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The Interview

Monday, October 10, 2016

Although I don't speak for Google, and I've never interviewed a candidate there, I did interview there myself, and I speak from that experience.

The election debates are like an interview. Google's hiring is respected around the world, and I'm confident that interviews structured like the political debates would never fly.

In fact, they would produce absolutely terrible hiring candidates; likely, even much worse than random.

Lightning-style opinions suck.

A candidate can get away with almost any rhetorical lie. Zingers and double-binds are disproportionately effective compared to intelligent discourse. Diversion... ok, I'll call it what it is, bull-shitting, becomes the name of the game, since any time a question can be remotely related to a candidate's strongest weapon, it's worth it to do so.

Often, these weapons are completely devoid of substance of value to the country, because, let's face it, there is a reason why reality TV is so popular and it's not because it gets stuff done or moves us forward.

But all of these problems with the debate format really reduce to one primary weakness: shotgun-style questions with mere seconds to develop a case and demonstrate capability to solve, or at least make progress, on an issue.

Let's imagine how this would work in a job interview.

Interviewer: How would you sort 2 gigabytes of numbers if you only have 16 megabytes of memory? You have two minutes.

Candidate: The thing about gigabytes is that they are a measure of size when what you really want to discuss is performance. My opponent has shown a tremendous misunderstanding of computing performance. In fact...

Even if the topic is a little esoteric, I hope you get the point.

Let's imagine the candidate actually answers the question. If even possible to describe the solution, all it really demonstrates, in that minimal amount of time, is that they had prior experience with that exact problem.

No interviewer would waste two minutes asking for a solution to a complex issue like that. Instead, if each question could only be given two minutes for an answer, you'd ask general questions.

In two minutes, almost anybody can bring up a host of related terms and sound moderately educated. I know, I've done it, and consequently the interviewer didn't have much better idea whether I could actually put my knowledge into practice.

In fact, with flash questions and answers it's almost better to ad-lib on related problems, because it makes it sound like you are going to solve something without having to do the hard work of proving you have a better idea.

Cherry-picking, FUD, and colorful insults win this game. It's too easy to bloviate on a topic in general when there is no time to back up your ideas or claims anyway. And it's even easier to blow hot air if given a background question or one not oriented around a specific problem.

Problem solving rocks.

The real point of an engineering interview is to demonstrate an candidate's ability to solve new problems. This is why engineering interviews at the top companies, and best hirers, have largely moved from shotgun-style questions to at-length development of a solution to one or a few problems, with few, if any, open-ended questions about background or subjective topics.

The real point of a debate, or an entire election cycle, should demonstrate a candidate's ability to address the issues that they will be confronted with and work toward a positive outcome.

It's a waste of all our time if the format encourages candidates to:

  • parrot the party line
  • dredge up mistakes the other candidate has made
  • talk about how positive their traits are or how negative their opponent's
  • dodge a difficult question and replay their favorite brag or insult
  • riff on their list of pet policy positions that we have all known for months

And on top of that, it actually encourages simplistic, myopic views of the issues because absolutely no one is going to attempt to show they are aware of, or can/do think about conflicting values, tradeoffs, or compromises in two minutes.

If any of the issues could be solved without reasoned, thoughtful consideration of multiple angles and pros and cons, we wouldn't need politics, would we?✱

A debate, or interview, with such shallow question-answer formats is going to steer us to the candidate that can bluster most effectively, prattle off their prepared zingers, hit us with complicated "facts" that sound big, scary, or important, yet lack context or scale.

On the other hand, a developed interview that allows — rather, requires — candidates to use their knowledge and experience to dive deeply into a complicated issue would allow the interview (us) to:

  • see how a candidate's experience helps them form and explore an idea, not just hit us with background information or elevator pitches.
  • demonstrate a candidate's ability to relate complex ideas and explain, simplify, and analyze them.
  • allow a candidate time to show creativity in addressing competing values and benefits.
  • show us how a candidate's temperament affects their ability to make progress.

"I have better temperament." "No, I do!"

And above all I would hope it would start to remind us that politics are not about which way a candidate has predetermined to vote or fill their cabinet and the benches, but in fact the opposite:

How prepared they are to make any as-yet-unknown judgments or surround themselves with other leaders who can — and therefore, hope to make any progress — against the incomprehensibly complex and competing demands of a 300 million person country?

I don't presume that I have any possible hope of getting the debate format to work better.

Rather, I'd hope that I've laid out good reason why we should completely ignore what we think we may learn from debates regarding capability surrounding issues and solutions.

All we get in the debates are either simplistic talking points or dramatainment. We can find the former on just about any website in a matter of minutes (and don't change for 2 years prior to the election lest the candidate be labeled a flip-flopper). And if we crave the latter, simply tune into any reality show. Too bad The Apprentice is currently off the air.

One positive thing I think we may be able to extract between the lines is this:

How well do they work with others?

On that point, I have only one possible major party candidate who I believe has any hope of working with others, a shred of humanity. I haven't brought up any political issues here, but I'll bet you can guess.


Antipolitics

✱ Further reading and some inspiration for this post is David Brooks' "The Governing Cancer of Our Time".

If you are one of about, I don't know, pretty much everybody, who is currently saying we need a nuke to the system because it's all broken, this is required reading. The problem is not politics, it's antipolitics — forgetting that we must compromise. It was written 9 months ago but is more insightful, applicable, and prescient than ever.

Brooks:

We live in a big, diverse society. ... The answer is ... acknowledging other people exist. It’s taking pleasure in that difference and hammering out workable arrangements. As Harold Laski put it, “We shall make the basis of our state consent to disagreement. Therein shall we ensure its deepest harmony.”