My wife called me for the third time, and I could hear that she was working hard to remain calm but was undeniably at the end of her rope. She had missed the freeway exit. For the third time. And was going to be late for our lunch date. Could I PLEASE tell her JUST ONE MORE TIME what the exit name was?
We were in Switzerland. The company I worked for had moved us there just a week earlier, and my wife was meeting me so we could have a quick lunch and then go house hunting. I told her, again, that the exit was “sheb.” Since this was our third time on the phone, I was beginning to doubt myself. Did I have the exit name wrong?
And that’s when it hit me. My wife’s second language is Spanish. I, on the other hand, learned French growing up. For those unfamiliar with linguistic differences, Spanish is a delightfully phonetic language. It is almost impossible to misspell a word in Spanish, presuming you know how to say it out loud. French? Not so much. I had been telling her to get off at the exit named “sheb,” because my French-speaking brain never gave it a second thought.
And how do you spell “sheb” in the French-speaking part of Switzerland? (Answer: “chexbres“)
I learned something that day about how I process and communicate directions, regardless of the language. Those lessons continued for the duration of our stay. Of course, distances and speeds were measured in kilometres. But it turns out the Swiss don’t hold much stock in street signs. Roads operate as a network of roundabouts pointing to various villages. Getting from place to place means knowing you are going from Lausanne to Crissier to Pully to Renens. It’s a far cry from “turn north at Elm and Wadsworth.”
Directions, it turns out, are an incredible way to find out how someone thinks, and how they might work (both as an individual and within a team). Not just in terms of geography, but in other areas as well.
From time to time during my IT career, I’ve been on the other side of the desk, evaluating people we wanted to hire.
I discovered a few truths early on.
- Everyone’s background and path to IT is as unique as are their personalities, so you can never expect to understand someone’s skills or level of accomplishment just by looking at how they got here.
- Asking cookie-cutter technical questions rarely tells you anything except whether the individual on the other side of the table is good at answering cookie-cutter technical questions.
- Questions like “tell me your biggest shortcoming” rarely elicit an honest answer (let alone foster a sense of trust or open-ness).
- Questions that begin with “Tell me about a time when ….” are really an invitation to see if the candidate could improvise a work of fiction on the spot.
- Asking deep technical questions usually just proves whether the candidate knows the same weird trivia about a certain technology that I know well, rather than whether they have meaningful skills to bring to the job.
After a bunch of really bad interviews, I was struggling with this issue yet again when I thought back to that day with my wife on the phone in Switzerland, and it all clicked. The next time I had a chance to interview a candidate, I threw out all the other frou-frou and tested my theory:
“Tell me how to get to your favorite restaurant.”
The beauty of this question is that it’s immediately obvious there’s no wrong answer, and equally obvious that there’s no way to “game” the system. You can’t fake your way through it to give the answer the interviewer wants. You can’t study a list of really good answers or crib off someone else. For the interviewer, this question also cancels out interviewer bias. Directions aren’t dogmatic, and even if a candidate gives a different route to a location I know, that’s not the point of the question anyway.
It’s the way in which the candidate answers which reveals so much.
Do they ask clarifying questions? Things like “From here, or from your house?” or “Are you walking, biking, or driving?” or my favorite, “Are you a north-south person, a left-right person, or a ‘There’s a K-mart on the corner’ person?”
Do they validate that I’m understanding their instructions? Anything from “Does that make sense?” to “Do you want a minute to write this down?”
Do they ensure that I’m even interested in going to that location? “Hey, my favorite restaurant is this weird little Thai place. Do you like Thai food?”
Do they skip all the niceties and just give me their set of directions, without preamble?
When I ask for clarification or even change the rules (“Oh, I forgot to tell you, I love public transportation. Can you get a bus to this place?”) are they able to adapt?
And still, the point is that there’s no right answer. I may be interviewing for a position where I need the employee to get right down to business, to avoid chit chat, to execute instructions as documented. Or I might be looking for a someone who can put themselves in the user’s place, and therefore ask a lot of clarifying questions.
In the world of IT, there’s an almost continuous focus on understanding where we’ve been, by collecting and analyzing baseline data; where we are, in terms of real time system statistics and performance metrics; and of where we’re going, in terms of predictive analysis and data-based recommendations.
And maybe because of this, we can lose sight of two other data sets that are incredibly important: how we came to be here, and how we want to get to the step of our destination.