How to Answer Bad Technical Interview Questions

If you go on enough interviews, sooner or later someone will ask you to explain a database in three sentences to your eight-year-old nephew or to name as many options of the ls command as you can.

Bad QuestionYou may be tempted to roll your eyes, but that’s not the best way to respond. After all, what seems like a really bad question could be the interviewer’s way of assessing your diplomacy or the way you interact with technically-challenged end users.

Remember, you’re on stage during interviews. Every question gives you a chance to shine. Even if the question seems, well, dumb, answer it to the best of your ability or demonstrate your professionalism and technical knowledge by tactfully seeking clarification. For example:

“As you know, the ls command can produce a huge list of files and I use it anywhere from 10 to 50 times a day. Can I give you a couple of examples? Or, did you have a particular use in mind?”

Brain teasers can be exasperating, too. If you don’t have an answer, explain how you’ve approached similar problems in the past. For instance, if you’re not sure how to calculate the amount of corn Nebraska produces in a year find another way to highlight your estimation skills. Something like: “I’ve never estimated crops, but I had to estimate how many shoppers would visit our website on Cyber Monday at my last job. Here’s how I did it.”

Remember, interviewers want to assess your problem-solving and communications skills as well as your technical knowledge. Keep your composure and win the day by responding to the legitimate question about your skills or experience that may be lurking beneath the surface of what seems like a bad question.

How do you respond to really bad technical interview questions? Share your advice in the comments below.

Comments

  1. BY Fred Bosick says:

    Actually, the database question isn’t all that bad. It separates those who understand the concept from the people who memorized the manuals to the popular DB apps. No bad thing!

  2. BY Andy says:

    The corn estimation question gives you an opportunity to talk about how you approach a completely new subject area. If I asked it, and the candidate did a redirect to a known subject, I’d be unhappy.

    The way I’d respond is along these lines: I’d explain that when faced with a new issue, I do the following:

    1. Make sure I fully understand the question or issue.
    2. Make a list of all factors that might influence the issue under consideration.
    3. Look for the best information available for each influencing factor.
    4. Create a simple model or calculation that combines the data and gives an estimate.
    5. Sanity check the answer against some known data and re-calibrate, if required.

    Then I would pause and ask if they want me to go through each step for the corn question, which I would be happy to do. That helps them manage the time spent on each question.

  3. BY Marco Azevedo says:

    I agree! Some questions seem dumb questions in order to check your behavior instead of your technical knowledge.

  4. BY Glenn Glazer says:

    I believe my best response to a bad question in an interview was, “Are you asking me to solve an NP complete problem in realtime?”

    • BY Fred Bosick says:

      Did the interviewer’s eyes glaze over?

      If the “n” in O(n) is small you can still do it! ;-)

  5. BY Ken says:

    Another thing that could happen is the JD isn’t well designed and you ended up going to the wrong interview.
    I’m fairly conversant on SQL Server, but on the OLTP side, not the SSAS side. It would be a mistake for me to go to that interview because I can’t competently spout MDX terminalogy. Until I saw the question, I didn’t even know IS was part of the MDX world. Or the interviewer doesn’t realize what an OLTP guy does with DBs. Or the interviewer is checking out how well rounded the individual is with all sections of the DB world and/or how (s)he handles a question that (s)he doesn’t know.

  6. BY Ed says:

    I had a horrible experience in an interview for a DBA position. I was asked a whole bunch of syntax questions on writing queries. Boy, I tried not to memorize all parameters of a particular internal function, but rely on BooksOnline and the web for the details, as I know where to find them when I need to. When I couldn’t come up with one correct syntax, I was immediately attacked and insulted as an amateur. The interviewer was laughing as he unleashed. I did thank him for his time at the end, but I would never work for that person ever, period, no matter what he was trying to get out of me. I think he got his job from memorizing the entire BooksOnline.

    • BY Steve says:

      @Ed

      It could be he keeps his job by paying keen attention to who could be a threat to his job security and eliminating the competition before they get past the interview. You should always speak without questioning the interviewers motives during an interview or you lose for sure. But strategically, you need to be aware that interviewers are human and have their own private motivations for their behavior.

      A bad interview question should alert you that you are dealing with a bad or disingenuous interviewer. Your ability to deal with disingenuous and dishonest people above you and around you in an organization can often be the most important skill in your ability to be successful in some companies. The interview it signaling to you this is a bad job with difficult or incompetent management and HR to test your ability to cope and succeed in such a situation. Try to craft a response that makes the interviewer look good only if the interviewer advocates for hiring you.

  7. BY steve says:

    This article is a great resource for changing how you present yourself so you appear more competitive. The interviewer is probably testing if you’re honest and say they built the test poorly, or if you flatter the speaker and your are willing to make supporting HR part of your job by saying something persuasive about how smart the interviewer is.
    .
    Keep in mind the HR recruiter and staff frequently get their power and money by knowing the right thing to say to get ahead and they are testing that ability in you. Can you spin the question into a benefit and do you have the right instincts to cover up failures from above and sideways in the chain of command? Sometimes it’s the person who will be most favorable towards HR staff and practices that gets the job, and the ability to recognize who’s able to promote you or not and favor the appropriate person is a key part of many jobs.

