The Interview Question

There are many things you’re after in an interview, after the all-important chemistry question. However, I’ve found, forgotten, and remembered a question that works well to uncover a lot.

If you’re hiring for a sales engineer, services engineer, senior customer support, or architect level position, there’s a cluster of fundamentally critical abilities that we’ll call “getting the big picture” for now.

  • They need to understand the product in full as well as in part
  • They need to understand their own team dynamics
  • They need to understand customer personalities
  • They need to be able to hold their own in a meeting, possibly a contentious one with angry customers
  • They need to be able to avoid unnecessary disclosure
  • They need to keep groups of people on track to a common goal
  • They need to be able to keep a goal in mind while communicating about other things
  • They need to be able to gauge their audience’s interest and engagement
  • They need to be aware of how much time they’re spending
  • They need to see enough context to  keep the goal in mind no matter what they’re being asked

The question: “Describe in as much detail as you feel comfortable using what happens when a web browser goes to the Internet and renders a page.” The details aren’t important — the important thing is to make them talk about a simple task in broken down terms.

Some grades:

  • A player: Outlines the process, gives a couple of details about each steps, and winds it up in a minute or two with “I could go on for hours, but…”. Assuming no other red flags come up, this person’s got my recommendation.
  • B player: Starts out with that sort of thing in mind, starts to get detailed, but has the presence of mind to snap out of it. Given an attentive manager, this person could do just fine, but I don’t want to put them in solitary command of anything important.
  • C player: Dives into the first rat hole they can and gets stuck, then winds it up with “I’ll have to get back to you on that”. This speaks to a lack of experience and perspective that is concerning. They’ll need more than a manager, they’ll need a sidekick to take care of them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that per se, in the proper environment they may do just fine. But, they’re not suited for talking to customers.
  • F+ player:  Dives into the first rat hole, produces a shovel and starts making it up as they go along. Wonderfully creative and I may look forward to reading their novel, but they’ll need to look elsewhere to pay the bills.

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