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Recently I was in an interview and the very first thing I was asked to do was "write something on the board" and I wrote "something" which they said they found rude. They also said "are you a robot to follow orders blindly?". I didn't have anything else on my mind so I wrote that.

And it was followed by other questions related to the job.

The interview was for Business Analyst position at a Fintech Company.

Was there a better way to handle this?

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Mister Positive Jun 25 at 13:35
  • Did they ask "are you a robot" etc in response to you writing "something" or was that separate later? – seventyeightist Jun 26 at 19:15

16 Answers 16

151

Don't be a smart alec in interviews. You want to present the most professional and friendliest version of yourself.

If there's an unclear question (and if the question actually was just "write something on the board" then that's about as unclear as it gets) you should behave as you would if something unclear came up during your actual job as a business analyst, and ask questions of your own to clarify their expectations.

If you can't get any further details out of them then go with something neutral, such as your name. And frankly at that point I'd mark the job as one to decline any offers from, unless there's something amazing about it, as the interviewers are the ones being rude and unprofessional.

I suspect the point was to see how prospective business analysts would turn something unclear into something clear though. And if that wasn't the point then it was a great opportunity to make it the point.

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    Who knows, maybe it was one of those 'think outside of the box' questions. – dwjohnston Jun 25 at 6:08
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    @dwjohnston Can't get anymore outside the box than challenging the question itself. Attempting to clarify the question not only challenges it but does so in a productive manner. – jpmc26 Jun 25 at 14:17
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    Frankly, to not think that writing "something" on the board would be acceptable would be an insult to the asker's intelligence. You're saying "I think you aren't smart enough to realize that your request is vague". – Acccumulation Jun 25 at 15:26
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    @Acccumulation actually smart alec is the standard spelling in BRE. dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/smart-alec – Arronical Jun 25 at 15:54
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    @PlayerOne I'm guessing the insult Acccumulation is referring to is the interviewer calling them a robot. That "most professional and friendliest version" goes both ways too. If anal wrote a quote from literature would the response have been: "Do you think you can just inject whatever you want into requirements?" -Also: "I didn't have anything else on my mind so I wrote that." anal wasn't being a smart alec, they were not trying to be funny or sarcastic, just a bit literal when put on the spot. Seems to me they just hit a bad interview. – Mr.Mindor Jun 25 at 17:18
86

Is there a better way to handle this?

You could have asked them a question or two regarding what they would like you to write.

Asking questions to better understand the requirements is something Business Analysts do a lot.

Perhaps that's what the interviewers were hoping for.

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    That's the only logical conclusion I can really come to. Clarifying requirements is a very necessary BA skill to have, and it really doesn't get less clear than the requirement OP was given. – Broots Waymb Jun 25 at 17:27
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    And in my experience, you often get requirements that are about as dumb as "write something on the board" when under the hood they're incredibly complex and require hours or days of investigation to nail down. This question seems to have performed its intended purpose. – corsiKa Jun 25 at 22:22
  • @corsiKa Unfortunately, you're right. – Vahid Amiri Jun 26 at 7:23
58

Given this fact

Interview was for Business Analyst position at a Fintech Company.

The question "write something on the board" was definitely a test, which you failed. A BA's entire job is talking to the product owner and trying to determine what the product requirements and specifications are.

From this university's site (first result for the search "what does a business analyst do") :

The analyst interacts with the business stakeholders and subject matter experts in order to understand their problems and needs

The analyst gathers, documents, and analyzes business needs and requirements

You were expected to talk to the interviewers to try to decipher what their true requirements were. In your normal day to day, you will frequently be asked to do vague and/or unclear things, which you need to "translate" into product requirements.

Was it a bad, and intentionally confusing, question? Probably. But that really isn't the point of this question.

