The Questions You Must Answer

I've been back in hiring mode at work now for about 6 months. I've filled one of three openings so far, and have looked at over 100 qualified applicants. It has been suggested that I am, for lack of a better word, picky.

I'm picky for several very important reasons, but are most important to me:

  1. My team builds good stuff. I need to know that you're intelligent, driven, (nice), teachable, bold when boldness is required and humble when humility is required. But more on this in a second, because;
  2. I expect that someone who says they're proficient in a technology actually is proficient in that technology.

For instance, if you're a Java developer, you should know how to make an Object immutable. You should know how to make an Object comparable to another instance of itself. You should know what the difference is between protected and private. You should be able to tell me one thing that is different between Java 1.4 and Java 1.6 . There's a lot, so it's not a tough question.

If JavaScript is your thing, you should know the difference between == and ===. Or how document.onload and onDocumentReady differ and why you might want to bind to one or the other. And tell me something about why closures are cool, why namespacing is useful, and why a given script library is your favorite.1

And so on. I've met quite a few people who throw up all over their shoes when asked questions like that.

In any case, back to my first reason. The hard skill questions aren't even the most important to me. Obviously I will not hire you as a software engineer if you can't engineer software, but let's move beyond that point and say that you can. And that you're pretty good at it. There are a few simple questions that anyone with more than a few moments of professional experience should be able to answer:

What single professional accomplishment are you most proud of in your career? I want to know that you can be (at least a little bit) proud of something you've done. You show me that you care about the work you do by having something you can wear like a badge when asked. People who say things like "I strive to succeed in everything I do" are full of crap. They don't take any pride in their work. I need an example.

Give me an example of a professional mistake you made and what you did to resolve it, learn from it, make sure it never happened again, etc. I need to know you think you're human.2 I need to see that you can acknowledge a mistake and respond to it professionally. Every single person who works for me now can do that, and it makes working with them a million times better. We're people. We're messy. We screw up. We're wrong. And if we're the least bit intelligent, we learn from it and move on.

In what working environment do you do your best work? I'm looking for self-awareness here. For me, I work best when I'm a little bit cold, physically comfortable, caffeinated, and listening to music. I do not work best in a hot room with annoying noises like crying babies, ringing cell phones, sounds from IM clients and LOUD TALKERS. Ican get by without natural light (though not forever), but temperature and the sounds around me are most important. If you can't tell me something like that, then you aren't paying attention to yourself. I'm willing to wager that less than 1% of the population can actually work "anywhere". We all have physical and emotional triggers. Two of mine are heat and screamy people.

And untrimmed finger nails when I'm typing, but that's self-resolvable. One moment...

I am consistently surprised by how many people can't answer these questions. A peer asked me if I considered that I might be losing good candidates by requiring these be answerable. I don't think so; for my present search, and in all but one case, there has been something else (technical skill, bad references, hygiene, etc.) that has also ruled out a candidate. My picky instincts are something like 88% defensible. I can live with that.

  1. Mine is jQuery, because chaining is awesome.

  2. Unless you aren’t, in which case you might get a pass.

Sep 30th, 2011