Innovation Economy

Seeking work? Be prepared for tests aimed at separating stars from duds

By Scott Kirsner
Globe Correspondent / September 12, 2010

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James Psota has a puzzle he likes to present to people interviewing for programming jobs at his Cambridge start-up, Panjiva Inc. Imagine you are looking at three opaque boxes. One box contains all white balls, one all black balls, and one a mix of black and white balls. Each box is labeled, but the labels are all wrong. How many balls would you need to pull out to determine which box is which?

“Logic problems like that one show you how people think on their feet,’’ says Psota, the company’s chief technology officer. He’s also likely to invite a candidate over to the ping-pong table. “It lets me see if they’re competitive, or are they too nice?’’

Plenty of employers like to ask candidates about what they see as their biggest weakness, or how they managed a big project at their previous job. But some companies, seeking to sort out the superstar performers and strong team players from the masses of the merely adequate, toss out questions and challenges that they hope are much more revealing. (Some seem designed to see if they can make you sweat.)

One of the golden oldies in volves pushing a pen across the table to an interviewee and saying, “Sell me this pen.’’ Mike Feinstein remembers being given that task at an interview with the computer-maker Data General Corp. in the early 1980s. He didn’t get the job. “I flubbed the question, because I didn’t really understand how to sell at the time,’’ he writes via e-mail. (Feinstein now heads sales and marketing for a Boston LED lighting company.)

Steve Kimball, director of recruiting at EMC Corp., the data storage giant, says he used the “sell me this pen’’ challenge earlier in his career. “If someone was an entry-level person going into sales, it was a good way to find out if they had the right instincts.’’

What’s the right way to respond? It isn’t to start pitching the comfortable grip or the erasable ink, but to find out what kind of writing the would-be buyer plans to do. “The best way to sell it is to ask questions and gather information to do a needs assessment before you start talking,’’ Kimball says.

Don Dodge, hired earlier this year as a developer advocate at Google, says that during the hiring process he was asked how many golf balls could fit into a school bus. “Sometimes the precise answer doesn’t matter,’’ he writes via e-mail. “The purpose is to observe your thought process, test your quick thinking ability under pressure, and see how you articulate your thoughts and ideas.’’

At the Boston Consulting Group, prospective hires have to talk their way through what the firm calls a case-based interview.

“We’ll walk them through a business problem and see how they’d go about getting to an answer,’’ says Mel Wolfgang, the head of recruiting for the Americas at the Boston-based management consulting firm. An example: A client has an extensive product line, and they need help paring it down, so that they can reduce their manufacturing and supply chain costs.

“A solid candidate will work through the problem. You’d look at the profitability of each product, the sales volume, and whether you can do things like combine the demand for three different products into one,’’ Wolfgang says.

“But a really good candidate will say, if you eliminate these products, what does that do to your competitive position? What will customers think? It may be that having a really full product line gave you an advantage. People who are insatiably curious like that will drive themselves naturally to get to an even better answer.’’

At CSN Stores Inc., a Boston-based e-commerce company, solving problems fast can get you a job offer on the spot. Candidates interviewing to become a business analyst are given a set of data and asked to make sense of it. The data usually pertains to how shoppers’ visits to the CSN website relate to merchandise sales, explains Bridget Diorio, vice president of human resources.

“We say, look at this data and tell us a story about what’s going on,’’ Diorio says. “We’ve had people with graduate degrees take 45 minutes to do the analysis, and recently we had someone just out of college do it in about 14 minutes. We hired that guy before he left the building.’’

Diorio says that CSN has hired 250 people over the past 12 months, bringing its total employment to about 600, and is still growing.

The Cambridge Innovation Center, which manages offices in Kendall Square where the rent includes shared services like Internet access and copiers, plunks some interviewees right into the job they want.

“If we’re hiring someone to do tech support, we will actually ask them to work a day and we pay them for handling tech support problems for our tenants,’’ says managing director Geoff Mamlet. “They’ll respond to a call and go up to fix a copier.’’

At Liberty Mutual Insurance Co., Christine Lahey says the company has lately been receiving about 1,300 resumes a day. Lahey, vice president of corporate employment, says that people interviewing for a job handling insurance claims are typically presented with an “in-basket exercise.’’ The scenario: It’s your first day of work, and you have four items in your in-box. One is a note from an angry customer threatening to never use Liberty Mutual again, and another comes from a colleague talking about an internal problem. Which do you tackle first?

“There is no right order,’’ Lahey says. “But we want to understand why you’d do things in a certain way, the logic by which people approach things.’’

Talking about failure is one of the hardest things to do in a job interview, and Lahey and others say it’s a topic they typically raise. “If it’s a customer service job, we might say, ‘Describe a time when you couldn’t deliver for a customer.’ People are ready to talk about all the wonderful things they’ve done,’’ Lahey says, but they often aren’t prepared to explain situations where they have come up short.

At EMC, candidates for marketing jobs might be asked about campaigns that didn’t work. “We want to hear about the issues they experienced, how they worked through them, and what they’d do differently,’’ says Diana Candiello, a corporate recruiter at the Hopkinton company.

EMC’s Kimball says that once you have aced all of an interviewer’s questions, it can seal the deal if you are ready to lob a few tough ones of your own.

“I just hired an operations manager who asked me a whole lot of questions to make sure the environment and the people and the processes were right for her,’’ Kimball says. “She asked why the last person left, what systems we use, and what challenges we run into with them.’’

Sometimes, when a prospective employer asks a certain type of difficult question, it can be a sign that you don’t want to work there. Meg Fowler of Boston recalls applying for a job at a marketing company, and being asked what she would do to fix the business. She was applying for a job as a copywriter. “Words are powerful,’’ she writes via Twitter, “but I didn’t think it was quite my job to save the company from certain demise.’’ Within a few years, Fowler says, they were out of business.

Oh, and the answer to Psota’s puzzle about the balls in boxes? You only need to pluck one. If you can explain how, you might have the right stuff for his company.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.