I don’t know if two makes trend but I’m too impatient to wait for a 3rd example so I’m going to rail against the geek trend of being cleverly literal when attempting to answer interview questions. This practice strikes me as about as original and amusing as pointing out that silenced guns in movies don’t sound like they do in real life and there’s no sound in space. Like film, interviews have their own set of conventions and rituals and exposing the inherently unreality of the form doesn’t mark you out as clever, just ignorant.

In primary school, you were probably given a series of largely banal word puzzles in your math class because some educational bureaucrat decided that stories were more “relatable” than numbers. Now, if you had an absolutely stellar textbook author, they would have taken to the medium with a gusto and crafted an entirely different pedagogy centered around stories as an expressive medium. But chances are, you didn’t. Chances are, the author took the bog standard approach of first coming up with number questions and then pasting on a thin veneer of wording to get the job done.

“3 + 5, Jane had 3 apples, Chris had 5 apples, how many apples do they have together?”

> 8 apples

“Correct, 18 – 2, Reginald has 18 cookies but he eats two, how many cookies does Reginald have left?”

> 16 cookies

“Correct, 10 + 10, Heathcliff has 10 gallons of water, Shaniqua has 10 gallons of ethanol, how many gallons would they have if they combined it?”

> 19.2 gallons

“Corr… Wait, what?”

> Mixing equal volumes of ethanol and water results in only 1.92 volumes of mixture.

Congratulations, you discovered a leaky abstraction but you also kind of missed the point.

The purpose of a programming question in an interview is not to simulate a real life job decision, it’s simply a very basic skill test with a thin veneer of story pasted over the top of it to make it seem relatable. If you persist on treating it that way, don’t blame me when I give you full marks for cleverness and then zero marks for getting the point.

Responses

  1. Alphy says:

    June 30th, 2009 at 7:32 am (#)

    Perhaps, but I'd have to point out: it wouldn't occur to me immediately that adding ethanol to water will give 19.2 gallons instead of 20, and anyone who is observant enough to point that out would indeed be a good candidate for employment.

    The purpose of interview questions isn't even to get the right answer; interview questions are often ways to try to see how someone thinks, or how someone interacts with others.

    Thus, a better answer to eating two cookies may very well be “16…and a few crumbs!” Such answer would amuse both a teacher and an interviewer!

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