Last week, I was sitting on the dock of the sailing club I belong to sharing my most recent interview with some fellow sailors. The question I got was how you would describe a relational database to a 5 year old. Now normally I would use a card catalog and a phone book to discuss the difference between a relational and flat file database, but the question was for a 5 year old. This question was tough because 5 year olds do not know how to read or do basic math. So I thought about my four year old niece and realized that I could use her collection of dolls as an example. Dolls have various parts that can be categorized. My niece has various uses for her dolls such as dolls that stay at home, dolls that travel and dolls that can go in the bath tub. I then needed some place to store the dolls and their parts, so I included places like her doll trunk, her baby carriage and various other storage compartments. I realized as I started breaking this all down that maybe my nephew’s train set might be a better example, but ultimately, can a 5-year-old really understand a relational database? I am not sure of that answer, but I guess they wanted to see if I could explain things in a simplistic way.
As I was describing this rendition of my interview question, my fellow sailors agreed I did the best I could with what I had. They then began telling me about interview questions they faced. My favorite was, “If you were one of the 7 dwarfs, what dwarf would you be?” I realized at this point I would have to try to remember the 7 dwarfs: Sleepy, Dopey, Happy, Doc, Bashful, Grumpy and Sneezy. When we all sat there on a sunny afternoon we realized that many of the 7 dwarves do not portray qualities you want a potential hiring manager to think about. So given the choices, what dwarf would you be? And more importantly, what does this information tell you about a potential job candidate? That they can remember the names of 7 Disney characters? And know that only two, Happy and Doc, and maybe a third, Bashful, display characteristics of a positive employee?
The next question we discussed was, “Where do you want to be in the next 5 years? “ Now of course this is a typical interview question, but the discussion on the dock went to the current economy and whether this is really a fair question? Currently, many companies are laying off good people, or cutting salaries and budgets and a career path is something we as professionals all want to strive for, but is that a luxury that must be put on hold until our employers become more stable? Can managers expect our current and future employees to expect to climb the corporate latter as the latter is continuously shrinking and as rungs are being knocked off the frame? I think we can, but I think we may need to redefine the latter. Career paths will be changing over the next couple of years as companies struggle to make sense of this new economy and we as managers need to recognize a new way to motivate employees.
So what does make a good interview question? My colleagues on the dock had a lot to say about this as well. First there was some disagreement about how many interviews and how long they should last. One person suggested, bring someone in for a whole day and let them meet with everyone all at once. I like this idea in terms of commuting, but as we all know scheduling such an event can be tricky. Another person suggested planning the interview process like a project. I also like this idea, because you can as a team decide who will ask what and then come together to get the whole picture of the person. Ultimately what we all agreed is that in this new economy the old questions and the old ways don’t necessarily make sense anymore and if you are blessed with the ability to hire someone new everyone agreed that some thought about the process and the questions needs to be considered. Go ahead and think outside the box, come up with new questions, but try to make them relevant to the job, the team and the economy
Photo courtesy of Loren Javier.