The Interview Question You Should Always Ask

by Joey deVilla on January 28, 2009

This article was originally posted in Canadian Developer Connection.

sullyFrom looking at Microsoft’s surveys of Canadian developers and plain old talking to people (something I love to do), it seems that many people who call themselves “developers” wear many hats, one of which is “manager”. If this is the case, I’ll bet that the title of this article has piqued your curiosity.

I won’t keep you in suspense any longer. According to the Harvard Business blog, the interview question you should always ask is:

“What do you do in your spare time?”

The example they cite is Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, the celebrated and heroic captain who successfully landed an Airbus A320 in the Hudson River after both engines were knocked out by what pilots call “bird strikes”. What does he do in his spare time, when he’s not flying passengers around?

  • As a boy, he built model aircraft and aircraft carriers.
  • As a teen, he got a pilot’s license and flew gliders. Without its engines, the Airbus effectively became a big glider.
  • He was an accident investigator for the Air Line Pilots Association.
  • He’s worked with aviation officials to improve training and methods for evacuating aircraft in emergencies.
  • He runs a consultancy called Safety Reliability Methods, which helps companies improve their safety, performance and reliability.

In short, “Sully” is all about flying – and doing so safely. You might even say it’s an obsession of his.

Here’s what the Harvard Business blog article has to say about one’s obsessions:

Obsessions are one of the greatest telltale signs of success. Understand a person’s obsessions and you will understand her natural motivation. The thing for which she would walk to the end of the earth.

The article goes into more detail, but its general gist is that what a candidate does in his or her spare time might be a good indicator of his or her fit for the position. Looking for a star developer? It’s probably one who’s got a hobby programming project on the side. Seeking an ace IT pro? Someone who’s converted an old computer into a home entertainment unit might be a good pick.

You might want to go beyond the article’s focus on hiring others and turn it around: what do you do in your spare time? Do any of you extracurricular activities suggest that you’d be good at your job?

[The photo of Captain Chesley Sullenberger is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and was taken by Ingrid Taylar. It is under a Creative Commons “Attribution 2.0” licence.]

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Eldon January 28, 2009 at 8:54 am

In addition to the “spare time” question, I always ask “What do you do to burn off stress in your daily life?”

2 web development January 28, 2009 at 10:54 am

The Interview Question You Should Always Ask: What is the most challenging task you have ever done !

3 Darryl January 28, 2009 at 11:14 am

Now if only employer’s didn’t try to claim ownership over everything you do in your spare time it might be possible to have hobby projects in your chosen profession.

4 dude January 28, 2009 at 1:19 pm

@Darryl: You need a new job… bad.

5 Mat January 28, 2009 at 1:36 pm

I wonder if it’s looked kindly upon when your hobby happens to make you a sizable extra amount of money every year, and maybe lose quite a bit of sleep for weeks at a time….

6 ethan January 28, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Except that this question is generally frowned on by HR departments.

7 My Life In a Cube January 28, 2009 at 5:15 pm

Are you saying I should be a bartender?

8 Joeyjojo Jr Shabadu January 28, 2009 at 5:29 pm

Except that someone who’s hobbies are all related to their job are usually not well-rounded individuals. Additionally, these kind of folks often burn out as programmers too quickly. In my experience, developers should be passionate about what they do, but well-rounded enough to be able to stay awhile. If you spend all night writing code on a hobby project, guess what? Come morning you are gonna be sick of looking at the screen.

9 Joey deVilla January 28, 2009 at 5:33 pm

Keep those responses coming!

(And if you’re looking for more reading material, feel free to check out this entry from a couple of days ago titled Winning the Gnu).

10 carl January 28, 2009 at 5:36 pm

What about the interviewee asking the interviewer(s) the same question? Seems like it would help the candidate decide whether they’d be a good fit.

11 Joey deVilla January 28, 2009 at 5:38 pm

carl: I really like that idea! Generally, when the interview hits that point where the interviewer asks “So, do you have any questions for us?”, the interviewee either falls silent or says “Nothing I can think of.”

12 carl January 28, 2009 at 5:39 pm

thanks – and thanks for the idea, i’ll be out there soon looking for my next gig!

13 Joey deVilla January 28, 2009 at 5:49 pm

One example of obsessions dovetailing nicely with a job: eBay.

Back in 2001, when I was living in San Francisco and working as a developer evangelist (natch!) with Cory Doctorow at the startup he co-founded, OpenCola, we were in talks with eBay and got a tour of their offices.

Many of the people doing customer service were also eBay sellers — in fact, many of eBay’s hires were originally sellers who’d attracted the company’s attention and ended up getting hired that way. We met an Elvis memorabilia expert, who bought and sold Elvis merch and was also a service rep. She had a cube that could’ve easily been a shrine to Elvis; it was far better than the Elvis display at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. She was all about Elvis; her work at eBay was simply a “how” — a way to channel her love and knowledge of all things Elvis into fulfilling work.

I think this is the point that the article was trying to make: if you can set things up so that you’re essentially getting paid to do your hobby, you’ll be more motivated and perhaps even become a star at what you do for a living. That’s how I feel about my Developer Evangelist position — I still stop myself every now and again and say: “What a minute: I get paid to noddle with computers, talk tech and schmooze?”

That ain’t workin’, that’s the way you do it: money for your hobby and Visual Studio for free.

14 Dumb January 28, 2009 at 6:51 pm

What happens when the person reveals something personal and is rejected for the job.

Good luck with your lawsuits..

15 Mario January 28, 2009 at 9:22 pm

In the place where I work, it would be taken against you if you were interviewing for a developer position and said that you also program in your spare time.

Often quoted explanation is that “we want balanced candidates”. So I guess my place is never looking for “star” developers :D.

16 Steven January 28, 2009 at 9:38 pm

I get the point, but your example isn’t great. Bullet points 3, 4 and 5 aren’t really spare time activities. They’re professional achievements that have probably been covered in previous questions.

17 jason January 28, 2009 at 11:36 pm

yeah, hire the guy who has absolutely no life outside of programming. Just don’t be surprised when he comes in one day and shoots up the place.

18 Mikki January 28, 2009 at 11:51 pm

My boss recently told me I got my current tech job because I mentioned I spend the weekends in the mountains. He wanted someone who had a release away from technology and could decompress on the weekends.

19 Vicki January 30, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I worry about some of the people commenting here:

Joeyjojo Jr Shabadu writes “If you spend all night writing code on a hobby project, guess what? Come morning you are gonna be sick of looking at the screen.” Um, Joeyjojo, how many real programmers do you know? I know hundreds. If they’re “sick of looking at the screen” it’s because of the JOB. They’re tired of their manager or tired of the project (maybe it’s one of those never-shipping always-changing projects) or sick of the company. They are not tired of writing code. But their hobby is fun and work is a drag. This person needs a new JOB ,not a new sparetime activity.

I’d rather hire the guy who LIKES to write code than the one who says “Yes, I’m a programmer in my job but at home I never turn on a computer. I look forward to the day when I never see another line of code!” I’ve known people like that. They have a problem. I would never want to work with them on my team.

20 John Hok January 30, 2009 at 8:16 pm

This is so true. I consider myself a hardcore web developer…. I do a lot of freelancing for web development projects. Come time searching for a job on my co-op work term, I get interviews at Microsoft, Sun, and IBM for web related positions….

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