Dishonest interview questions

I’ve encountered my share bad interview questions before. But the one that keeps coming back is “Tell us about a time you made a mistake and how you handled it.”

What I dislike about this question is that it sets us on a path of mutual dishonesty. One my side, if I ever really had just plain pulled a bozo-level failure (e.g. rm -rf’d prod) I wouldn’t dream of mentioning this in an interview [and I can’t imagine anybody who would]. Instead I’d have a prepared response (or make something up on the spot loosely inspired by reality) about how one time I released a bug because it wasn’t reproducible on non-prod environments and how I made us have a post-mortem afterward but how I still feel like I screwed up.

Likewise, it’s dishonest on the employer’s part because they’re asking an indirect question. They’re asking a question about X when they really want to know about Y. They’re presumably actually trying to find out if you can’t admit that you’ve ever fucked up (i.e. some kind of god complex).

My issue with indirect questions is sometimes people who ask them like to play Sherlock. The problem with playing Sherlock is that the interviewee (if he has half a brain) knows you’re playing Sherlock, is going to guess what you’re trying to assess, and then is going feed you an answer you want to hear. So if I think you’re testing for God complex, I’m gonna be kinda harsh on myself over a small error, and insist I dropped the ball, and maybe try to sneak in another example (equally trivial).

It may turn out you’re trying to Sherlock something else (such as whether I am lying to you) and you may or may not be wrong about it. Or really anything else. But when the question is opaque and indirect, the candidate has no opportunity to correct your misinterpretations.

One might naively accuse me of some form of dishonesty here, but I think that can be dismissed easily. Is anybody truly asking an engineer to pick 1 random failure? Would an engineer truly ever do this unfiltered?

Ultimately, the question is filtering for good BS-ers, who can read the interviewer and fabricate a story that is both plausible and likable on the spot.

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