You've probably seen them making the rounds on social media: the brain-busting, stutter-inducing questions asked in job interviews at places like Google (How many cows in Canada?), Apple (What are five ways to put a hole in a sheet of metal?), Dell (What songs best describe your work ethic?) and Novell (How would people communicate in a perfect world?).
Less likely to be discussed is whether such interview questions actually help employers find the right IT pros.
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"We've heard candidates tell us that they faced three hours of pure tech-oriented questions that were specific and focused and extensively related to the job. Then at the end of three hours, they're hit with, 'Why is a manhole cover round?'" says Matthew Ripaldi, a senior vice president at IT staffing agency Modis in Houston. "It really put the person off."
There's Google, which can get away with asking offbeat questions, and then there are companies that imitate Google -- with mixed results, Ripaldi says. "There are companies asking those questions just to ask them, and it isn't clear whether they know what to do with the responses," he says.
That doesn't mean a challenging -- even difficult -- interview is automatically a turnoff. Over the past year, candidates interviewing for tech jobs rated their interviews as both more difficult and more positive than in the previous 12 months, according to Scott Dobroski, community expert at Glassdoor, a five-year-old social recruiting site that allows job candidates to share interview experiences.
"What this tells us is that making a tech interview more positive doesn't mean you need to make it less difficult," Dobroski says.
Hiring stakes are high
The debate over whether questions out of left field enhance or detract from the interview process is more than just an academic one for companies looking to hire IT talent.
The increasingly tight job market ratchets up the pressure to find, hire and retain the right people. And with recruitment and onboarding costs "in the thousands of dollars" per employee, Dobroski says, companies are intent on hiring the right candidate the first time out.
By the time a candidate reaches the interview stage, managers say that they're more concerned with learning about the individual's attitude, social skills and compatibility with the company's culture than they are with trying to assess his or her tech skills -- which the screening process should have already gauged. "We might ask a little bit about the tech stuff," says Joe Schmitt, a network support manager at U.S. Bank in St. Paul, Minn. "But really we're looking out for the right mix of curiosity, passion and initiative."
Schmitt, like other IT hiring managers interviewed by Computerworld, believes "gotcha" questions in general do a poor job of bringing those soft skills to the fore.