Tech & Work

10 interview questions to help make the best geeky hire

Interviewing for an IT position isn't all about determining technical proficiency -- it's also important to measure a candidate's geek quotient. After all, would you want someone on board who doesn't know who Gary Gygax was?

Anyone who has been involved in the hiring process knows how tough it can be to pick a candidate with not just the right technical skills, but with the personality to fit into an IT department or some other technical role. After all, the only thing worse than hiring someone who is clueless about the job is hiring someone who is clueless about critical geek subjects. So we've put together a set of questions to test the mettle of any would-be tech employee to help you make sure a job candidate not only carries a geek card, but that it is up-to-date and of at least "advanced" status.

Note: This article is also available as a PDF download.

1: Star Wars or Star Trek?

If there's one way you can really judge a job candidate's true character, it is by determining their preference between Star Wars and Star Trek. Make sure that when you ask this question, you give no indication whatsoever which you prefer! Some interviewees will try to take a compromise position and say, "I like them both equally." This is utter nonsense and the sign of an intellectual weakling who cannot make a decision. Regardless of how they answer, demand that they back up their opinion with facts. This will ensure that they have the ability to remember ridiculous levels of detail and fit logic and reasoning into a fantasy world, talents that are required to survive in the world of corporate IT.

2: Who shot first, Han Solo or Greedo?

No matter what answer candidates give for the first question, they must be able to answer this question accurately: Han Solo shot first. Sure, it might smack of age discrimination, because younger applicants may have been exposed to only the newer "revised" versions of the films. This is no time to cut someone slack. The fact is, anyone you want working for you should have enough dedication to fully research an issue as important as this one and be obsessive enough to have seen the original version, even if they had to trawl flea markets for a VCR and original copies of the tape.

3: Movie or the original?

IT workers often succeed or fail based on their ability to detect subtle differences. For example, two routers may have identical configurations with one slight difference in an obscure setting, and workers who can't find these kinds of differences may be stuck spinning their wheels while the network is down. In my experience, the most effective way possible to judge a candidate's ability to see these differences, is the "movie vs. the original" test. You see, the corporations that make movies are forced to make changes when basing a film on a book, graphic novel, video game, or what have you. After all, they have to create a work that the mainstream will accept. The original Dune film is the classic example; the director's cut was around eight hours long. By having a candidate list differences between the movie version of a geek classic and the original version (anything works, really: Lord of the Rings, X-Men, Spiderman, GI Joe... you get the point), you are really testing their ability to perform when it counts: in an intense "systems down" scenario where moments matter and details make the difference.

4: What are 10 of "Weird Al" Yankovic's greatest songs?

The fact is, if the person you are interviewing can't tell you where they were the first time they experienced a "Weird Al" Yankovic song, they are not worth hiring. But beyond that, they should be able to name at least 10 of this artist's classic songs. I know that I am preaching to the choir here, but Yankovic truly speaks to the very soul of all who are deserving of titles like "systems administrator" and "senior developer." The candidate should be able to name a few of the songs not based on other songs, too. After all, most people have heard at least 10 of his direct parodies before.

5: Remember when Steve Jobs started KoalaSoft?

Every interviewer should be bent on tricking the candidate into making an embarrassing mistake. It really preps the potential hire for the frustration and humiliation of a job in the typical workplace. One of the primo ways to accomplish this is to mention odd little "facts" but to get them wrong on purpose. For example, Apple CEO Steve Jobs ran NeXT after he left Apple in 1985, so you can try something like, "This situation reminds me of when Steve Jobs started that company KoalaSoft." If candidates don't even flinch, it's clear that they have no clue and should not be hired. But it's even more interesting when they try to contradict you without offending you. Be sure to question their intelligence along the way. "What, do you really think Jobs would name a company 'NeXT?' Don't you know that he's a huge koala lover? Look it up on Wikipedia when you get home if you don't believe me!" should do the trick.

6: How will you bribe the gamesmaster?

One of the honored traditions in the world of role-playing games is giving the gamesmaster bottles of soda, pizzas, and other treats in an effort to curry favor and gain preferential treatment for your character. Potential employees should not only be familiar with this tactic, but they should be proficient in it. Those who are ignorant of this (or worse, do not know what a "gamesmaster" is) should not be hired, of course. Be wary of interviewees who see it as a form of cheating or sucking up. After all, if you hire this person, do you really want them to have a bad attitude about "taking care of" those who pull the strings... like you?

7: What were the original Intel Pentium CPUs most famous for?

If candidates don't know the correct answer to this ("math errors") and other notable tech screw-ups, they are definitely lacking in credibility. There are a variety of these kinds of questions to ask. They combine the human trait for remembering failure and the geek obsession with trivia. They also remind job candidates that their mistakes will be remembered as well, perhaps for decades.

8: How would you describe the "real programmer"?

One of the biggest legends of software development is the "real programmer." Just like some folks talk about the "real man" who kills lions with his bare hands and can run a mile in two minutes flat, the "real programmer" myth is bandied about the development world as an impossible measuring stick. If candidates don't describe a "real programmer" by quoting "The Story of Mel" (the Chuck Norris of software development), think twice about having them work on your project!

9: Who is your favorite artist/musician?

Every good sci-fi or fantasy book has a cover that was drawn by an artist; this is a well-known fact. And every RPG source book is filled with artwork as well. And of course, music is a critical part of any good movie. All obsessive geeks make it their business to learn the names of the people who create these works of art. If your job candidate's favorite artist is some loser like Van Gogh or Metallica instead of a genius like Kaja Foglio or Basil Poledouris, you really can't have that person touching your tech. For the record, John Williams is only provisionally acceptable, dependent upon the candidate's answers to other questions.

10: Who was Gary Gygax?

The inventor of Dungeons and Dragons. This is a must-know item, with no excuses allowed.


Justin James is the Lead Architect for Conigent.

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