job screening question

Matthew Palmer mpalmer at
Sat Jul 7 04:06:58 UTC 2012

On Sat, Jul 07, 2012 at 12:51:55PM +1200, Ben Aitchison wrote:
> On Fri, Jul 06, 2012 at 04:18:21PM +1000, Matthew Palmer wrote:
> > On Thu, Jul 05, 2012 at 05:01:39PM -0700, Scott Weeks wrote:
> > > --- jason at wrote:
> > > From: Jason Baugher <jason at>
> > > 
> > > Geez, I'd be happy to find someone with a good attitude, a solid work 
> > > ethic, and the desire and aptitude to learn. :)
> > > ---------------------------------------
> > > 
> > > 
> > > Yeah, that.  But how do you get those folks through the HR 
> > > process to you, so you can decipher their skill/work ethic 
> > > level?  What can the HR person ask to find out if someone 
> > > has these qualities?  OSPF LSA type questions will not help.
> > 
> > Don't get HR to do that sort of screening.  They suck mightily at it.  I
> > lack any sort of HR department to get in the way, and I'm glad of it -- I
> > don't see the value in having someone who doesn't know anything about the
> > job get in the way of finding the right person for it.  Sure, get 'em to do
> > the scutwork of posting job ads, collating resumes, scheduling things and
> > sending the "lolz no!" responses, but actually filtering?  Nah, I'll do that
> > bit thanks.  If you have to have HR do a filter call, make it *really*
> > simple, like "What does TCP stand for?" -- sadly, you'll still probably
> > filter out half the applicants for a senior position...
> I've noticed a strong correlation between people who don't know what acronyms
> stand for, and competence.  People who don't know anything try and figure out
> what the acronym stands for - people who want to understand things see it as
> just a place holder.


> Maybe it's more significant to ask what the difference between TCP and UDP is.

Yes, the difference between TCP and UDP is a much better question to ask,
but having HR assess and act on the answer to the question is a whole hell
of a lot harder.  In many ways, *that's* the tough bit of finding a good
screening question.  Finding good interview questions *in general* isn't all
that hard.  With a good senior candidate my interview questions could just
be bringing up problems I've recently solved or am currently wrestling with,
and having a 30 minute conversation on the problem.  I'll get a very good
idea of someone's domain knowledge and problem-solving skills by doing that. 
But there's no way I can ask HR to do that, because they don't know how to
assess the answer, and as previously demonstrated ("fragmented disks",
indeed), you can't have HR act as scribe and relay the answer to you,
because they'll get it wrong, and the interesting bit is the *conversation*,
not the canned single-shot answer.

That's my motivation for asking a question as inane as "What does TCP stand
for?" -- it has an overwhelmingly obvious answer that can be verified in a
second or two by someone who really doesn't know anything about what they're
asking.  Give a candidate 10 of those sorts of questions over the phone from
an HR drone, if they score 8-or-better (for instance) they pass and you get
to see their resume.  That is, of course, assuming your organisation is so
screwed up that they won't let you at candidates directly (which is still my
preferred option -- leave HR to do the paperwork).

- Matt

The real art of conversation is not only to say the right thing at the
right place but to leave unsaid the wrong thing at the tempting
moment.		-- Dorothy Nevill

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