Here’s the story behind questions like, “What’s your favorite ’90s jam?”
By Cale Guthrie Weissman
Fast Company, June 9, 2016 —
It’s not necessarily new for an interviewer to throw in a curveball to keep a candidate on their toes. It happened to me: While applying for college I was asked what sort of light fixture I would be.
But it’s become a new norm in Silicon Valley to have nontraditional paths toward hopeful employment: Weird questions, special tests, the whole nine yards. Someone in 2015 was interviewing for a job at Airbnb and was supposedly asked, “What would you do if you were the one survivor in a plane crash?”
This sort of weird question is meant to throw people off and get them to think on their toes. But Airbnb isn’t the only company employing new tactics to bring in new and interesting talent.
Over the last several years, as the technology job gold rush has continued, companies have been working on devising new ways to not only bring in new talent but have those vying for positions inventively show their worth.
Websites like Glassdoor provide a helpful look into how strange job interviews have become. You can find lists of curveballs questions or tasks asked of the job hunters. If you want to interview at Facebook, for instance, there are reports that say the most important question you’ll get is: “On the day you did what you consider your best work—where you were proudest of whatever you achieved at a job—what did you actually do on that day?” If you’re applying for a job that requires technical skills at companies like Facebook and Google, you are sure to get a test of some kind.
But companies know that they are fighting for the best talent with these complex assessments, and don’t want their interview strategy to become something prospective candidates can study. I talked with a few people who interviewed for jobs at a variety of top technical firms—Google, Apple, etc.—and most were asked to sign a nondisclosure agreement about what they were asked during the interview process.
RETOOLING THE INTERVIEW PROCESS
Still, for employers figuring out how to find the best candidates, this is anything but a perfect science. Andrew Burke has worked at the website hosting company Squarespace for almost six years and has helped build out its recruiting program. In the early days, things were pretty different. For one, candidates weren’t just trying to sell themselves to Burke and Squarespace. In fact, a lot of his recruiting back then was explaining what the company was. A lot of the job was being “an ambassador to the company,” says Burke.
Over the years, as the team grew, finding people and figuring out their fit became a bit more scientific.
For one, Squarespace—along with many other companies—uses an applicant-tracking software that collects germane data about potential hires. This is used more as a way to make sure someone is worthy of an interview. Interviews are time commitments, Burke says, so he uses the data collected about what an applicant has done, and how well they fared in the process, to help figure out if he or she is worthy of an in-site interview.
Over the last few years, Squarespace has spearheaded nontraditional programs to bring in potential new hires and show them the company. One flew talent in and showed them around New York City. Burke calls interviews a “two-way process,” and feels like programs like the fly-in give people a chance to get to know both the company’s culture and the city.
Squarespace, as a burgeoning tech company, is in an interesting position. It has hundreds of employees and real name recognition, but it’s still relatively small. Companies that are storied for asking hard riddles or posing philosophical questions to interviewees can get away with these sorts of practices. Burke says that since its brand cachet isn’t to the point of Google or Facebook, he doesn’t want to be associated with questions meant to confound.
In fact, the company once did ask a nontraditional question; During a series of video interviews a few years back, the company concluded with, “What’s your favorite ’90s jam?'” The point, says Burke, was to add some levity; to get people to feel silly and more comfortable with the process. And while most people thought the question was funny, it did end up on some online lists. Now Squarespace uses “strictly work-related questions.”
This doesn’t mean it’s asking only the boring questions. Instead, the company tries to make tailor-made questions that fit each applicant. “We establish a rubric,” says Burke, for each candidate about “what we’re looking for.” From there, the team devises an individualized set of questions that they hope will be good illuminators for what they’re hoping to learn from the people and what the company is specifically looking for.
FROM A FOCUS ON SCHOOLS TO A FOCUS ON SKILLS
LinkedIn is another company that believes it’s innovating the hiring process. For example, the company has been focusing on talent that didn’t attend elite institutions. Companies that source exclusively from Ivy-like institutions are focusing on “pedigree over skills,” says Tey Scott, LinkedIn’s director of talent acquisition. “We’ve moved from schools to skills.”
The idea is to recruit people to the company using LinkedIn’s platform, which more accurately articulates what a person can do for an organization. Applicants can use their listed skills as a way to get their foot in the door rather than relying on a university’s network. According to Scott, 25% of LinkedIn’s college recruiting happened on their own platform, which she believes made it a fairer playing field. This is to say that instead of LinkedIn drawing on connections from established universities—a practice most companies do—it has been focusing on discovering people who have made profiles on its own platform. The hope is that this could discover some talent who would otherwise be lost in the insider club of private networks sourcing from within.
“We want to uncover and find the folks who are the best and the brightest, no matter where [they’re] from,” she says. Her team has been focusing on non-four-year institutions and even online skills programs to help source potential internal talent.
Scott adds that when interacting with potential hires, LinkedIn has attempted to change things up. For one, when LinkedIn does onsite visits, it tries to avoid tired and boring traditions like career fairs. Instead, the company went to a few campuses for about half a week and set up workshops and Q&As to engage with the students. One more popular workshop, says Scott, was a “women-only lean-in circle.” The idea of all these events is to have both parties—applicants and organization—see each other in a new light.
Of course, LinkedIn asks many weird and difficult questions, too. For engineering and other backend roles, the company really wants to make sure the applicants have a grasp on the content. A popular question that came up on forums was, “What is a transaction?” Others were asked a series of math questions—one person wrote that LinkedIn asked him or her to determine whether a number has an integer square root. And, keeping in line with the other big tech companies, most applicants were asked to not disclose the questions posed. Part of being part of the cool tech interview club is making sure the other cool tech companies don’t know about them.
These questions, though difficult to the layman, are intended to give an interviewee the chance to really show off their technical knowledge. And they are markedly different from the age-old questions of, “Why do you want to work here?” and “What are your ambitions?”
For Scott, it seems that she isn’t worried about the content of the questions LinkedIn asks, but who gets access to them. For instance, all interns in every department at LinkedIn are given access to the company’s coding test, which would potentially put them in the running for some highly coveted positions.
Ultimately, though most recruiters won’t admit it, these questions are meant for people to show they’re worthy of joining the tech employee club. No longer is it suitable to just do your job—you’ve got to prove that you’re really in line with a company’s ethos.
So when Facebook asks what a good day at work really means, it’s just as important as the technical test. It’s a way to show that not only are you engaged in the questions at hand, but also “on board” with the great mission of the company.
So if you’re hoping to get a job alongside the best and the brightest of Silicon Valley, be ready for some curveballs.