T-SQL Tuesday #174 – My Favorite Job Interview Question

The topic for this month’s T-SQL Tuesday #174 hosted by Kevin Feasel (Blog) is regarding our favorite job interview question. Read on to see my thoughts on job interview questions from both sides of the table…

Favorite Interview Question To Ask

Asking questions shows interest and you should come prepared to each interview with a stack of relevant questions in hand to ask. Some of my favorites:

  • Tech stack – I want to know what technologies this position works with now and planned for the future. I like to see where my work may take me in 2 years. Also sometimes this differs from the recuiter or job description so I want to hear directly what they’re working with so I know if I’m a good fit or not.
  • Big picture – being a seasoned candidate I like to understand the big picture of the business in the context of the group I’m interviewing to be a part of. I have ambitions to learn, earn, and rank up. I don’t want jobs that are running on the treadmill or just keeping pace because you’ll become a dinosaur in the tech world and have to cash out your chips.
  • Describe the last project or thing the team worked on – gives a good feel for what work actually might be done that might deviate from the job advertisement. Here’s an example.

I don’t ask about corporate culture anymore because it’s all lies. It varies, especially in a big organization, so much that it isn’t worth pondering. You can work for the best company on Earth but if your manager is bad or toxic it won’t be fun. Conversely you can work for Evil Corp but have a good manager that makes it all worthwhile. Besides, it is easier than ever to find people who work in the group and ask them directly if you need. FWIW online forums may contains insight (take with a grain of salt).

Favorite Interview Question To Answer

On the other side of the table I like to pretend I’m Joe Rogan and plan for a 3 hour podcast with my guest (captive audience). Ok maybe not like that but I like free flowing conversation. I want to see excitement about the technical details, enthusiasm and interest in the topics, and some enriching questions.

I like practical questions with an open ending so I can see how they think and approach the problem. For example, questions that involve troubleshooting provide for interesting back-and-forth. I’ve asked open ended DBA type questions “if a manager calls you complaining that the “database” is slow, walk me through how you would investigate the claim and also how you would communicate with him”.

Another is showing a snipped of code (preferable practical and from PROD (obscured of course)) and first asking what it is doing then how to improve performance and what might be a concern. Maybe they point out that CTE recursion doesn’t work well with large data sets or that if there’s a null value in table A that might cause an unexpected behavior.

Interview Question Hall of Shame

It wasn’t asked but I’ll add to this an anti-pattern. I don’t like interview questions that are pointless, combative, or trick questions.

Let me explain – I’ve been on many interviews over the years. Some I aced while others I didn’t feel I performed well. As Kevin puts it:

Job interviews are a strange and awkward dance

  • Being asked overly academic questions – it’s one thing to ask someone to show how to implement a linked list, sort algorithm (ex. bubble, quicksort), or recite the OSI model (all 7 layers of the burrito…) while it is entirely another thing to quiz on arcane or impractical theoretical minutia. Remember that job interviews are supposed to be a practical exercise to determine if the candidate has “the right stuff” for this position.
  • Being asked general questions to test your IQ – if 2 trains leave the Chicago station at 2pm traveling 60mph…that sort of question. How many pizza’s would it take to fill the empire state building? As I remember this was more a practice many years ago in big tech and I hope it’s died since then. I get that they want to test your problem solving in a novel way but it’s often an interrogation with a psychopath that you wouldn’t want to work with even if you got it right. It’s interview hazing…
  • Pressure filled scenarios – I was pressed before in an interview about troubleshooting some critical issue. They wouldn’t say if it was downtime or slow performance or an error. So I went through my thoughts about how I’d approach the scenario in the dark initiating my investigation. This went on through many layers (anything else? anything else?) until we both hit a wall. Nothing was solved – they wanted to simulate (I think) the pressure of the job. After we reversed engineered their server landscape they insisted that although the answers were ok the speed was not and they needed someone to “deal with the pressure”. I was quite relieved to deal my way out of that interview.
  • Free consulting – I was part of interviews with another manager who brought in candidates and would quiz them on the practical problems we were having in our group. After several candidates came and went he admitted to me he was fishing for advice on how to run the data warehouse better. There was a job requisition for the position but I don’t think he was in a hurry to hire as he wanted free consulting and would press them for specific answers then try them in PROD.
  • Look at how smart I am – sometimes the interviewer feels like he must impress upon you just how smart he is. I was asked a strange question about SQL Server internals that I had never heard of before. I couldn’t find a use case for the question and admitted that in my 20 years working with every version of SQL Server 2000 – 2022 I had never encountered that in the wild. At the end of the interview (it didn’t go well) I asked him straight up for the answer and why he asked he. I’m pretty sure I could hear his fingers typing to Google books online. He told me the answer then said that nobody ever got that question right and not to worry about it. His intention was to look smart but it made me think less of him.
  • Write FizzBuzz 5 different ways – not gonna lie I actually like this one…

Conclusion

So there you have it. The good and the bad. If you have any questions let me know in the comments!

Thanks for reading!


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2 thoughts on “T-SQL Tuesday #174 – My Favorite Job Interview Question

  1. Thanks for the entry, Jeff. The job interview anti-patterns are a great combination of hilarious and sad, and the “how many pizzas can fit in the Empire State Building” one is exactly the kind of question I despise. Fermi decomposition can be a useful skill (especially for senior-level people who need to make decisions under uncertainty), but it’s also dumb to spring on people during an interview, especially if the job rarely requires it.

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