provided an install CD. He installed, then got stuck with a video driver. A bit odd for him to ask for help with this, but I answered his question. 6 hours later, my colleague calls me over and we find that he never installed the video driver because he didn't which video driver to install. The PC case was already open, and I just google the video card name and it was the first result that comes up. My colleague told me that he just told our boss to let him go. I learned that he had actually asked everyone how to install the video driver and still couldn't figure it out. We also found out later that he didn't actually graduate but dropped out of school.

Another example was a transfer from another department. He came with a lot of recommendations from his previous group. He was also very good at talking and making others feel good. Although he had the credentials, he was not able to do anything on his own. Every task had to be spelled out, even if it was a repeated task. Not only did it have to be explicitly written down, he had terrible attention to details. This was almost clear to me within the first 5 minutes of interacting with him for the first time.

My final example was a person that we actually hired before and basically fired for incompetence. I did my best to give her the benefit of the doubt. Even then, she was only able to accomplish two tasks of thousands of tasks. The two tasks being to copy a file to another server (which she actually copied to the wrong server... twice). I even had her screen share and watch her do it incorrectly, then corrected her (just to make sure she had access). At the end, I had her delete the file and have her do it again on her own. She was never able to do this for an entire week with a daily reminder. She was hired to be a procedure manager and she could not even copy files (she had plenty of tasks that was to set up meetings or talk to people but none of those were ever done).

My point with all this was that they all passed the interview. I did not interview any of them. To this day, I have no clue how they even lasted 5 minutes. I think firing people is harder than rejecting, and I wanted to fire all of them within minutes. I think the brain-teaser or open-ended questions are great to weed these people out.

Many candidates that I have recommended are either the longest tenured, promoted, or very well-liked.

Other Questions

These brain-teaser / open-ended questions should not be the only question to determine a candidate. This is just to understand the candidates ability to problem solve. 

One type of candidates that do well but are toxic to the company are the ones that are very smart but also have very big egos. So it is important to ask other questions that will determine their ability to work with others. In general, you do not want those candidates. If you do, then you need to make sure they and your existing staff have the right environments to handle such situations.

Another type are those that often cannot stop asking questions or only sees problems. The main problem with these candidates is that they analyze too long. A group could afford maybe one of these candidates if they are very good at identifying critical issues, but it is equally important to have someone that counter-balances to make sure things still move forward.


- Almost seems like I contradict myself here but not really. Will have to review that post in more detail.

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