Unclear Questions

I was recently applying to a company and came across an interesting question. “Tell us about the time you most successfully hacked some (non-computer) system to your advantage.”

There it is…

Normally, I am able to discuss personal topics fairly easily, however, this question threw me off. It threw me off so much that I went to look up the definition of hacking. This word is one that people can adjust to mean what they want so I’ll stick to Wikipedia’s suggestion here

A hacker is a person skilled in information technology who uses their technical knowledge to achive a goal or overcome an obstacle, within a computerized system by non-standard means.

Hacker – Wikipedia

A person accessing a secure system via a computer terminal is a typical representation of a hacker. I suppose this is the most romanticized version of a cs person there is. The useful part of the definition describes a person using their knowledge to solve a problem. This expands the range of acceptable answers. In a way, we’re using our technical/physical ability to overcome obstacles on a daily basis. Ultimately, it’s just a person solving a problem.

If it’s just a person solving a problem, how do you answer that question in a satisfactory way? The question was asked by a tech company that explicitly requests a non-computer-based solution. To me, the easiest answer to that is some mechanical solution. This complicates things further because, at this point, so much of my time has been spent with and around computers.

When I was interning, my mentor frequently asked me to define what it was I wanted to do, career-wise. This is another question that threw me off. It’s such a large question! I tried to answer by describing a desirable work environment and the type of task that I had enjoyed so far. Every time this conversation would end with the mentor telling me to keep thinking about it but never really offering any insight into an answer that would progress the conversation. Obviously, they were trying to get me to think about my future and really zero in on the type of job I’d like to do. The only issue with this is a lack of experience in the field. There are a lot of jobs that seem like they would be fun to do, however, there are also so many variables.

I was able to meet with a different, more experienced co-worker to discuss career advice. During our conversation, I brought up my confusion around that question and they granted some great insight. They were able to give some reference information which really helped me narrow down an answer. Maybe the mentor wanted this type of outcome but the way they asked the question simply generated more confusion.

This post is part query and part venting. Software development already deals with finding solutions to somewhat ambiguous problems. There are so many tools to help teams avoid ambiguity. By all accounts, the culture should support more clarity, but that isn’t what I’m seeing so far. Interview questions that don’t address the job being interviewed for and strange questions which have a very large range of possible solutions are unhelpful!

As I go forward in my career I’ll have to keep this in mind when communicating with people. I will try to keep things clear and concise to hopefully facilitate clear expectations and find solutions quicker.

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