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This was the strangest job interview I ever had. I was interviewing for a position as an engineer at a US based tire manufacturing plant. The interview started pretty normally, and then the interviewer says "please follow me". I'm all dressed up in suit and tie. He walks me into the basement of the building where there were eight large 10x10" timbers, each maybe six or seven feet long. There were two other observers there. He handed me a clipboard, and said you are to supervise the building of this cube structure, using these two workers.

The clipboard had a drawing with a structure looked pretty much like this... (obviously without the swimsuit models and yellow awning...) Each timber was six or seven feet long. They were notched at the ends and drilled for large metal locking pins. Pins were included.

Timber Structure.

The stated goal of the exercise was to get the structure complete in as quick a time as possible, while still being safe. He gives me gloves and hard hats. We started into it, and I realized it was really a three person hands-on job. I jumped in grabbed the timber lifted it over my head and placed it into position. The doggone things weight 60 or 70 lbs each. All the other beams could be pre-assembled and then tilted from the ground, but not the last two, at least not that I could figure out. Oh well.

I did ask for advice, they absolutely remained silent. We could have easily built the thing upside down, but the clipboard guide showed it right side up. I have thought about alternative building methods (i.e. lean one side up against the wall, and that would have gotten us closer to completion, but that's still a bit unsafe... Note, I was coming out of the military where the mission was get it done, and I took the (remote) risk, not anyone else... I knew I could press 70 lbs easily... even while wearing a suit.

As it turns out I was leaving the US Army Combat Engineers, so I had a lot of familiarity with some of this stuff. At no time did I place either of the two volunteers even remotely at risk. And it wasn't clear to me if they wanted "salaried" folks to get their hands dirty when necessary. This was not a union labor force. At the time, I thought that was part of the test. I was totally in "get it done" mode.

We built the thing quickly, but I did NOT get the job offer. I have no clue what they were really looking for. It was a very odd interview. (Turns out I think I lucked out not working there... that plant had massive layoffs one year later... er... the grapes were probably sour?)

My questions:

  • Has anybody ever seen a similar exercise at a job interview?
  • What skills and traits are the interviewers really looking for?
  • Is there a better way to address / prepare for such an odd interview?
  • How does one do well?
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    You're asking us to read the mind of an interviewer you met with over a year ago? An interesting problem, but really: who knows what they were looking for? – spuck Feb 26 at 0:41
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    "One weird trick" ? Irregular interview situations are generally a red flag. Personally, and this is just me, I would have asked what the exercise had to do with the position that I was applying for. If no reasonable explanation was presented then I would have excused myself and left. – Mawg says reinstate Monica Feb 27 at 6:14
  • Another option could be they wanted to see if a supervisor is able to jump in and help if necessary, or if the supervisor calls for a third person to come and causes a delay, only to not have to put the clipboard away. Not getting the job doesn't necessarily mean it was because of helping out. – puck Feb 29 at 11:47
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He handed me a clipboard, and said you are to supervise the building of this cube structure, using these two workers.

...then...

I jumped in grabbed the timber lifted it over my head and placed it into position.

You didn't do what was asked.

You were asked to supervise building a structure, but instead you jumped in and actually helped build the structure.

In addition:

  • Did you have the relevant H&S training to ensure that the structure was being built safely by the workers?
  • Did you check weights of timbers, ensure that you had enough people to lift them safely, etc.?
  • Did you check the workers had the relevant H&S training?

Hindsight is everything of course - but in these situations, always clarify if in doubt, and always question what they're actually trying to get out of you here. They probably don't give two hoots if you can actually put together a bunch of wood, so there's an ulterior motive there somewhere - you just need to work out what it is, and play it to your advantage. That's easier said than done of course, and I hate "mind game" interviews (aside from a power trip for the interviewer, I don't see the point) - but that's sadly the reality of many interviews these days.

