Management A one-trick rant pony

The Button

If you’re wondering about your next job, there are a series of Rands articles that might make the transition easier. First off, there’s A Glimpse and a Hook, which will describe how managers read your resume. Then we’ve got The Sanity Check, which will prepare you for the phone screen. And finally, there’s Ninety Days, which sketches out a plan for the first three months of your new gig.

There are two gaping holes in this series of articles. First, I’m missing a piece on your interview, and second, there’s no article about how to negotiate. I’m saving negotiation for a later piece because first, you’ve got to convince a bunch of people you don’t know that they should spend the next three years with you.

An interview is an exchange of information, and the first and best way to screw up an interview is to forget is that it’s as important for you to gather information as it is to give it.

You may really need this job, and this might give you the impression that the steady flow of people who are parading through your interview room are calling the shots. And yes, if you let them, they will be, but while they need to learn about you, you need to learn about them. You need to figure out their Button.


Before you start pushing buttons, you need to gather a little data about how your interview is constructed. Is it structured or unstructured?

In a structured interview, each person interviewing you has a specific topic area: people skills, technical skills, etc. This means that each interview has a specific purpose, and no two interviews that day will be alike. Someone has put in the effort to make sure the different interviewers don’t step on each other’s toes.

The unstructured interview is a free-for-all. There’s an interview list, but no one has been given guidance about what to ask, so they wing it. With each person who walks in the door, an unstructured interview is a study in personality identification. More on this in a moment when I explain about interview creatures.

In general, the participants in structured interviews come prepared. There is a process which occurred before you showed up. This might have involved a pre-interview meeting. They’ve read your resume and each person is likely capable of carrying the interview.

Unstructured interviewers waste the first ten minutes of the interview doing the homework they should’ve done before you arrived. It’s annoying, but, as you’ll see, it’s a great way to figure out what they are about.

As an aside, my preferred use of interview time is a structured-unstructured hybrid. While I don’t give interviewers specific topics to cover, I’ve chosen specific people because I know they gravitate towards certain professional areas such as technical aptitude or cultural fit. This structural ambiguity means interviewers can creatively adapt their questions to each person while also assuring that I get a complete professional picture of the candidate.

Understanding the structure of the interview process gives you some of your first insight into the organization, but the information doesn’t start to flow until you stare at and understand your potential future co-workers.

Interview Creatures

Structured or unstructured, each person who walks into the interview will bring a different agenda. The sooner you know their agenda, the sooner you’re prepared to handle your only job during this interview. You need to get them talking.

That’s right. Your goal is exactly the same as their goal, which is to learn by getting them to talk. It might strike you as a bad strategy because if they’re talking, they’re not learning anything about you, but that is not your problem. In fact, if I get through a round of interviews and the interviewers have done most of the talking, I’m wondering if I want to work in a group where they haven’t figured out how to vet candidates.

Like meetings, there are different personalities that are going to walk into the interview, and each person has a Button. When you press this button, they will be compelled to talk. Some personalities hide their buttons better than others, but most people have at least one.

Here’s a list of some common interview creatures organized by increasing difficulty of button discovery.

Pissed Off Pete

Pete’s agenda is obvious 30 seconds into the interview because he’s pissed off. This isn’t an interview; this is an opportunity for Pete to rant to a captive audience. He’s going to go through the motions by bringing in your resume and feigning interest, but all he really wants to do is gripe about “the situation”.

The Button: Ask anything. Doesn’t matter, Pete is going to twist the answer so that he can ramble some more about how screwed up “the situation” is.

Influence: Low. These interviews are normally a waste of time and there are two red flags to consider. First, who thought it was a good idea for Pete to interview you? Don’t they know he’s a one-trick rant pony? Second, why is Pete so pissed off? What kind of organization lets Pete get this tense?

Perhaps your best tactic with Pete is to spend as much time as possible understanding “the situation”. If it’s so bad that he’s going to ignore the opportunity of learning about you, a potential co-worker, maybe “the situation” is something you should understand before you consider joining the company. Even better, asking about “the situation” is a great button exploration technique in later interviews.

Chatty Patty

Yeah, Patty’s here, too. Again, this isn’t an interview. Patty loves to talk and the moment you ask anything, she’ll start and it’ll be hard to get her to stop.

The Button: Ask any question.

Influence: Like Pete, I have concerns about an organization that puts Patty on the interview schedule. Unlike Pete, Patty can be a huge source of information, so use the time well. She’ll answer any question: “Why do you love your job?”, “Who’s a jerk?”, “Why’s Pete so pissed off?”

Given that Patty is going to do most of the talking, her report on you is going to be vanilla and dull. Don’t sweat her.

