What You Don’t Know Defines You
School has conditioned us to think that someone who does not know the right answer off the top of their head is an idiot. At this very moment, all around the world, students are called on by their teachers to answer a question, and are publicly humiliated when they don’t know the correct answer. Their peers are taught that it’s OK to jeer at someone who doesn’t know the right answer – even if they don’t know the right answer themselves. As adults in a technology profession, we see this same mentality manifested as interviews that go badly because of one wrong answer (“They should have known that!”) and first impressions that are forever stained (“That guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about”). If only it was that simple.
A series of wrong answers can be considered a strong indication that someone does not know what their talking about, but a single wrong answer can be just as damaging depending on your audience and the nature of the question. If the question is, “What is a computer” and the answer is, “It makes toast” (and they’re being serious) then it’s safe to say they know nothing about computers. If the question is, “When the JVM is running in a virtual machine on 16 core processor hardware with 4 threads running, how many more threads can a J2EE application create?” and you answer 9 – but 9 is the wrong answer, then what? What have you learned about that person’s ability? Nothing. Yet, that one wrong answer can cause someone to not get a job and/or lose the respect of their peers.
We need to assess people to know how to work with them, otherwise we run the risk of speaking over their heads or being condescending. However, we also need to temper our assessment of their answers, and look inwards to determine if the question itself was fair. Most often, an extremely difficult question is really asked so that the interrogator can feel better about themselves, as an insecure interviewer attempts to demonstrate their intellectual superiority. When you are asking a question, think about what it would be like if the tables were turned. If you think the situation would be fair, then by all means proceed. If, on the other hand, you feel as though punching the interviewer in the neck would be warranted, I urge you to reconsider. After all, you might end up working with this person.