81

A few weeks ago I got an interview for a job as simulation engineer in the aeronautics industry. It was going quite well during the technical questions (some C code, Python, and Linux) and previous experiences discussion, though I've always worked in the automotive industry.

At some point I had some "situations" discussion, and I received a refusal weeks after the interview because of my handling of those situations, even though all the rest was good.

The two main ones were this:

Just imagine you are working on some important simulation system and a client call you at 8 pm. He's kind of upset because your simulation tool doesn't work at his place. If it does not work tomorrow at 8 am he'll give up on your company and it will lose hundreds of millions. What do you do?

I thought it would be some kind of test to see if I would work illegal hours, or if I was not going to ask my manager/team lead about that and rush head down, but he said that if I tried to call him or other manager, it would be impossible to join. As the figure of hundreds millions seemed huge to me, I replied I would still try to reach any other manager, or eventually try to fix it as last resort, spending overnight at office (they have some time to do this as they sell worldwide, they said).

You are working with another person on a project, but she/he needs to go to China for some task and will not be available for the next 3 months. All of sudden, there is an emergency: You have to finish your project in 30 days and after a week you realize you didn't even do 10% of it. What do you do?

Again it seems to be a verification of capacity to communicate. I replied that I would firstly contact my manager as soon as I got the 30 days delay, though he would know already as he is organizing the team and giving out tasks. Eventually, if he can't help, hire some contractor, and then try to delay the delivery with client or call back the coworker.

Are there any huge red flags in what I replied?

Maybe I need to clarify some elements:

  • The company is huge, tens of thousands of employees, so it is not a startup which could ask employees to work 20 hours a day exceptionally.
  • @Richard said that I lacked initiative and @pip that I should have been more careful of such requests instead. I clearly said that I would work as soon as I got the news for both situations, but the problem was detailed as an impossible case. Basically they made me understand that I could not do the job in time.
  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Jan 31 at 18:33

11 Answers 11

193

I agree with Richard that you failed the first question, but I think you failed it in the opposite way. My experience comes from working on government contracts, so this answer is influenced heavily by how those clients and contracts work. This may not apply outside of that.

In my opinion, the first question is asking how you will deal with a potential social engineering attack. I think this because:

  1. There are very few people in a position to make decisions worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Those who are in this position typically deal with management and project leads, not with individual engineers. What are the odds that someone with this kind of power (a) knows you specifically and (b) couldn't get in touch with anyone in your management chain above you first? At the very least, you need to incorporate into your answer how you verify the authenticity of the phone call.

  2. There's urgency in time and money. This is to cloud your judgment.

  3. You're being asked to circumvent normal procedures for pushing changes. Especially for big clients, and doubly so for something as tightly regulated as aeronautics, this is a no-go. Just look at what's happening to Boeing right now if you're curious what happens in this industry when things aren't taken seriously and regulations are skirted.

The way this kind of thing might play out in the wild is:

Bad actor calls engineer in the middle of the night, and tries to get the engineer to panic with huge dollar values and a lack of time. Bad actor uses the urgency and the engineer's tiredness/panic to get him or her to skirt normal procedures: "ugh, don't bother pushing the code, just send it to me directly and I'll sort it all out in the morning"

Engineers have a professional responsibility to ensure that processes are followed and unless the company you're interviewing for allows individual engineers to make changes in the middle of the night with no oversight or approval you were asked if you would ignore those processes and you said yes.

|improve this answer|||||
  • 4
    Yeah removing as much variables as you can so you can make rational decision is important. I still think when the OP used "client" it means you know the individual on the phone from before and they are upset for whatever reason. I think your approach is still good because you're taking the initiatives in determining the problem and solving it in some capacity. Much better than just accepting the phone call then transferring the responsibility to your manager. – Dan Jan 30 at 19:40
  • 32
    +1 This answer matches with my experience in a similar situation, the client was angry and demanding the impossible but the contract works both ways. I informed my manager of the call and went to bed, next morning got in early to find everything had calmed down and we had 3 days to fix the issue as stipulated in the contract. Far more important to follow process than cave to unreasonable demands – Lord Jebus VII Jan 31 at 9:24
  • 8
    @BЈовић OP thinks he failed because he didn't try hard enough to satisfy the requests. The answer states that he should have tried even less that he said and instead use formal procedures. – quarague Jan 31 at 10:10
  • 20
    Having a client calling at 8pm on your direct line smells extremely fishy and I would always answer that I'm not available, 'please contact us tomorrow'. And if it isn't the right answer, you don't want to work for a company that would let you pull all-nighters on a 8pm call anyway. – Echox Jan 31 at 13:11
  • 5
    This was a really valuable read! It helped me to see that I would've probably fallen into the same trap as OP for fear that I would be costing the company millions of dollars, without realizing that I'm not in such a position to make managerial decisions overnight, without first consulting with my superiors. Now I know to be on the lookout for these kinds of things :) Cheers. – AleksandrH Jan 31 at 14:39
63

I think you're approaching this situation the wrong way. You didn't 'fail' the interview; you gave responses that this particular employer doesn't want from their employees.

