Because manholes are round

The elusive square manhole cover

I found an interesting set of answers to interview questions.

I found the answers first, and sadly, I knew what the questions were.

If you haven’t seen the questions before, consider yourself lucky. Very early in my career, I lost out on a job because of these two:

1. Why are manhole covers round?

2. There are three switches in one room and one light bulb in another. How can you tell which switch controls the bulb if you can only make one trip from the switch room to the bulb room?

The goal of these questions is ostensibly to assess your problem solving skills.

Given that none of the people I hire will ever be working with manholes, testing lights or studying angles on analog clocks, I take a different approach in interviewing. There are two questions I ask everyone I interview.

“What’s your favorite Internet product and why?”

To some extent, I don’t really care what your favorite product is. I interviewed one woman whose favorite product I considered to be a dumb product. I pushed her on all the reasons I thought it was stupid, and she was able to defend her position. She thought the interview had gone poorly, but I recommended we hire her. She turned out to be a great hire.

I’m also looking to see what you look for in a product. If you picked it because it’s blue and blue is a pretty color, that’s not very interesting.

The product someone picks can also tell me about how deep they’ve dug into the Web. Bonus points for picking a relatively obscure or new product.

“How would you improve it?”

There are no perfect products (not even mine). Once we’ve established your favorite product, I want to know how much you’ve thought about it. Good product people are those who are thinking all the time. They get annoyed when things don’t work right and think “if only it did…”

If you’ve thought critically about it, you should be able to make some solid suggestions. Suggesting improvements that already exist in the product shows that you haven’t really explored it.

I’ve found these questions to be more effective than trite questions like “What’s your biggest weakness?”

My biggest weakness is that I don’t know how to use a manhole cover to turn off lights in a room I can only visit when the hour and minute hands are at a 7.5 degree angle.

About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is CEO of redesign | mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. His personal blog is at and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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12 Responses to Because manholes are round

  1. mukesh says:

    I’ve never liked the first type of questions either. The problem with them is that they fail unless the interviewee actually finds the question interesting. And since everyone has different interests, the odds of that are pretty low. (There are plenty of things that I find interesting, since I’m curious by nature. But manhole covers aren’t one of them.)

    The nice thing about the questions that you use is that they work regardless of what the interviewee finds interesting.

    (Incidentally, an interviewer once asked me what I would do if the TV went fuzzy. I answered “go for a walk, or read a book.” Like with the manhole question, they thought their question would get at my problem solving strategies. But given that I’m not as much in love with television as the average guy, the question flopped. IIRC, I actually don’t remember if they offered me the job or not. But I wouldn’t regret my answer in any case.)

  2. Adam says:

    Those are great questions, Rocky! They test several things:
    – That the interviewer *has* strong opinions and can articulately defend them.
    – That they’ve hopefully thought stuff through and are inquisitive rather than passive learners.
    – That they can engage in discussions in a collaborative, exploratory way rather than in a defensive or confrontational manner.

    And on a very basic, probably obvious level… being asked asked “What’s your favorite Internet product” and responding, “Uh, I don’t really use the Internet much” when you’re interviewing for a Product Manager position for an Internet company… well, that helps the interviewer, uh, streamline the interview pretty efficiently😛

  3. Sadly, I’ve interviewed people who essentially said that. On a phone screen, I won’t bother to bring them in. If I’m interviewing at someone else’s request, it gets trickier. It’s hard to get up and leave 2 minutes into a 30 minute interview.

    My other screener is “Have you had a chance to use our product?” One time I met a candidate at a social event a few weeks before he was going to interview with us. I suggested that he sign up for the product and get a feel for it. When I interviewed him, he said he didn’t sign up because he’d looked at the Web site and decided that he wouldn’t be interested in the product.

    He was interviewing to be VP of Marketing.

  4. Don says:

    You’re looking at it the wrong way, Rocky. His statement that the website didn’t create any interest in him to try the product was a STATEMENT about how desperately you needed his marketing skills! Sheesh!

    It used to be that walking into an interview with some knowledge about the people and the company was a mark that you’d done a little above-and-beyond research. Now – at least for a technology company or one with a decent web presence – it’s just an indicator of the minimal amount of expected effort.

  5. George says:

    “If you needed to know (obscure bit of highly technical info), where would you go to research it?”

    “Do you prefer to work alone or as part of a team?”

    “Tell me what you liked and did not like about the working conditions at some of your previous positions.”

  6. Oliver says:

    “Do you prefer to work alone or as part of a team?”
    I don’t like that question it seems a but pointless, but then again I like both for different reasons so maybe I missed the point.

    The marketer should have tried the program and said “I liked the program but the website didn’t entice me” or something along the lines of “your website sucks balls, hire me and I’ll fix it for you.” that would be brilliant, I’d hire that guy! Morale might go down though😛

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