Tough Interview Questions: The Brainteaser

February 9th, 2011 § 1 comment

How heavily do riddle exercises factor into today’s interviews? Let’s explore the topic.

Software engineering interviews often feature engineering brainteaser questions. Twice in recent months I’ve been rejected from consideration, being told I didn’t do well enough on one of these questions.

Do you have any advice to give for dealing with this situation?

“Brainteaser” questions serve an important purpose, particularly in technical interviews – they allow an interviewer an insight into your critical thinking skills outside of your comfort zone. Why would an interviewer really care which switch turns on which bulb or how to fit 3 quarts into a 5 quart jug? With questions like these, the answer is less important than the process. Don’t misunderstand me – many of these questions do have one correct answer that it’s important you figure out and convey – but the outcome is far less important than the process.

A skilled interview uses brainteasers because they want to find out how you think and process information. Particularly in a technical field like programming or electrical engineering, the outcome is obviously important but it’s an understanding how small details comprise the entire program or circuit board that make a great technician. Just as in practice, during the interview when asked one of these questions, walk the interviewer through the small details you considered to reach your answer.

I’ll use an example from an interview I had many years back for a technical role:

You pick up the receiver of a telephone and don’t hear a dial tone. What do you do?

There’s no “answer” per se but what the interviewer wants to hear is your thought process and how you’ll break down this problem into stages of issue and resolution. My answer was checking connections working forwards from the handset to the phone and finally to the wall jack and beyond. That demonstrated how I could isolate different stages within the process that could have caused the issue and knew how to escalate from a small problem (phone’s broken) to a potentially larger one (our phone service is out!).

The key takeaway here is that an answer is important but to successfully answer a question such as this you must be sure to clearly articulate the process and, most importantly, think aloud.

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