Monday, January 19, 2009

Interview Questions

A coworker just forwarded up a list of interview questions and silly answers (like "How can you drop a raw egg onto a concrete floor without cracking it?" - "Concrete floors are very hard to crack") and remembered my favorite interview question. The question is:
Tell me about your most bizarre work related incident.
People get upset a lot - they don't expect Spanish Inquisition (speaking of which, I earned a nickname "Torquemada" at one of my jobs, for my interviewing style, but that's a different story for a different time) and don't realize that the answer to this question matters more in the final decision to hire or skip them than their professional qualifications - "qualified" people are dime a dozen, but it's not qualified people that make teamwork happen, it's the similarity or complementarity of point of view. Of course, this is a simplification, but let's declare it sufficient for the scope.

You may ask, what is my most bizarre work related incident? Well...

Long ago, in a different life and different hemishpere, our ISP lost power. We were the physically closest location, and there was a signal cable between us and them - four 1.5mm2 wires. They've called and asked to unplug the cable from the cable modem, and plug it into the 220V power outlet - to give them a chance to run until they get the power back. "If you do this, we'll give you a backup dialup, and you'll have *some* connectivity. If you don't, *everybody* is down", they said.

Well, by today's business standards at the place of residence this is situated somewhere between "outright stupid", "suicidal" and "career limiting move". However, on the flip side was the countrywide network trading securities, with zillions in loss for every second on downtime. Be damned if you do, be damned if you don't. Forget management approval - the manager was one of least bright people I've worked with in my life, and had he known this, I'd be fired on the spot. I'd be fired for downtime too, though - without the possible charges for destroyed equipment, though. No matter what happened, though, the responsibility was mine to bear.

Well, all things considered, I gave them power. They fed off a signal line for the next four hours, which was sufficient for them to get a backup diesel generator, fuel for it, hook it up and switch over - which was a small miracle by itself on a Friday night.

In retrospect, we were incredibly lucky. No connections were flimsy enough to overheat and catch fire deep down in cable tunnels. No service personnel touched wires under power voltage, not signal voltage. No equipment was destroyed or damaged. No downtime, either.

Whereas it is definitely bizarre for today's US, this is actually Business As Usual for other places. Note that the solution was incredibly risky, but at the same time incredibly cost efficient. Now that we're looking at lack of everything, be prepared to conduct this sort of activities more and more often (if you're the one that has to actually do the job), and to give more and more slack to your subordinates (if you're the one to bear the responsibility for their mistakes).

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