Interview questions

May 14, 2024

At LobsterPot Solutions one of the things we often do for our clients is participate in job interviews, to help get a feel for the technical ability of the people they’re considering. This post is not an advert for those services, it’s to help readers of this blog to see my perspective on interviews, in response to Kevin Feasal’s prompt “What is your favorite job interview question?“, so I’m going to focus on our own hiring.

Naturally, it’s not about the interview question, but about the response.

From a technical perspective, I want to be confident that they won’t flounder when faced with a problem. For me this is much more fundamental than their knowledge of T-SQL performance tuning techniques, although if they’re applying for a role in our database consultancy, then I’d expect some amount of background there. I’d rather ask them to describe how they would approach a performance tuning problem, than particular questions about indexes. I’d be curious about whether they mention how a fairly quick query which runs many times per second might be worthy of attention more than a slow query which runs once a day. How have they learned about tuning? I want to hear whether they learn from community, blogs, books, or colleagues. Do they have tools they’ve used in the past? If so, I want them to describe what the tools are doing for them and the significance of that. If there’s a technical assessment test, I like to ask them to critique the questions, not just answer them. I want to see if they have tact in telling me which parts of my test suck, or whether they are blunt and uncaring. This doesn’t just apply for a consultant who might join my own team, but also speaks to how someone will interact with their colleagues.

From a personality perspective, it can seem quite easy to dismiss the person who comes across as nervous or closed-up in an interview. But this doesn’t mean they won’t fit into a team. I’ve seen cases where people don’t quite gel with their colleagues, and never achieve success there. It’s common in the sporting arena, when someone who seems very talented just doesn’t seem to make it in their new team. Or a group of players who doesn’t respond well to a new manager. I think it’s less about how they respond under pressure, and more about whether I can see a spark when they talk about their stuff. I like to ask them about their interests outside work, and imagine them telling this information to the people they might work with.

From a different side of personality, I want to see how the candidate is with themself. It speaks of integrity, and whether they are likely to stand up for what’s right, while choosing their battles and having humility. As a consultant, this might involve challenging themselves to accept a solution that someone else has suggested, or standing up against a solution because there is a good reason to do so. Asking someone about their weaknesses is never a good idea, but most database professionals have made mistakes and learned from them. Inviting them to talk about those things they’ve learned can be good.

From a diversity perspective, I want to make sure they aren’t going to increase the toxicity of the team. I’m not saying that I will always try to hire the person who looks different to everyone else on the team – that doesn’t always help. But I want to hear them talk about how they value people. How they want to listen to people’s perspectives. If I haven’t heard responses that tell me how they feel about this, I might ask them about the developer v DBA dynamic, or about users who don’t seem to “get it”. Or maybe about the concept equity and how they think it might fit into what we do.

Interviews are never simple. I want to see how they do small talk and big talk. I want to see how they cope under pressure and how they are without pressure. I want to see what makes them tick, and what makes them fire up. If I’m going to have to manage this person, lead this person, mentor them, and have them represent me, then I want to know what I’m getting myself into. “Tell me about yourself” doesn’t cut it.

The TV show Ted Lasso, while fictional, portrays a manager who doesn’t understand the game, and struggles to fit in at first, because he doesn’t (yet) have the respect of his players. He doesn’t even have the respect of his boss. I’m not sure I’d’ve hired him, or whether a real-life Ted Lasso would even be a success. In the show he succeeded because his values were strong, and I’d like to think that I’d able to hear that come through in an interview.

At the moment, my favourite question is “Tell me about a TV show or movie you like”. It doesn’t show any technical ability, but it gives them the chance to convey a lot of who they are. Do they pick something obscure or something popular? What aspects are they drawn to? How do they evaluate it? Are they able to express their thoughts to me?

I don’t need to agree with them, but I know the things I want to come through in their responses.

@rob_farley@twitter

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