Going out on a limb
In my previous article, The Code Sample, I ruffled the feathers of a few readers who objected to my implication that “I’d just Google it” is not an acceptable answer during the technical part of an interview. To be fair, the derisive sentiment in that post was directed specifically at interviewees who abusively name drop about Google to dodge answering any technical questions.
…candidate that thinks “I’d just Google it.” is an acceptable answer to any technical interview question…
Still, I am going to tempt fate and take it one step further by and say that it is almost never a good idea to use this “phone-a-friend” lifeline in a real interview.
Let me explain by addressing the obvious objections to the premise.
Objection: I’ll be able to Google things on the job. It’s unrealistic to test me in a hypothetical Google-free universe.
It’s true that everyone expects that you will need to look things up to do your job, and that it completely unreasonable to expect a programmer to have an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of even their best tool.
Here’s the rub. You are at an interview, not working at the job. On the job, the goal is to solve problems and get things done using any tool at your disposal. At the interview, the goal is to demonstrate why they should hire you instead of one of the other candidates who also have access to Google.
A job interview is a competition, not a pass-fail test.
The REAL hypothetical universe is the one where a job is filled by an interviewer talking to single candidate then making a decision based on whether that person can do the job or not.
Objection: What about Interviewers who ask hyper-specific technical questions?
Look, we all hate these types of questions. I’d even argue that many interviewers use them more to prove how smart they are rather than to evaluate the candidate (even though they probably Googled both the question AND answer).
As an early weed-out tactic, I really hate these types of questions. Sometimes, however, an interviewer faced with 20 candidates of which 15 could competently perform the duties of the job just needs a final jeopardy tie-breaker round when the race is too close to call.
I know this may spark a debate about how unfair these questions are, but try to be pragmatic. The only agenda you should bring to the interview is closing the deal, not changing the way the interviewer thinks or conducts their business.
If you are really determined to make a difference, discuss the interviewing tactics with them AFTER you have secured the job and have been working there a while. They are more likely to be open to your input when you aren’t in a position to directly benefit from them accepting it.
Sometimes “I’d Google it” is an immediate fail.
Q: What is a class?
A: I do not know, but I would look it up.
Q: Okaaay, moving on to another question. What is a SQL join?
A: I do not know, but I would look it up.
Almost every question we asked yielded the same response.
This is a funny example, but I have heard very similar responses from real candidates who actually proposed in response to situational questions that they’d Google things like “How to optimize code” and “how to normalize a database.” I could probably be convinced to soften my position on technical trivia, but never-ever-ever invoke Google on a situational or general approach type question.
In fact, it is arguably better to wing it than admit ignorance on a question like this. You are probably dead meat if you can’t answer the situational questions anyway, so you might as well go down fighting.
If you ignore my advice, at least understand this
I’ll concede that invoking Google in an interview is rarely a deal-killer on technical questions when I do interviews, especially if several candidates can’t answer the same question and lead me to suspect the question might be too trivial to be fair game. It is also very uncommon for me to make a decision on a candidate based on a single technical question.
That said, don’t delude yourself into thinking that you actually answered the question when you appeal to Google. Whether you like it or not, the the interviewer is thinking one of two things:
“I’d Just Google it.” == “I don’t Know.”
“I’d Just Google it.” == “I don’t Know, and I’m not willing to admit it.”
The second inference is much more damaging to your chances. It is probably safer just to say “I don’t know,” because you are in effect saying it anyway. That is, unless you imagine the interviewer doesn’t think you are aware of Google. If that is the case you’ve got bigger problems.