Let me show you what I'm talking about with two quick blurbs from your question:

Just imagine you are working on some important simulation system and a client call you at 8pm, he's kind of upset because your simulation tool doesn't work at his place, if it does not tomorrow at 8am he'll give up on your company and it will lose hundreds of millions. What do you do ?

... and ...

but he said that if I tried to call him or other manager, it would be impossible to join.

Now, here's the thing. There are sorts of defensible responses to that, across the spectrum, but two core ones are:

  • At face value, this is an incredibly important issue. Unless I'm positive that this is bogus in some way, I need to at least escalate this up to my manager so they can either direct me or escalate even further up the chain.
  • It's inappropriate both for me to be directly receiving client support calls outside of business hours, as well as for me to contact my manager during their off-hours. If the client has an issue, it should be going through the regular support channel. It's not my place to decide the course of action.

... and both of them could be what a company wants to hear as an answer, depending on which company you talk to.

So instead of asking "Why didn't this interviewer like this answer?", focus more on... what do you think the right answer is. Personally, I think my response would be something like:

"Quick background question - is there a regular support channel that clients are supposed to go through? Or are we going to get direct calls from clients and be reportable based on contact through them?"

... because there's a world of difference between 'Random Client gets my cell number somehow and tries to escalate their support issue through bullshittery' and 'Client I have a prior direct working relationship calls about a specific emergency issue that I'm directly responsible for.'

|improve this answer|||||
  • Another possibility is that while his answer is not that bad, it may be how he presented them. Perhaps with the odd situation coming on, he wasn't as prepared to answer and perhaps they did not like that. – Dan Feb 3 at 18:16
27

Hmm, these seem like "gotcha" questions to me. Any answer you give could be declared wrong.

Especially the first one. If you say, "I would work all night to fix the problem and tell my manager about it the next morning": So on a project worth hundreds of millions of dollars, you're going to make a whole bunch of changes without getting any authorization from anybody, based on a phone call that you have no way to verify even came from the real client? I've worked for lots of companies where you would get promptly fired for doing that.

On the other hand, if you say, "I would contact my manager for instructions, and wait until I got confirmation before proceeding", then you could be dinged for lack of initiative.

I'd say that before I ever got in such a situation, I'd want to know what the accepted procedures are in my company. Maybe they really would say that they expect one front-line person on a huge project -- if there are hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, this project must involve dozens of people -- to take the responsibility all on his own to make large-scale changes. But I doubt it.

As @pipInstallMonica points out, how do you even know that this call is really from the client? It could be a hacker trying to scare you into giving them proprietary code. Or a competitor trying to trick you into breaking something. Also, on a project worth hundreds of millions of dollars, deadlines are rarely one day. Projects like this it tends to be more of, "How wow, this is an emergency!! We need to fix this right away!! We'd better call a meeting for next Thursday to discuss initial steps to creating a committee to formulate a plan for how we will approach the solution to this problem!"

This can be a catch-22 in any organization. In my present job, I once reported a bug in one of our production systems to the boss, and he gave me a lecture on why I should fix problems when I find them and not just write a memo. Then sometime later I saw a bug in a production system and so I just fixed it. And I got a very long lecture from the boss about how I should not be changing production systems without authorization, we have procedures for these things, etc. Both lectures from the same boss.

If a company really says that they're not going to hire you because you were reluctant to say that you would make unauthorized changes to production systems on your own initiative in the middle of the night based on an unconfirmed phone call ... I don't think I'd want to work there.

