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Best/Worst Interview Questions

 
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Hi, folks. I'm working on an article for DevSource.com that I think will be fun and useful, and I'd like your help.

Every techie here has been on a few job interviews. It's tough, from either side of the desk, because you're trying to prove that you're brilliant in a subject that isn't suited to a song-and-dance. You can talk about projects you've worked on; you can claim expertise with certain tools and languages; you can wave around references from clients or previous employers. But that rarely helps you demonstrate what you're best at -- whatever that is.

And then an interviewer asks a lame question that doesn't even approach that goal, such as, "What are your three greatest strengths and three greatest weaknesses?" As dumb as it is, the interviewer doesn't know what to ask; what he really wants to know is if you'd be a comfortable person to sit next to, 40+ hours a week, and if you're just BSing about what you know how to do.

Like I said: everybody's been there. We've all encountered *good* questions in an interview. We've all tried really hard not to roll our eyes when we're asked something pointless or offensive. So I thought I'd write a short article listing the best-and-worst, which you've asked or heard or heard of (which could also be a fun distraction here).

For example: the best job app I ever encountered was for a tiny compiler optimization company in Maine. The written form had the basic background questions, then some rather strange questions and a few brain teasers. The point of the latter wasn't to see if you could deal with engineering trivia, but to see how you addressed the problem. (That might have bugged me, except I knew the company owner -- we'd played D&D together, which is how I met him -- and he meant it. Playing a fantasy role playing game is another way to learn how someone solves problems and copes with frustrations, but that's another discussion.)

Anyway, a pair of questions on that list were the best I ever encountered, and I have used them when I've done journalistic interviews with famous people: "What's the most important thing you learned in school? What's the most important thing you learned outside of school?" Imagine for a moment that you had to answer those questions; they sure poke a hole through the puffery, don't they? You can only answer them as yourself, not with a "what makes me look good?" answer.

I did take that job in Maine. The company policy was that *all* the files were open, and everyone was free to look through them. So once, while waiting for a long compile, I pawed through the Interviews folder. I was astonished by the range of answers those two questions elicited. The company owner (who filled out his own form) had written "recursion" as the answer to the second question; someone else wrote "the importance of God and my family." That doesn't tell you *everything* about the person, but it sure tells you something.

The _worst_ interview question wasn't addressed to me, but was given to my husband. He was interviewing for a compiler job at, er, a large developer of commercial software. The developer who interviewed Bill asked several questions like, "How would you design a language parser?" and got very detailed. Those might have been relevant... except that it immediately became obvious that the developer/interviewer was asking Bill to debug the code he was working on right at that moment. I don't think it's part of an interview to do the other person's job.

So: what are the best interview questions you've heard? The ones you'd hate to be asked? Tell me what they are, why you judge them so highly or so poorly. I'll compile them, try to find some commonality (such as "brain teasers"), and turn them into an article. Ideally, it will both make you groan, and also help you say, "Hey, that's a good one to ask, the next time that HR puts me on the interview schedule."

Timewise: I'm hoping to pull this together by the beginning of next week. Please tell me how to refer to you in the article (the ideal is name/title/location, such as "Esther Schindler, a VB programmer in Phoenix"). While I bet this could be a fun discussion here, feel free to write to me privately (esther at bitranch.com).

Esther Schindler
editor, DevSource.com
 
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A male interviewer (who was 50+) asked me this question (worst but funny though):
"Are you comfortable with having a female project manager in your project?".

I should have answered "What planet do you come from. Is it in our solar system?".

But I answered him then "I have been engaged for 2 years now. What do you think?", and we both started laughing.
 
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In one of the interviews, I was asked to point out my 7 good habbits.
Frankly speaking i had never observed my self so much that i can point 7 good habbits inside me (also i havnt read the book 7 habbits of highly effective people).
I tried and tried, could not go above 4. Then i said,"Look i am very humble man so telling 7 good habbits is too much for me". So he said "Ok you are humble that makes it 5, now tell me 2 more"

I tried real hard but all i could come up with were the same qualities that i told earlier. Finally i gave up after 5th.

