Answering 25 tough interview questions, part 4

… Ploughing on through those 25 interview questions. Why am I doing this? In a comment on the last post, jwerpy correctly noted that “Not a single one of these questions provides any insight into […] why hiring you will improve the company and make it more successful”. But that’s only one application of such questions, and not the one that interests me. I think of them more as mental stretching exercises, and as ways of finding out what I think by seeing what I say (as E. M. Forster had it).

See also part 1, part 2 and part 3.


16. “What do you mean by ‘leadership’?” – Asked at Moody’s.

I can’t remember who said this, but the key observation is that you’re only a leader if people are following you. So to be leading, it’s not enough to be out in front, you have to draw people along with you. That means it’s not just about “visionary leadership”, seeing the right direction to go; but equally important about explaining persuasively why a given direction is right. You need both. Without vision, you have nowhere to lead people to; without persuasion you travel alone.

There’s a cult of leadership at the moment that fetishises stereotypically male traits like boldness, dominance and insensitivity.  Guess what? Lead like that and no-one will follow.

See also: The 417 Rules of Awesomely Bold Leadership. (More here, and a low-tech link-farm here.)

17. “By what criteria do you judge your own performance?” – Asked at Gatwick Airport.

I’m not good at this. I just keep doing what I’m doing, look at the results every now and then and decide whether I’m happy with them. You could criticise that approach as unquantifiable; on the other hand, you could say that I seem to be doing OK, and that part of the reason for that might be that I don’t fritter away my time trying to measure the unmeasurable.

The bottom line is that pretty much everything that matters is impossible to measure. I can measure how many years I’ve been married, but not the quality of the marriage. I can count how many lines of code I’ve written but that tells me nothing about the value I’ve created. I can count the number of times my academic writings have been cited, but that is at best a very imperfect proxy for how much influence they’ve had.

In fact, there are amazingly few areas in which performance can be meaningfully measured. The only legitimate one that springs to mind is sport, in which an arbitrary precise measurement standard is set up: “How fast can you run 100m?”, “How far can you throw this spear?”, “How many more points can you score in 80 minutes than you allow your opponents to score?” This objectivity is part of what makes true sports so satisfying. The lack of it is why I find certain Olympic events, such as figure skating, so unsatisfying — to my mind, anything that requires a judge is not really a sport.

I said sport is the only legitimate area in which performance can be meaningfully measured. Unfortunately, there are illegitimate areas. The most important might be the fiction that the success of a company can be accurately measured by means of revenue (or profit, or profit margin). That way of thinking leads inevitably to thinking that the only purpose of a company is to make money — which is a disaster right away for the field it operates in, and eventually for the company itself.

Much better to accept the uncomfortable truth that in nearly every field, performance can only be measured by informed and expert, but nevertheless subjective and fallible, judgement.

18. “Which football team do you support?” – Asked at Sky.

I support Liverpool, and for a not-very-good reason. When I first became interested in football, in about 1977 at the age of nine, it wasn’t the sport itself that appealed to me, it was collecting the player-stats cards. The first team that I collected the whole set for was Coventry, so I had a lucky escape from being saddled with being a Sky Blues fan. Instead, I moved on to collecting my next complete set, which was Liverpool. Soon after I acquired all of those, the collecting craze died out, and I was left holding a full set of Liverpool cards.

A slightly more interesting question would be why I still support Liverpool. Given that it’s arbitrary that I landed on them in the first place, why have they stuck? Of course in the early days of my interest, they were easy to stick with, as they won a lot of trophies, but the last twenty years have been pretty barren. Oddly, I sort of like that. There’s a perverse satisfaction in sticking with a team that’s not doing well. I enjoy going through the low times with the club, so that the peaks feel higher. (I was lucky enough to be at the UEFA Cup final in 2001, when Liverpool beat Alaves 5-4 with an extra-time golden goal — a highlight of my life.)

I suppose it’s sort of a point of honour, too. The idea of abandoning my team because they’re not doing well is abhorrent to me, like leaving your wife because she’s unwell.

19. “What is the main thing that gets you out of bed each morning?” – Asked at Everything Everywhere.

Everything! I love it all. My family, my home, my job, my friends, my music, my palaeontology, my programming, my church, my food and drink. Every day is an opportunity — not just to achieve things, which is fine; but to enjoy them, which may even be better.

20. “Describe the hardest decision you have faced in the past 12 months.” – Asked at Accenture.

I’m afraid I can’t do that — it’s not my story to tell.

I’ll tell you about a hard decision I faced in the last week. It turns out that Crosby, Stills and Nash are playing this October at Colston Hall, Bristol, which is only an hour away from where I live. I’d really like to see them while it’s still possible — the odds of them still all being friends in another year are pretty poor — but the tickets cost £75 plus whatever additional rip-off charges get added on.

And that seems like an awful lot of money to see a group whose best days (we may as well admit) are well behind them.

But my brother came out with a good piece of advice:

So yesterday I bought the ticket. I’m not actually 100% sure I’ll be able to go — it might clash with work commitments — but I’m persuaded that it’s worth both the money and the risk.

(This is essentially the same argument that persuaded me to buy a Martin OMCPA3 when I’d intended to spend about half as much on a lesser guitar. The friend-of-a-friend who was advising pointed out that in ten years I won’t miss the extra money, but I’ll still have a beautiful guitar. It’s a decision I’ve not regretted for a moment.)

9 responses to “Answering 25 tough interview questions, part 4

  1. Dennis Schafroth

    what kind of sport takes 80 minutes? Or it is a typo for 90?

  2. Rugby! Surely you’ve not overlooked the still-in-the-balance current Lions tour to Australia!

  3. If you don’t call things which require judges sports, (fair enough–I have a friend who says it’s not a sport if there’s no ball involved), what do you call them? How about, “non-sport competitive physical activity”?

  4. Not sure if “art” would be how I’d categorise Sumo wrestling. Good call on the Crosby, Still and Nash tickets, though.

  5. Well that was a stupid comment I just left. Your could do with a delete function.

  6. …don’t step in the leadership…

  7. Pingback: Answering 25 tough interview questions, part 5 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

  8. Pingback: What I’ve been reading lately, part 5 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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