|improve this answer|||||
  • 2
    @RichardSaysReinstateMonica Okay, fair to ask a question with no right answer to see how the applicant responds. And now that I think of it, we don't know that in this case he didn't get the job because he failed to give a right answer to an impossible question -- he thinks he did well on all the rest of the interview, but we don't know that. And even if he did, maybe he was scoring A+ but then another candidate came along who was A++. But of course I wouldn't reject a candidate because he couldn't come up with a solution to an impossible problem, or presumably we'd be rejecting all candidates – Jay Jan 30 at 21:44
  • 10
    I once used this tactic, and recommended we hire the person because he said "I don't know" It's not about being right. It's about seeing how you react – Old_Lamplighter Jan 30 at 21:46
  • 6
    @RichardSaysReinstateMonica When a company's dishonesty starts in the interview, I know to stay far away. These kinds of questions make me leave an interview promptly—I don't tolerate this kind of nonsense at the job, and I don't tolerate it in interviews. – user91988 Jan 31 at 17:45
  • 2
    @ApologizeandreinstateMonica Diff'rent strokes for different folks. – Old_Lamplighter Jan 31 at 18:30
  • 5
    @RichardSaysReinstateMonica, it doesn't have to be an impossible situation to learn how people think in a crisis. There are plenty of real world scenarios that could be asked - and even ones that don't have anything to do with work... – CramerTV Jan 31 at 18:39
15

The problem with your answers show a lack of initiative and planning.

The problem with your first response is that it seems like you're waiting for authorization, and losing valuable time which could put your company under.

The answer that I would have been looking for would be something along the lines of...

Well, I'd send out an email to my manager while I jumped right in and fixed it, and deal with the fallout later. The first priority would be to make sure it worked and that we retained the client.

for the SECOND question, again, I would like to see more initiative.

If I saw that I was only 10% along, I would immediately notify my manager, and prioritize my work to get the most essential parts done first. I would ask help to finish on time, and give the smaller tasks to anyone he could throw my way, and extend my working hours to meet the deadline.

OR SOMETHING TO THAT EFFECT

What you failed to do was demonstrate any personal initiative or drive, instead deferring to management in both instances. If in the future you get similar questions, show them that you are capable of independent action.

Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but you came across as someone who, if the building were on fire, would wait for management authorization to grab a fire extinguisher.

THAT was where you failed.

Next time, show that you can act, that you can jump in when needed and take action first, and THEN follow up.

|improve this answer|||||
  • 1
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Feb 3 at 12:30
11

Two things jump out at me in question #1:

  1. "aeronautics industry"
  2. "hundreds of millions"

For the first point -
A "code change" by one person, after 8 pm, is the wrong answer in almost every sector these days - especially aerospace (even if it is a simulation).
Maybe that would fly (pun intended) with a startup... in some circumstances - maybe not.

For the second -
when that kind of money is on the line your company has people on site to deal with this type of stuff.
(And buy them dinner + drinks + whatever else they'll accept)

I'd tell them that the caller was a fraud for the reasons above.

If the interviewer says you know the caller is real - say you'd get the details of the failure and a contact number. Ask what time is too late to call them back and if they don't say 'any time is fine' find out what time is too early. Assure the client that you'll work hard on it.

|improve this answer|||||
  • Sorry to say that I have often seen required processes ignored on projects where SUPPOSEDLY doing so would get you fired and the company fined heavily. – WGroleau Feb 1 at 18:23
  • @WGroleau That may be true. However, I doubt even the people that would do such would think it was okay to say so in an interview - but I've seen a lot of crazy... stuff... so maybe your point is better. – J. Chris Compton Feb 3 at 13:33
  • I'm still failing to see how the first question involves code changes? Can you clarify why the first question involves any code changes? Where is it suggested to do that? – Dan Feb 3 at 13:38
  • @Dan, the first paragraph makes it obvious the nature of the job, but there are other clues. – WGroleau Feb 3 at 16:46
  • @dan I got it from the fact that OP was asked about C code, Python, and Linux. – J. Chris Compton Feb 3 at 16:50
6

My first impression is that your answers are very out of role.

Probably no problems with your first answer.
It's generally rarer that a client can/will contact another company's engineer directly, but if you're in a position where a client can contact you directly, it's probably safe to assume that you have entrusted to make a decision of this level. In that case, I think your answer is totally fine! However, I think that pip's answer about the technical reasons could certainly apply, although I have never seen a company care enough about social engineering attacks to test for it during interviews. The general assumption is that you can teach the awareness as part of your on-boarding.

The second answer seems very out of place though--you mentioned that the interview is for an engineer position. However, your second answer contains

eventually if [the manager] can't help, hire some contractor, then try to delay the delivery with client or call back the coworker.

I don't know the context here, but I think this could raise 3 flags:

  • "Hire some contractor" is not normally something an engineer has the power to do. At best, they could request that management hires someone, so if you hired someone directly (outsourcing, etc), you'd certainly be fired instantly.
  • "Try to delay the delivery with the client" is something someone with a manager position would do, not an engineer. This can sound like you don't understand hierarchy and could potentially say inappropriate things to a client.
  • "Call back the coworker" is again something I doubt an engineer could do.