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    This is a great answer. As it turns out I was leaving the US Army Combat Engineers, so I had a lot of familiarity with some of this stuff. At no time did I place either of the two volunteers even remotely at risk. And it wasn't clear to me if they wanted "salaried" folks to get their hands dirty when necessary. This was not a union labor force. At the time, I thought that was part of the test. I was totally in "get it done" mode. – zipzit Feb 25 at 9:54
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    This reminds me of the joke where a bunch of army officer candidates are given some men and told to raise a flagpole. The ones that pass are those that say "Sergeant, raise a flagpole on this spot". – pboss3010 Feb 25 at 12:59
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    This. It's a 3 person job, and you've been given 2 people. So to do it safely, you need to ask for more people, or equipment to do what you need to do. – djsmiley2kStaysInside Feb 25 at 16:56
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    And it wasn't clear to me if they wanted "salaried" folks to get their hands dirty when necessary. @zipzit That's one of the problems with these kinds of "gotcha" interviews. Another company doing the exact same test might have wanted you to do exactly what you did (jump in and help), whereas another company might have just been looking at problem solving skills. They refused to clarify when you asked for advice so this was an exercise in mind reading. – BSMP Feb 25 at 17:20
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    @UKMonkey You say "don't think this is a mind game" then proceed to describe a mind game. You even say "answer in their mind is...". I could be that they want to make sure that you will report issues you find since issues are a liability, or it could be that they want to make sure you will not report issues you find if they think that makes you the liability. I've worked at both kind of places. So you are only helping to demonstrate that it very much is a mind game. – Aaron Feb 25 at 20:39
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Let me preface this by saying that the interview was idiotic.

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But if Edwards Deming had been interviewed, the father of Total Quality Management principles and Just in Time Manufacturing, he would have taken a genuine interest in the two low-level workers and asked for their advice.

He might also have asked the interviewer about the customer, and depending on the answers, perhaps pushed back against the idea of assembling the thing as quickly as possible or assembling the gazebo at all.

Once fully assembled, the gazebo would be difficult to move and would take valuable warehouse space. It could make more sense to wait until the customer actually needs it and only assemble it at the customer's site. For further reading on these ideas, I'd suggest you read The Toyota Way.

It's also possible that the interviewer wanted to see you sketch things out on paper as you conversed with the workers and as you thought through the different steps of the problem. And it's entirely possible that the problem didn't have a good or safe solution at all.

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It should also be noted that interviews are done by human beings. So if an interviewer likes you, he could make the test much easier for you, by just nudging you in the right direction. Or if you've been referred by someone from inside the company, you could be warned about this type of question or the kind of values that the company finds valuable, well in advance.

And this is where being pleasant, giving off a good impression, asking for help, networking with family and friends, alumni associations, veteran associations, doing informational interviews, doing practice interviews, pairing up with other job-hunters, using LinkedIn for introductions/research, and/or creating your own mastermind group could pay huge dividends.

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    Wow. Great answer. I've actually met Dr. Deming, and got to hear him speak a few times. And I did try a number of times to speak with the volunteer workers. It was clear they were directed to not speak to me or offer any advice. That was the first thing I did do. And I am a total Jeffrey Liker (The Toyota Way) fan. Great book. – zipzit Feb 25 at 9:57
  • A great answer indeed, +1. But can you explain why you think the interview was idiotic? The logic of your answer seems to suggest the exercise served a useful purpose of differentiating between those job candidates who would handle this situation optimally like Edwards Deming, and other candidates who would approach the problem incorrectly/suboptimally. What’s idiotic about that? – Dan Romik Feb 26 at 6:52
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    @DanRomik, I chose "idiotic" because I couldn't think of a better word. But perhaps, I should have said that this test encouraged cheating because an insider could easily tell an outsider what would be expected of him, thereby cheating the underlying purpose of this test in the first place. – Stephan Branczyk Feb 26 at 8:16
  • @StephanBranczyk got it, thanks for clarifying. – Dan Romik Feb 27 at 4:11
  • Not sure what the first part of your answer (about Deming) has to do with the question. There are many approaches to process optimization and each would require a different approach to the exercise. Not to mention, if I'm not mistaken, OP doesn't write the position was linked to process optimization. – BigMadAndy Feb 29 at 10:10
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  • 60 lbs is somewhere around the limit for most h&s guidelines, especially when lifting overhead
  • you didn't have steel-capped boots right? those should be mandatory
  • You mention the people involved stayed silent, that would be another safety red flag.

