Strong opinions, weakly held

The one thing to look for in an interview

Last week I asked what one question you could ask programmers to screen out viable candidates from poor candidates in a preliminary interview. I think that the one question you should keep in mind when interviewing programmers is, “What can I learn from this person?” If you get through an interview and can’t think of anything the candidate could teach you, they’re probably not right for the job.


  1. Very insightful, Rafe. Your question goes against the grain. If you are the smartest one on the team, you have a problem. Hiring those who can teach you something is right on the money.

  2. Put another way, if you can’t learn anything from someone on your team, then they’re redundant, so what’s the point of having them around? (Exception might be a case where you just need bodies due to volume of work, but…)

  3. Another exception might be where it’s a training position, where you grow someone into the local programming idiom (language, libraries, punctuation/brace style, testing, commenting/documentation, etc) by giving them repetitive scutwork. Teachers learn from students all the time.

  4. Even in a training position I should be able to learn something from anyone I hire. Maybe it’s not about Java or Ruby or whatever, but they need to bring something to the table that’s interesting and that I don’t already know about, even if it’s not one of their job responsibilities.

  5. A very good, short task to give someone in an interview is, “Teach me something.” It can be anything; it doesn’t have to be programming per se. You can learn a lot about a person’s communication skills and thought processes that way.

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