Saturday, March 20, 2010

What's Wrong With Engineering Interviews -- Part I

This past week has been a crazy one. I don't know how it happened or why it happened, but starting Monday morning I had a good number of recruiters calling me, e-mailing me, and asking if I would be considered in about a dozen different jobs. And ironically enough, all of these jobs sounded like something I would be interested in doing because they were mostly Linux related. I had been searching (though not that hard) for Linux software engineering jobs for months and couldn't find anything promising so I found it odd that suddenly all these Linux jobs were falling in my lap.

I'm happy to report that I did get an offer from one of these positions, which I accepted. Its a short-term contract that will only last a few weeks but the contracting agency I'm employed by should be able to keep me busy with more opportunities after that. I think giving contracting work is a good opportunity for me because I'm still unsure of what I would like to do for my career and being exposed to a variety of different companies, responsibilities, and technologies should help me to get closer to finding an answer to that. And perhaps best of all, I'll be able to gain a wide array of experience much more rapidly than if I were to sit stagnant in the same corporate job for several years. So I think this is ultimately the right choice for me, for now.

One immediate drawback though deals with health insurance. I've been without health insurance for almost a year now, since I left my previous job. So I was looking forward to having it again, but then I learned that the provider for my contracting agency is Blue Cross Blue Shield (BCBS). I was "insured" by these bastards under my father's plan when I was in graduate school. When I fell ill and experienced all those psychological and physical problems I spoke about so many years ago, they denied me coverage again, and again, and again. Always coming up with a new bullshit excuse for why they shouldn't have to cover me (such as "you're not a full time student", even though I submitted proof that I was). So when I needed health care the most, they tossed me aside. Now I've looked at their plans and the minimum deductible is $1,500, which I doubt I would spend through in a normal year. So what's the point in getting health insurance? Yes, I realize that the purpose of having health insurance is "in case something happens". But guess what? Something happened to me when I was under BCBS in the past and I ended up having to pay everything out of pocket anyway. Being insured under BCBS is not going to give me much in terms of comfort or security, and I am sickened at the idea of giving that evil corporation a single dime of my money. So I'm undecided as to whether I'm going to enroll in their health benefits program. I might try to seek out better insurance on my own (if it exists), although I know that's probably a lot more expensive to purchase individually than through your employer (and in my opinion, that is wrong).

All of that talk aside, what I really wanted to discuss in this post is what I perceive to be the problems concerning the way that engineering interviews are conducted. As you can imagine, I had a lot of interviews this past week (both on the phone and in person). I did well in all of them so I'm not bitter or anything, but I found some of the questions I was asked to be inappropriate. For those of you who are not engineers, engineers (at least in my discipline) are subject to a little something called technical questions. The primary purpose of technical questions is to figure out if the interviewee is actually competent in the material that their background education and experience highlights. There are many different types of technical questions as well. Some may cover your knowledge of basic/core concepts while others test your analytical problem solving abilities. I'm going to use an analogy to give you an idea of what this is like. Lets say a banker is interviewing for a job at a local branch. After the common Q&A between the interviewer and interviewee over the contents of the resume and past experience, the interviewer then proceeds to ask the interviewee the following technical questions.

1) What is a deposit?

2) Explain to me the concept of currency.

3) What are the trade-offs between a barter system and a monetary system and which do you prefer?

4) Give me a specific historical example of hyper inflation, including dates, the inflation rate, the cause of the inflation, and the response(s) of the bank(s) involved.

5) A customer comes in wishing to open a new savings account with a $500 deposit. The customer continues to make a $25 deposit each month and withdraws $100 every year after the account has been opened. The account accrues monthly interest at a rate of 0.25% when the value of the account is less than $1,000 and the interest rate increases by 0.01% for every additional $1,000 that the account is valued at. What is the total value of the account after 64 months? (You may not use a calculator or computer to solve this problem)

6) You are blind and need five pairs of matching colored socks for a trip. Your sock drawer has a total of one hundred socks of five different sets of colors. Each colored set has at least five pairs of socks. What is the minimum number of socks you need to take from that drawer to ensure that you have at least five pairs of matching colored socks?

Sounds like a fun interview, doesn't it? I tried to come up with a good sample of the types of technical questions I and other software engineers are typically asked in an interview. Let me give you a brief explanation of the above questions.

1) Defining a Basic/Core Concepts
This is such a basic question its almost insulting. You (presumably) have at least a bachelor's degree in your field from a respected university and years of experience on your resume. Yet they insist on asking a question that you learned your freshman year of college. Its ridiculous, isn't it?

2) Explaining a Basic/Core Concept
This is another easy question, but its a little awkward. You know what a currency is, but perhaps you're having a difficult time coming up with a proper explanation for it because its something so fundamental in society that you've never had to explain it to anyone before (except maybe a young child). So you may fumble around with words and try to explain it as best you can.

3) Historical Irrelevancy
An odd question. They want you to analyze something that is only of historical relevance to your position (banking) but is pretty much guaranteed to not be applicable in any way to the work that you'll be doing.

4) Demonstration of Esoteric Knowledge
Now we get into the bizarre realm. They are asking you for a specific example of a situation that you may come across in your job, but are unlikely to. You may have studied something like this years and years ago when you were still a college student, but you've likely forgotten about it by now since its not knowledge that you applied on a regular basis.

5) Practical Problems in Impractical Situations
Now you're asked to do a task that seems a lot more applicable to your job, but they strip away any and all tools that you'd always use to do that job. What does this prove? That you can still do your job during a power outage?

6) Puzzles
The example question I asked above I have actually been asked in an interview. In fact, it was asked of me in my very first engineering interview and caught me completely by surprise since I hadn't yet been enlightened to the joys of technical questions in an engineering interview. These types of questions are completely irrelevant to the job you are interviewing for and only serve to test your general problem solving skills.

This post is already long and I'm just getting started, so I'll finish here for today and continue with a part II post another time. I'll be going over some of the recent questions I've had, the formats in which I was asked those questions, and analyze what questions I felt were useful (for the interviewer) and what questions I felt served absolutely no purpose other than to irritate me enough to blog about it.

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Blogger Sean Leather said...

For some companies, the puzzles are so entrenched in the culture that there are books about them. You are probably aware of "How would you move Mt. Fugi?" I am greatly amused by this, though I don't care much for the questions myself.

8:29 AM  

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