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Making Sure Interviews Don't Turn Into Free Consulting 232

We've talked in the past about what kind of questions should be asked of potential developer hires, and how being honest in exit interviews probably isn't worth the potential damage to your career. We're also familiar with the tricky questions some interviewers like to throw at people to test their thinking skills, and the questionable merits of gauging somebody's skillset through a pointlessly obtuse math problem. But there are also shady employers who conduct interviews to try to mine your knowledge and experience to find free solutions to their current problems. An actual job may or may not be on the table, but if they can get what they need from you before hiring, then at the very least your bargaining position will have gotten worse. Have you dealt with situations like this in the past? Since you can't know for sure the interviewer's intentions, it's tough to provide an answer demonstrating your abilities without solving their problem. "Before asking about the fixes they’ve tried, start by acknowledging the depth of the problem and find out whether the manager has the resources to solve it. Then, just like a consultant, use their answers to highlight your experience and explain the approach you’d take." You could also try explaining how you've solved similar problems, which won't necessarily help them, but will demonstrate your value. Of course, one of the biggest challenges is determining when somebody is getting a little too specific with their interview questions. What red flags should people keep an eye out for?
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Making Sure Interviews Don't Turn Into Free Consulting

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  • only programmers... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @07:13PM (#42802893) Journal

    only programmers and IT geeks would be so conceited as to even think this is a possibility.

  • by CanHasDIY ( 1672858 ) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @07:14PM (#42802897) Homepage Journal

    This. Article is retarded.

    Not to mention, summary is really just a shameless plug for parent company Dice.com

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @07:25PM (#42803015)
    I know of a mom and pop computer shop that, when they got behind on repairs, would run an ad for a technician. The "interview": We have a bunch of broken PC's in the back. Stay as long as you want, and fix as many as you can. When your done, let us know. Well look at your fixes and let you know if you got the job.
  • by ChrisKnight ( 16039 ) <merlin AT ghostwheel DOT com> on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @07:29PM (#42803075) Homepage

    Strictly speaking, this wasn't an interview; but I think it applies.

    Many many many moons ago, a friend asked me if I would be interested in setting up a Novell network for his employer. I put together a quote and sent it off. He called me up, and said that he needed a detailed walk-through of the work involved in order to explain the quote to his boss. I explained everything that was necessary. A couple of weeks go by, and I haven't heard anything so I call him. After learning what needed to be done, he decided he could do it himself; and that was the route they were taking. Lost a 'friend', but gained a cautionary tale; I think I came out ahead. (Yes, Jeff; this story is about you.)

  • by Culture20 ( 968837 ) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @07:34PM (#42803123)
    My guess is this stems from interviews where the hiring side asks questions about a problem they recently solved, then someone who gave a great answer didn't get hired because someone else was a better fit for the job. So the "great answer" person thinks the company was trolling for solutions.
  • by alchemist68 ( 550641 ) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @08:13PM (#42803451)
    I'm a pharmaceutical scientist and have personally experienced this last year. A biotechnology company flew me across the country and picked my brain to explain how to setup and analyze and characterize proteins by liquid chromatography mass spectrometry. Different people asked me the same questions over and over again inquiring about setting up the mass spectrometer acquisition parameters. I even tried to explain other relevant experience, they didn't want to hear it, all they wanted was to know how to acquire the data to identify as many proteins as possible in a series of samples.
  • by lgw ( 121541 ) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @08:15PM (#42803469) Journal

    My boss always says we IT types should be trying to work ourselves out of a job.

    To put that a little differently: someone will eventually automate your current job, and if you're the one who does then you've created your next job - handy, that.

  • An odd variant.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Molt ( 116343 ) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @08:20PM (#42803525)

    One interview I had amused me. On paper it looked okay, a small art dealership was looking for a combined sysadmin/Perl programmer which was pretty much what I was doing then, and the pay was significantly more than I was on at my current place and as I was getting bored in the current job anyway I thought I'd go and have a chat.

    Went to the interview and it was one of those where the interviewer wasn't actually technical himself. He had a friend write a page of simple technical questions which I answered without any trouble, also corrected one of the answers he had. The interviewer seemed happy and we started talking about what the job actually involved, and here it started to go wrong. He wanted a basic browse-only shopfront, no actual payment, with basic message board capability, and some everyday web/email/DNS handling. He did vaguely ask how I'd do this but not in any detail at all. Listening to him I knew that I'd be bored by day two, but I did actually like the guy and knew that what he wanted really didn't need a full-time employee. I explained to him that these were basically things which could be done by using pre-existing software with a month of effort to get it up and running in the first place, and a day or so a month afterwards to maintain it. I jotted down the names of some software and companies that could help him, and told him what to ask them for.

    He was genuinely amazed. He thought that all of this web-stuff was so complex that it'd be a full-time task to keep his website running, thinking that every new art piece he added to the catalogue would need an entire new page to be written for it. Finding out about CMS was a revelation, and one he was grateful for, and all this took less time than the interview was scheduled for.

    In the end he went with one of the companies I'd recommended to him, they did ecommerce stuff and this was bread and butter for them, he was up and running in two weeks with everything he needed, as he let me know in an email. As for me I didn't have a new job but I felt good about myself, and the fact the chap had basically ended the 'interview' by giving me a few weeks worth of wages for saving him a lot in the long run was quite nice too.

