Strong opinions, weakly held

If you could only ask one question

Let’s say your company was hiring new developers, and the HR department was pre-screening candidates before passing them off to the technical team for interviews. Assuming the résumé passes muster, what’s the one question you’d have the HR person ask to find out whether a developer should move on to the next step in the process? The HR person isn’t technical, so they need to be able to ask the question and evaluate the answer.

I have some ideas, but I’m going to post them after I see what you guys think.


  1. My Q.

    What blogs do you follow and are you willing to provide your OMPL file?

  2. What Javascript framework do you prefer? Why?

    Theres no right answer, but its the kind of thing any serious developer (assuming web developer) should have an opinion about.

  3. Can we make it two questions 🙂

    Do you have a MySpace page? Y – discard resume N – keep in consideration

    How many computers do you currently own? less than 2 – discard resume 3-4 – put resume at bottom of stack 5 or more – put resume at top of stack


  4. It’s an HR person, so tech is out. I’d have them ask one of:

    “What are the specific reasons you wish to work here?”

    it better be more than “the free lunches” or “the ladies” or “you guys are cool”.


    “What would it take to keep you at your current position? Why didn’t they offer you this?”

    ok, the last is two.

  5. ‘Why do you want this job?’ Have the HR rep rank them higher for the specificity of their answer. They could be specific about a number of different things: their career motives, certain technologies they’re interested in, the domain of the company’s products, etc.

    Specificity shows that they are reflective, have some sort of plans for themselves, took the initiative to do some research on the company or job, etc., which I think are highly desirable general traits.

  6. “What do you think sucks about {language/platform/framework to be used}?” Whether they use Java + JSF, Ruby + Rails, .NET, or whatever — something is going to suck. Do they think critically enough about the tools they use to recognize it? Will they admit it? How would they fix it, or what sort of alternatives/workarounds have they used in the past?

  7. Good questions (probably better than some I came up with).

    My first attempt was, “What’s your strategy for using unit tests?” The actual answer isn’t as important as whether or not they understand the question and can give an answer that sounds like they’re not just making it up on the fly.

    I have some others as well.

  8. “Are you willing to sleep with the person who will eventually be your manager?”

  9. Greg, you can’t ask the HR person to pose that question for you. It’s best to ask it yourself.

  10. LOL — any company that uses HR to “screen” candidates is a buncha chumps. HR is no more qualified to determine if a candidate would make a good tech than it would be coordinating a shuttle launch. All the company is doing is insulting the candidates by wasting their time by having them talk to a Brainless Schlub.

    Conversely, people who try to get into the castle by banging on the front gate, dropping off sheets of dead trees, and begging to be let in deserve to have to deal with the Gatekeeper (http://img338.imageshack.us/img338/8766/ozgatemanjk7.jpg)…

  11. Bryan, I understand your sentiment, but I don’t think it’s always true or at least not always practicable. When I worked in small (

  12. Plus the bottom line is that most people are not qualified for most jobs. I don’t want to spend all my time weeding people out, and I’m completely happy for someone else to do that for me. That’s why I went with one question. If you can come up with one question that identifies obviously bad fits, then you can save yourself a lot of time.

  13. #rafe: I don’t want to spend all my time weeding people out

    Granted, our way is not everyone’s way, but here’s how we make the scumbags weed themselves out:

    We post a small, work-representative problem on our website. Anyone who wishes to apply need only get the specs, write some code, and submit it. Resumes are not required because a) it doesn’t matter where the person worked as long as they can do the job, b) titles don’t mean jack, and c) who has time to read a bunch of falsehoods/embellishments?

    If the person can turn in some reasonable code, then we’ll bring ’em in for the sniff test — can he (or she!) get along with the team? Are there any other obvious mental/emotional defects that would result in problems? The person is asked to solve a harder (technically, but not timewise) problem via whiteboarding, so we know they didn’t cheat on their ‘takehome’ and to see how good s/he is.

    Non-starters (lazy/no knowledge) won’t make it past the first step. Why waste time reviewing their dead trees to try to guess a person’s skill level? (Answer: because it is the lazy way of determining skills – it puts the “test of competence” on the other companies listed on the paper. You got enough /cool companies? You pass the gate! Man, that was easy.)

    The best part is that we don’t have to take any time reviewing anything until the person submits their problem solution. This also means that we won’t waste their time by calling them in if they just can’t write code.

    @stan: [our] process–while not our preferred method and a time consuming one–has yielded very good hires.

    It sounds like your process works for you and you are happy with it.

  14. Bryan, I’d have asked you exactly that question, (“How do you feel about having HR screen you?”) and you would have failed, miserably.

    “Brainless Schlubs” or not, having that kind of attitude generally ranks you in the asshole category.

    That being said, I find this kind of thing to be a very good determinant of candidates and is generally accessible for assessment by any individual – Did they treat you well? Did they just brush you off like “you’re the help go get me a soda”, etc. ?

    If they did, chances are they are in fact assholes and would not be very pleasurable to work with.

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