The One Interview Question That Truly Matters

According to Lou Adler, the following interview question is the most important one to ask in order to gain insight about a candidate. According to Adler, it took more than ten years of trial and error to reach this consensus:

What single project or task would you consider your most significant accomplishment in your career to date?

And the explanation:

To see why this simple question is so powerful, imagine you’re the candidate and I’ve just asked you this question. What accomplishment would you select?

Then imagine that over the course of the next 15-20 minutes I asked you the following follow-up questions. How would you respond?

  • Can you give me a detailed overview of the accomplishment?
  • Tell me about the company, your title, your position, your role, and the team involved.
  • What were the actual results achieved?
  • When did it take place and how long did the project take?
  • Why were you chosen?
  • What were the 3-4 biggest challenges you faced and how did you deal with them?
  • Where did you go the extra mile or take the initiative?
  • Walk me through the plan, how you managed it, and its measured success.
  • Describe the environment and resources.
  • Explain your manager’s style and whether you liked it.
  • What were the technical skills needed to accomplish the objective and how were they used?
  • What were some of the biggest mistakes you made?
  • What aspects of the project did you truly enjoy?
  • What aspects did you not especially care about and how did you handle them?
  • Give examples of how you managed and influenced others.
  • How did you change and grow as a person?
  • What you would do differently if you could do it again?
  • What type of formal recognition did your receive?

With an accomplishment big enough, and answers detailed enough to fill 20 minutes, this one line of questioning can tell an interviewer everything he or she needs to know about a candidate. The insight gained is remarkable. But the real secret ingredient is not the question; that’s just a setup. The most important elements are the details underlying the accomplishment. This is what real interviewing is about — delving into the details.

My favorite question when I do interviews: what have you built? Describe it.

Interview with Matt Mullenweg as WordPress Celebrates Ten Years

Readers of this blog and anyone else hosting theirs on WordPress will appreciate this San Francisco Chronicle interview with the founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, as the site celebrates its 10 year anniversary (yay!):

Q: It’s been 10 years. What’s been the most significant change for WordPress?

A: The big shift has been how it’s changed from being just something that people used just for blogs to being something that they build entire websites or applications on top of. People are now using WordPress for things I never could have imagined even five years ago.

The result of this has been that because there’s so much more flexibility and so many more options for customization, it started to gain some significant market share of the top websites in the world, actually over 18 percent now.

That’s obviously a big responsibility, because that’s lot of the Web that’s dependent on the work we do. I also think there’s a huge opportunity because the tools we’re building have the opportunity to democratize Web publishing and make it so everyone is on equal footing, and has an equal opportunity to create a really amazing website.


Q: What’s next for WordPress?

A: I think the key is taking things that are possible now, if you are a developer, and making them so that they’re easy for anyone, so you don’t need the “WordPress for Dummies” book.

I don’t think it’s a goal. I don’t think it’s something you wake up and say that you did it. I think it’s really a process. It’s constantly and tirelessly iterating every aspect of the software to make it more accessible.


Q: Take me back 10 years ago. What was it like?

A: It wasn’t super exciting. It was mostly me. I moved out to an apartment and I ate A&W fast food. I was in school studying political science, but I was way more excited about online stuff. To bootstrap WordPress, I did pretty much everything. I was on the support forums. I was writing the code and doing the design and marketing. Over the next couple of years, people came in and said, “Hey, I can do that better” and they were right. So it was just building up that community, and getting people to work together.

Had no idea about this staggering statistic:

Q: Why do you think WordPress has endured and others have not?

A: It has that resilience of being something that matters to a lot of people. There are 20,000 people who make their living from WordPress. They want to see it continue to grow.

I recommend to everyone I meet if they want to start a blog. Here’s to ten more years, Matt and the entire Automattic team!

Mila Kunis and Chris Stark: The Interview

I really enjoyed watching this Mila Kunis interview about her upcoming role in Oz the Great and Powerful. If you haven’t seen it, the majority of the interview is not about the movie, but Mila Kunis playing along with the nervous young interviewer named Chris Stark:


This interview has spawned a number of analyses on the Web, including this one at The New Yorker:

But, for all the talk about Kunis, perhaps we should take a moment to appreciate Chris Stark. After all, he’s the one who sets the tone for the interview, declaring up front that he’s “petrified” and then lobbing out a clumsy but audacious opening question: “In the nicest possibly way, did you enjoy being ugly for once? Because, generally, like, you know, you’re hot.” Kunis eggs him on, but it’s Stark who moves the conversation further and further out of bounds, bringing up newly irrelevant topics and offering unsolicited details about his life and interests. Of the pair, he’s actually the one who’s more charming and fun to watch.

