The peeler and the broken coffee maker

Throughout my career I have been part of many interviews. Although I have been the interviewee a few times I have been the interviewer far more often.

Over the years I learned from others with better skills, research questions and generally read up on the process, it’s success and failures and how to avoid the latter.

One of the great articles I read on the topic was from a CIO whose stance was “you’re going to make mistakes in hiring, accept it, correct it and move on”. To be clear accepting the mistake in this case means don’t linger too long and find someone else.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

Today I want to talk about two interview questions I’ve come up with over the years for mostly technical positions. If anyone recognizes these from another source, apologies for the plagiarism and great minds must think alike.

What are those two questions?

  • A broken coffee maker
  • A dysfunctional peeler.

Let’s take each one at a time and see why I particularly like these two questions. Be forewarned that although I will give my full though process on the broken coffee maker because I’ve now retired that question I will leave a bit of suspense and mystery on the peeler.

A broken coffee maker question

You wake up, walk into the kitchen to make your morning cup of coffee (if you don’t drink coffee then blender or tea maker or… just pretend).
You try to turn on the coffee maker but it seems to be broken, what do you do?

A broken coffee maker the process

From here the important thing isn’t the potential answers and fixes to the issue. It’s the questions the interviewee will be asking.
“Is the light on”, “is it plugged in”, “what’s broken” etc… All of these questions are attempts to find out more about the issue, which depending on the position I’m hiring for could be a good sign, but the precision of the question and the follow-up questions are equally as important.
The other types of responses can range from “I take it apart” to “I don’t want to be late I’ll pick up coffee on the way in”. Again none of those are fundamentally wrong but they show a lot about the potential employee’s response type.
I’ve made a matrix of sorts in my head which leans people into different categories such as “The questioner” who will ask questions for ever without action, “The fixer” who will immediately try to get a fix, “the move on” who will bypass the problem entirely. There are many more and this interaction is always fascinating to me.

This is the part where I make very clear that in no way should this single question provide an absolute categorization for the candidate but it allowed me to see where I wanted to dig in further. Are they always a fixer, a questioner?

In the end this question doesn’t have a specific right/wrong answer and that’s why I like it. I also deeply appreciate that it allows me to keep it going for however long the candidate feels like digging and since it’s a fake coffee maker who knows what’s actually wrong?

A Dysfunctional peeler the question

You start your first day working in a restaurant as a prep cook. You will be responsible for peeling vegetables.
As you get ready to attack what seems like all the potatoes, carrots, cucumber in the world the Chef hands you a peeler to use.

As you start peeling the potatoes you realize the peeler is very sharp and hefty but you can’t seem to get to work well. Undaunted you get through your first day with everything peeled but your hands are sore.
The following day, same peeler, same endless mountain of veggies, same painful but acceptable result.
The third day, same peeler, same endless mount of veggies, same painful but acceptable result.
What happens the 4th day? same thing?

A Dysfunctional functioning peeler.

Although this question can seem very random at first glance it goes straight to the heart of a person’s relationship with tasks, authority and tools.
How would you answer this? what does your 4th day look like? same? different? if so how?

I will give you a few answers/questions I’ve received with no analysis or comment.
“I bring my own peeler”
“I keep using it”
“Is something else using a similar peeler?”

I’ll give it a few months and maybe I’ll post a small analysis of why I now like this question a lot.