Acing the non-technical interview question.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

Not all questions you’ll get in an interview will be technical. Some are meant to see how you think or how you’ll fit in. Don’t be caught off guard by them!

When you’re just starting out and don’t have a lot of technical knowledge yet, getting a non-technical interview question might sound pretty good. In fact, I’ve found that lots of people struggle with these even more!

Non-technical questions might be used to evaluate your potential to fit in with the company culture. For example, an interviewer might ask you what your favorite game is. The question might seem like it’s coming out of left field, but if you’re interviewing at a Silicon Valley start-up staffed by a young team of PC gamers, answering “StarCraft” might show you’ll fit right in.

Other non-technical questions, such as brain teasers, are geared towards seeing how you think. You may be asked to ‘think out loud’ so the interviewer can follow your train of thought. I’ve always asked a few of these questions myself.

It’s fair to ask why anyone would bother with these questions for a technical interview. I can’t speak for everyone else, but my logic is that a lot of people I’m interviewing won’t be technical. After all, if they’re applying a help desk position, it’s meant to be an entry level job. What I’d like to avoid is passing by a great candidate because they don’t have any (or enough) experience yet. These questions help me find the sharp people who will excel at the position; they may take a month to ramp up, but they’ll be the ones that catch on quick.

The difficulty with non-technical questions are that you can’t really prepare them directly prior to your interview. You can’t predict what you’ll be asked. What you can do, however, is to put yourself in the right mindset for them. Here’s an easy brain teaser I’ve used in the past:

A truck drives under an overpass. The top of the truck scrapes the bottom of the overpass, causing the truck to come to a stop. What could you do to help the truck driver get going again?”

If you get a question like this, the first thing to realize is that it’s a brain teaser; many people spend time figuring out how they could get someone else to fix the situation. This is not the right way to think about it. As an IT professional, you’ll be expected to fix things that you have no knowledge of. (Welcome to the suck!) With that in mind, these are not good answers:

“I would call for help using my phone.”

“I would flag someone down.”

You also don’t want to avoid the problem:

“He got himself stuck in that overpass. He can get himself unstuck.”

By the way, these are all real answers I’ve gotten. I’ve also had someone shrug and say: “I don’t know.

Some answers can disqualify you from getting the job completely. Consider this one:

I would have him power through. He’s already partially through the overpass, and his goal is to get to the other side, so he should just keep going.”

Help deskers often have administrative rights to some systems; they’re needed to complete job duties. Imagine the damage that someone could do with admin rights and the ‘power through’ mentality. That script you’re running is throwing errors and deleting the wrong things? Just power through! They would damage your infrastructure as much as that driver would damage the overpass.

If you’re being asked a brain teaser, it’s likely that there’s at least one logical answer. For example, the most obvious answer is:

I’d let some air out of the tires.

I’ve also gotten less elegant answers that would still accomplish the goal such as:

I’d fill the truck with rocks from the side of the road until the weight lowered the truck enough for it to slip out.

Either one will do the trick.

Don’t be afraid to ask questions to correctly establish the parameters of the problem. This is necessary if you get a more complex question such as:

You have two jugs of water. One holds four gallons, the other one holds five gallons. You need to pour exactly seven gallons in a bucket. How would you do this?

Ask if you can use pen and paper for this. Also ask if the water you have access to is unlimited. Can you pour water out onto the ground, or are you not allowed to spill any? Don’t read any assumptions into questions like these. They’re already hard enough as it is without you adding self-imposed restrictions.

With really complex questions, there may be no right answer. The important thing is to think out loud, try not to panic, and arrive at the most logical conclusion you can. Make sure you don’t disqualify yourself with your answer, and don’t give up on the question. Just do your best to answer.

Prior to an interview, you may want to look up “brain teaser interview questions” and walk through a few. You’ll get yourself in the right frame of mind to answer these, which will minimize your anxiety when you get one. And who knows, you may even get lucky and be asked a question you’ve prepped!