Nitin R Nigam Java Programmer working with Techspan Noida
 
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Originally posted by Nitin Nigam:
Nitin R Nigam Java Programmer working with Techspan Noida



If this is your signature then you can include it through your here
 
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Worst interview question was a recent phone interview:

Interviewer: How would you build a server which sells audio files online?
Me: So basically an e-commerce server?
Int: Yes, what techologies would you use and how would you build it?
Me: OK, how many people will be using it? How many products What will be the usage model?
Int: Well, just assume 100 people, and 100 products.
Me: OK, so only 100 people and 100 products?
Int: Yes, but you also need to worry about scalability.
Me: OK, so how many people and products will I have to scale to and in what usage pattern migth I expect?
Int: Well, just do 100 people for now.
Me: Well, this is 2006 and you're asking me to build an e-commerce server for 100 people. It really doesn't matter what technology from what you've told me, Java, C#, PHP, RoR, since they can all handle that load.
Int: Well, how would you build it?
Me: It's buy one. This isn't 1997; it's a solved problem so I would use an off the shelf solution.
Int: Well, off the shelf solutions won't work for us.
Me: Oh ok, why?
Int: Well, let's not focus on that, just tell me how you'd built it.
Me: Um, I'm not sure what you want. I can say "three their design" or I can described module or packages, or classes, but I'm not sure what you want. This is basically a solved problem and I'm not sure what you want me to design or what you're trying to understand from me.
Int: Well, just tell me how you would design it.

It went down hill from there. This falls into a class of questions I call "guess what I'm thinking." Often interviewers ask an open, underdefined question, but want you to guess their specific answer. When I first started interviewing I was surprised how varied the answers were, but couldn't hold it against the interviewee; it was my mistake to underspecify. I soon learned how to be more specific, or how to be vague but then walk them down a path with more information as they start asking for it.

Another bad question: Why are manhole covers round? This falls into a class of questions which are "Blink Luck." An alternative question that demonstrates the problem by counter-example would be "if you're in a row boat on a lake with a bowling ball, and drop the ball into the lake, how much higher does the boat rise?" With the latter problem, you can try approaches by measuring volumes, weight, applying formulas, etc. you may be right, you may be wrong, but you can try one or more approaches and models. For the manhole question, you either get it or you don't. It's hard to model and get partial credit the way you can with the lake problem. Similar bad brain teasers include the three lightbulbs in a room with 2 switches, and the two candles that burn at a variable speed.

Good questions:
What do you want to do?
Where do you want to be in the next 5 years?
What is your best accomplishment to date?
Tell me about a time you failed.


--Mark
 
Esther Schindler
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Originally posted by Mark Herschberg:
[QB]Worst interview question was a recent phone interview: . . .


That's really precious. I wonder what the interviewer imagined he or she would hear?

It's funny that you mention the "where do you want to be in the next 5 years" question. People seem to love or hate that one. Why do you think it's good?
 
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Someone who can answer the question "Where do you see yourself in 5 years" has at least thought beyond their next paycheck at the very least.

Personally I like -

What was the last technical book you read?
Tell me about the technologies you used on your last project.
What is your philosophy in regards to refactoring?

My worst was a technical interview with two non-technical people. I forget the actual conversation now, I just realized that the person who got the job was going to be the one who came close to finding the magic answers they were looking for.

The questions I really hate are contrived technical questions. My favorite was a question about try/catch blocks and what you can do with them. What I saw in their code example was really bad design. Doable, sure, but really dumb. I didn't get the job.

The question that really garners the worst answers has always been -

What are your strengths?

If I ever sit in an interview and the prospect says "I'm a fast learner" without some kind of follow-up they go to the bottom of the pile.
 
Mark Herschberg
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Originally posted by Esther Schindler:

It's funny that you mention the "where do you want to be in the next 5 years" question. People seem to love or hate that one. Why do you think it's good?



I actually usually ask, "1) What do you see yourself doing in 6 months if you take the job?" and then "w) Where do you want to be in 2 years? 5? 10-20?"

I ask it for two reasons. First, it tells me if the candidate has thought about his/her career. I've noticed that better candidates usually are--caveat for those who don't remember logic, a lack of forethought does not mean the person is not a good candidate. Second, there is an important role 90%+ managers abdicate: managing your employees career! [Need better: just as many employees don't know how to manage their career, which is why I am so passionate about this forum.] I ask because I need to know how to progress their career. This, of course, is not my only query on the subject, but it's helpful to understand how they will evolve with the team.

