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How to Use Problem Solving Questions in a Technical Interview

Technical Interview Techniques When you’re interviewing for highly analytical or technical roles, it’s important to go beyond behavioral interview questions to adequately assess the candidate’s skills and problem solving abilities. We spoke with Jordan Burton of Burton Advisors, who advises companies on recruiting and interviewing best practices, about how to use problem solving questions during a technical interview. Problem solving questions are novel business problems or technical problems that you ask the candidate to solve in front of you, in real time.

Sample technical interview questions

Jordan says, “I can’t give you any good problem solving questions to ask because as soon as they’re published, people can prep for them – leaving them ineffective.”

However, an example would be a coding or algorithm question in a software development interview. The interviewer would describe a typical issue the candidate would be solving on the job, and the candidate would walk through diagnosing the issue, proposing a recommendation, and describing how they would go about implementing the solution. This gives you a sense of how they would go about solving real business problems they would see on the job, if hired.

Best practices for problem solving questions

To come up with your own problem solving questions, Jordan recommends following these five best practices:

1. Make them relevant. Make the problem relevant to the kind of work that you do. This will allow you to better gauge hard skills, and it gives candidates insight into what you do so they know the kind of business problems you face.

2. Maintain options. Choose questions that offer multiple paths to the solution so you can evaluate the candidate’s flexibility, creativity, and ability to see tradeoffs between approaches. 

3. Provide safety nets. Be prepared with guiding questions so you can avoid an uncomfortable “crash and burn” in case the candidate gets stuck somewhere. This helps you provide a better candidate experience, and gives you a better idea of what the candidate could accomplish in a team environment.

4. Keep them interactive. The candidate should be talking out loud so you can observe their thinking process. The best questions involve multiple steps or phases to help generate a rich dialogue.

5. Standardize them. Ensure you are holding candidates to the same bar and improve calibration by using a standard set of questions. Check Glassdoor periodically to ensure your questions have not been made public, as that can give future candidates an unfair advantage.

Conclusion

Problem solving questions are an important part of the technical interview process because they give you insight into how candidates would handle real business problems they would encounter in their role. When used correctly, they won’t only separate the unqualified candidates from the qualified candidates – they help you separate the good talent from the great talent. The best candidates will shine through during the dialogue, where you can experience their thought process and creativity in solving real business problems, and see how they interact with your team.

Learn more interview best practices in our eBook:Top Interview Tips: The Employer’s Essential Handbook.