What's the point of trivia questions in interviews?

People are being dumb on the internet again. Specifically, people claiming that cheating on knowledge questions in interviews is fine, because they're meaningless anyway in a world of Google.

I'm going to start with a detour on the cheating angle, because as an almost-excessively honest person, this really, really gets me. There was some kind of hand-waving around how tech interviews are bad and broken, and hence cheating is justified. The only possible way I can see for someone to justify this is if the interview process is so unfair such that hiring someone else over you would be a huge injustice, and there are no other reasonable alternative jobs (working in places that have better interview processes, for example) so you're forced into the situation and that's... a long shot.

I think the cheater's view is that they're just making their relationship with the company fairer. The company unfairly bars them with a bad interview, and they're just fixing that. Thing is, they're not cheating the company, they're cheating honest candidates. Do these people really think they're better than someone else who can perform just as well in the interview, but has the answers in their head and doesn't need to search? They probably do. They're probably wrong.

Any normalisation of cheating is toxic to society. Loss of trust creates horrific feedback loops engendering further loss of trust. Framing cheating as a harmless mechanism to address ill-specified personal injustice caused by a huge enemy is wonderful framing, when it's just selfishly making life worse for honest people.

Anyway, with that rant out the way, what's the point of trivia questions in interview?

To be clear, I'm not a great fan of trivia questions. I prefer to deal with questions designed to understand how people think, and assume that someone with the right way of approaching problems will be able to learn effectively. This bias comes from the fact that the roles I deal with require clear thinking and a lot of specialist knowledge learnt on the job, so pre-existing knowledge is a bit less valuable in many situations. However, "trivia" questions aren't useless.

What's the value of knowing things that are easily findable on Google?

  • Demonstration of learning In most roles, there are things that you're expected to know. They're useful, practical, it's expected that you'll have come across them, and that having come across them they'll be in your head. Sure, it's easy to find in Google, but you still should know it, and if you've managed to avoid learning I'd like to know why.
  • Fluency If something is in my head, I don't need to look it up. Looking something up is quick and easy nowadays, but not as quick and easy as just knowing it. I've spent the last few days working through a new code base in a language that's new to me. I can poke around and not be blocked because a Google search tells me whatever I need to know, but I am still making progress an order of magnitude slower than on systems I am fluent with. Fluency really matters. For all the talk of generic 10x developers, I think this is just fluency explained badly. So, yes, fluency counts.
  • Unknown unknowns To be able to use a piece of knowledge, you need to be aware of its existence! It's enough to know about something to look up the details, but you still need to be aware of it. Being able to look things up is no help if you don't know there's something to look up, and being anaware of the right way to do things is an excellent way to do it wrong.

It turns out that a full-force 180-degree disagreement with a bad idea is often also a bad idea. Trivia questions don't reveal deep insight, but testing knowledge is not completely invalid. And I say this as someone who's pretty poor at memorising things (part of why I love building systems that make sense, rather than relying on memorisation of a thousand things that don't really make sense).

The attitude that being knowledgable is massively overrated and you can just muddle through with a search engine is curiously self-serving. You can be awesome at everything without putting effort in, and failure to recognise this is injustice in the world against you. It's a life of living on the Dunning-Kruger curve. Of not quite being sick of experts, but being confident you are an expert. You read a web page.

This is not to say that expert-level people don't fail to memorise stuff that's not that important and easy to look up. That's certainly my excuse. :p Maybe there are interviews that really do manage to focus on details that experts don't care about, but at that point it's a bit of a straw man. Would you actually want to work there?

The alternative is to believe in expertise, and believe in specialisation. I am a strong fan of breadth, but there should be depth, and you're not going to be deep at everthing. That's ok. Embrace it, grab more specialisations over time, maybe you have an interview where you don't know something because it's not your thing. That's fine.

It's been 8 years since I've been in finance. My recall of the exact Black-Scholes equation is not there, but I can still do the intuition. I'm ok with not getting a finance job because I can't remember it, but I'd be incensed if someone got such a job over me by reading the equation off a web site! Knowledge is funny.

Anyway, enough rambling. Sometimes you just want to vent in a way that doesn't fit in a microblogging post.

Posted 2023-05-10.