Stories about Software


Killer CEO Interview Questions

I’d like to have a little fun for this Friday post.  I’m sitting on a plane, where I paid for wifi to take care of a few late in the day items.  Those took less time than I was expecting, so instead of the cross-post I was planning, I’m going to do this post.

Someone on twitter linked to this article, and Rands had previously linked to it, so I thought it must be worth a read.  It’s titled, “We got 10 CEOs to tell us their one killer interview question for new hires,” so I immediately thought, “Rands… why?!”  Off the cuff, it seemed like a standard Buzzfeed piece, filled with typical interview mythology where we’re asked to assume that something is profound because Warren Buffet asked it, or something.

As I read through it, though, something struck me.  Most articles like this are written by corporate pragmatists, for corporate pragmatists.  As such, they are ispo facto not interesting from a realpolitik perspective.  They are, to draw on Gervais Principle lexicon, gametalk.  “‘What’s your greatest weakness,’ should be answered with, ‘well, try to find a way to describe a strength as if it were a weakness!'”  Thanks for that insight, Dale Carnegie!

But as I read the article, it dawned on me that there were potentially non-zero stakes, and that these were actually questions that opportunists might gamely pose to other opportunists.  In other words, this isn’t “CEO says that these are questions grunts should be prepared to answer when asked by grunt-managers.”  Instead, it’s, “this is something I would ask a C-level person because I would find the answer interesting.”  (And finding the answer interesting might be entirely orthogonal to a hiring decision).


So here are the questions, along with what I’d posit as the right answer from any self-respecting opportunist (answers in normal print, commentary in italics).

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We’re Not Beasts, So Let’s Not Act Like It

If I were in the kind of blogger that sought readers via click gimmicks, I might title this post, “In Business, You’re Either a Partner or an Asset.”  Actually, on reading that, it still wouldn’t exactly be juicy click bait, but it’d at least be less nuanced and more provocative than my actual point here.  Maybe.

On Cats and Humans

Rather than get to the point, I’ll lead with a parable of sorts.  Let’s say that I were an aspiring entrepreneur in the death market, and that I were interested in “niche-ing down.”  I wanted to start an extermination business, and, specifically, a mouse extermination business.  You’ve got mice?  Call Erik — the mouse-killer.

Toward this end, I establish two distinct service products.  The first is that I’ll dispatch a mouse-removal expert to your house to take a more-or-less scientific approach to mouse removal.  This person will wander around your house, doing whatever it is that exterminators normally do, dispatching poison and such.  This will cost you $100 per hour.  The second service product is that I’ll rent you a cat for $15 per day.  The cat will wander around your house, doing whatever it is that cats normally do, which presumably includes chasing and sometimes killing mice.

The difference in price is significant, but it also makes sense.  The exterminator, while onsite, will focus in laser fashion on your mouse problem.  He’s basically a consultant, dedicated to helping you with your mouse problem.  His time is valuable.

The cat, on the other hand, will do whatever it wants.  It will arrive onsite and most likely take a nap.  It will then wake up, meow for food, wander around the house, purr and put its anus near your face, spend a weird amount of time sniffing a couch cushion, and then, maybe, take an interest in the scrabbling sound in your wall that represents the mouse problem.  Or, maybe it won’t.  Maybe you’ll just have to wait until tomorrow or the next day.  Eventually, the cat will be sufficiently interested to do something about the mice, but that’s clearly going to proceed according to the cat’s calendar and not yours.


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What To Avoid When Doing Code Reviews

Editorial Note: I originally wrote this post for the SmartBear blog.  You can see the original here, at their site.  Go on over and check out their site!

Years ago, I had a senior software developer role in a shop where code review was part of the standard workflow. The way the review process worked was that anyone writing code had to submit the code for review to one of the senior developers of their choosing.

Over the course of time, I began to notice something interesting and a bit flattering: I was picked a lot to do reviews.  When I first got an inkling of this trend, I simply thought I was flattering myself, but then I started to keep track and I realized that there was a definite trend.  What was going on?

Was I an “easy grader” or a pushover?  Was it just by chance?  Was it that people thought I was some kind of legendary, super-developer?  Turns out it was none of these things.