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    It was a test and the company failed. Why do people always forget interviewing is a two way process? – Gaius Jun 25 at 14:03
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    They asked the OP to write something. The OP wrote "something". If they wanted something other than "something", this was then an opportunity for them to say so. Thus, the OP writing "something" on the board was directed towards "trying to determine what the product requirements and specifications are". In a real-world situation, you shouldn't spend several months with unclear specifications, but if you can turn in a "project" in a few seconds, then it is completely reasonable to clarify specifications by turning in a project knowing that it likely doesn't do what the client wants. – Acccumulation Jun 25 at 15:15
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    See dilbert.com/strip/2008-03-16 If the cost of doing "projects" is low enough, as it is in this case, a completely reasonable response to imprecise specifications is to keep sending the client projects until they tell you what they want. If the client responds to this strategy with verbal abuse, maybe it's time to get new clients. – Acccumulation Jun 25 at 15:18
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    @Acccumulation That sounds like a horrible way to run this business if you want repeat customers. You seem to have a false dichotomy between just slapping together something that kinda fits, and waiting months to clarify from the client. It seems like it would be far more professional to just immediately contact the client to clarify; especially if it's very easy to get in touch with the client (for example, being right in front of you, having just given you the unclear requirements). The cost of doing projects is low; but the cost of presenting bad projects to clients may be high. – JMac Jun 25 at 19:09
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    Who said anything about "slapping together something that kinda fits"? We're talking about presenting them with something that exactly fits what they asked for. When a grown-up is presented with something that exactly fits what they asked for, but doesn't fit what they want, their response is not to insult the person that did what they asked, but to realize that they didn't ask properly, and to ask better. – Acccumulation Jun 25 at 23:22
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I would say this is a relevant question for a business analyst.

Customers/Users will quite often (sic. always) define their requirements incredibly vaguely and it is the job of an analyst to figure out what they actually want from what they said.

You should have asked follow up questions such as, write what? How big? In what colour? To show that you have skills in extracting information from people...

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    +1 for mentioning additional things such as size and colour. I can now envision half an interview being centered around this one task that results in a very beautifully-written something on the board. – aleppke Jun 25 at 15:13
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    If you want to go even further and prove you are decent - ask things like 'What are you trying to convey' with the writing, 'What feeling should the writing have' etc. and offer suggestions on how best to accomplish that – Milney Jun 25 at 15:43
  • I agree with this entirely. Most likely, they were trying to find out how the OP would react to being given an obviously unclear requirement. – EJoshuaS Jun 25 at 15:59
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    @isaace Hmm you have not met some of the clients I have lol – Milney Jun 25 at 19:19
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    I agree. One point I'd add: maybe they don't even know what they want, or what they claim that they want is totally inappropriate for what they're trying to do. In that case, it's your job to figure out what their actual problem is. If Henry Ford had simply asked people what they want, they would've said "faster horses." – EJoshuaS Jun 28 at 19:22
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As a business analyst, one of my biggest jobs is separating the core business need from the person's request. As an example:

Sometimes they're absolutely positive that I need to contract out for ketchup that's sticky enough to adhere to the underside of a hamburger patty, when in fact, I just need to change the burger-creation order so that the bun is added before the condiments, and thus provides a surface for said condiments.

So when they told you to write something on the board, you were given a test by a clueless user, and you needed to patiently and diplomatically lead them through the steps to determine what the real problem was so that you could solve it. Your immediate solution told them that you either are so literal that you can only follow direct orders (and thus a job like business analyst isn't for you mentally), or that you're a smartass, thus making the user feel stupid and causing them to communicate their issue way less effectively (and thus a job like business analyst isn't for you socially).

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    +1 for ketchup example... I might use that one one day – J. Chris Compton Jun 25 at 17:14
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    I totally agree with this - presumably, the last sentence was the reason that they were so annoyed by the response. – EJoshuaS Jun 28 at 19:11
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Is there a better way to handle this?

While the question was vague and weird, writing "something" on the board was certainly not the way to handle it. It is a good prank/joke with your friends but not for an interview. There could be several ways you could have handled it

  1. Ask the interviewer politely, what do they want you to write?

  2. Write something about the position you were being interviewed for. May be "teach" them a fundamental concept related to FinTech.

  3. Write your name/education/experience on the board.

Having said this, I do think it is extremely unusual to ask a candidate to do this without giving more context on why do they want them to do this.

