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Interviewing and silly questions

December 19, 2013

A long time ago, I worked for a company that was owned and operated by techies.  This was interesting on a lot of levels, but one of the really interesting things was the managers/supervisors that were there.  They were all techies as well, and while some of them were OK this company was staffed by some of the worst people in management I have ever encountered.

The solution arrived at to this problem was to send people, current and prospective mangers, to a management training class.  Well, actually a whole bunch of management training classes.  I think I have seven or eight binders from these classes on a bookshelf somewhere.  For the most part these were week-long classes that were incredibly boring and each week could probably be condensed down into about 10 minutes of useful and interesting material.  The rest?  Either fluff or stuff that I really wasn’t interested in at all – and since that time haven’t found a need for.

On of the more interesting things involved both interviewing skills and psychological testing – giving people tests, formal or informal, to reveal things about their personality.  The idea was that the main point of an interview wasn’t to confirm things on their resume or to figure out if they really had the skills they were claiming to have but to understand their psychological makeup.  This is important because if you are interviewing for a position which is mostly a by-rote, scripted job hiring someone that is psychologically unsuited for such a job is going to be bad.  You need someone that can take direction, isn’t necessarily terribly creative and values doing a job well above and beyond it being “their” creation.

So finally we come to the point.  I got a reference today from a former employee and friend to the article “How to Answer the Question “What Was Your Last Salary?”  It turns out that this is in turn linked to an even more interesting article about one of the standard interview questions – “Answering the Question: ‘What’s Your Greatest Weakness?'”  This brings back some memories.

Unfortunately, while the first article is probably right on target – saying that your last salary shouldn’t really have much importance to a new employer, the second article I feel gets it mostly wrong.  The idea behind the question isn’t to dig into the interviewee’s real or imagined failings because the answer to the question isn’t very important.  This comes from those binders from all of those management classes I took and what small things from them stuck.

The idea behind the “what is your greatest weakness?” question is to get the interviewee outside of their comfort zone and make them be a little uncomfortable, thereby revealing some other aspects of their personality.  In a technical field when interviewing technically-oriented people they are going to be pretty comfortable while the conversation is about technical matters.  So to find out more about the person behind the interview mask they are wearing you supposedly want to shift them out of their comfort zone and maybe you will see something interesting.  Something interesting that will mean they can’t work for you.

Well, I guess it is a technique all right.  It isn’t one that I necessarily put a lot of weight on, but it is something that you do run into in interviews.  I remember the first time I got asked that question, along with the “Where do you want to be in five years?” question.  Yes, indeed I was uncomfortable.  I was 22 years old at the time and it was my third job that I was interviewing for.  I guess I did OK, because I got the job but I suspect I revealed a lot of interesting stuff to the interviewer.  I have asked the weakness question a few times myself, I will admit.

The most important thing to understand about interviewing, even these days with far less formality in most technical jobs, is that it is at least as important to learn about the company, their culture and the work environment as it is to answer a bunch of silly psychological testing questions the “right” way.  Yes, interviewers are going to be frustrated or even angry if you sidestep their questions and you probably will not get the job so you do have to deal with these – you can’t just brush them off.  But on the tail of a question about your weaknesses you need to probe a bit about the prospective coworkers – like, are you going to meet any of the people that will be on your team?

Getting hired with a big salary is one thing, but finding out two weeks into the job that you are working with a group of people that do not fit well with your work style is a huge problem.  Sure, it has happened to me – and I didn’t stay long.  But that was before some of those management classes and a lot of experience in both interviewing and being interviewed.

Conclusion: yes, the question about your weaknesses might be silly, but it is something that interviewers use to dig deeper.  Avoiding it or giving a flip answer isn’t going to help you in the end.  Try not to get too uncomfortable about it and give a reasonable, serious answer.  And don’t forget to ask a bunch of your own questions and get to meet prospective coworkers.


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