The Poet

This is an advanced, artful combination of Pete and Patty. Like them, The Poet really has something he wants to tell you about, but unlike them, he’s not going to give it up unless you specifically ask him about it. He’s aware of what his job is, and that’s to ask you questions.

The Button: The Poet is sneaky, but he’s still going to reveal his button via his questions. What is he asking about? Where is he repeating himself? “He’s an engineer, but he keeps asking interaction design questions. I wonder what happens if I ask him a question about interaction design?”


Pure Poetry. Listen hard because what’s coming out of The Poet’s mouth is important, and he’s not going to talk for long because, unlike Patty’s chattiness and Pete’s pissed-off-ed-ness, he’s not dedicated to his poetry. He’s going to turn it around quickly because he really wants to hear about your poetry.

Influence: Medium. The Poet is articulate and artful and this will not only color his opinion of you. The distinctiveness of his report will travel further in the organization than the useless vanilla crap captured by Patty and Pete.

Got’cha Greg

Halfway through the interview day, Greg will walk in the room and say nothing. He’s going to size you up for ten seconds, and then he will ask, “How… would you… test a soda machine… in the dark… submerged in strawberry jello?”


Greg is on a power trip. He believes his job is to confuse you with a dazzling brainteaser. His belief is that catching you off-guard with this left field question is going to demonstrate whether or not you’re mentally nimble, but my belief is that Greg mostly just likes to see people squirm.

The Button: You’re going to need to first get past Greg’s question and my advice is to relax and have fun with it. These types of brainteasers are usually designed to demonstrate your thinking process, so think out loud and when you’re done, go on a button hunt.

This can be tricky since Greg clearly likes to be on the offensive, but I’ve found that interviewers who lead with random, huge, bizarre questions compensate for the fact they don’t really like having a normal conversation. So. Have one.

Influence: Low to medium. Greg believes his value is high, but it’s likely the rest of his team knows who you figured out with his first question. He’s a mental bully.

Slick Steve

Now we’re getting into some tricky personalities. Slick Steve is probably not a part of the engineering organization. He’s the product manager or some other Marketing denizen. This means that he doesn’t natively speak engineering, but as part of the strategic portion of the organization, he routinely talks to many people, so he can wing it. He’s read this article, and he knows that you’re trying to gather information. He’s a tough nut to crack.

The Button: Steve is going to completely ignore your attempts to find his button. “So Steve, what do you think the biggest challenges are for product marketing?” His response, “What do you think they are?”


You’ve got to fake Steve out a bit to find his button, and that means getting a little tricky. Try this: hit Steve with an esoteric engineering question you’re sure he won’t know. Remember, Steve is slick, which means he wants to maintain the calm, controlled elegance of his interview, so being unable to answer a question might trip him up. This is why you follow up with a question you’re sure he’ll be able to answer. Ask him that lame marketing challenges question again. He’ll answer it this time because he’s presently feeling ignorant, flustered, and needing to regain his feeling of control.

Like The Poet, Steve isn’t giving up his button easily, but once you’ve got him talking you have a chance to listen and see if you can find it.

Influence: Medium? Steve’s here, and he’s not an engineer, which means the organization values him. He’s here to vet something. The question is: what?

Silent Bob

Bob is a button problem. Bob will sit down, ask his first question, his second question, his third, and you will learn nothing about him except that he’s silent. He’s not going to engage in witty repartee, he’s literally going to ignore your button exploration questions, and this is going to annoy you.

The Button: Don’t get rattled. In my experience, Bob is the senior technical guy on the team and his social skills just aren’t that good. He’s there to vet your technical chops and that’s it. He has no button. He’s not qualified to assess team fit and he knows this, so show him what you’ve got.

Influence: Very High. If you’re interviewing for a technical gig, this is the interview. This is the one you were losing sleep over. This is why you bought Dive into Python and read it over the weekend. No one other than the CEO is going to trump Bob. Good luck.


Interviewing with The CEO is not necessarily an interview with the CEO; it’s the interview with the highest-level manager during your interview process. This is likely the hiring manager’s manager.

Where’s the Button? Simply put, you must be prepared for some serious Jedi Mind Shit with The CEO. The feint’n’jab you used on Slick Steve isn’t going to work here. In fact, the CEO may start the whole interview with, “What questions do you have for me?”

Oh good. This is going to be easy.

Yeah, it’s not.

The Button: As you’ll see below, the influence of The CEO is extraordinarily high, and like Silent Bob, I want you to ignore your button acquisition activities with this guy. I want you to talk. I want you to sell yourself and tell great stories about your successes. Gather your organizational intelligence in other interviews; this is your opportunity to sell yourself to one of the major influencers in the organization.

Influence: Very High. The CEO is going to say that he isn’t the decision-maker. He’ll say that the hiring manager is, but it’s unlikely that if you do poorly with the CEO that the hiring manager will contradict his boss.