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    This reminds me of a viral Indian SWE interview video that was floating around for a while, the end result was that writing something on the board was the correct answer. It's almost like they watched this video and did the polar opposite. – Jay Gould Jun 25 at 10:06
  • @JayGould Interesting. didn't know that. I suppose that is what they want their employees to be good at. Solving stupid word play questions. – PagMax Jun 25 at 11:15
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    Yup, probably a weird way of finding their critical thinking skills out, or determinng how they handle unclear requirements etc. Found the video here for reference, it went viral on LinkedIn a while ago: youtube.com/watch?v=XUhsNIeIgpY – Jay Gould Jun 25 at 11:30
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    @JayGould I'd never seen that video before, but now that I've watched it I stand by my answer. That interviewer/organisation would have to offer me something very special to accept any offer they made. He was unprofessional and I wouldn't want to work with him. – Player One Jun 25 at 12:39
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    Whoever made that video, never had to go through an interview to get a job. – PagMax Jun 25 at 14:40
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You weren't hearing really hearing the intent of question.

Given that the job interview was for a Business Analyst position, I'm assuming that the purpose of asking such an obviously unclear question was to see how you'd handle unclear requests from clients or end users. Given that end users make unclear requests all the time, being able to handle this well is an essential job skill for business analysts.

Presumably, they wanted to see how you would do with pushing back on the request and asking for clarification; however, you didn't push back at all, you got annoyed and just blindly followed the instruction literally.

Think about it from their perspective: is that how you're going to interact with clients and end users? Would you hire someone who might handle clients that way? That’s probably why they were annoyed by your response.

That being said, the correct thing to do would have been to ask a clarifying question. If they respond with another vague answer, try going at it from a different angle - e.g. "what problem are you trying to solve?" or "what are you trying to achieve?" or something like that. When - and only when - you thoroughly understand the interviewer's problem should you proceed to write on the board.

9

Recently I was in an interview and the very first thing I was asked to do was "write something on the board" and I wrote "something" which they said they found rude.

If in doubt in an interview setting, clarify requirements. Always.

What would you like me to write? My name? "Something" as a literal word? An interesting fact about myself?

I'd imagine at this point they'll clarify.

If they still say "whatever you want", then at that point write "something", a dash, the letter "p", or whatever. If they don't like what you've written at that point, then you're likely better off not working for a company that insists on giving vague requirements while wanting something specific.

  • I disagree. If they still say "whatever you want" the OP should press for clarification in a different way - for example, asking them what they're trying to achieve or what problem they're trying to solve. The entire point of the question is to see how the OP would handle someone making an ambiguous, vague, overly broad, incomplete, or otherwise poorly formulated request, so the OP should continue to ask clarifying questions until they understand what the actual need is. Then - and only then - can they write something on the board. – EJoshuaS Jun 28 at 19:02
  • In fact, if I was the interviewers, I'd reply with an only slightly less vague answer (or some confusing word salad) just to see how the OP would handle someone who doesn't really know what they want. As a business analyst, you will encounter this eventually, and it's the business analyst's job to "draw out" what the end user's problem is. – EJoshuaS Jun 28 at 19:06
  • @EJoshuaS But how far do you take it? 3 times? 5? 10? If you've asked for clarification and the interviewer doesn't give it, it's anyone's guess what they actually want. If you keep asking, they could just as easily decide that you're argumentative and will ask too many questions on the job. In all honesty it's a pointless interview question anyway, as your response to superiors asking that in an interview setting is no indication as to whether you'd give that same response to an end user. If I were asked that interview question, it'd certainly go down as a point against the company. – berry120 Jun 28 at 21:11
  • If you approach it from several different angles and the interviewer still won’t give you anything specific, is have to wonder why they even bothered to ask. – EJoshuaS Jun 29 at 4:18
3

Recently I was in an interview and the very first thing I was asked to do was "write something on the board" and I wrote "something" which they said they found rude.

I hate these questions which either fall into the category of "do you have an open mind" (too open and the brain falls off), "think out of the box" (no comments) or "let's stress them with a questions somehow related to their job - in that case unclear requirements".

The people who ask these questions like to think of themselves as smart-asses, they lack the smart part.

So. If you are interested in the job, you can give the company some credit and assume that the interviewer is not good. Otherwise just discard the company.

Is there a better way to handle this?

As for your answer, it was really poor. I am not sure what you wanted to achieve beside trying a kindergarten joke.

I would have asked

  • for precisions (if I had no idea what they were talking about)
  • or asked whether they have some preferences (if I was suspecting the third case above).

I do not think I would like to work with them anyway.