  • by jd659 ( 2730387 ) on Tuesday February 05, 2013 @08:22PM (#42803543)

    Here's a big red warning sign for me: if my job can be jeopardized by twenty minutes of talking, I'm probably in the wrong industry.

    It's not that the “job can be jeopardized” but rather a good and creative solution can be obtained without even intending to hiring the person.

    I work in design industry. There not many people who can quickly come up with elegant solutions. I once was asked to have the fourth (!) interview with the same company that “didn’t make up the mind” and wanted to have all the VPs present just to make sure that we are the right fit. We talked about the experience and the past designs, but then they gave me the printouts of their current product that needed to be redesigned and asked me to take 30 minutes and then present my solutions. Having many years of experience in the field, I can usually spot most of the non-trivial issues right away. A half hour design session with a top designer can cost a lot of money, but the company wanted to do it for free as an “interview”. Needless to say, I just stated that this is “not ethical to ask such a question” and I will be happy to demonstrate my skills by redesigning any other product that is not done by that company. They were shocked and tried to save their faces by stating that everyone else they interviewed for the position completed this task. And I said “fine, hire them.” At the end, the company made me an offer, but I declined.

    There are many people who have a huge experience and can charge thousands of dollars for essentially one hour of work. If you are good at debugging, you may be flying to a client who cannot figure out some problem in the production system. Guess what, you may come there and say “clear the cache” to resolve their issue. And it will cost them thousands of dollars. Yes, it can be that expensive. Can this company afford you? No. Would you want to work there? No. But they might be very likely be interested in getting some work done for free disguised as an interview.

  • by GizmoToy ( 450886 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @01:30AM (#42805535) Homepage

    The article's author is being unrealistic.

    I recently interviewed with a new employer, and was assigned a "Homework Problem" between the phone and in-person interviews. My colleagues thought I was crazy for "working for free." I saw it as an opportunity to demonstrate my skills outside an interview.

    In the end, I got a completely unbelievable job and got to see the interview from the other side. We've gotten a couple nasty responses since I've been there. The most memorable was a note attached to an invoice for a week's work, saying we could view his homework result after we paid the invoice. The homework is on the order of 2-4 hours of complexity, so his resume went right in the trash.

    In reality, the homework problem has a couple basic but crucial concepts you need to understand for our work. If we benefitted from the candidate's homework output, we'd be bankrupt. It's basic stuff, but the number of candidates that can't grasp it is astonishing. Even then, it's no guarantee. We had one guy get to the in-person interview, only to be completely unable to describe what a function *was*, let alone how it worked.

    In summary, some kind of practical question or task can be an excellent tool to figure out if someone knows what the hell they're doing, and it's an excellent way for those who do to prove it.

  • by gmack ( 197796 ) <gmackNO@SPAMinnerfire.net> on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @07:36AM (#42806907) Homepage Journal

    This. Just because they now have a possible idea of what the solution is, does not mean they have the expertise to fix it. Years ago we had a company show up at our office offering to pay us a rather large amount for our software and they interviewed me extensively on the internals of the software I wrote. In the end they didn't take the sale and we later heard they were trying to redesign their internal software around my design including (gasp) using a daemon to handle the internal state and only using the database for storing account data and game history.

    How well did that work out for them you ask? It didn't. A couple of years later their entire project was dead. My design wasn't all that innovative to someone who actually knows how to code but It turns out that programmers who only know how to do make wrappers for databases couldn't replicate any of it.

  • by Zontar_Thing_From_Ve ( 949321 ) on Wednesday February 06, 2013 @10:27AM (#42807947)
    In the late 1990s I had a job where I was a Unix system admin and our group needed to hire a replacement for the guy who left. The job required some marginal Unix/Linux user knowledge but most of the work would be repairing and building out PCs for our test group. Our PCs weren't the best and needed constant maintenance. The previous 2 guys who held the job were nuts. Guy number 1 was bipolar and told us on his first day of work that he was bipolar and that he saw no need to take medicine for it. It ended up being 6 months of hell where we basically had a guy who alternated between being a crybaby and Captain Angry All The Time. He left us to become some other company's problem, but we foolishly brought in his replacement before he left and had him train the new guy. Much to our surprise, he became BFFs with guy number 2 and he poisoned guy number 2 against our group. Guy number 2 basically had a permanent hostile attitude towards our group until he left us for another company. So we let guy number 2 leave before we ever started to look for his replacement because we were not going to repeat the previous mistake of letting a departing employee have a negative influence on his replacement.

    We interviewed several people and we actually flew a guy in from another state who seemed promising for an interview. I don't remember exactly what it was, but we had some ongoing problem related to our PCs that neither of the 2 previous crazy guys could ever solve. So after we interviewed the guy, my manager brought him into his office and asked him about the problem. He got it fixed on the spot for us within 5 minutes. He was hired that day. His ability to fix that ongoing problem on the spot clinched it for him. He was a fantastic employee for us. So while I'm sure that maybe some sleazebag companies are just trying to get free help, trust me, you don't want to work for them anyway. Some companies may just be using it to test your abilities and if you can solve their problem, you'll get the job. I've seen it firsthand.

To be a kind of moral Unix, he touched the hem of Nature's shift. -- Shelley