Thursday, August 3, 2017

Your most bizarre in-person interview questions?

I'd rather face his curveball.
Credit: The Pitching Academy
From the inbox, a good question from a longtime reader and friend of the blog: 
I have prepared for all the common interview questions. Strengths, weaknesses, long-term career goals, etc. 
What interview questions have your readers been asked that they didn't think to prepare for? What were their surprising curveballs?
Great question. Been a few years since I've been an interviewer, but I remember one on-campus interviewer who asked me about my formative memories for each year of middle school. That was a weird one.

Readers?

20 comments:

  1. I just had an interview two months ago that had a question I've never prepared for. The interviewer asked "Do you lie?" Now that one definitely was a curveball. Of course I answered "yes" and explained that my colleagues at my current job thought I was at a doctors appointment and not an interview, which was a lie I told my colleagues. I must have answered correctly since I got the job, but man that one was a doozy.

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    1. I posted the original question...thanks for this. Your answer is excellent because it's obviously honest and self-aware. If I were the interviewer, I too would have counted that answer as correct.

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  2. "Are you married? No? Well, church is a good place to meet girls. Do you go to church?"

    In the guy's defense, he wasn't American, and probably just oblivious to how illegal those questions were.

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    1. Wow, what a story! (Also, a terrible reason to go to church.)

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  3. A friend of mine in grad school interviewed for a federal job requiring a high security clearance. A federal background investigator came to interview her coworkers as part of the routine investigation. Among many mundane questions, he asked each of us about any excesses in our colleague's drinking habits or sexual activity. It was awkward.

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    1. I served as a reference once for a grad school colleague for a security clearance check, and I seem to recall similar questions. I assumed it was (a) to see if their behavior could make it easier to blackmail them and (b) if their behavior led them to be in 'un-guarded' situations. Not that it was any less awkward dealing with such questions . . .

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  4. A friend received an interview question "If you could choose to have any superpower, what would it be?"

    The most confusing one I received, albeit not that much of an oddity, is "Describe your most creative moment in life."

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    1. Wow, that is a good question. Difficult, though; what does one gauge his response on? Physical prowess? Keen deductive skills? The ability to banter well with super villains?

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  5. Not a bad question, but it surprised me:

    [interviewer points at CV] "So which of these papers are you most proud of?"

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    1. related to that: tell me about an important paper that you came across recently

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  6. "How many planes are in the sky?" certainly surprised in a 1999 interview. Thankfully my lab at the time was under the Heathrow approach so I took it from there!

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  7. "Our typical product lifetime is 6-9 months, which means you'll be expected to come up with a new product within your first year here. What do you plan to work on?"

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  8. At a paper company, now closed, I was asked how many barbers were employed in the US. I think all five interviewees were asked the same question.

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  9. Both the barber question and the one about number of airplanes are known as 'Fermi Problems', since Enrico Fermi was famous for being able to quickly estimate the order of magnitude of complicated physical problems. The idea is to see how good you are at back of the envelope calculations, reasoning, and distilling a seemingly complicated question into a series of simple questions that you can easily estimate.

    For the barbers, let's assume we define barbers as someone who cuts the hair of males, of which we can estimate there are 150 million in the U.S.

    Next, assume most males have their hair cut once every 5 weeks on average (I have been cutting my own hair for the last 20 years, so this part of my analysis could be way off), which means 30 million males need their hair cut each week.

    If we assume a five day work-week for barbers, then we enough barbers to perform 6 million hair cuts a day. Supposing a barber can cut 20 heads of hair in a day, that means there would need to be 300,000 barbers in the U.S. to keep up with demand.

    I have no idea what the correct answer is, but the point of cutting down problems like this into little pieces is that the errors in the individual estimates tend to cancel, and you at least get the correct order of magnitude.

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    1. Nice work, Unknown! BLS estimates 59.2k barbers: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/barbers-hairdressers-and-cosmetologists.htm#tab-6

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    2. Yes, I went and tried to look up numbers as well afterwards, and saw some those numbers from BLS.

      Then again, this site lists 440K, but it's unclear where they get their data:

      http://www.statisticbrain.com/barber-shop-salon-industry-stats/

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  10. Interviewer: "I'll give you a scenario... There is a problem in the factory at 2 am. What do you do?"
    Me: "I would work with whoever is on-site to resolve the problem. If it couldn't be resolved remotely, I would come in to fix the issue if needed."
    Interviewer: "WRONG! Try again."
    Me: "Maybe I am not sure what you are asking. I would do what I could to resolve the issue in a timely manner. Can you elaborate more on your question?"
    Interviewer: "You have plenty of information."
    Me: "hmmm..."
    Interviewer (yelling): "STANDARD OPERATING PROCEDURE!!!" (smugly) "ugh, so simple..."

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    1. Maybe the interviewer was ranking the quality of your nonplussed expression.

      Halfway through answering a question during a phone interview, a buzzer went off in the background. The interviewer said, "Alright, time's up. NEXT!" then hung up on me. I didn't get the job, and couldn't be more grateful. The recruiter that landed me this phone interview had a knack for finding the scummiest labs in the region. High tech sweatshops, glorified garages run like khanates. Who knows how many technician-trafficking victims work there. Have you ever seen cameras (with audio recording) in the lab? This stuff exists.

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  11. As an interviewer the last question I ask every candidate is: "What is your favorite word?"

    I've had people sit there for 5 minutes with bemused/confused looks and I've had others immediately give an answer, usually with some story/reasoning. There is no right answer, it's a chance to see how they react to an open ended, undefined situation.

    I always tell them that my favorite word is llama.

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    1. I got genuine joy from this comment.

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