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Tough interview questions? Bring it and wing it!

Some interviewers hit hard with their questions, and ask real puzzlers. I was once asked, “How many bicycle tyres do you think are sold in China per year?” Wow. But it’s not to see if you know the Right Answer (most of the time, there is none) – you’re basically being asked to reason the question out loud, or demonstrate a bit of your character.

The Guardian just published a few of Glassdoor’s top 25, and I’m surprised to find that they all have scope for some reasoned entertainment. Below I am going to answer each off pretty much the top of my head (please allow that I am typing, slower than talking, and that might give me time to think a bit more…)

• “If your friend was seriously injured and you had to get him to a hospital, would you speed and go through a red light?” – Asked at Barlow Lyde & Gilbert (trainee solicitor candidate)

This one is fairly pragmatic. It asks whether you are willing to make exceptions to rules if a life is in danger. Well. Not really. It reveals whether you think things out before giving an answer. The red light is not just a rule – it’s a safety precaution. Speed through the red light on a busy road, and you’re likely to a) injure more people; b) kill your friend. Then, if you wait at the light, your friend is slowly dying. The crux of the question is another question: why are you driving in the first place? The worst case scenario is that you’re somewhere unknown/hard to get to and you can’t direct the ambulance service easily. Probably in the countryside.

My answer: call the emergencies service, and agree to meet at the nearest crowded place/well known location if needs be. This done, if on the country road there’s a red light and great visibility, and no oncoming vehicles, then maybe at that point I’d expect to be overlooked a transgression for an emergency…

• “Would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or 100 duck sized horses?” – Asked at BHP Billiton (dry bulk marketer candidate)

I love this one.

A) Ducks can be vicious little buggers. Their necks can reach right round to their backs, and then some; they can fly; they are not afraid of chasing a full-grown human; and they can deal nasty bites. Bring that to horse size and what you’ve got is a flying raptor — the famous intelligent killing machines of the Cretaceous, given wings.

B) Horses are fairly docile by human standards. They’d rather flee than fight. In a stampede, if they see something large, they’ll work around it. I have yet to come across accounts of aggressive horses that aren’t actually defending anything you can’t distance yourself from.

The question essentially then becomes: would you rather face the fastest fabled killing machine known to science, or manage a flock of 100 scared puppy-like animals?

• “How many ways can you get a needle out of a haystack?” – Asked at Macquarie bank (senior Java developer candidate)

A perennial favourite and one that I answer thus:

Do you wish to keep the haystack in the form of a haystack? If you do, you’ll find it very difficult. Even just sifting through the haystack upsets it some, but if you can get past it being dismantled, sift, sift and sift again.

If not:

1) Why not try spreading it over a pool? The hay floats, the needle drops, use a strong magnet to get it out.

2) If you don’t even care about the integrity of the haystack…. trial by literal fire. Sifting becomes much, much easier.

Eventually, the answer becomes: two. Dismantle the haystack, or remove the haystack completely.

• “What makes you happy about work on a Friday evening?” – Asked at Tesco (international deployment manager candidate)

This is a more serious question. From my own experience, Friday evenings (read: after hours) at work are not usually my idea of a fun time, however when I know I have a solution to a problem, or I can see what steps need to be taken to resolve it, or I can guarantee that with a bit of brute-force man-hours the job will be done and dusted and 100% complete, then you can bet your bottom dollar that, provided I have enough tea and noodles, I’m there all night.

In the end I would look at the question as, under what circumstances would you face a Friday evening at the office with energy?

• “Why is 99% not good enough?” – Asked at Parcelforce Worldwide (delivery and collection manager candidate)

This one looks on the face of it as a measure of commitment. “I always want to deliver 100% or it’s not worth it” kind of thing. I’d beware of saying anything anywhere remotely associated with that line. What if it’s certain that there will be problems along the way? What if it’s uncertain the rest of your organisation will be behind you? If you don’t deliver 100%, what will you do, how will you take it? And what if you achieve far less than 99%?

99% is not good enough if that’s where you set the bar up front. 100% is your target. “Good enough” here to me implies that that is a goal. “If we only deliver the basic features but leave out the bells and whistles we’re fine” kind of attitude. This kind of approach wins no prizes.

To put emphasis on this, I would actually put this forward: if a project is handed over to you, and it is clear you can’t make 100% because of whatever business reasons (as they happen in the real world) what do you do?

If it is impossible to reach the original 100%, and you must be very, very clear on why, then it is your onus to bring this out to stakeholders immediately and renegotiate a new 100%.

There are doubtless thousands of variations on this topic, and it could probably fill a PhD report. Single out some key ideas, and let your thoughts run with it.

My answer is: because it means you didn’t deliver what you truly could.

• “In a fight between a lion and a tiger, who would win and why?” – Asked at Capco (associate consultant candidate)

We’ll assume no knowledge of the combat abilities of a lion and a tiger in the wild, nor how or why they got there. We’ll assume they have to fight, no other choice. A pit or something. Which one wins?

Well, to be honest, I think a majority would agree that there’s a 50-50 chance of either one winning. But that’s too short an answer.

Let’s perhaps talk about Apple and Microsoft (I’m a techie, but use analogies from your own field at will). Each has assets, each has advantages, each has disadvantages, each has aspirations, plans, markets, user bases, loyalties and so on and so forth. What is true is that they are pretty much maintained at a nice little status quo where Apple has a very powerful niche whilst Microsoft is powerfully serving the masses. Linux has joined the fray, but that’s like adding a leopard to our big cat combat — agile but not powerful.

Or without diverting the conversation, just state plainly that each has their own abilities and that perhaps in certain conditions, one is better favoured than the other, and may gain an advantage. Concluding form the start that there is an evident winner is a disadvantage.

Then, if you have good knowledge of big cats, here’s your chance. May the gods help you.

• “How would you explain Facebook to your Grandma?” – Asked at Huddle (sales executive candidate)

Imagine the town square, and everyone sets up a stall, with all their photos and home videos on display, voicing their opinions at the top of their lungs, or boasting how great their lives are.

Imagine the town square where Mrs Jones discusses with Mrs Smith the subject of Mr Brown’s favourite pair of trousers — through megaphones.

Imagine then a salesman roaming this town square, where everything is said out in the open, hawking his wares to anyone he overhears talking about something he can sell to them.

Imagine James Bond’s colleagues gathered around, looking and sounding like everyone else, but taping everything and sending it all back to HQ.

That’s what Facebook is like. With the exception that people love it, as if they were living a Monty Python sketch in real life.

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