Only two questions you need to ask to determine if someone really "knows" a thing.

Here how you can tell with two easy questions.

Everyone claims to be an "expert" in their thing. The reality is they rarely are. They either honestly think they are, or they know they are not but adhere to the George Costanza philosophy to lies, "It is not a lie, if you believe it". Which is the honest version of the extremely toxic "Fake it until you make it!" advice.

This took me to long to figure this out

After almost two decades of doing technical interviews I have been able to distill a technical interview down to just two questions. And my "technical" interviews, I mean, does someone really know the subject they claim to know and how well they actually know the subject. I can end an interview with someone that claims to be an "expert" quicker than someone that claims "intermediate/competent" or "beginner".

This is the hardest question you can ever ask someone.

What do you like most about [insert technical skill here]?

The only wrong answer to this question are non-answers. Answers that do not directly specifically answer the question with an opinion are non-answers. These are answers that do not offer an opinion because they apply to anything.

Here are some examples of non-answers:

  • "I like everything about ..."

  • "I like it because it is popular/easy to find work in/etc"

  • "I like it because it is easy to use"

These types of answers are immediately disqualifying. But just to to make sure they are not just being shy or evasive because they do not want to come across argumentative or insult something that I might not agree with I prompt them for something specific.

Like "Why do you think it is easy to use", "Why do you think it is popular", at least those answers give you something to follow up on and see if they are just bad at giving opinions and expressing themselves and actually have a opinion in there somewhere.

Granted, you can have too much of a "weak personality", just as you can have too much of a "strong personality". That is not about technical interview stuff, that is more about, person than what the person knows or does not know about something.

If I still get a non-answer, after some leading follow up chances I move on to the next question, which should be guaranteed to draw out an answer for everyone. And like they Daily Double on Jeopardy gives them a chance to dig themselves out of the hole they have dug.

This is the most softball question you can ask someone.

What do you like least about [insert technical skill here]?

A strong answer here can rescue the interviewee from a non-answer from the first question. And give them another chance to revisit the first question in the context of this answer.

Now everyone has something they hate about everything, especially things they are extremely knowledgeable about, even beginners have stuff they hate. Every Java programmer hates the original Date class, regardless of their experience level. Same with the boilerplate verbosity. Every new Go programmer starts off hating error handling in Go. Even most intermediate and a few experts hate on it, even though they understand it and realize it is a reaction to try/catch and is a better solution.

Ask a couple about what they like/love about their partner and you will get some generic stuff or one or two specific things. Ask them what drives them bonkers and they hate about their partner and you will get an "ok you can stop at any time list". And the longer the relationship the love/like list does not change in length, but the hate list will have grown.

A non-answer here is pretty much "That's it man, Game over man, game over." I am going to wrap up the interview as quickly and politely as possible.

What the answers mean.

Here is how to score the answers. You are looking for opinions, the more experienced they are the stronger their opinion needs to be, and the better they should be able to articulate why your opinion is what it is.

Whether you are agree or disagree and to what extent is irrelevant at this point. On a scale of 1 to 10, with a non-answer being a 0 and a really passionate opinion with a well thought out and reasoned argument supporting that opinion, even if you think they are absolutely wrong, should score a 10.

I weight the "like/love" question higher than the "dislike/hate" question. Simply because negative feedback is always easier to solicit than positive feedback. The reason this is such a powerful and effective approach to technical interviews is it gets you to the "I know enough that I do not need to know anymore" point very quickly.

It gives you a platform to get some back and forth engagement with the other person and see how they think and why they think what they think. It is easier to dig into someone that you disagree with their opinion than when you agree, so even if you agree with their opinion on what they like/dislike and why, you should still take the contrary side and play the part of someone that disagrees with them.

This gives you detailed insight to their thought processes, but it also gives you some insight into their personality; how someone argues tells you a lot about how they will fit into the team. You want experts that can argue persuasively and effectively, you need them to help drive growth in the less experienced members of the team as well as use them to convince peers and higher ups why what they want you to do is not the way something needs to be done.

Even if someone is not a very senior expert personal technically, if they have opinions that means they are learning and if they can argue effectively and persuasively they are way more valuable than someone who is an expert level but is ineffective a arguing their position, or worse someone who can win an argument but lose the respect of everyone in the discussion in doing so.

If you do not believe me

The brilliant thing about this approach is, it does not matter if you are an expert in the technical subject, you can find out if the other person is just by their answers.

Call up a friend, tell them you want to practice some new interviewing approach, but do NOT tell them what it is. Ask, them to self assess if they are an "expert", "intermediate" or "beginner" in the subject. This is like question zero, usually resumes will tell you what the person thinks their skill level is, or it is implied by "years of experience", which is a false measure, but that is an entirely another article.

Then ask them these two questions I detailed above in order. The order is important, just like I presented them.

The "Like" question and then the "Dislike" question.

If they give you non-answers, that is ok, it gives you a chance to practice the follow up, redirect approach questions I mention.

You can get to what someone actually knows or does not know with these two simple questions and some trivial follow up conversation.