So in this case, at best you gave an answer that doesn't say what you could do, or at worst, you gave an answer that came across as someone who doesn't respect boundaries and would be a risk.

In other words, your second answer says you want your boss to do, not what you would do. For an engineer, the correct answer would be something like:

  1. Review the remaining and progress
  2. Update the time estimates
  3. Maybe make some docs to show these things
  4. Grab your boss to discuss and provide actual data.
|improve this answer|||||
  • 1
    Good points, this combines well with pip's answer to explain the shortcomings in either answer. While the answers might actually not have been the deciding factors, OP's answers are not well thought through. Both point to actions which are not part of an engineer's tasks. – Chieron Jan 31 at 19:17
  • 1
    +1 for the spot-on feedback on OP's answers... – Marcus Feb 2 at 15:52
4

I honestly think you're reading too much into the question. And your assumptions are rather negative in that you're looking at others to blame rather than taking the initiative.

Just imagine you are working on some important simulation system and a client call you at 8pm, he's kind of upset because your simulation tool doesn't work at his place, if it does not tomorrow at 8am he'll give up on your company and it will lose hundreds of millions. What do you do ?

Easy, the first step is to figure out if the client is actually running the simulation tool in the right environment. Your answer seems to focus on "fixing" something or how you wouldn't be a project that is worth hundred of millions. How do you know what to fix if you don't even know what the problem is?

You are working with another person on a project, but she/he needs to go to China for some task and will not be available for the next 3 months, all of sudden, there is an emergency : You have to finish your project in 30 days and after a week you realize you didn't even do 10% of it. What do you do ?

The question is flawed because it doesn't assume how many hours you worked. It's assuming you are trying your hardest for 1 week (possibly overtime etc) so by answering that you would work "more" doesn't really matter here nor does "hiring" people because again you were only able to do 10% with the task at hand so by having more tasks like training people, you'd do less than 10% of the work now. You tried your best and completed 10%. At the rate it's going, you'd be able to deliver half the project in the time frame. As such, the answer is you know you'll fail to deliver the whole, but you'll have half of the work completed by the 30 days deadline.

I think you failed these question because you assumed someone else was going to fix it for you. You made the assumption of what you could or could not do. In each case you tried to reach a manager or made assumptions that didn't matter. I do not believe there is a correct answer except taking the initiative on what you can do to complete it. They're looking for ownership, and responsibilities of what you must do. I don't think you can answer it wrong except when you don't try to solve it yourself.

|improve this answer|||||
  • Wrong assumption .. any "client" calling 8pm cannot expect to find a working developer- period. As you can't verify it is really a client you definitly dont headjump into changing your massive codebase – eagle275 Jan 31 at 9:43
  • @eagle275 I'm not quite sure why every answer here assumes you need to change a massive amount of code? If someone said their plumbing stopped working is the first thing you do is go there and start tearing out pipes from the wall? Or is the first step figuring out exactly what is wrong? – Dan Jan 31 at 13:38
  • even if you could compare your plumbing to a massive simulation framework... Of course you would analyze first what and if something is broken But that is what I suggested when saying "you dont headjump into changing" - you first analyze and part of this would be verifying the client – eagle275 Jan 31 at 14:25
  • @eagle275 I never said go change massive amount of code so I'm not sure how your comment applies to my answer. Nor did I suggest such a thing. If your product is so massive and complex that it requires you to change massive code just to figure out what the client is asking then there is something else wrong here. – Dan Jan 31 at 15:17
  • if you can fix it by checking whether the client uses it right, then OP as an engineer would be the totally wrong person to talk to. There would be client management departments that just deal with making sure the users can deal with the product. There'd be sales people who drive there to satisfy the multi-million customer. If that is the problem then the answer is to forward to that department and ask how the heck that customer ended up in the engineering department. – Frank Hopkins Feb 1 at 3:52
4

These are not the questions from any standard situational judgement test that I know of. The most likely reason they ask such specific questions, rather than administer a more general SJT, is because it has happened at their company before.

It has happened at my organization, more than once to me and to more than one of my employees. It has caused damage when client pressure caused developers' time to be redirected towards a low-priority, low-impact issue.

In all likelihood, your response was exactly what one of their engineers had done some time before in such a situation, whether they still work there or not.

The correct answer to these questions depends on the company and its culture. Companies ask such open-ended question for a reason - to see if you two are a match. In a startup pushing mobile games, your answers may very well have been perfect, and "the only rule is that there are no rules" thinking can be welcome. In a strict rules-based corporation, as typical of aerospace and engineering software sectors, it would be wildly out of place.

