Interviewing: The process by which an interviewer determines via a face-to-face interaction whether an interviewee possesses the chops necessary to assist the hiring company in its quest for profitability and market domination. (My definition. Feel free to quote me.)
About a decade ago, Microsoft pioneered an approach to engineering interviews based primarily on puzzle solving. The approach became so popular that companies like Google adopted it, books were written on it, and websites dedicated to it. Candidates were even encouraged to consult up to a dozen specific tomes in order to successfully crack the puzzle-solving puzzle that the interviews evolved into. (See the Wikipedia article “Microsoft interview.”)
It bugged me when I first heard about it a decade ago, and it bugs me even more now that other companies have jumped on the bandwagon. I think it’s a pathologically bad practice for reasons I will now reveal.
When you ask a senior in Computer Science to write a function for string comparison in some arbitrary language (for example), you’re testing his or her capacity to either a) regurgitate code they successfully wrote three years earlier, or b) cram puzzle-solving code snippets into their brains in order to impress an interviewer on demand. You might as well ask a candidate to solve a Rubik’s cube blindfolded in less than two minutes for all the value you derive from a question like this.
Seriously, what do you learn from this question?
- That the candidate is smart. Congratulations. You just verified their cumulative GPA and spot checked specific courses on their transcript.
- That the candidate is a puzzle solver. Congratulations. Next time just break out a Rubik’s cube and be done with it. For the bonus round, break out a blindfold.
- That the candidate knows how to prep for your highly arbitrary and ultimately predictable IQ test. Congratulations. You just learned that the candidate is motivated to game your goofy interview process in order to secure a position with you.
My most significant concern is this: Fill your company with a few thousand smart kids who know how to solve puzzles and you’ll populate an engineering staff who can’t think strategically or globally about where the company needs to go, or how products need to evolve. You may find a few who have broader abilities, but your odds of finding them are about the same as discovering new hires that can hit a sweet jump shot or play the cello. You get some by chance, but not because you interviewed for it.
My assertion/prophecy ten years ago was that companies who hired spiffy puzzle solvers via spiffy puzzle solving interviews would ultimately suffer from a vast and pervasive lack of vision and global thinking among its engineers.
Memo to the industry: Your company’s biggest problem isn’t the puzzle solving ability of your engineers. It’s your collective ability to figure out what the market will cough up for the products you never thought about building.
Interview by testing for small thinking? Don’t be shocked when you find yourself working for a fading company devoid of a critical mass of engineers capable of thinking big.