For example, some may tell me they want to be more customer facing. Some say they're very interested in a particular technology. Others tell me they want to move into management. If I hire a team of 10 people who all give me the same answer, while they may mechanically work, the blend of people won't achieve an optimal dynamic.

--Mark
 
Mark Herschberg
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I second asking what books they read. Sometimes I ask about technical books. Sometimes I leave it more open. I also usually ask "how do you learn new skills and technologies?" It's amazing how many people have no answer for that. Again, the better ones often do have a good answer.

The "what are your strengths?" question I find useless--not because it's inherently bad, but just beause most people can't answer it. As Jason pointed out over 90% of the candidates say "I'm a fast learner" or "I'm a hard worker." If I do ask it, after getting those answers, I say, "Everyone else has said the same thing. Now tell me something specific to you that I'm not going to hear from every other candidate." The "What are your weakness?" question suffers from the same problem (wrose answer I got: "I don't have any"). The most interesting (not necessarily best) variant "why shouldn't I hire you?" (my answer: "If 2 years from now I'll be doing the same thing I'll be doing day one." Turns out that was the job, so I gladly didn't get it.)

My variation on this question that gets better responses is "If you had to hire a developer, how would you evaluate candidates?" It provides insight into their career values, which highly correlates into their particular strengths.

--Mark
[ October 06, 2006: Message edited by: Mark Herschberg ]
 
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Originally posted by Mark Herschberg:

The "what are your strengths?" question I find useless--not because it's inherently bad, but just beause most people can't answer it.
[ October 06, 2006: Message edited by: Mark Herschberg ]



I agree. I feel thats useless question and it won't give any room for interviewer to evaluate the person based on his answers. People can give any kind of answers which he really have or may not have. If a person have good marketing skills he can give better answer for this but really we can't evaluate him based on his answer. Recently I faced same kind of question like "what your manager and team members tell about you?". Again this question gives a chance to tell any thing except negative things. I feel we can't evaluate a person based on this kind of questions.
 
Nitin Nigam
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Once i was inteviewed by a company that make softwares for TV shows that use sms voting(e.g. Indian Idol, Indian version of American Idol)
The interviewer asked me with reference to SMS voting software, "After the phone lines are opened, there occures a huge rush of SMS's and many people experience that their SMS is not delivered or SMS failed. How would you insure that The SMS reception speeds up by 2 fold?"

I said, "I will be getting SMS's from all across India, i will divert the SMS's to 4 servers, each server will keep track of SMS's coming from Northern/Western/Eastern/Southern India respectively. This way i can acheive 4 fold speed of SMS reception. But to my surprize, the interviewer had his own solution and he was hell bent on extracting the trick for 2 fold speed. I said,"OK then divide India into only 2 reagions rather than 4". But he said "No". Finally he told me his answer, "We will divert the SMS's coming from mobile numbers ending with even digit to one server and Odd digits to another server".
 
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Originally posted by Nitin Nigam:
Once i was inteviewed by a company that make softwares for TV shows that use sms voting(e.g. Indian Idol, Indian version of American Idol)
The interviewer asked me with reference to SMS voting software, "After the phone lines are opened, there occures a huge rush of SMS's and many people experience that their SMS is not delivered or SMS failed. How would you insure that The SMS reception speeds up by 2 fold?"

I said, "I will be getting SMS's from all across India, i will divert the SMS's to 4 servers, each server will keep track of SMS's coming from Northern/Western/Eastern/Southern India respectively. This way i can acheive 4 fold speed of SMS reception. But to my surprize, the interviewer had his own solution and he was hell bent on extracting the trick for 2 fold speed. I said,"OK then divide India into only 2 reagions rather than 4". But he said "No". Finally he told me his answer, "We will divert the SMS's coming from mobile numbers ending with even digit to one server and Odd digits to another server".



 
ankur rathi
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In one of my interview--that was going average, one wrong then one or two right and so on--interviewer finally told me, I select you if you answer this question correctly and reject if not. I prepared myself for the last fight. He asked me the following question:

These are the two StringBuffer:
StringBuffer s1 = new StringBuffer("a");
StringBuffer s2 = new StringBuffer("a");
What will be the output of this: s1.equals(s2);

Unfortunately, I was not aware of the implementation of equals() method of StringBuffer. I said, if StringBuffer has overridden equals() method like Stirng class did then it will return true and if not then equals() method of Object class will get called and .... will return false.

