IT Employment optimize

How to interview for analytical thinking

Have you ever hired an employee who doesn't seem to be able to think on his own? Here are some questions to ask in the interview to make sure this doesn't happen again.

Comedian Bill Cosby used to do a bit about his kids and how frustrating giving directions to them was. He said, with his kids, it was not enough to tell them to go into the shower, you also had to tell them to turn on the water and use soap.

I've run into the occasional employee like that. You give them a task to do and they unable to act beyond it, or if they hit a snag, they're unable to use their own analytical thinking to connect the dots for a solution. It's called analytical thinking and it's really hard to test for it in an interview.

However, Bill Bonnstetter, Founder of Target Training International, offered in a piece he wrote for workforce.com some great questions to ask a job candidate in an interview to figure out just how analytical he or she is:

  • Describe a situation when you anticipated a problem. What, if anything, did you do about it?
  • Give an example of when your diagnosis of a problem proved to be correct. What approach did you take to diagnose the problem? What was the outcome?
  • Describe the most difficult work problem you've ever encountered. What made it difficult? What solution was implemented and how successful was it in solving the problem?
  • What steps do you take toward developing a solution?
  • What factors do you consider in evaluating solutions?

I don't think a person who is not very analytical could answer these questions or talk about scenarios. Try them in your next interview. (Not a bad set of questions to practice answers for if you're a job candidate either.)

About

Toni Bowers is Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.

74 comments
captainanalog
captainanalog

I've not found this to be highly valued by employers. I'm still hoping to find one who describes the goal and allows the indenpendance of thought, and action, to solve the problem without further instruction. Too often 'attitude' and a personality are much more important than independent, analytical intelligence and problem solving. Perceiving, and pointing out, possible problems is seen as a negative attitude. Sorry, but I came here to work, NOT to socialize, or to feed your ego.

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

Would you rather hire the guy that figures it out himself, but took 15 min. to do it, or the guy that pulled out his phone, Googles it, and answers in a minute? The first shows ability, the second shows common sense. Which would you hire?

txreal
txreal

Google is famous for giving hypothetical situations just to see how candidates think. Just Google it and you'll find some. I wonder if the technique contributed to their brain pool?

andrew232006
andrew232006

But I'd bet one 2 litre jar would hold more jellybeans than two 1 litre jars, since the jellybeans don't completely fill up the jar.

bjhaven
bjhaven

We used several of this type of question in interviews for technical reporting analyst positions. After pointing to a water tower out the interviewerÂ’s window, ask the candidate "How would you figure out how many jelly beans it would take to fill the water tower?" You are not looking for an answer; you are looking for a mental process that would be followed to arrive at an answer. If the response is, I have no idea where to even start, that candidate was not right for the job we were looking to fill. Another question involves telling the candidate - "I want you to tell me about the weather?" What additional questions do you need an answer to before you can actually tell me what I really need to know? Some example questions we were looking for included - current month average, max high and lows temps and or percipitation,: annual averages: current day conditions or tomorrow or next week; for this location of some other location? All intended to make sure the candidate understood the problem scope before they expended time and effort compiling a solution.

dregeh
dregeh

Look, I'm an analytical thinker - meaning, I will likely evaluate a situation moreso than a non-analytical thinker. However, I feel overwhelmed when on the spot I am asked to bring up memories of my past in which a vague description applied. Given a period of time I can think of these things and describe them to you in a concise and meaningful way, but not on the fly. So if you want to see an accurate picture of my analytical style, I can deliver that if you give me a situation to analyze right there on the spot. I have struggled back and forth whether I need to start trying to commit some of these events to memory. However, I've landed on the answer that it's effort wasted in vain since I normally only encounter these types of situations when in interviews (something I can brush up for shortly beforehand, and which are not very frequent).

gscratchtr
gscratchtr

I'm surprised no one has said "I'd ask 'Which is better: Windows or Linux?'"