A Fresh Perspective

Interviews are exhausting. Baring your professional soul for multiple rounds of interviews with a bunch of strangers will wear you out, and when you’re done, you’ll wonder, “What did they learn about me? Did I nail it? Am I a fit? Did I get the gig?” All good questions, but you should also ask, “Do I want this job? Do I like these people? Is it a healthy organization?”

By the end of a couple of rounds of interviews, you’re going to know more about the health of the group you interviewed than a lot of the people who interviewed you do. Freaky, isn’t it? Fact: all the different creatures you interview are lost in the day-to-day of their respective jobs. The fresh perspective that you have after many hours of interviewing is unique and informative and while you still need Ninety Days to figure out what is really going on, you still have a lot of data.

… if you pushed a lot of buttons.

19 Responses

  1. mynameishere 17 years ago

    Got my current job because of the CEO. Very important, and here’s what you fail to mention: He’s often ego-free in the sense that he’d happily hire enrico fermi if it improved the company. He doesn’t care if people below him are smarter than he is.

    I’ve seen lower-level people discard resumes from “overqualified” people. Overqualified means: Could replace me on the ladder.

  2. Nuts, a week late. What about the “gotcha guy” who asks incredibly specific detail questions about random trivia on your resume, jumping from topic to topic? No easing into the question, just firing away. Really great to have that guy in the 3rd hour of an interview.

    Please hurry on the negotiation essay, I’m gonna need some advice soon. Thanks.

  3. Alex Balashov 17 years ago

    Very true, Mynameishere. Especially in mid-size companies and larger where there is more vertical mobility and a more distinct, compartmentalised managerial stratum. There, technical people tend to guard themselves preemptively, especially against people they instinctively perceive may be a “strategic” hire.

  4. Gotcha guy. Dammit. Yeah. Need to include him. He’s key.

    Nice catch MRay.

  5. Alex Balashov 17 years ago

    I rather like what Joel has to say here on Trivia Guy:

    The second worst kind of interviewer is the Quiz Show Interviewer. This is the kind of person who thinks that smart means “knows a lot of facts.” They just ask a bunch of trivia questions about programming and give points for correct answers. Just for fun, here is the worst interview question on Earth: “What’s the difference between varchar and varchar2 in Oracle 8i?” This is a terrible question. There is no possible, imaginable correlation between people that know that particular piece of trivia and people that you want to hire. Who cares what the difference is? You can find out online in about fifteen seconds! Remember, smart does not mean “knows the answer to trivia questions.” Anyway, software teams want to hire people with aptitude, not a particular skill set. Any skill set that people can bring to the job will be technologically obsolete in a couple of years, anyway, so it’s better to hire people that are going to be able to learn any new technology rather than people who happen to know how to make JDBC talk to a MySQL database right this minute.

    Consistently accurate and true pretty much across the board, in my experience, unless the nature of the hire is just uncompromisingly, unabashedly and unequivocally tactical in the purest sense possible, and in a large environment with a very granular division of labour.

  6. john32 17 years ago

    Great point mynameishere. Though, I think the CEO is not ego-free — it’s just that the CEO does not think technical people are a threat to him. CEO’s, in my experience, tend to think tech people are interchangable cogs.

  7. This is why you bought Dive into Python and read it over the weekend.

    That is so going up on my quote board.

  8. I’ve been reading this blog occasionally, and I really enjoyed this article – very well written!

  9. AntispamPythonista 17 years ago

    In my experience, after you get an actual offer, if you can find someone who has worked for the same group (or even the same company if it is a smaller company), they are a treasure trove of information. This is where all your college buddies are going to be useful m’friend.

    If they still work there, you’ve gotta be friends with them to find out anything but I have found that with people who have worked there in the past, they will happily give you juicy political information. You’ve got to be very very careful how you word your questions (and your first email to them) though. Specifically, you don’t want to sound needy, judgemental or stupid (in increasing order of importance) lest they are still buddies with people back in the old company.

  10. I covered some of the same ground, tongue-in-cheek, in my article Thirteen Patterns of Programmer Interviews. You’ve got good thumbnails of the usual suspects and good advice for handling them.

    One personality you don’t cover is the HR manager. They are unlikely to ask any technical questions and may not seem to know how to fill up the time, but they can torpedo your prospects just like the CEO.

  11. Dave Pearson 17 years ago

    So apparently everyone who actually has buttons has little or no impact, and the two important people in the interview process have no buttons.

    So please explain the value of “buttons” to me again?

  12. ubernostrum 17 years ago

    @Dave Pearson – Buttons are valuable tools for YOU to learn about the organization. The point of the article isn’t so much “how to land the job” but “how to make sure you learn just as much about the company as they learn about you”. (IMHO)

  13. XYZZY 17 years ago

    What about this one: Asks a overly-broad and vaguely worded questions with “no specific answer in mind”, and won’t clarify?

