What interview questions do you ask when you only have 10 minutes?

What interview questions do you ask when you only have 10 minutes?

“What are you proud of?” We waited for what seemed like an eternity. Finally the candidate replied, “Um, good question”.

What interview questions do you ask people in a 10 minute speed dating interview to get to their soul and understand what drives them, whether they have the capabilities you need and how well they’ll fit into your business culture? Unsurprisingly, we didn’t select the candidate who praised our question but was unable to answer it.

We had to choose one student in the 2014 Summer of Tech – an industry-led initiative focused on matching technology students with employers looking for growth. Effectively it is an opportunity for employers to hire students or recent graduates over the 3 month university summer vacation period, whether to test their skills for ongoing employment or for a fixed term project. We were after someone to come on board to work on further developing FlexiTime’s mobile apps.

It surprised me that a young person soon to be graduating from university couldn’t think of something they were proud of. Although, in the tense atmosphere of job interviews, often the simplest of questions can be made to feel like a probing, lie back on the couch and tell me about your childhood, psychological examination of your being. I would have been happy with – I’m proud of being at university.

These speed interviews were our second opportunity to meet the students. The first was a meet and greet where each business was given 90 seconds to introduce their business and outline what role they had available to the full group of about 200 students. Following this the students were then able to walk around and meet each of the businesses and introduce themselves.

From the meet and greet and the CVs on the Summer of Tech website, we shortlisted a selection of about 15 students for speed interviews. The interviews were then arranged for us in a single, intense, 3 hour session where we had 10 minutes per student with a short break between.

Staying focused on the important stuff

As a small company it was most important for us to choose a student who would fit in, be able to work independently and be interested and adept at learning new skills. Ten minutes is a very short time to get a bearing on how well a student would meet these different criteria.

So, how did we go about finding the best student for us with such a short time to get to know each one? We decided not to focus on the technical abilities of each student but instead concentrate on three broad areas:

1. What are their goals, ambitions and things that motivate them to perform better? If these are similar to ours then it’s more likely they will be a good fit for the team.

2. How do they think about and solve problems? This is what they should have learnt at university. The ability to solve a problem is more important to us than their knowledge of a computer language.

3. How do they maintain focus on a task and what techniques do they use to get things done? We want a student who will be able to see things through to completion.

So, what specific interview questions did we ask?

Our question about what they were proud of was part of understanding what motivated them. Another question we asked was – “what are your aspirations?” This question helped us to understand the drive and motivations the student has. Interestingly no one told us they want to be really rich, most answers had a shorter term focus such as learning to code better, or to get a job that will help their career.

To get an idea of how the student solved problems we asked them how long they thought it would take to walk all the streets in Wellington. This used to be the standard Google-style interview question and is used to assess a candidate’s ability to apply problem solving techniques to questions with unknown answers. The answers to this question were particularly interesting. Many students came up with guesses of about 1-3 days based on a gut feeling without defining the problem or applying any problem solving technique at all.

The best candidates were those who initially asked follow up questions to more accurately define the parameters. For example, how do we define Wellington? Is it the Wellington CBD, Greater Wellington, or something else? Some asked whether the time includes sleeping and other breaks. They then applied some basic problem solving technique for estimating the time, e.g. I know my suburb and I think it would take x days to complete, with y similar suburbs in Wellington it would then take z days; or if I split the area into a grid I could perhaps estimate how long to walk one line of the grid then multiply this by the total number of lines in the grid; or estimate the number of posties that deliver mail then calculate the time based on how long it takes them to deliver the mail.

The final set of questions were based on focus. “How do you focus on a task?” Some students were able to answer straight away because they have techniques they use every day to achieve results. Simple things such as creating a list of tasks, prioritising the list, eliminating distractions by listening to music or working in a quiet place. We also asked about the student’s interests because often it is while doing things they most enjoy that the way they focus on something becomes most apparent.

Who did we choose?

In the end we chose a student who didn’t have the best technical skills but was keen to learn, showed a great interest in our business and was excited at the opportunity of working with us. He answered all the questions with honesty and showed that he was thoughtful in his responses. Although he had only been chosen by two other companies for the interview phase he was easily preferable over another candidate with stronger technical skills who had been selected for interviews by many companies, but started the interview by asking me – “what is it you guys do?”

Choosing the right interview questions can sometimes make all the difference.

PS. In case you were wondering, my preferred method was to start by estimating the area of Wellington – a circle with a 10km radius would be approximately 300 sq km. Estimating the percentage of land area used for roads at 3% would mean that roads take up 9 sq km. The width of a road is approximately 6 metres so the length of roads in Wellington would be 1500 km. At a leisurely pace of 3 km/h taking into account the hilly profile of Wellington and only walking 12 hours per day (!) it would take about 42 days to walk all the streets.



Robert Owen

Founder & CEO of FlexiTime.

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