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

No one but an analytical thinker would know the answer to that one. :p How about How would you use a desktop database as the backend for a multi user enterprise system? Or the user says their printer is not working. Come up with a set of fault finding steps and explin the why of each one. Or for DBAs. Given you have only one database and you need to collect and report to it. How would you decide where and when to optimise it, and why. Course you need someone on the other side of the table, who understands the answers.... So may be feeding 5000 with one loaf and a small fish would be an alternative. :(

medfordmel
medfordmel

I once interviewed for a position, and at the end of the technical questionnaire was a bonus question: a logic problem. There are three light switches in the basement, each of which corresponds to one of three light bulbs in the attic (this is clearly a poorly wired house). There is no way to see any light in the attic from within the basement. You can turn the switches on and off and leave them in either position. How would you identify which switch corresponds to which light bulb, if you are only allowed one trip upstairs? I solved the problem, which impressed the interviewer, and I won the position. I vowed to incorporate similar questions into my own interview process for analytical positions one day. They demonstrate one's ability (or inability) to approach problem solving in a creative way.

jsargent
jsargent

Do you have any possible solutions or road maps to work out some of those problems? Sorry, they also employ you to solve problems. When you are stuck in that IT hole in the back-room where the spaghetti monster lives they don't give a rats @rse if you want to socialize with them if they can't get real-time access to the company transactions when the router keeps failing. For gods sake order the equipment and just tell them why you need it.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

I do it all the time. I always do a bit of analysis though to see if the answer is an answer. Some googlers have been known to forget that necessary extra step, some aren't capable of it.

Slayer_
Slayer_

First figures it out, then checks his/her answer on the internet.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Figure out the difference and add it for each multiplication. if for every litre you add 100jb's, then you take ur first number, multiply it, then take your 100jb increase, and multiply it, then add them together.

Slayer_
Slayer_

So I think it would still give a good estimate. Where it gets iffy is that the bottom ones would have less slack space as they would be getting crushed by the weight of the top ones.

Slayer_
Slayer_

Fill a 1 litre jar with jellybeans, and count them, then scale up to the size of the water tower, if the tower holds 100,000 litres, multiply your number by 100,000. This should give a good rough estimate I think.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

Buy lots of jelly, use the water tower as a mold. Damn is the water tower isn't bean shaped is it? Put in a requistition for 1,000,000,000 jelly beans. Fill the water tower, count those that won't fit? Not taking this seriously am I? I'm sure there's a reason for that... After being asked that question, there would be a pause. In that pause I'd be asking myself the key question, the one that must be answered first. How badly do I need this job...

gechurch
gechurch

We know people over-estimate their own abilities. They also over-estimate how well they dealt with issues in the past. Since the interviewer doesn't know the scenario and wasn't there, they can't evaluate whether: * There was a simpler answer the candidate missed * The candidate worked well with others, followed instructions, whether they really were the one that came up with the answer or whether someone else did but they are claiming it etc etc You are much better to put a scenario forward and see for yourself how they handle it. There is some value in discussion of the past since it is a good indicator of future behaviour. I think a good way to incorporate it is when a candidate talks about some of their recent projects try to find a question along the lines of "that sounds like a tricky problem. How long did it take you to figure that out? Did you ask your colleague's for suggestions?" etc.

Fairbs
Fairbs

I would prefer to be asked one of the scenarios proffered by some of the other commenters. What would you think about if someone asked you to describe your problem solving method. Would that stump you in the moment? Or would it in itself be like a problem that you could then go on to describe how you'd solve?

gechurch
gechurch

We've used the printer question before, and a few similar ones when hiring for a general support person. They're open-ended questions, there's no 'one right answer', the ordering of steps will let you see if they're breaking the problem domain down properly, and the depth of their answer will tell you how much of this sort of work they've done before. Another one I like for support people (that deal with the general public) is "How would you explain DNS to an end-user?".

Slayer_
Slayer_

Because a round object cannot pass through a smaller round hole, no matter which angle you use. Desktop database? That sounds dangerous, should you have a server for that? I don't understand the optimize database question, don't you just turn on indexing (and set index-able columns) and the integrity checks? Bread is all carbs, you could last longer on it then with fish, but fish would give you more lasting energy. I'd say, for survival, build your shelter, use bread if you need some energy, use bread to go fishing, eat fish until you are ready to go searching, or wait to be rescued.

jsargent
jsargent

Though, after closing many man-hole covers that were square I can understand why the majority of man-hole covers are round.

Slayer_
Slayer_

If you have a second person, have them check or Go upstairs, take out the light bulbs and replace them with those things that turn light sockets into plugs, plug in extension cords and plug in radios to the end, set each to a different station and set the volume loud so you can hear it in the basement. Use that to determine which is which. or Replace once switch with a dimmer switch, and set it to half brightness, then have 1 on, 1 off, 1 half.

