The internet is filled with interview advice and tips around how to prepare for some of the most useless interview questions. And all of this charade is for the lack of one single thing:
Knowing the subject matter well.
You get hired for a job the business wants to get done. Your role is to simply demonstrate your aptitude and know-how for the role. That's it. Every smart founder or hiring manager goes into a job interview looking for this.
The problem is interviews largely fail spectacularly as most recruiters aren't very smart and don't ask the right questions. The questions they have are so stale and borrowed from the corporate world that candidates have already learned what are the "right" answers to these questions from reading a few blogs. They know how to game them... which is great! — if you're looking for a salesperson who knows how to prospect their customers and talk.
But these questions are terrible if you're hiring an individual contributor for building and shipping things. Most bosses just can’t seem to stop themselves from being taken in by overconfidence. And this confidence and charisma often win over competence in job interviews.What ends up happening is organizations hire the loud and mediocre over the quiet and talented.
But there is a foolproof and unhackable way to conduct interviews.
The only caveat: you need a hiring manager who is experienced in their field, has a good repertoire of work behind them, and knows their subject matter from the inside out.
Interestingly enough, this is exactly how Tesla and SpaceX boss Elon Musk have been interviewing job candidates for years. For any candidate interviewing for an engineering position, Elon has a simple question:
“Tell me about some of the most difficult problems you worked on and how you solved them.”
And this question is quite effective in detecting BS. Those amongst you who are engineers will find this easy to understand if you go back to your final year of engineering and your thesis project viva.
If you were the single person in your group who essentially carried the project from start to end, while the others in your group depended on you to get the work done, you had an easier time during the project viva compared to your teammates.
Because you knew all the details.
Since you were the one who had built the project, you were able to provide detailed answers while the rest of your teammates could only give surface-level answers.And that’s the trick! Liars don’t understand the details, while the people who really worked on solving the problem know exactly how they solved it: they know the little details.
Liars and bullshitters don’t like to get into specifics.
Because they know they are more likely to get caught out if they do.
Professionals, on the other hand, are often more than happy to get into discussing the nitty-gritty with you. They in fact appreciate this from their interviewer as it provides a good opportunity for their love of the work to shine through. Their enthusiasm shows in the way they describe their challenges and how they solved them. It allows them to reveal the non-obvious and the interesting. Musk long ago intuitively grasped the truth behind interviews — genuinely skilled (if sometimes socially awkward) truth-tellers will be thrilled to get into the specifics of the problem.
In general, a great thing about asking people to describe their past work and take you through the details of a single project is that it helps you understand the level of nuance and detail a candidate thinks in, in their domain. And this nuance is the closest proxy to expertise.
The best part?
All the charisma in the world fails at subverting this question. It is bullshit-proof.
Takeaway for hiring managers
A question that allows candidates to talk at length around a single problem will help you evaluate their skillset much better than asking questions like,
"What do you see yourself doing 5 years down the line?"
Let's be honest, neither the candidate knows that, nor do you. For someone to know what they'd be doing 5 years down the line, they have to be living a pretty boring and mundane life that doesn't even expect any twist or novelty.
I personally do not know what's going to happen in the next 6 months, let alone the next 5 years. So just skip those questions. Get straight to talking shop.
Takeaway for candidates
It’s better to talk about one project in detail than talking about 5 projects superficially. Any experienced interviewer is first an experienced operator and knows the kind of detail involved in any project. And a lot of questions they will ask you about your previous work are aimed at figuring out your depth of understanding about the subject.
If you cannot describe the project in detail, your contribution to it may be questioned and you might fail your interview. So, keep this in mind the next time you’re appearing for one.
And, all the very best!
Related read: Mastery lies in the details.