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My Best Interview Question

One question to rule them all.

· leadership,team building,hiring

Should I really give this away?

I co-host a podcast with well over 100 episodes, and many of those episodes contain details about our hiring process. Over the years, multiple candidates detailed how they listened to many of our episodes in preparation for their interview. We even had one candidate who the interview team believed recited directly from specific episodes when answering some of our standard questions. After that, many members of the hiring team questioned whether I should keep discussing my hiring tips and tricks in such an open forum.

In the end, we discussed, deliberated, and decided that I should keep going. We viewed these instances as indicators that the candidate was willing to research and prepare as best they could. The resourcefulness was appreciated, and we learned how to filter out the B.S. and discover who the candidate really was and what they believed in. So here we go again. I am sharing my #1 question, that I ask in every interview...

The ideal hire

Imagine a group of people that are exceptionally skilled in solving problems. Next, add in an insatiable desire to solve big, complex, scary problems. Pair those traits with a willingness to do all of that with their peers. What type of problem exists that this group could not attack and destroy? I can't think of any. Can you? This might be the most powerful force in the universe!

I lump these traits together into what I call "collaborative problem solvers." That's who I hire, and that's how we build teams that continuously build/do things that were previously deemed impossible.

I know what you are saying. "That sounds magical Josh, but I don't really believe you can find more than a handful of people who actually fit that description. You just described a blessing1 of unicorns!" If this is you, please re-read the paragraph above...

The question

  1. Figure out what their passion outside of work is.  As a few "small talk" questions to see what they really enjoy.  This puts them in the comfort zone because topics they are passionate about are often areas they are very knowledgeable in.
  2. Ask them to architect a system to solve a common problem in their most passionate topic area.  Money is no object.  I like to tell them that I just started a new VC fund and they are my first investment.  Because I want my first investment to go so well, I am willing to spare no expense.  This gives them the freedom to build the system without any constraints.
  3. As they walk you through the system they built, find a point where you know they did the absolute right thing and tell them that decision was the wrong decision.

Now the fun begins. A great candidate will stop, contemplate your comments, and explain why they believe their original approach is still the right solution. That's the hallmark of a collaborative problem solver. First and foremost, they aren't threatened by a different opinion. Secondly, they fully contemplate the opposing idea. Lastly, they a confident enough in their knowledge and their solution to disagree with you.

Responses that lead to a very short remainder of the interview include anger, a quick dismissal of the counterpoint, and an equally quick agreement with the counterpoint. None of those are actions of a collaborate problem solver.

I've used this approach hundreds of times, to hire software engineers, quality engineers, agile coaches, devops engineers, managers, architects, and directors. In the end, we are all engineers. We build systems that attempt to simplify a complex business problem. Some focus on building products with code, others design a world-class process for a dynamic group of humans, and others wrestle with the complex world of management. They are all systems in the end. The variables are the only things that change.

Why does this work so well?

A healthy organization is driven by safe conflict. No, that isn't an oxymoron.

You need a diverse set of experiences, skills, and passions to build well-rounded products. All of those diversities need to melt together and become your organization's secret sauce. That can't happen without a good amount of conflict. Without that diversity, you may end up with a perfectly architected product that doesn't deliver on the hopes and dreams of your customers. Or you may have a mountain of technical debt looming over a product that your customers love. Lastly, you could have a revolving door in your teams that prevents you from delivering anything.

This question cuts right to the heart of your company's need for healthy, safe debate. Can the candidate accept that their idea might not be the best? Are they willing to push back on their peers/bosses/leaders when they think a different approach might be better? No one person has all of the right answers, and this interview question is the first step towards building a "hive mind" mentality that enables your organization to win.

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1 Yes, a group of unicorns really is called a "blessing". I had to triple-check it myself!

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