Saturday, August 30, 2008

Is This Interviewing Technique Still In Use?

Is This Interviewing Technique Still In Use?

I think one of the reasons that I became unemployable in the late 1990s, except by people that had worked with me, and knew what I was capable of doing, was an interviewing technique that seemed to have come into vogue about that time. I am under the impression that this approach came out of Microsoft; at least, my first encounter with it on an interview was at a company in the Redmond area started by a bunch of people from the Microsoft Gun Club. Naturally, they knew who I was because of my books; it was kind of gratifying to walk in and see my books on the shelf!

The interviewing technique was a form of high pressure test. I was used to be asking about technical problems that I had solved. I was used to answering questions about the type of projects on which I had worked. I was used to answering questions about to check my level of knowledge of a language or an operating system. In this case, they asked me write some C on the board to reverse a doubly linked list in place. They decided at the end of this exercise that I wasn't smart enough to work for them, and the rest of the day's interviews were cancelled.

I was both infuriated and perplexed. At least in any company in which I have worked, getting it right and getting it efficient matters more than getting it fast. The most realistic estimate of the effectiveness of an engineer is by looking at the products that he has helped develop. At that point, I had led two highly successful user interface products, from a blank sheet of paper through full deployment to large customer bases. I thought that my experience as both a developer and a project leader--as could be attested by my supervisors--would be the most important element in making a hiring decision. Was I ever wrong.

I was not just upset--I was a bit surprised that what was effectively a broad test of intelligence (and specifically, the ability to think on your feet) was still legal. You see, in Griggs v. Duke Power Co. (1971), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that general tests of intelligence as a condition of employment were illegal. Unless a test measured skills or aptitude specific to the position, it was a violation of the Civil Rights Act, because blacks didn't do as well on intelligence tests as whites. While this was a programming test, and one could say that it had some connection to the job, this artificial of a test was only very remotely connected to the actual work of a software engineer. Now being white, clearly I would not have had a basis for suit. But talk about opening themselves up for a suit if they rejected a black applicant who failed to impress them!

I noticed that for all this company's arrogance--they weren't around a year later. When they explained their marketing strategy and target customer base, I didn't see how it made any sense (although I was too polite to tell them that). But perhaps their marketing was done on the same "let's do it fast and show everyone how smart we are" approach that they expected from their engineers.

So, if I actually get any interviews, will I be running into this technique? Or has this gone out of fashion?

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