Great interviewers often describe their craft as something between a dance, a seduction, and a magic trick. You have Truman Capote spinning webs of trust and charisma around his subjects. You have Joan Didion, dependent on being “so physically small, so temperamentally unobtrusive, and so neurotically inarticulate that people tend to forget that my presence runs counter to their best interests.” You have Janet Malcolm using the fine touch of her “Japanese technique” to elicit information and draw people out of themselves. And then you have Chris Stark, talking about eating chicken, scoring “massive lad points,” and “dropping trou” at his friend Dicko’s wedding. And it works. The result is great. Good for him.

and this one at Vulture:

By sharing their Instagram feeds or favoriting our tweets, famous actresses seem accessible, a part of our sphere; so to have one step back and act like they are untouchable, or in some way part of a rarefied world, is an insult that is not to be tolerated. Mila Kunis and Jennifer Lawrence haven’t simply scored a “win” by behaving like normal, everyday people, eliciting comments like “She is the greatest!” and “I want to eat burgers with her!” They’re doing what we expect every star to do, in this post-celebrity age. We expect stars to keep their egos in check.

Good stuff.

An Interview with Aaron Paul of Breaking Bad

For all you Breaking Bad fans out there, this is a must-read interview with Aarol Paul (the man who plays Jesse Pinkman) in GQ.

A few highlights, including this gem where we find out that Pinkman was supposed to only last one season on the show:

GQ: With Breaking Bad, I’ve heard again and again that Vince’s original intention was for you to be finished after one season. Then something happened—you were good!—and so the plan shifted. 

Aaron Paul: Well, I never knew that the original idea was to kill off Jesse. I had no idea. So my first meeting was—I mean, it was probably the sixth or seventh pilot that I read that season. First one that I went out for. But when I read it, I was like, AMC? They’re doing original programming? I thought they only played old Westerns.But it was hands-down the best pilot that I’ve ever read. In all honesty, I didn’t think it would see the light of day, because you don’t see stuff like that on TV.

This is the only way to watch the show I think: marathon…

GQ: It seemed like everyone I know sort of binged to catch up on Breaking Bad over the last year or two, and watched the whole series in one go. Do you hear from fans that they’re watching the show that way? 

Aaron Paul: All the time. People have come up to me saying, “I’ve watched all four seasons in four days.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s impossible.” But people assure me they really do it.

On working with Bryan Cranston:

GQ: You and Bryan, in interviews I’ve seen you guys do—even after the Emmys, for example [Bryan has won three for his role on BB, and Aaron has won one]—it seems that you have just an incredibly strong friendship.

Aaron Paul: We do. And I’ll be honest: I was a decent actor before. I’m not going to beat myself up, but I—you can always learn. But after working on Breaking Bad, it’s like going to an extreme acting workshop every day. Working with Bryan, he’s just—he’s on such a different level than me.

Aaron Paul is getting married. He met the girl at Coachella. His words on “knowing” when you meet the right person for you:

But you know when people say, “When you know, you know”? It was crazy. The moment that happened—even leading up to the kiss on the Ferris wheel, I couldn’t imagine myself being without her. Because just the idea of doing this all the time was such a fantasy of mine—I was like, “Wait, can this actually exist?” I don’t know—maybe this is just one those crazy, whirlwind Coachella romances that you always hear about.

Season 5 premiere is tomorrow night!

The Science of Disgust

This is a very interesting Q&A about the science of disgust. What happens, exactly, when we feel disgust? In the interview, Daniel Kelly (an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University) explains in his new book, Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust, that it’s more than just a physical sensation…

Two questions and answers which caught my attention:

Do we have the ability to change the things we feel disgusted by?

People don’t exactly know how this works, but acute exposure to something can have the effect of decreasing our feeling of disgust toward it. For example, if you go to medical school, you have to deal with corpses a lot because you’re learning human anatomy. As a result, your sensitivity to death-related solicitors [i.e. things] drops off a little. The key part of this, however, is that it is only for death-related disgust solicitors that the sensitivity decreases. Another example is that over time, mothers become less disgusted by the dirty diapers of their own child, but they remain disgusted by the dirty diapers of other peoples’ children. But what’s happening there isn’t conscious. It’s automatic. In general, there’s not a lot known about the ways we can deliberately or voluntarily make ourselves not be disgusted by things.