In the future, don't try to think about what the test is trying to test you for, and what answer they are looking for. Answer honestly - yes, as your best self on your best day would behave - but still honestly, and don't be afraid to question the premise. Also, don't be afraid to question the premise you're given, or even call it out as absurd if it comes off that way.

|improve this answer|||||
1

First of all, how do you know you were rejected because of your answers to these two questions?

I doubt they rejected you because of content of the answers. They could easily explain to you how should you act. More likely they didn't like your overall attitude/nervousness/whatever.

Or maybe they liked you but liked somebody else more.

|improve this answer|||||
0

While many answers here explore possible expectations by the company revolving around the actual answer within the scenario, there is a good chance, the actual answer in the described scenario is not what matters, but how you got there. Such scenario questions often are less about the actual scenario but how you take a specification of a problem and derive at a solution for the customer (the interviewers in this case).

So, the problem might have been the way you tried to clarify the actual situation. It is still pretty abstract and we can all identify different "correct" answers, because it is still so open. The questions might have been about whether and how you narrow the scenario down to something where it is crystal clear how you should react. I.e. by asking counter-questions like "have I worked with that client before? Does my company have a customer care hotline that takes care of customer requests and provides tool user support? Is there an emergency procedure that I know of and if so what is it?" etc. pp.

Whenever you get a specification as an engineer from a customer you similarly need to make sure you got all the requirements and the context completely right. Such questions can aim to test how you approach problems with incomplete information.

|improve this answer|||||
0

About your question no. 1:

I would first listen to the customer in order to find out if I happen to know a quick solution to the problem. If not, I would refer him to our 24/7 customer service (helpline). If there is no 24/7 service, I will need to tell the customer to call our helpline next morning by saying that we don't provide 24/7 customer services. Not without adding that next time he should set his project milestones preferably at least 24 hours earlier than they really are, just in case something like that happens again. If it does, he'd still have 24 hours left in order to call customer services. (Note: Certainly I won't even start to think about programming or a code change at 8 p.m. in the evening...)

Now, was your answer to contact the manager wrong? Personally, I think that this was about the worst answer you could give. But let's be tolerant and assume that in some companies you might actually need to escalate to the management in such a situation. However, after your interviewer said that this wasn't the case in his company, you should have looked into a different approach, instead of having insisted to call your management! If I tell an employee that his suggested solution is not useful, if he then insists and answers by saying "yes it is", I certainly won't hire him, really...I think that was your principal fault.

About your question no. 2:

  1. Analyze: Why are you not progressing?
  2. Solve quickly: Try to find quick solution...
  3. Solve within terms: Try to find solutions within a few days.
  4. Reach out to the responsible team mate: Contact your team mate in China via email. Try to describe what your problem was and if he could provide a solution.
  5. Reach out to other team mates (if there are any): Contact other team mates who made help you with solving the problems you have. Maybe there already exists a module you didn't know of?
  6. Reach out to other employee of your company: Maybe a more experienced employee might help you solving the problem much more efficiently?
  7. Reach out to friends who would help you with the issues. For instance on Stackexchange :-)

I think the second time you answered by "I'll contact my manager" the interviewer probably must have thought "Noooo, not again!!"...btw it's better to not say the term "my manager" in any job interview, but rather "my project leader" instead. And if the answer from the interviewer is something like "Dude, you are the project leader", at least you know what the job requirements are. ;-)

Conclusion

Let's just say @Jay was right and these were a total "gotcha" questions: In that case - considering it's a huge company as you said - you should have asked the interviewer: "What are the standard procedures in this company in such a case? Because I won't be able to solve this particular problem without knowing how the company wants me to react in such a situation. However, if I'd work for your company for about 6 months, I could say for sure what to do in these cases." - The cool thing is that this answer works for any "gotcha" question!

But I disagree with the generalizing statement that there is no "right or wrong" answer to this question. Sure, the interviewer wanted to see your reaction and what you make out of it, he wanted to see how your brain works. But for him there are actually answers which are right or wrong indeed, and as such you got it wrong at least from his perspective and in his opinion.

In the end, the interviewer clearly wanted to find out if you are a self-thinking "trying-to-find-solutions-on-my-own" employee or an insecure "instantly-ask-my-superior"-type guy...so basically if you are thinking like a typical engineer or rather like a manager by yourself. You seem to have a lot of engineering skills but not much management skills, and they were looking for both qualities in one person, obviously.

See it positively: You didn't fill the requirements, but that was also in your interest because you might have struggled in that job anyway. However, if it got you into thinking, you'll try to find solutions for these problems and in the end you will be up for such a job because your thinking and initiative will have improved.

|improve this answer|||||

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.