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    For a BA "unclear requirements" shouldn't be a stressor, since it will be part of everyday life. – DJClayworth Jun 25 at 14:08
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    @DJClayworth: I know, what I meant was the case of interviewers who, under the pretense of "job related questions", would ask unclear ones for the sake of stressing the candidate. It is different from "as a BA, how would you handle a "write something on board" question from your customers". Everyone know that they are role playing and that's fine. – WoJ Jun 25 at 14:24
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Unless the interviewer has a really dry sense of humor, they probably won't appreciate this response as they are taking time out of their day to ask you questions to see if you are a good fit for this role. As Business Analyst, your job (and this is my personal opinion about the role) is to take non-technical requirements from users who don't understand the nuances of software development and feature implementation, and turn them into technical specs that can then be implemented by the developers into a product the company can then sell back to the client or other prospective consumers.

To be a bit more clear, let's take a look at what I think is a great software developer question and how it should be answered. "Why are manhole covers circular?" I've discussed this question with a guy who does interviews almost daily and he says he asks that question for two reasons. 1) Given a seemingly trivial or odd question, can you come up with something of substance? 2) What's your problem solving process?

He mentioned that good candidates started immediately throwing out ideas, no matter how silly they may be, and the best candidates would start to think technically about the problem, things like structural integrity of a circle vs a square, cost of material to produce, etc..

If we apply this logic to the statement you were given, I would imagine they wanted you to take an idea and start rolling with it to see where you go. Maybe you have an idea for a silly invention or website you've been thinking of creating. I would say it would benefit you greatly to sketch a quick design of that product and start working through the logistics of making it, marketing it, thinking of pitfalls, listing requirements, things like that.

All of this being said, I think asking someone right from the start "Write something on the board" is a bit silly to ask (personal opinion on this, might be a common question in Business Analyst roles). You'll find there are some interviews where the interviewer simply doesn't do a good job or the company is not a good company to work for and you dodge a bullet by being asked questions like that. In the future, if you are asked a question like that, just ask for some clarification or start writing stuff on the board that a Business Analyst might record and you should be in the clear.

2

There really is no right or wrong answer unless you are trying to blindly get hired at a company which may not be a good fit for you.

It is pretty clear that the company is trying to cultivate a culture of certain personalities.

You could have chosen to write "grass is purple" and if they disagreed then tell them to prove it.

In regards to "are you a robot to follow orders blindly?" you could have suspiciously raised one eyebrow and said:

Only when I suspect that robot interviewers are asking blind questions.

You could have also chosen to question why are they asking this of you but that could have opened up to other rude questions from the interviewer.

The only person that knows the "correct" response is the interviewer but it's highly unlikely that there is a "correct" response.

  • Given they found his actual response rude, your suggested response would have been even ruder. Your formula seems to be a guaranteed way of not getting hired. – DJClayworth Jun 25 at 14:23
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    @DJClayworth How you deliver the message is often more important than the message itself – MonkeyZeus Jun 25 at 14:26
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    @MonkeyZeus And you delivery spells an even quicker end of the interview. – morbo Jun 25 at 15:30
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Some answers have already alluded to the fact that this is likely a specific culture/position test that may indicate the nature of the expected response. That said, I wanted to give an opinion that veers away somewhat.

As a software engineer, instructions should be followed. If there is room for clarification then it should be asked, but when you have an explicit instruction typically you follow it. In your case, I don't see "write 'something' on the board" any different than "show up at 9am for a meeting in room 402". Both have a defined goal that can be met - writing, "something" on the board met the requirements. If they wanted something specific, or more general then they should have asked for it. If you want to avoid it in the future, you can always be asking clarification questions but I think this may reflect negatively on your interview if you constantly ask 'obvious' questions.

That said, the moment they followed that up with "are you a robot to follow orders blindly?" I would have said I don't waste my time with rude interviewers and walk out. Also in my field, I expect that response to the question would likely be a positive moment rather than a negative (most programmers would get a laugh out of that).