  8. BY Shirley Shorter says:

    This commentary reminds me why I am still self-employed – so much political maneuvering, ego stroking and power mongering in interviews like these that have nothing to do with how well your contribution will benefit the company! Speech-craft is a great perk to have, but the Jeopardy game is just a game and is basically useless except for getting a foot in the door.

    • BY ShrykeAbysmal says:

      You’ve got that right. People can try to justify this crap all they want. When I walk into an interview at 43 for PHP after having taught myself to program on a TRS-80 at age 8 having written web and desktop applications in 4-5 different languages not including SQL while running networks and administering databases at the same time for close to 20 years, and I have some dope downloading ridiculous algorithm questions from an online source right in front of me on his phone so he can challenge me to write answers with pen and paper in the middle of a crowded coffee shop at 9am? And he doesn’t know enough to stop using the word STRUCT to describe things in PHP? He’s a moron. And he’s wasting my time.

      Not everybody learned to do this sitting in class in some $120K degree curriculum with a bunch of other dweebs in front of a whiteboard trying to figure out collision detection with overlapping rectangles. And that has zero to do with writing web apps in PHP for a financial firm anyway. You want to do that go hire for a game company.

  9. BY Jim O'Hara says:

    I have had several interviews since February and ALL of them have been bad. The interviewer either focused on obscure questions or tried to get my take on solving problems with the application that they were developing. How do you get around something like this?

    • BY steve says:

      You have to recognize that most jobs opportunities are not real. They’re put out to test the waters and compare candidates against someone who is already in the lead based on a personal friendship or other inside track. There may be no getting around an interview stumbling block if the interviewer wants you to stumble. Maybe the interviewer has already decided someone else is the candidate to hire or doesn’t want the position to be taken by you. You can usually tell these cases by seeking any hint of disunity in the people you talk to. If the receptionist is ho-hum about another interview they have to process to maintain appearances of looking for a candidate, then take it as a sign this might not be a real job opportunity and there may be nothing you can do. Another good technique is to ask how many people they’ve interviewed for the position and when the hire date is scheduled for? if they have vague answers or are evasive it means they don’t want you to have the information for a reason that is in their interests but not in yours.

  10. BY Jim says:

    I’m with Shirley S above: I may be destined for mediocrity and failure, but this article and others like it remind me why I HATE “business culture.”
    I guess it’s no longer possible – if it ever was – to get a job by loving what you do and enjoying the challenges, and thus doing your job well.
    The interviewer can keep his job; I wouldn’t want it, nor would I want to work for people who ask trick questions.

    • BY ShrykeAbysmal says:

      No, you can’t. I just lost out on a job where the interview process couldn’t have gone better in my estimation more or less because according to HR I was too enthusiastic and “talked over people”. This because one time the interviewer and I started a sentence at the same time.

      I was told the “team” was concerned this meant I wouldn’t value or listen to their opinions if hired. Just a lame snap judgement like that and see ya.

      Fact of the matter is? I’ve battled codependency all my life. Why do I mention that? Because codependent people have no intrinsic value meter. We can’t assign value to anything we do that is not in turn validated by the opinions of others. So for their hunch to be correct? I’d have to have been walking around useless to myself for my entire life. Basically it would be like knowing I need oxygen to live and then breaking my own windpipe.

      There’s a hidden triumph in this. The best thing that could happen to a codependent is to learn NOT to give a damn what people think of him or her. So if that’s what they got from me? Thanks. Because that means I’m mentally and emotionally healthier than I’ve been since 12 years old.

  11. BY Jim Frazier says:

    I once told the interviewer that I would be happy to pass his test if he could pass mine. He calmed down and I got the job.

  12. BY Perry Borenstein says:

    I believe it was Einstein who said (and I am heavily paraphrasing), that if you cannot explain something in two minutes, you don’t truly understand it. I would therefore go for the simplest possible definition of what a database is: It is a way of storing information that also allows you retrieve it when you want it. I would avoid allowing knowing too much to interfere with the answer. Yes, there are relational, and hierarchical, and the newer built-for-speed (Teradata) ones. But knowing too much interferes with being able to truly hear the simplicity of what the question was, and providing an answer that matches what was asked.

    • BY Perry Borenstein says:

      Just an addendum: The lesson here may be how critical it is to listen to exactly what it is the interviewer is asking, and to be careful not to project motivation or assumptions on what they are asking. In another post it stated that if one does not fully understand what an interviewer is getting at (the question was much more complex), there was nothing wrong with repeating back what you believe they are asking for and getting clarification so that you do not go off and answer the wrong question.

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