And also:

Can disgust be dangerous?

It’s an indisputable fact at this point that disgust influences a lot of social and moral judgments in a variety of ways. An interesting question is whether or not feelings of disgust should play a part in deliberate decision making. If a large percentage of the population finds some social practice disgusting — like stem cell research or cloning — is that a good reason to think the practice is immoral? I argue that it should not. A practice people are disgusted by may or may not be immoral, but the fact that people are disgusted by it is totally irrelevant to that particular question. We shouldn’t trust disgust to give us reliable information about morality. We know the story of how it evolved and why it varies from one culture to the next. Investing the emotion with moral authority is extremely dubious, and we shouldn’t uncritically trust it.

More here.

Google’s Challenging Interview Question

Douglas Edwards was employee number 59 at Google. In a recent Wall Street Journal piece, he provides an excerpt from his book I’m Feeling Lucky: The Confessions of Google Employee Number 59.

The excerpt is interesting throughout, but my favourite part of the piece is the Edwards’ recounting of the so-called “hard question” given by Sergey Brin during an interview:

“I’m going to give you five minutes,” he told me. “When I come back, I want you to explain to me something complicated that I don’t already know.” He then rolled out of the room toward the snack area. I looked at Cindy. “He’s very curious about everything,” she told me. “You can talk about a hobby, something technical, whatever you want. Just make sure it’s something you really understand well.”

The author of the piece talked about the general theory of marketing. What would I say in the same position? Three items come to mind:

What would you talk about if you had five minutes? Sound off in the comments.

David Foster Wallace: “Frightening Time in America”

A never before published (in the United States) 2006 interview with David Foster Wallace has appeared in The New York Review of Books. I enjoyed getting to know the genius of David Foster Wallace from this fascinating interview.

Two notable quotes. First, DFW on the state of America [emphasis mine]:

Speaking totally as an amateur and not any kind of government expert, I would say America’s now starting to face certain economic realities that we’ve been shielded from for many years. The price of gasoline is slowly becoming closer to what it is in the rest of the world. The awareness that the entire Earth’s climate is affected by all nations, and that the United States as far and away the biggest carbon dioxide producer bears some special responsibility for possible environmental collapse later. Americans are slowly waking up out of a kind of dream of special exemption and special privilege in the world. To use your term, this could result in some kind of volcano and America becoming some kind of nightmarish imperial force trying to take resources from other countries forcibly, or it could result, as I think it does in many countries in cycles, in a kind of slow awakening to the fact that having and consuming and exhausting resources is actually not a very good set of values for living.

So which way it will go? I don’t know. And it’s one reason it’s a very frightening time in America, particularly with the people who’re in power right now—many of us are in the position of being more afraid of our own country and our own government than we are of any supposed enemy somewhere else. For someone like me who grew up in the sixties at the height of the Cold War and whose consciousness was formed by, “we are the good guy and there’s one great looming dark enemy and that’s the Soviet Union,” the idea of waking up to the fact that in today’s world very possibly we are the villain, we are the dark force, to begin to see ourselves a little bit through the eyes of people in other countries—you can imagine how difficult that is for Americans to do. Nevertheless, with a lot of the people that I know that’s slowly starting to happen.

A good exchange between the interviewer, Ostap Karmodi, and DFW here:

OK: What do you think of the modern state of American literature?

DFW: Ugggggghhhhh. Somebody asked me this a couple of weeks ago. I think the truth is that it’s a very exciting period but it’s one that probably people in other countries won’t have as much access to. Because 30 or 40 years ago American literature mainly existed in ten or a dozen giant literary figures, and there are now probably more like 100 or 200 literary figures, all of whom are quite good and quite interesting, but none really of the stature and international reputation of, say, a Saul Bellow or a William Faulkner or an Ernest Hemingway.

Readings: The Runaway General, Jane Goodall, A Case for Space, and Mockingbird

Here’s what I read over the last week or so.

