Why “I’d just Google it” is not an acceptable interview answer

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.

There are times when this response is going to pretty much end the interview as demonstrated in this example lifted from TheDailyWTF.Com.

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.”

Or worse…

“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.



29 Responses

  1. Mentioning stackoverflow.com probably isn’t a bad idea–now while it’s new–it demonstrates the candidate is current on trends in the field. Google is NOT new. . .

  2. Piggy-backing on Jeff’s answer, mention S.O. but also mention your S.O. reputation.

    That is, if I say “That’s a good one for StackOverflow” but also point out that my reputation is over 10k (http://stackoverflow.com/users/4926/jason-cohen), that means that I know as much trivia as I look up.

    That implies I do know a lot of deep stuff, just not that particular one.

    In general though I completely agree with your sentiment. Just say “I don’t know.” If you do know something close or related, you might dive into that to prove you do have deep knowledge generally.

    • On the other hand, the interviewer might look at a Skeet-like rep like that and worry that you are a total SO addict and cruise that site all day. =)

  3. This part sold the whole thing: “the goal is to demonstrate why they should hire you instead of one of the other candidates who also have access to Google.” Nice.

  4. You shouldn’t mention any sort of web resource as an answer. The goal of technical interview questions is to understand the level of your experience with a subject. The more you’ve worked with something the more you know it.

    I ask technical questions based off the resume. If I ask about normalizing a database, and you have represented yourself as knowledgeable about databases, and your response is Stack Overflow then all you’ve done is dodge the question.

    But if you’re answer is you can’t tell me the difference between the 1st and 5th normal forms, but you know it’s about reducing data redundancy and ensuring the data elements are in the right tables together then you’ve communicated a base level of understanding without getting detailed.

    I assume you can use the web to solve problems, but without a base level of understanding the time it takes you to solve the problem increases dramatically, and I’d be better off with someone else googling the answer.

  5. Individual knowledge will soon become obsolete.

  6. It depends upon the question and the details of the answer. Ask me about 32-bit crc and I’ll be happy to discuss what it does and why it’s useful, but ask me to implement one, and the right answer is “I’d google it”.

    It depends upon the type of job, of course, but I can envision asking someone about how to implement AES or some other crypto scheme, and the right answer you’re looking for is that the candidate will acquire it somehow. Implementing crypto yourself can show seriously questionable judgement, and I have encountered engineers who’ve insisted on doing it themselves.

  7. How about, “I’d write a test program to verify my conjectured answer in this interview validated the answer”?

    I gave this answer to one such hyper specific question I was asked in the interview and I got the job at the end of the day 🙂

  8. Using google is a perfectly reasonable option if you are adept at searching. http://www.searchlores.org

  9. Perhaps one way to answer would be: “I don’t know the order of the parameters to that function, but I could look it up using google.” That way you’re saying you’re not afraid to admit you don’t know, and you have a way to deal with the problems you face when you don’t know something.

  10. I always expect to be asked a question I can’t answer in an interview. That’s why I have a notepad or laptop with me, so that I can say, “I don’t know the answer to that question. Let me write it down and I’ll provide you an answer by tomorrow.”

    The idea here is to show that you know what you don’t know, and are adult enough to admit that fact. Further, you are willing to go the extra mile and find out, and provide an answer.

    The interview will either say, “No, that’s okay” (meaning you don’t have to provide an answer), or, “Yes, please do that.” In this case make sure you have their contact information and follow up with an answer. And not one copied straight from the first hit on Google. Show that you did due diligence.

    Final thought: if you don’t like the way the company conducts interview (e.g., You can’t say “Google it” as an answer) then you might want to look elsewhere for a job. An interview is like a first date, everyone is on their best behavior. If you don’t like what you see or hear in the interview, you won’t like working there.

  11. WTF! I still find it hard to believe that there are real people who
    give such an answer in a REAL INTERVIEW!!

    God bless them!

    Simply saying, “I don’t know” is the best answer in a technical interview where the question is not open ended. For an open-ended question, if you can’t even think logically, at least *wing it*. A “I don’t know” won’t work for an open ended question, let your imagination fly.

  12. Google is a great resource as a quick resource tool. What the interviewer should be saying instead of “I’d google it.” is “I’ll research it and determine the best solution”. I the case of “what is a SQL join” the candidate should have an answer but in the case of “which library is the best for x or y” the answer would require research.

  13. I think Adam meant interviewee

  14. Ugh, you have no idea how many times a person I interviewed said “Yeah, I’d just Google it”… you’re really missing the point of the interview if you’re giving that answer. Giving an answer as Mark suggested (“I don’t know, but I can give you an answer tomorrow”) is much better – shows that the candidate is sincere, and willing to give it a shot.

  15. It’s probably not acceptable unless the question is “what do you do if you can’t figure out a problem.”

    Some interviewers bog themselves down in platform technical minutiae that really aren’t relevant to being a good coder/engineer etc. To annoying interviews like that “I’d just Google it” is my way of saying “fu, this interview is stupid and I’ll just cross this place off the list after I walk out the door”.

  16. Actually technical part of all job interviews should consist of programming tasks to perform. You should just leave interviewee with these tasks, notepad (or programming environment) for hour (or few) and google.

    If they really can google the things they don’t know fast enough then why not.

    Often by glancing over the content they produce you can easily tell if interviewee has some traces of independent thought (or any thought at all).

  17. When I give tech interviews, I have two types of questions. One is the type that asks moderately specific questions that I think anybody should know who’s going to pursue a job with us (explain static vs dynamic typing). The other is a much harder question, but which requires logic and thought more than remembering a particular type of database normalization. The latter are far more important to me, and there’s really no way I’d accept Google for a substitute here since the whole idea is to exercise your own brain and see how creative you can be. The first would get some dings for a Google answer, but if you were really good at the second, you’d go a long ways towards dispelling any suspicions I might have had. On the other hand, if you profess to be the world’s preeminent expert on databases, then you ought to be able to answer some pretty pointed questions from your head.

  18. I worked in one company where we did nto have internet access, so “google it” might be offensive to those kind of people.

  19. Hi,
    I had my interview with Google for associate product manager .. you can read the interview here


    hope it is useful to others..

  20. […] Why “I’d just Google it” is not an acceptable interview answer – Anyone can use a search engine. It’s not a reason to hire you. […]

  21. […] Why “I’d just Google it” is not an acceptable interview answer […]

  22. It’s kind of like not allowing calculators on a math test. Sure math-heavy professions make use of calculators all the time, but a test is a test, not real life. The same with an interview.

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