... and he rejected me.
[ October 06, 2006: Message edited by: rathi ji ]
 
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This isn't specifically an interview question, but it was pretty bad. I took a test years ago to be a financial planner. The most memorable question was:

"What color is your brain?"

I discussed that question with a friend later and apparently pink, beige or grey are not the right answers because they are too literal. I forget what I answered, but in retrospect I should have wrote this:

"Do you mean the one in my head or the one in my fridge?"
 
Mark Herschberg
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Originally posted by KJ Reddy:

People can give any kind of answers which he really have or may not have. If a person have good marketing skills he can give better answer for this but really we can't evaluate him based on his answer.



I think your misunderstanding the purpose of the question. The motivation is not to take a shortcut ("gee, he says he's great with dataases, so now I won't bother asking any and will just check it off on my candidate evaluation form") but rather to see the values of the candidate. Does the candidate emphasize technology breadth? depth? a particular tier? domain knowledge? communication skills? oral? written? teamwork? creativeness? etc. It's not that you take what they say as verbatim, but more tells you what the candidate brings to the table. Unfortunately, most people give the answers I mentioned above which don't help distinguish them for the rest of the applicant pool. But if you get a question like this, understand that it's not an evaluation of your skills so much as an exploration of them.

--Mark
 
Esther Schindler
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Originally posted by Mark Herschberg:
I think your misunderstanding the purpose of the question. The motivation is not to take a shortcut ("gee, he says he's great with dataases, so now I won't bother asking any and will just check it off on my candidate evaluation form") but rather to see the values of the candidate. Does the candidate emphasize technology breadth? depth? a particular tier? domain knowledge? communication skills? oral? written? teamwork? creativeness? etc. It's not that you take what they say as verbatim, but more tells you what the candidate brings to the table. Unfortunately, most people give the answers I mentioned above which don't help distinguish them for the rest of the applicant pool. But if you get a question like this, understand that it's not an evaluation of your skills so much as an exploration of them.



My response is somewhere in between. If you, Mark, asked me to identify my strengths -- just person to person -- I could probably give you an answer. And the answer would probably give you some insight into my values, my self-perception, etc. (It would also likely include something about chocolate.) But interview situations have a certain degree of falsity about them, because we're trying to impress, not to be ourselves. Every answer is judged, so you tend to give an answer that will paint an attractive picture rather than something that reflects reality.

On the other hand, it does tell the interviewer something, and few people should be judged on a single answer. The bizarre job app to which I refered in my original note also had a question, "What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?" which I thought was pretty dumb. Until, some years later, I was sitting in a client's office, telling her the same tale. I'd just mentioned that question to her, and we'd chuckled over it. One of the junior "wet behind the ears" programmers -- who nonetheless would tell you he was a star developer -- came into her office for some reason. Sandra turned to Victor and asked, "What's your favorite flavor of ice cream?" He faltered a moment, then replied, "Chocolate chocolate chip. [a nervous beat] Is that right?"
 
Kj Reddy
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Originally posted by Mark Herschberg:


I think your misunderstanding the purpose of the question.



Mark, thanks for explaining the things in more detail. But I did not misunderstood your previous post. Answers to questions like "What are your strengths" can have different answers in different contexts. I faced this question in a context where the interviewer expected me to explain about my personal strenghts(hardworking etc.,) , they didn't asked about my technicl strengths. If the question is related personal strengths the person can tell any thing which he really doesn't have like... I am hard working, I am good team player and what not. Few answers like "I am good in problem solving" can be evaluated immediately by giving small problems but can't evaluate all answers.
[ October 06, 2006: Message edited by: KJ Reddy ]
 
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I love asking "What are your weaknesses?"

Everyone has a canned answer, and you know that they've got a canned answer. I don't care if they tell me they have a problem with time management, or whether they make up a BS answer like "I eat too much for lunch."

It's the follow-up that's the killer. WHAT ARE YOU DOING ABOUT IT?

Someone can tell me that they are awful at time management, but if they can tell me three things they're doing about it, like using a time organizer, attending a course on time management, or making notes at the beginning of the day to prioritize things, then I'm happy.