    Or interrupts the second sentence of every answer without listening to the point?

    No, I’m not bitter, why do you ask?

  14. coyote 17 years ago

    The only thing the Gotcha Guy wants to do is try to find out where you lied on your resume. He thinks he will do that by quizzing you on your resume, which somehow he thinks people have memorized (even though he couldn’t hold up to the same questioning on his own). When I get those people, I open up my folder to my resume and read the answer back to them.

    My favorite is the person who keeps pushing you on, ‘Why would YOU want to work here’ when they recruited YOU to come to the interview and you’re not really sure that you do, but you thought you’d come along and find out, because your impression of company X might just be wrong, or maybe you don’t know anyone who works there and what the heck, you never know where these things can lead. and sometimes the answer is, ‘i just got laid off with the other half of the programming department and i need a job’ or just as simple as, ‘i have to pay rent in two weeks’.

    i will never ever do that to anyone.

  15. kdgregory 17 years ago

    Re the “trivia guy” that mray mentioned: I’m that guy, and I’m looking to see if you actually did the work you describe on your resume. I may not know anything about the topic (although I try to pick something that I do know or at least have some exposure to), I just want to see if you can talk intelligently about it. And by “intelligently,” I mean the what, why, and how: why did you do what you did, and how did it improve what you were working on.

    This is not the “trivia guy” that Joel mentions.

  16. kdgregory 17 years ago

    Oh, and I seem to have overlooked coyote’s comment. The answer is no. If you lied on your resume, hopefully I’m not talking to you. If I am, I will have discovered it within 5 minutes — hint, the 10 page resume for 3 years of work experience is a giveaway.

    What I’m really looking for is that you’ve internalized whatever you worked on. If you simply push your resume at me, I’ll probably respond with “I hear mauve has more RAM.” If you don’t take the hint, I’ll end the interview.

    And yes, I can talk intelligently about projects that I worked on in the mid-80s. Perhaps not in detail, but intelligently.

  17. Scott Ellsworth 17 years ago

    Your advice may be good in general, but I suspect that trying to find ‘the button’ on most of the Google interviewers I know would quickly turn into interview suicide.

    Every one of us tries to leave a few minutes at the end for questions and interaction, but for us, the meat of the interview is when you let us see how you think.

    I usually ask a question about something on your resume. You damn well better be able to talk about it like, well, someone smart that worked with that technology or platform for the period you claim. I don’t care whether GWT, Java, or left handed smokeshifters are on your resume, but if you put one of them there, I expect you to be at least reasonable competent and able to discuss it. Perhaps for an entire hour.

    If you do not understand something, take it off the resume. Or put some weasel words or a date that might let the interviewer know that your FORTRAN is, perhaps, a wee bit dated. (Laugh not – a very dear friend has been using FORTRAN in the finance world for almost twenty years.)

    I always ask you to write some code.

    This does not mean ‘write some pseudocode that cannot work’, it means pick up the marker, and write something pretty close to syntatactically and semantically correct. I do not care if you drop a semicolon or name a variable poorly. I care very much if you cannot write a method signature even close to correct, when you claim a decade of Java.

    If you do not know Java, use something you do. I will transcribe it, and chat about it with a C++ or Python or C# guy afterwards.

    I expect the solution to be reasonably good. I have screened over 50 people thus far this year. Most were ok, some were great, and some did not do well. The ones that made it were the ones that answered the questions well. The ones that showed at least one sign of clear skill, and that did not make me regret spending time with them.

    I had a recent screen where a candidate did not know an important detail of how interfaces interact in Java, and how you would write one that did not have . I was not hunting trivia, nor was I hoping for the candidate to perish. I expected, though, that a candidate rating himself a 9 out of 10 in Java and listing more than 7 years of experience would have pretty much completely mastered this fundamental tool of the language. I would not expect that from a new grad, or someone not terribly familiar with the language.

    At the end of the day, every single person I screen might be writing a system I depend on within a year. I want at least one good reason to think that said system will work.



    What about this one: Asks a overly-broad and vaguely worded questions with “no specific answer in mind”, and won’t clarify?

    Oh, that’s me. I do it because I want to know how you think and what path’s you’ll take. Some people think inward and close themselves off to asking for help outside, or they jump rapidly around versus following a linear path. It’s very informative.

  19. Great stuff! A programmer friend referred me to your site and I am eating up The Button. Sent it to a friend too. I like your writing style, apparently it’s a bit like my own. I’m not as polished and I write about some not so politically correct things at my thaipulse blog. Ok – good luck, I already subscribed via RSS. Best of Life! Vern