In search of the answer, I started to pay more attention to the nature of code reviews offered by other senior developers.  In doing this, I came to realize that the answer lay not as much in what I was doing, but in what they were doing.  Specifically, they were doing things that I wasn’t doing, and those actions were causing others to seek out my reviews.

This phenomenon was revealing to me, so I made a point to pay attention to the actions of different reviewers among the senior developers, and line them up with how much people sought out or avoided them for code review.  Making these observations taught me valuable lessons about what to avoid when doing code reviews.

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How to Detect Sucker Culture while Interviewing

I had a reader question come in that was a bit sensitive and specific, so I won’t post it here.  It pertained to receiving a job offer that had some peculiarities around the “paid time off” (PTO) situation.  Given the time-sensitive nature of such a thing, rather than add it to my Trello backlog of post topics, I shot him an email offering a few quick thoughts.  This led to a brief discussion of hiring and PTO in general, and a more general question.

The problem is, I don’t know a way to figure out [whether they have a heavy overtime culture] before you join a company.  How do you ask ‘How many hours will I be working?’

This is a classic conundrum.  Job interviewing advice 101 says, “don’t talk about pay or vacation — impress them, secure the offer, and then negotiate once they like you.”  If you ask about hours or vacation during the interview, you might create the impression that you’re a loafer, causing the employer to pass on you.

In my popular post about “sucker culture” I suggested that you shouldn’t feel guilty for not pouring in extra hours for free.  I then offered a follow up post with ideas for escaping that culture when you’re in it.  But it occurs to me that I haven’t talked about avoiding it altogether.  And that’s really what’s being asked here: how do you avoid sucker culture in the first place, without torpedoing your chances during an interview?


The advice I’m going to offer here is, for the most part, advice that errs on the side of caution and not hurting your chances during the interview process.  So, as you examine the following strategies, bear in mind that they may result in false negatives for exposing a sucker culture.

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Encouraging Creative Conflict: Form, Storm, Top Gun

If you have any designs on management, it’ll help your cause to learn some of the more iconic bits of that problem domain’s lore.  Software people would be more impressive at cocktail hour by being able to speak intelligently about object oriented vs structured vs functional programming or about relational vs document databases.  Management people would be more impressive at their own cocktail hours being able to bandy about Drucker, lean principles, and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  And if you hang out at enough of these cocktail hours, you will be unable to avoid Tuckman’s stages of group development.

The short version of these stages is the catchy rhyme, “form, storm, norm, perform.”  The groups starts off being polite and feeling one another out, but they’re more or less too deferential to make serious progress.  After a bit, egos and tempers flare, people jockey for influence and rivalries emerge — the group ‘storms.’  Only once the team has duked it out and subsequently hugged it out can they move on to ‘norming,’ wherein they gruffly put up with one another’s peccadilloes in pursuit of a common goal.  And, finally, in the end, they all live happily ever after, humming along as a well-oiled machine.

Of course, this not only applies to feel-good stories of organizational politics, but also to about 90% of action movies in the history of the planet.  Whether it’s erstwhile enemies Maverick and Iceman agreeing to wingman each other at the end of Top Gun or the romance plot between Han, Leia and Luke eventually sorting itself out, we all get warm fuzzies when the former stormers become performers.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)  Everyone likes a good tale of “form, storm, norm, perform.”


We like it so much, in fact, that I commonly hear variants of the idea that teams should be encouraged to ‘storm.’  It’s something like, “we want a team full of people that engage in fierce, angry debate to surface the best ideas, then, when 5:00 rolls around, they let it all go and happily go out to dinner.”  I’ve heard this described as “harnessing creative conflict,” or some such, and it echoes the management (Hollywood) narrative that through challenging one another and letting emotions run high, a catharsis of sorts occurs and all participants come out more creative and more closely bonded for their ordeal.  It’s an appealing notion, and it’s also the epitome of the “extrovert ideal.”

The extrovert ideal was a term coined (I think) in Susan Cain’s, “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.”  It refers to the notion that society has deemed extroversion the ‘correct’ choice between introversion and extroversion.  “Storm to perform” is very much an extrovert thing.  But I’ll return to that later.

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