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    No, I don't. Clarification should be for filling holes in understanding or comprehension. If I told you to do something, you did it, and then I got mad at you for doing it as I told you - then you would likely be flustered by that chain of events. I do not see any difference here. At worst I don't think it was a winnable situation - ask clarification for an "obvious question" or don't and fail. Both options are bad for you and leave a negative impression. – Sh4d0wsPlyr Jun 25 at 17:20
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    Completely agree with this, op hit a bad interview. I've been involved in projects at both ends of the spectrum (not enough and too much attempt at clarification): A 3 turned 18 month project where the 'requirements' from the business folks consisted of a one and a half page document on one end and several simple tasks turned projects turned back to tasks where several rounds of 'clarifying' meetings amounted to a frustrated answer of "yes, it is just as simple as it seems, this was a 10 minute change". Both can look bad. – Mr.Mindor Jun 25 at 17:55
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    @Sh4d0wsPlyr Fortunately or unfortunately, BA and programming require very different skillsets. Think of it as debugging humans until they compile. If they could give you a straight answer outright, there's no need for you there. – Carduus Jun 25 at 18:59
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    In software engineering, I clarify and question instructions all the time. It's a big part of the job. Example: "when the user taps the input field, the keyboard should open." If I blindly followed that instruction without doing anything else, the keyboard would cover up the input field. Part of my job is recognizing that, clarifying the design, and proposing solutions, not just robotically following the instruction and waiting to be told I've produced something unusable. – Zach Lipton Jun 26 at 4:30
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    So, as a software developer, if someone said "delete the production database", would you do it? Or would you ask for clarification. That's what this question was about. – vikingsteve Jun 26 at 9:05
2

When they ask these strangely vague questions it means one of two things:

  1. They found something clever online they wanted to use at their interview. This signifies they are inexperienced with job interviewing process. That could be a bad sign that people at the company are overworked, inexperienced at what they do (jack of all trades).
  2. It's a common occurance at their company. Someone comes to their company and asks for "something." This could be a sign they're working with hard to understand clients who want "something" but can't explain it. It could also mean a lot of frustration as that "something" might not be what they (clients) want. So it could be a sign of high turn over.

Personally I think you should have asked for clarification. I'm assuming there's no prior comment that you might have missed and they are asking this out of the blue. I would have tried to figure out if it's more of #1 or #2 of the above mentioned items.

0

“write something on the board”?

Was this the first question asked to you during the interview? It's an open-ended question, and it could be argued at length if was a good question for an interview.

Disregarding whether the question was bad (or not), writing something literally isn't a good idea. At best you can handle such a situation by highlighting any of your skill, accomplishment or knowledge area.

Use it as a starting point for a conversation which you can use to your benefit. Maybe discuss a topic in your domain, a problem area and your take on how it can be better approached.

It's possible to handle such a bad question to play to your benefit.

I am taking the positive stand on this and assuming that your interviewer isn't being a jerk, and is just testing how do you handle a situation which you are unprepared for.

0

As you say you are applied for the post of Business Analyst. Obviously,you go through company's profile and the work they are doing. so in my opinion you have to write something wise that matches to companies expectation for your post according to their business. Ex, If company is working in Material Science Firm then you can write 'graphene' as it is future of Materials as per current research. These type of answer shows both your analysis/research power and company's profitability. I hope this will help you.

-1

I think you should have answered by writing your name and your short job description. Maybe some words, why you want to work there, too. Then you should have presented it.

I once had a group interview where we - the interviewed group - were left alone after just a few seconds. We were given a task: after 10 minutes we should present each other. We had boards, cards,.... Therefore I think this was what they would have liked to see. At least we were told the intention.

As it was an interview for training I found this process acceptable. For an experienced worker, IMO, it is childish and therefore rude. It´s some type of an "out of the box" question. IMHO: Some interviewers cover up technical/functional/subject-specific desinformation with such questions.

The boss I left my last job for asked my successor why manhole covers are round. I never found out any other rational intention. And I would´ve left such an interview, be it rude or not. BTW: I didn´t like to work for that boss.

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    “Why are they round?” is a misguided attempt to determine whether the candidate is creative enough to figure out “so they can’t fall into the hole.” Misguided, because chances are anyone over 25 has already heard the riddle. – WGroleau Jun 25 at 17:07
  • “Because they can’t fall into the hole” has two problems. One, there are other shapes that can’t fall into a hole of the same shape. Two, there are other reasons. A round hole is much easier to create, if the hole is within a concrete tube, a round shape withstands stress better, and one man can move a round cover effortlessly by rolling it. – gnasher729 Jun 26 at 10:48
  • PS. Followup question: Why are my stop cock covers square and not round? – gnasher729 Sep 7 at 13:10

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