(1) “The Runaway General” [Rolling Stone] – an already infamous piece of reporting that sent Obama to depose Stanley McChrystal as the top commander in Afghanistan. This is a very long read, quite compelling and, dare I say, entertaining (it was written for Rolling Stone, so do expect a fair share of curse words in the article). A few nuggets I found worthwhile:

A good explanation of counterinsurgency, or COIN (the term makes a recurring appearance throughout the piece):

From the start, McChrystal was determined to place his personal stamp on Afghanistan, to use it as a laboratory for a controversial military strategy known as counterinsurgency. COIN, as the theory is known, is the new gospel of the Pentagon brass, a doctrine that attempts to square the military’s preference for high-tech violence with the demands of fighting protracted wars in failed states. COIN calls for sending huge numbers of ground troops to not only destroy the enemy, but to live among the civilian population and slowly rebuild, or build from scratch, another nation’s government – a process that even its staunchest advocates admit requires years, if not decades, to achieve. The theory essentially rebrands the military, expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps.

What kind of a man is Stanley McChrystal?

McChrystal is a snake-eating rebel, a “Jedi” commander, as Newsweek called him. He didn’t care when his teenage son came home with blue hair and a mohawk. He speaks his mind with a candor rare for a high-ranking official. He asks for opinions, and seems genuinely interested in the response. He gets briefings on his iPod and listens to books on tape. He carries a custom-made set of nunchucks in his convoy engraved with his name and four stars, and his itinerary often bears a fresh quote from Bruce Lee. (“There are no limits. There are only plateaus, and you must not stay there, you must go beyond them.”)

Perhaps the smartest paragraph in the piece:

When it comes to Afghanistan, history is not on McChrystal’s side. The only foreign invader to have any success here was Genghis Khan – and he wasn’t hampered by things like human rights, economic development and press scrutiny. The COIN doctrine, bizarrely, draws inspiration from some of the biggest Western military embarrassments in recent memory: France’s nasty war in Algeria (lost in 1962) and the American misadventure in Vietnam (lost in 1975). McChrystal, like other advocates of COIN, readily acknowledges that counterinsurgency campaigns are inherently messy, expensive and easy to lose. “Even Afghans are confused by Afghanistan,” he says. But even if he somehow manages to succeed, after years of bloody fighting with Afghan kids who pose no threat to the U.S. homeland, the war will do little to shut down Al Qaeda, which has shifted its operations to Pakistan. Dispatching 150,000 troops to build new schools, roads, mosques and water-treatment facilities around Kandahar is like trying to stop the drug war in Mexico by occupying Arkansas and building Baptist churches in Little Rock. “It’s all very cynical, politically,” says Marc Sageman, a former CIA case officer who has extensive experience in the region. “Afghanistan is not in our vital interest – there’s nothing for us there.”

(2) “Jane Goodall’s 50 Years in the Jungle” [The Guardian] – an excellent profile and interview of the British anthropologist who spent the majority of her life working with chimpanzees in Gombe Stream National Park, Tanzania.

Why is Jane Goodall’s work important?

Jane Goodall made one of the most important scientific observations of modern times in that remote African rainforest. She witnessed a creature, other than a human, in the act not just of using a tool but of making one. “It was hard for me to believe,” she recalls. “At that time, it was thought that humans, and only humans, used and made tools. I had been told from school onwards that the best definition of a human being was man the tool-maker – yet I had just watched a chimp tool-maker in action. I remember that day as vividly as if it was yesterday.”

On animals having personalities:

In any case, Goodall (who got her PhD in 1965) believes it is simple nonsense to say that animals, particularly chimpanzees which are so closely related to humans, do not have personalities. “You cannot share your life with a dog, as I had done in Bournemouth, or a cat, and not know perfectly well that animals have personalities and minds and feelings. You know it and I think every single one of those scientists knew it too but because they couldn’t prove it, they wouldn’t talk about it. But I did talk about it. In a way, my dog Rusty gave me the courage of my convictions.”

(3) “A Case for Space” [DigitalMash] – a blog post which explains why you should say less, more often. An excellent read.

(4) “Don’t Mention the Mockingbird” [The Daily Mail] – Harper Lee, the reclusive author of To Kill a Mockingbird (one of my favorite novels), talks to the British newspaper. It’s a very rare interview/profile worth reading, not least because the last time Harper Lee spoke to the press was in 2006, when she granted a brief interview to a New York Times reporter at an awards ceremony for a high-school essay contest on the subject of To Kill a Mockingbird. The most unusual part to me was that she chose to speak to a British newspaper, rather than her local paper or the New York Times again.

Trivia: Harper Lee supposedly handwrites every interview request she refuses. The author told the New York Times in 2006 that if she were to send out a form response, it would say “Hell, no”.