I’ve just gotten past a peak interviewing period where I would interview 3-5 engineering and product management candidates every week. I’ve used this question for as long as I’ve interviewed people, and it has never failed to reveal something not-immediately-on-the-surface about every single candidate. So I was not surprised that it still works, but I did get a little better at understanding why.
The question is simple:
Imagine if you are extended multiple job offers from different companies, and you are trying to decide which one you will accept. Imagine that the way you go about this is that you write down the things that matter to you from most to least and that you use 3-5 things at the top of that list to decide. Those are your decision drivers. What are they?
There are several things in play here.
The wording of the question is important, so follow it closely. Be sure to lean on the word “imagine”, as you’ll get more sincere answers as a result. I think imagining things just liberates the candidate from the scripted answers they have prepared prior to going in. You can’t script imagining, so it forces them away from the script and toward considering the question from scratch. It also tends to relax, because the described situation is overtly hypothetical. It’s also hard to be wrong when you are asked to imagine a scenario.
Unlike questions about work history, performance, and professional achievement, it is rarely connected to the information made explicit on the resume. Instead the question reaches beyond the simple recitation of facts (and scripted answers) and taps something deeper and more closely held. What is this deeper thing?
For one, it explores a candidate’s motivation and value system. I always feels like that’s the most important information about the candidate that’s not on their resume. What makes them tick? If I know what matters to them, I can right away tell if the same things matter to me (the hiring manager) and the organization at large.
Do they speak about externalities beyond their control (e.g. company culture, stability, environment, office space)? or do they speak about the things they would like to do (e.g. building something great, interacting with smart people, making a different in the world, having an impact)? Listen carefully to what the candidate says, because every word matters and be a lead in to something unexpected. For instance, if they mention company culture, I immediately ask them to explain what culture would they consider ideal.
Where does money come in? Do they put money in the top 5 things? Do they purposefully avoid the question of money altogether or does it not matter to them? Do they say that money is always important to everyone so they’ll just focus on other things? I love using these clues to unravel something about the candidate and to get to know them better.
Some immediately fire off the list of priorities, which usually indicates that they thought about this before and rarely for the purposes of preparing for the interview — a very good sign in my book. Others are completely flabbergasted and nonplussed. Others struggle to come up with three things and only name one or two.
Lastly, the question tends to unearth the things that bothered them in their previous jobs. People mention all sorts of things, including a corporate environment where individual contribution is recognized and rewarded, not ignored. A candidate is highly unlikely to respond this way if this wasn’t a problem where they worked before. So ask them if it was the problem! I’ve revealed many a personal conflict that a candidate would never voluntary speak of, but with this question they somehow end up speaking about this anyways.
Mind you there isn’t a right answer. It just helps to place the candidate in a coordinate system that I can understand and interpret. Nobody wears their values, pet peeves, or past workplace issues on their sleeve. And nobody (with some notable exceptions) openly rails against their old boss failing to recognize their contribution. The answers are difficult to script and can be a challenge to formulate “right”, and that’s exactly the kind of question you should be asking.
So how would you answer this question?