How to ace an engineering job interview

Jan. 19, 2012
The economic recession has abated somewhat, and hiring is on the upswing. Now you’re more likely to read about the travails of those interviewing for employment rather than people downsized out of jobs

The economic recession has abated somewhat, and hiring is on the upswing. Now you’re more likely to read about the travails of those interviewing for employment rather than people downsized out of jobs.

In that regard, it looks as though the new trend in job interviews is to ask brain-teaser-type questions. The practice seems to have been popularized by hiring managers at Google. According to William Poundstone, author of a book called, Are you smart enough to work at Google?, that company relies on such off-beat interview questions as a way of sifting out people who won’t fit into its culture.

You might wonder what kind of culture a company has if it hires people based on how they answer a question like, “You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?”

Apparently Googlites are looking for inventive answers. (One of the best is supposedly to recognize that small creatures are stronger in proportion to their weight and that you can probably just jump out of the blender.) Another company that apparently buys into brain-teaser interview questions is Tesla Motors. Tesla interviewees reporting on the site say the EV maker mixes brain-teasers with queries about fundamental physics, including: Why do letters in mirrors reverse horizontally and not vertically? You’re in a row boat, which is in a large tank filled with water. You have an anchor on board and throw it overboard. (The chain is long enough so the anchor rests completely on the bottom of the tank). Does the water level in the tank rise or fall?

Though riddlelike interview questions get a lot of attention, the more important part of a hiring process is probably the questions applicants answer that resemble the work they’ll eventually perform. People applying for programming positions at Google, for example, must write code during their interviews. But at any engineering company, sometimes even work-related questions can seem a bit off the wall.

A friend of mine describes an incident during one such interview at a control-systems engineering firm: “I extolled my past experience and credentials, but I could tell the guy doing the interview wasn’t convinced. All of a sudden he eyes me suspiciously and says, ‘What’s the integral of 1 over x?’ To my extreme surprise I seemed to recall it was log(x), and though unsure I blurted out my answer. He brightened measurably and said, ‘That’s the question I use to separate out the real engineers!’ I got the job, even though I could not have worked a control-theory integral problem to save my soul.”

The fallacy with questions that demand mental gymnastics is that they don’t say much about how the applicant will perform day-to-day work. “What you see is not always what you get,” says Dean Stamoulis, head of the Global Executive Assessment Practice for Russell Reynolds Associates in New York City. He also notes that some of the best candidates don’t make good first impressions, and it’s important to look deeper than an initial perception. Finally, he advises that sometimes what is not said in an interview is important as well. “If an interviewee doesn’t mention others he or she led and name key contributors to past successes, that might indicate he or she is taking credit for others’ work and ideas.”

— Leland Teschler, Editor

© 2012 Penton Media, Inc.

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