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.

  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.

  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.

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