Those three points would lead to me handing in the clipboard.You mention coming from an army background where the goal is more important than the process, welcome to Corporate where it it is often more important to jump through hoops than it is to get the end result. I'm not talking about government regulations but the rules that are made up by the people in charge of the company and how well you fit with the culture. "Skirt the law in the pursuit of profit" can be a hoop too!

My best guess is that they wanted to observe the questions you ask, how you think about safety and design, if you can stay polite to "customers" during challenging tasks and what your sense is of company hierarchy/politics.

All of this is far more relevant than "can this person build a gazebo".

There are also much easier ways to test these assumptions, this test is idiotic.

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    Liked most of your answer, but totally disagree with the broad characterization of the private sector following process over results. I find exactly the opposite to be true: the private sector is more likely to skirt rules because profit, whereas soldiers know that lives are on the line, and rules are made to preserve them. – Lawnmower Man Feb 25 at 20:25
  • @LawnmowerMan I've edited my answer a bit to clarify the kind of hoops I am talking about. It is more to do with company culture than with government regulation. – Borgh Feb 26 at 9:55
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I'm guessing this interview question was a variation of "How to do a project with 2 resources when you really need 3".

https://pm.stackexchange.com/questions/27283/how-to-execute-a-project-with-two-resources-where-you-need-three-resources/27293#27293

It is rather unorthodox that they actually had you act it out. Since you physically had to help assist workmen out I'm guessing this really was a three man job.

The correct thing to do would be to turn your manager (or in this case the interviewer) and explain to him you lacked the resources to accomplish this task. Explain to him how another worker, or additional equipment like a forklift, cables, pulley, winches, or even a crane, would be needed to accomplish the task.

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    Or better yet, explain the above and also explain that you could step in and help to get it done, the risks associated with that, and then ask whether the company prefers its employees to do that and deal with the higher-level problem later or halt work and deal with the higher-level problem now. – cjs Feb 26 at 0:38
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This does indeed sound as if it was a "mind game" exercise. As others have pointed out, these aren't a good idea, but they aren't always intentional. If those who developed the interview challenge did not have wide experience outside their particular company, field or work culture it might not even have occurred to them that other organizations have developed a different approach to the problem than the ones that occurred to them.

One approach to dealing with this is to verbalize your decision-making process as you work on the problem: say what you see, the assumptions you're making, the alternatives you've considered and when you might use them, and why you finally settled on the course you took. For example:

  • "This is clearly a three-person job; to use only two would compromise safety significantly. I could stop work and ask for another worker, but in this case I can step in myself to help at little cost, at great advantage to the current situation and not affecting my ability to address this misallocation of resources after this particular job is done."
  • Or you might ask: "I could step in myself to help here and raise the issue later, but some companies prefer to take the productivity hit and instead always demonstrate that work should stop when there are safety issues. What is your company's policy on this?"
  • "Holding a 60-70 lb. beam is clearly a situation where safety is an issue. While I personally have the ability to do this safely because of my training and tested physical capabilities, we should not generall be expecting this of workers and should be providing some sort of mechanical assistance for jobs like this. After this job is done I'll take immediate action to address this with whomever did the resource allocation for this job.
  • "These workers seem reluctant to talk to me or answer my questions. I'll let this go for the moment and continue on as best I can, but later I need to talk to another manager about why that's happening and what to do about it."

Doing this will demonstrate that you're thinking though the problems and the various approaches to them. With luck, it will also show that you are at least aware of the solutions or approaches that the interviewers wanted, and expose assumptions that they might not have been aware that they were making.

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Taking the “engineer” title for what it should mean—you were seeking a job that requires you to be able to communicate an effective and safe way to produce a safe, quality product.

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