The Interview Brainteaser and its Discontents

by Joe Mabel

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Almost everyone who has interviewed for technical jobs has been through the experience: the interviewer says something like, Now this is just to see how you think. There's a man who has to get a fox, a chicken, and a bushel of grain across a river, and he has only a small boat that will take only one of these at a time. He can't leave the fox unattended with the chicken or the chicken unattended with the grain. What should he do? (In this case, there is clearly right answer, but in a real interview, it's seldom this easy.)

There may sometimes be good reasons to ask questions like this in an interview. However, speaking as someone who -- in a twenty-plus-year career as a hands-on software developer, as a consultant, and as a manager -- has been on both sides of the interviewing process literally hundreds of times, I contend that it is usually a bad idea. There is simply too much that can go badly and too little that can go well.

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Originally written: June 26, 2002
Article copyright © 2002 Joseph L. Mabel
All rights reserved.
Copyleft: With appropriate notification and appropriate credit, non-commercial reproduction is welcome: contact me if you have any desire to reproduce these materials in whole or in part.

Last modified: 23 February 2021

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