CXO

How to answer tough interview questions: 8 tips

Tech companies are notorious for throwing curveball interview questions at job candidates. Here's how to keep your cool when one of these comes your way.

The days of tech job interviews consisting of only questions such as "Tell us about yourself" are gone. Several companies have adopted Google's brain teasing interview model, throwing interviewees questions such as "How many happy birthday posts do you think Facebook gets in one day?" and "If you are in a boat with a boulder and you drop that boulder into the lake, how does the water level before and after you drop the boulder in the lake compare?"

Those are both real questions, by the way, asked recently by Facebook and Apple, respectively, according to a recent Glassdoor report.

Google itself abandoned these types of questions several years ago, and executives later admitted that even they could not solve them. However, several tech and other companies continue to use them as part of the interview process.

"A lot of these questions are designed to see how somebody thinks and analyzes," said Mark Dinan, a tech recruiter based in Silicon Valley. "But sometimes, they're just ego-driven, and are attempts by a 24-year-old questioner to demonstrate how smart they are, as opposed to finding out about what a candidate knows."

SEE: 27 jobs with the hardest interview questions

The tech interview process is flawed on both the interviewer and interviewee side, Dinan said. "Many people in the tech world do not interview well, and a lot of companies don't know how to interview," he said. "They adopted patterns of behavior from Google and Facebook, which doesn't work for a startup that's desperate to find people. A lot of times, companies need to redo the interview process because they end up discarding qualified people."

Dinan said he has seen his clients walk out of interviews after being asked a curveball question. "It's one thing if you're interviewing at Facebook and they ask that, but if you're interviewing at a company you might not be that excited about, that's when you see people leave," Dinan said.

Curveball questions are especially difficult for more introverted job candidates, said Caroline Stokes, executive coach and headhunter, and founder of executive search firm Forward Human Capital Solutions. "People may not feel comfortable in that environment and freeze up," Stokes said. "I would encourage companies to have other testing environments as well as those curveball questions."

Asking questions that get people to explain how they have tackled particular problems in the past are better than brainteasers for interviews, said Dave Denaro, vice president at Keystone Associates, which provides career coaching to executives. "You can probe for details to confirm the individual is being truthful," Denaro said. "Asking how have you handled this problem before is better than asking how would you handle it, assuming the candidate has had at least some work experience."

Interviewers should try to get to the heart of the following questions, Denaro said:

  • Can the candidate deliver what needs to be done in the job?
  • Are they motivated to do it in this particular company?
  • Do they fit the company culture and management style?

"Not every candidate is enough of a match in all three areas to warrant getting an offer, nor should a candidate accept a job offer if they think there is not enough of a match in all three areas," Denaro said.

Here are some tips for handling brain teaser interview questions.

1. Do your research.

Oftentimes, tech companies use the same type of brainteaser questions, so candidates can prepare for them ahead of time, Dinan said. Several brain teasers fall into similar categories, such as the "How Many [Things] Are There in [Location]?" question and the "How Many [Things] Could Fit in [Container]?" question.

You can also prepare to connect your response to any question to what the company is looking for in an employee, Stokes said.

2. Buy some time.

Once an interviewer throws you a difficult question, you can buy some time with filler statements such as, "That's really interesting, I've never thought about it before," said Jen Teague, a small business staffing and onboarding coach. You can also ask to have a few minutes to fully evaluate the question.

You can also try and use humor to diffuse the tension of the situation, Teague said. "I'm a fan of humor, though the industry is not very humorous," she said. "Usually, I try to tell candidates when they are nervous to make light of it."

3. Clarify the question.

Listen closely to the question, and clarify the scenario before committing to a path to find an answer, Stokes said. "Clarification is one of the key points that needs to be make if you receive a curveball question so there is understanding on both sides," she added.

If you find you can reach an answer from a number of different angles, explain that to the interviewer, and describe each path, Stokes said.

4. Don't worry about finding the right answer.

"At heart, these are thinking-style questions," Denaro said. "Often the interviewer is not looking for the absolute right answer, but rather how you think through the problem."

Often, these questions don't even have a right or wrong answer, Teague said. "You're not going to know how many jelly beans can fill the White House," she added. "They want to understand the way you think, and why your answer is the way it is. Giving any answer is the best way to go about it."

5. Show off your communication skills.

"The advice I give to handle this type of question is to verbalize your thought process as you answer the question," Denaro said. "In other words, say out loud the steps you are going through in your brain. If their thinking style matches your thinking style then they will like your answer."

No matter the question, being able to demonstrate soft skills such as active listening is crucial during an interview, Teague said. "Communication is really essential when interviewing, even when it comes to these kind of off-the-wall questions," she added. "Being able to talk it out and explain it in a rational manner is what's going to get you the position."

SEE: 10 brain teasing questions to ask when interviewing IT professionals

6. Use a whiteboard.

If available, use a whiteboard or piece of paper to outline the problem and the different potential routes to an answer.

"You're able to use that as a tool to demonstrate the verbal, oral, and written problem solving," Stokes said.

7. Ask for feedback.

To determine if your thinking styles matches that of the company, Denaro advises asking the interviewer directly, "Is that how you would go about figuring this problem out?" after you've concluded your response. "Then you will know if your answer scored points, or if you need to ask a clarifying question and try again," he said.

8. Follow up.

If you aren't happy with the answer you came up with, it's a good idea to follow up with the interviewer later on, Stokes said. "If you're still thinking about the problem and want to demonstrate to the potential future employer that you have the answer, encourage the dialogue even after the interview, to say 'I've got another two angles to present,'" she said.

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Image: iStockphoto/eternalcreative

About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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