If someone tells me they eat too much for lunch, and I ask them what they're doign about it, and they aren't doing anything, then we have someone that's not trying to improve themselves, and that says a whole heck of alot more than what their perceived strength or weakness is.

-Cameron McKenzie
 
Maureen Augustus
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I've got a good one for that that happens to be true.

I tell them that overnight or over the weekend, I tend to lose my place in what I was working on when I left and it would frustrate me to use up a lot of time remembering and getting back to where I was. So I have a legal pad by my right elbow and I spent a minute or two before I go home jotting down my last thoughts of the day. In the morning, they serve as a trigger to get me right where I left off.

So if anyone tells you that in an interview, they stole my answer.
 
Jason Cox
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But interview situations have a certain degree of falsity about them, because we're trying to impress, not to be ourselves. Every answer is judged, so you tend to give an answer that will paint an attractive picture rather than something that reflects reality.



I know this is absolutely crazy but usually when I interview (and I do it everytime we have a staff aug contract) I try to be genuine as possible. I tell potential customers up front that I'm going to answer honestly and that everything on my resume is 100% real. The proof to that is that I answer every question they ask honestly so that they can see I mean it. I strongly value integrity and finding solutions instead of CYA and assigning blame.

Believe it or not this approach works anytime I am a good fit for the position. If I am a bad fit for the position, this approach will usually prove that out. I don't mind as I don't want to go into a position I am a bad fit for, that would make me and my company look bad. We can always find a better candidate if that is the case.

Of course the only way this works is that you have to be honest with yourself about what your real strengths, your real experience, and your real weaknesses are. I've run into people who truly thought they were technical gurus that were very very bad. The problem with being genuine is that if you are in self-deception mode you'll just come off as a big phony.
 
Mark Herschberg
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I second Jason's point of view. Thre are two benefits to this. First, when I say "for that skill, you can find someone better than me" it contrasts well when I say, "I excel at that task." Second, when it comes to jobs, friend, dating, etc you must be careful the face you wear, lest it becomes you. Don't say, "why yes, I'd be happy to also handle customer support issues and really enjoy such an outward facing oppotunity" if you really don't want to, because if you get the job, you will be stuck doing it.

Side story: for one of my first jobs, I mentioned during the interview that "I'm pretty good at documentation." I was referring to documenting my code. I realized later that he read that as general documention which is why my first two weeks were spent writing the user manual. Not what I wanted to be doing. That said, I was very glad I did it, it gave me a good overview of the system and forced me to work on my writing skills (and kept me out of the hair of the engineers during the final weeks fo the release). Early in my career I was set on a path where I learned to write well and appreciate its value in the engineering process.


--Mark
 
Esther Schindler
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Originally posted by Mark Herschberg:
Side story: for one of my first jobs, I mentioned during the interview that "I'm pretty good at documentation." I was referring to documenting my code. I realized later that he read that as general documention which is why my first two weeks were spent writing the user manual. Not what I wanted to be doing. That said, I was very glad I did it, it gave me a good overview of the system and forced me to work on my writing skills (and kept me out of the hair of the engineers during the final weeks fo the release). Early in my career I was set on a path where I learned to write well and appreciate its value in the engineering process.



I was given the job of documenting a computer language while the designer was still making changes to it. It was awful, but I learned how to be precise and rigorous.

And look at where I ended up!
 
ankur rathi
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Originally posted by KJ Reddy:


Mark, thanks for explaining the things in more detail. But I did not misunderstood your previous post. Answers to questions like "What are your strengths" can have different answers in different contexts. I faced this question in a context where the interviewer expected me to explain about my personal strenghts(hardworking etc.,) , they didn't asked about my technicl strengths. If the question is related personal strengths the person can tell any thing which he really doesn't have like... I am hard working, I am good team player and what not. Few answers like "I am good in problem solving" can be evaluated immediately by giving small problems but can't evaluate all answers.

[ October 06, 2006: Message edited by: KJ Reddy ]



I think, very few people lies in interview, at least when it comes to personal questions.
 
