Tech’s Weirdest Job Interview Questions

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Tech companies are famous (or infamous, depending on your point of view) for tossing weird brainteasers at job candidates. Microsoft used to ask some candidates why manhole covers are round; Google once made a point of hurling complicated puzzles at anyone who wanted to work there; SpaceX CEO Elon Musk reportedly enjoys asking some engineers a geography-related brainteaser.

In recent years, however, many tech firms have turned away from odd lines of questioning. Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of “People Operations,” called such questions “useless.” Microsoft has also scaled back its reliance on brainteasers as a way to judge candidates’ thought processes.

Yet some firms still stick with the brainteasers, and for a simple reason: They show how well the candidates can think on their feet. How they answer an open-ended question can also provide vital clues to how they work out problems. So how oddball can things get?

According to Glassdoor, job interviewers at Airbnb have asked candidates: “What would you do if you were the one survivor in a plane crash?” (Anything involving the word “cannibalism” is probably the wrong answer, we think.)

“What’s your favorite 90s jam?” Squarespace reportedly asks, which is just weird, unless your job responsibilities include DJing the office holiday parties. In all seriousness, choosing a song that’s positive and uplifting will show that you’re a positive person who tries to raise the spirits of everybody around you. Or something.

Interviewers at Dropbox have asked: “If you woke up and had 2,000 unread emails and could only answer 300 of them, how would you choose which ones to answer?” (Given that Dropbox deals in data storage and efficient information management, such a question makes perfect sense.)

“Who would win a fight between Spiderman and Batman?” query the interviewers at Stanford University. Your answer might show how you assess competition. It also might reveal your total lack of knowledge about comic books.

Other oddball questions are more practical. For example, Business Insider reported a few years ago that Amazon asks candidates how they would spend a million dollars on an entrepreneurial idea. Interviewers at Apple go for the cliché with, “What kind of animal would you be and why?”

Whatever the question, remember that the answer matters less than the process; if you can show the interviewer that you’re a logical thinker who’s capable of rapid-fire ideation, you’ll survive the weirdness.

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12 Responses to “Tech’s Weirdest Job Interview Questions”

June 18, 2015 at 7:25 am, DDP said:

I recently asked interviewees “Who will be more historically important in the future, Edward Snowden or Mark Zuckerberg?” There’s no ‘right’ answer, but we are a security team. You ask yourself if that makes a difference. We also are a university, does that make one answer better?

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June 18, 2015 at 9:32 am, Annie K said:

At my most recent interview, I was asked to try to calculate the revenue of the MTA and I had to figure out the best questions to get more info – like “how much per ticket?” “How many commuters per year?” “What’s seasonal tourism like?” It was a use-case question.

I also got asked “if you’re in a boat with a heavy rock and you throw the rock out of the boat into the water, does the boat go up or down?”
My boss says he got asked that question when he first interviewed here in ’97 and has asked it ever since, to assess thought processes.

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June 18, 2015 at 10:54 am, Bob W said:

I’ve always wanted to ask the odd ball question like “If you were a tree, what kind of dog would you be?” Just to see their reaction. But I refrain because I think questions like this are worthless. However, I have asked people what their favorite comedy TV show is/was? No right answer but sometimes I just like to know if they have a sense of humor and if so, what kind. It helps to know a little to see if they will fit with the chemistry of the team.

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June 18, 2015 at 12:06 pm, Brett C. said:

A friend of mine encountered a guerrilla interviewing technique. During his interview he was told by the interviewer that one of his previous colleagues was contacted regarding his performance at the previous position and that they gave a negative report. Of course none of this was true, they just wanted to see how my friend handled this attack on his performance.

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June 18, 2015 at 3:47 pm, George said:

I have hired a lot of people into IT support and IT Consulting positions in my time. I have a set of oddball questions that I cull from in order to assess soft skills. The questions help determine a candidates ability to solve problems, the way they go about solving problems, their ability to recognize patterns, their preparedness for the interview, their ability to think logically and their ability to follow instructions.

If a candidate can navigate these then the tech part of the interview is almost a throw away, for it is these sorts of skills that will determine success. Tech can be learned and any tech person worth their salt should be able to pick up what they need to know when they need it.

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June 18, 2015 at 5:52 pm, Martina said:

I was asked the manhole cover question at an interview, but it wasn’t a tech interview. I never knew about these questions until that interview.

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June 19, 2015 at 1:42 pm, Michael said:

I’m not sure cannibalism wouldn’t be on the table, depending on how far out from civilization I was, how close I thought rescue might be, etc. God bless the folks who did pass away; they can serve the purpose of helping me to survive until I can find help or help finds me. I might phrase it, “making provision for survival”.

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June 20, 2015 at 8:46 pm, Jeff said:

If I were asked the question a previous commenter gave regarding calculating MTA revenue, I would be inclined to say, “I cannot give a legitimate answer just sitting here. I would need time to analyze all the facts and information and put together a valid number. Anything else would simply be a guess, and I hope that you don’t operate around guesses. If so, I don’t want to work here.”

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June 21, 2015 at 10:39 pm, George said:

@Jeff:

I like everything about your answer except for the vary last bit, which comes across as arrogant.

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June 21, 2015 at 11:49 pm, Michael said:

@George I might word it a bit differently, however, it is my choice who I choose to work with and for, I am interviewing and evaluating them as well. I consider it fair game. How blunt I chose to be would depend how over the top ridiculous the question truly was.

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August 25, 2015 at 2:23 pm, Priscilla Berry said:

Instead of finishing with “Anything else would simply be a guess, and I hope that you don’t operate around guesses. If so, I don’t want to work here.”

It would better show you ability to both think logically, work with others, and effect outcome, to change this into a question. Something like “Anything else would simply be a guess. How would this company approach this problem using its current methodologies?

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October 10, 2016 at 4:00 pm, In reply to Bob W's comment... said:

In reply to Bob W’s comment (Sent June 18, 2015 at 10:54 am):
Bob: ‘I’ve always wanted to ask the odd ball question like “If you were a tree, what kind of dog would you be?”’

Me: Dogwood. *grinning*

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