Pete6677
Pete6677

Questions like this only assess how much time someone has spent reading interview preparation materials. Let's face it: the lightbulb problem is easy once you have specifically prepared for this type of question but if it were encountered completely out of the blue and unexpected, something like 1% of the population would be able to correctly solve it (with no hint and no preparation). If this 1% of top analytical thinkers is the group you are trying to hire, be sure you are among the top 1% of companies since these candidates can afford to be picky about where they work. Once thing for sure, they don't want to work in a bank's IT department.

andrew232006
andrew232006

Unfortunately I have some managers with a bad view of google because of people implementing solutions they don't understand, not gathering enough information or not considering the source. But some solutions are not in books and could take weeks for someone to figure out on their own.

jsargent
jsargent

Better to search the internet then figure it out since it show s that he takes an existing solution and improves on it. The other way around shows how insecure and how much the candidate doubts his answer when he has to check it out on the internet which, in any case, may give the wrong answer or bad solutions.

dregeh
dregeh

...is it an african or european jelly bean?

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

I wouldn't if I could avoid it, but if I had to, in 3 or 4 sentences, MAX. More than that would just blind them with science.

andrew232006
andrew232006

Indexes can become fragmented. Rebuilding, reorganizing or updating the statistics for the query optimizer can provide some performance increase on large indexes. I would use an sql script to rebuild indexes that are more than 30% fragmented and reorganize between 5%-30% for indexes > 1000 pages. I would schedule it to run periodically when the database isn't busy, probably at night or over the weekend depending on the business.

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

An equilateral triangle couldn't fall in either, but it would take more metal to make a cover for a hole that would accommodate the same size worker. The round ones are heavy enough. Step one: CHECK THE CABLES! I've got my propeller beanie and pocket protector with me. Where do I sit? P.S. This one time shortly after starting this job, I had to set up a consultant with a laptop so she could do some security tests on our network. (Pentium II, Windows 98se, NIC was a pcmcia card with a dongle.) The laptop couldn't see the network. She starts analyzing the error according to the 7 layer model. I took the laptop from her, reinstalled the driver, and rebooted. One can think too much, too. Sometimes you just gotta punt!

Bobarino
Bobarino

turn 2 lights on. after a minute or so, turn 1 of the 2 lights off got upstairs and touch the 2 lights that are not lit. The warm one is the light you turned off.

Charles Bundy
Charles Bundy

I [b]loved[/b] the interview where they handed me a 2D shape puzzle and watched me fumble around. Never could figure out what the metric was on that.

andrew232006
andrew232006

I'd expect to find more people who've heard the question before than people who could solve it with a question like that. What would it mean if I took out my cell phone and looked up the answer?

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

that didn't solve things either. Come to think of it I've read stuff in books that has turned out to be not exactly correct as well... It's research versus plagiarism time, if I don't understand it, then the only way I'm running it, is under very well controlled circumstances. Never been a big fan of the try this and see what happens approach to fault resolution.

andrew232006
andrew232006

I wasn't suggesting copying code from a blog to a production server. But sometimes the only fixes or work arounds for well known microsoft bugs are on their technet site and you can dig through books all year and not find a solution.

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

If you don't understand it what have you implemented? It's way better than you've got five minutes because this guy Billy has posted the solution on his vanity site. All you have to do is google for something like how do I get data from DBMS X with language Y. 75% + will be a sql injection attack vector. I stopped trusting that the people posting code on the interweb were competent a long time ago. I don't even trust me far enough to just use it on the assumption that it's both what I need and correctly done. If your boss has concerns on that front then show proof of diligence, and be thankful that your boss is more competent than most.

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

That is funny! I always have to use Google to find anything anywhere in M$s websites. The built in search using Bing never comes up with a useful result. Thanks for the smile!

Slayer_
Slayer_

He still could have got the bad answer. By trying first, I still get an example of their thinking process. If I wanted to test their google ability, I would make them try and find something in the MSKB

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

Where did you get the 1,000,000,000 jelly beans? (The Internet...)

Tony Hopkinson
Tony Hopkinson

You are bound to miss something! :p Then there's some smiley 'erm person in front of you, with the one right answer the HR numpties got off a consultant who got payed in millions, and not jelly beans either... No point in putting a lot of effort picking the right people, if the wrong people are doing the picking....

michaellashinsky
michaellashinsky

I've been telling them it is dark magic involving hallucinogenic substances and the sacrifice of chickens. They usually stop asking questions after that. Do I get the job?

Slayer_
Slayer_

That should be enough.

Slayer_
Slayer_

But the scenario didn't say you had a "sniffer"

captainanalog
captainanalog

I'd just use the circuit 'sniffer' in my tool bag. Shame on you for showing up for electrical work without proper tools!

Slayer_
Slayer_

It really bugs me that I didn't figure this out....

Slayer_
Slayer_

That's a way better answer, now I feel stupid for not thinking of it.