Abstract questions to ask during technical interviews

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March 6, 2014

I’ve always loved being part of an interview team, whether as a hiring manager or just someone on the team thinking up creative new questions that give us insight into a candidate’s personality or traits.

The Next Web wrote an article in 2014 about nine non-typical interview questions that really help to learn about a developer.

I recommend reading the entire article linked above, but for brevity, here’s a TL;DR list of the questions. The article goes on to explain the reasoning behind the questions. My favorites are marked with asterisks.

  • What apps can you tell me about that aren’t lame?
  • What do you hate about apps that you use frequently? *
  • What startup would you work on if I gave you money to do so?
  • How many people live in New York City? *
  • What’s the latest news you’ve heard from the tech industry? *
  • How does the Internet work?
  • What music do you listen to? What books do you read? What movies do you like?
  • How good are you at ping-pong?
  • What did you do over the weekend? *

At face value, these questions seem innocuous, but there are warnings on both sides of the interview table to be taken from some of these.

What do you hate about apps that you use frequently

This is a great question because it gets developers thinking about user experience. The danger here, though, is exposing your favorite apps to a potential employer. Maybe your favorite apps include Tinder, Untappd, or some app to find weed in your neighborhood. Now you’ve opened yourself to potential risk. My recommendation: mention the same apps everyone else does, like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

How many people live in New York City

Google was famous for asking abstract questions back in the day, but they’ve since changed their tactics. While it’s fun to hear someone break a problem down, or hearing clever answers like “I’d call the Census Bureau for the city of New York and ask them for their most recent population study results.” In recent years, Google has moved toward asking questions that are more deterministic like “what is the 5,396th prime number?”

What’s the latest news you’ve heard from the tech industry

Do you know any big tech companies filing an IPO lately? Which startups have gone bust lately? It’s great to know that your candidate has their finger on the pulse of our industry, but it can go too far – maybe they spend too much time on social media sites collecting this kind of trivia knowledge.

What did you do over the weekend?

If you are an interview candidate, be VERY careful how you answer this question. Employers in the United States are not legally allowed to ask you about family status, whether you have kids, or religious affiliations, etc. If you answered this with “I spent Saturday with my spouse and kids and on Sunday we all went to church” you’ve just given them a ton of information that they WANT to know about you but are NOT allowed to ask. A better answer would be “I spent time at home and took care of some regular activities” and then quickly ask them how they spent their weekend.