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Originally posted by rathi ji:
In one of my interview--that was going average, one wrong then one or two right and so on--interviewer finally told me, I select you if you answer this question correctly and reject if not. I prepared myself for the last fight. He asked me the following question:

These are the two StringBuffer:
StringBuffer s1 = new StringBuffer("a");
StringBuffer s2 = new StringBuffer("a");
What will be the output of this: s1.equals(s2);

Unfortunately, I was not aware of the implementation of equals() method of StringBuffer. I said, if StringBuffer has overridden equals() method like Stirng class did then it will return true and if not then equals() method of Object class will get called and .... will return false.

... and he rejected me.

[ October 06, 2006: Message edited by: rathi ji ]



I do not know about rest of your tehnical interview. But this definitely is a good core Java technical question. The key here is not to know "equals()" method of any particular class, but to understand general contract of equals/hashcode methods and purpose of StringBuffer. Knowing that, - the answer should be self evident.

I would ask similar question myself becuase I have seen lot of programmers who do not understand importance of these methods w.r.t. collections & then wonder why few Java collection methods do not work as expected without actually definiing equality for custom objects.

- Manish
 
ankur rathi
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Originally posted by Manish Hatwalne:


I do not know about rest of your tehnical interview. But this definitely is a good core Java technical question. The key here is not to know "equals()" method of any particular class, but to understand general contract of equals/hashcode methods and purpose of StringBuffer. Knowing that, - the answer should be self evident.

I would ask similar question myself becuase I have seen lot of programmers who do not understand importance of these methods w.r.t. collections & then wonder why few Java collection methods do not work as expected without actually definiing equality for custom objects.

- Manish



Sorry Manish but probably I didn�t get your point.

I know the concept and contract of hashCode() and equals() method�if two object are *equal* then they must have the same hash code but the other way is not necessary, I mean, two objects are having same hash code need not to be *equal* necessarily.

I also know what *things* to do while making custom object as a key of any collection�we must override equals() and hashCode() method to make search work.

Please correct me if I said something wrong above.

But still, I didn�t find it is obvious or logical question. I think, one must know the equals() method of StringBuffer class to answer this question.

:roll:
 
Kj Reddy
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Originally posted by rathi ji:


I think, very few people lies in interview, at least when it comes to personal questions.



I feel other way. Especially questions like what are the your strengths and weakness, how many people really talks about their weakness?
 
Esther Schindler
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The article is live. Thanks for your help!

The Best and Worst Tech Interview Questions
Your manager put you on the list of people to interview the latest programming team candidate. What do you ask that isn't lame, and that helps you choose the right person? Techies share their best and most-hated questions.

http://www.devsource.com/article2/0,1895,2027748,00.asp
 
Mark Herschberg
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Congratulations on publishing.

One correction (aside from the fact that I haven't been a software developer in years): I actually do like the bowling ball in the lake type problem and listed it as a contrast to the manhole cover problem.



Another bad question: Why are manhole covers round? This falls into a class of questions which are "Blind [sic] Luck." An alternative question that demonstrates the problem by counter-example would be "if you're in a row boat on a lake with a bowling ball...




WRT the end of the article, I do evaluate candidates based on the questions the candidate asks. As a candidate myself I used to ask, "why do you work here?" (akin to, "what's the best part about working here?") but amusingly found that, not unlike "what are your strengths?" 90% of the answers were "the people." While the 10% who answer with something else provide useful information, the 90% do not. Much as when I ask about a candidate's strength, I will often follow up this one with, "now given that 90% of the companies I meet with tell me that, can you give me another reason more unique to this company?" (Surprisngly, about 50% of the time, the interviewer has to reach for an answer.)


--Mark
 
Esther Schindler
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Originally posted by Mark Herschberg:
One correction (aside from the fact that I haven't been a software developer in years): I actually do like the bowling ball in the lake type problem and listed it as a contrast to the manhole cover problem.

WRT the end of the article, I do evaluate candidates based on the questions the candidate asks. As a candidate myself I used to ask, "why do you work here?" (akin to, "what's the best part about working here?") but amusingly found that, not unlike "what are your strengths?" 90% of the answers were "the people." While the 10% who answer with something else provide useful information, the 90% do not. Much as when I ask about a candidate's strength, I will often follow up this one with, "now given that 90% of the companies I meet with tell me that, can you give me another reason more unique to this company?" (Surprisngly, about 50% of the time, the interviewer has to reach for an answer.)



I'm happy to make a change, Mark. How should it read?
 
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