During the job interview process, tech hiring managers often ask candidates to share ideas for improving products or solving challenges with architecture, scalability or security. Ostensibly, these questions are designed to ensure the candidate is a good match for the position—but your answers could also have unintended consequences.
How far should you go when responding to questions that ask for detailed technical solutions or opinions? It is possible to show that you’re technically qualified and capable… without having a prospective employer or unscrupulous tech lead steal your ideas?
Here’s how you can discuss your ideas with a hiring manager without giving too much away.
Watch for These Warning Signs
Although most interviewers aren’t looking for free advice, be on the lookout for red flags or signs that something isn’t right.
For instance, it’s not appropriate to ask questions about your own product or some specific problem your current employer is having, explained Gayle Laakmann McDowell, career consultant and author of Cracking the Interview & Career book series. If you’re asked to do real work for the company for free, they may be exploiting you (or skirting their legal obligations).
Job search strategist John Hadley agreed, adding: “If you get the sense that you are being asked to solve a real-life problem the company is facing, that’s a red flag.”
Be on the lookout for a take-home business case disguised as a pre-hire assessment, warned Jeffrey Li, tech leader, career consultant and co-founder of The Chatty Lad.
“Sometimes they backdate the data, but the problem is ongoing and they’re looking to see if you can solve it,” Li said. If a so-called assessment focuses on execution rather than technical aptitude, it’s not really an assessment.
Also, if a hiring manager or recruiter sends you a problem before you’ve even met and asks you to bring a solution to the interview, that’s another warning sign. Assessments should come after an employer has invested time with you. Likewise, if the manager keeps asking for more details and information when you suggest ways to approach the problem (or examples of what you did in previous positions), proceed with caution.
Flip the Script
If you’re asked to provide a solution to a company-specific problem, put on your consulting hat. Showcase your problem-solving skills by asking clarifying questions to further define the problem and make sure you’re not trying to solve a symptom.
If the interviewer is willing to answer your questions and seems interested in your success as a candidate, that’s a good sign, Li noted.
Your ultimate goal is to get the interviewer to become the problem solver, Hadley said. By asking what solutions they've tried in the past and running through a list of things to consider, you show that you have the ability to solve the problem—without actually solving it for them.
Even better, asking insightful questions will spark thoughtful conversation, along with a brainstorming session that will impress the interviewer and differentiate you from other applicants. If the conversation doesn’t naturally progress into a collaborative effort to find the most optimal solution or the best path forward, ask yourself whether this is someone you want to work with.
Describe Your Approach
Describe the process or steps you’d use to solve the problem if you were hired, or suggest a couple of ways to think about the problem, rather than providing a specific solution.
Then prove that your methodology is sound by offering an example of a similar problem you had to solve in a previous job, what you did to solve it, and the outcomes or impact you achieved. Finally, as a show of good faith, offer some general solutions to the problem or opinions on how to proceed and see how the interviewer responds.
Suggest a Quid Pro Quo
Once you’ve demonstrated the ability to solve the problem, if the interviewer keeps pushing for more specifics, call their bluff (in a professional way, of course) by offering to provide a solution for a fee.
Working on a contract basis gives both parties the chance to get to know each other before committing; on top of that, a contract provides you with legal protections. If it solves both of your problems, that’s a win-win. You certainly don’t want to work for a company or manager who takes advantage of you.