Startup Analysis

Coffee tests and jumbo jets: Do trick questions in interviews drive the best talent away?

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien /

Affix founder Jarrad Skeen. Source: Supplied.

For startups, getting the right talent in the door can be a make-or-break situation. Every founder wants the best developers in town, who fit with the ethos and the culture, and who bring a strong work ethic, energy and diversity of thought.

But how do you measure for such staff? And how do you do it in a 30-minute interview?

Last week, on The Venture Podcast with Lambrost Photios, managing director of Xero Australia Trent Innes described his method of separating the wheat from the chaff. In every interview, he will show the candidate around, and get them a drink from the kitchen. At the end, if they don’t offer to return and wash up their cup, they’re automatically off the shortlist.

“It’s all about attitude,” Innes said in the podcast interview.

“You really want to make sure you’ve got people that have got a real sense of ownership,” he added.

“It’s served us really well as the business has scaled and grown. We’ve managed to maintain the values and purpose and culture that makes us special.”

But, when it comes to hiring, are these kinds of practices actually helpful, or indicative of the kind of employee a candidate would be?

Speaking to StartupSmart, Jarred Skeen, founder of startup-focused recruitment company Affix, says if you’re assessing whether an interviewee has a “courteous nature”, then perhaps its fair enough.

“I just think it goes too far … People try to be clever when really all it does is present as a poor reflection on themselves.”

Skeen has heard of interviewees told to imagine there’s a jumbo jet flying overhead, and asked, how much does it weigh?

Elsewhere, litter is intentionally left in interview rooms to see if a candidate picks it up, or interviewees are judged based on the chair they choose.

“If I was a candidate, I would think very carefully as to whether I actually wanted to work for a person like that, who considers that to be a method of screening people,” Skeen says.

We reached out to the Twittersphere to ask for Aussies’ uncomfortable interview stories, and it turns out, a lot of people have them.

How would you explain a prime number to a six-year-old? You’re an independent ATM owner — how much money do you make in November? Describe how a DVD player works.

Aussie angel investor and founder of M8 Ventures Alan Jones recalls two interviews at Google where he had to play a game of sorts with the interviewer, and was asked to develop “a strategy that ensures you will always win”, among other obscure tests and quizzes that evidently told him little about the role.

“Never learned anything about the role they were hiring for, never got to talk about me and my relevant experience. Just came away crushed at how much dumber I was than I thought,” Jones tweeted.

Back in 2013, Google’s senior vice president of people and operations Laszlo Bock admitted in a New York Times interview the tech giant had scrapped its brain-teaser interview questions.

“How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart,” Bock said.

Rather, Google moved towards ‘behavioural interviewing’, asking people about when they have solved an analytical problem, and allowing them to speak about their own experiences.

But Google isn’t the only culprit.

In a FastCompany article, Sydney Finkelstein, author of Superbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent, describes an unusual hiring practice of Oracle founder Larry Ellison.

Ellison would ask candidates: ‘Are you the smartest person you know?’

If they said no, he would ask who is, dismiss the initial candidate, and allegedly call the person they’d named instead.

For interviewees facing Elon Musk — one of Silicon Valley’s most eccentric entrepreneurs — reports vary.

In the FastCompany story, software engineer Jeff Nelson said when he interviewed with Musk for X Commerce, which later became PayPal, in 1999, the founder asked just two questions: ‘What do you want to be doing in five years?’ and ‘Do you have any questions for me?’

However, according to the biography Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, one of Musk’s “favourite” interview questions is a brain teaser: ‘You are standing on the surface of the Earth. You walk one mile south, one mile west, and one mile north. You end up exactly where you started. Where are you?’

Jobs review site Glassdoor also reports a cryptic question in Tesla interviews: “You’re in a row boat, which is in a large tank filled with water. You have an anchor on board, which you throw overboard. Does the water level in the tank rise or fall?”

According to Skeen, these questions are likely designed to see how people react under pressure and think on their feet.

“It’s not often the answer they’re worried about, it’s how they think about it,” he explains.

However, he says it would make more sense to put forward a scenario that’s actually related to the role.

“Asking someone how much a jumbo jet weighs, that doesn’t really tell you anything,” Skeen says.

“To me, there are better ways to do that, that will make the candidate feel good about participating as opposed to alienated.”

We’re talking about small teams working on high-growth, high-pressure projects, so hiring the wrong person can be a minor disaster for a startup.

It’s understandable that founders feel under pressure want to get it right the first time.

However, that can mean startups put too many hurdles in place, and struggle to sell themselves to prospective employees, Skeen says.

“They might put them through a 10-hour code test, when really you could probably get the same answer in a one- or two-hour code test,” he explains.

“They’ve got to be very mindful of the fact that it’s their job to vet people … but they’ve also got to offer an experience that makes people want to work for them.”

There’s a sales aspect here. And risking alienating the perfect person by asking outlandish questions “is nonsense”, Skeen says.

“An interview is the most unnatural conversation to begin with. Anxiety levels are quite high, and I think its the role of the interviewer to make the candidate feel comfortable and at ease in that conversation, not highly stressed,” he explains.

“Artificial means of trying to trip people up …. doesn’t serve the candidate or the interviewer any purpose whatsoever.”

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Stephanie Palmer-Derrien

Stephanie Palmer-Derrien is the editor at StartupSmart. You can contact her at [email protected].

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