Interview with a CEO

“So, tell me: How are you going to guarantee the accuracy and integrity of the data?” he asked.

I glanced at the clock on the wall: 2:25 p.m. The CEO and I had been talking since 2:00, and he had to be at his next meeting in 5 minutes.

I felt frozen, like a tilted pinball machine. For a moment I wasn’t even sure I’d heard the question right. He couldn’t seriously be asking a tester for… whaaa??? I could feel my adrenal glands dumping their contents into my blood stream.

“This is the moment,” I thought. “The point when this interview goes South.”

Part of me wanted to simply stand up, shake the CEO’s hand, thank him for the opportunity, and walk out. I could still salvage a nice afternoon before I had to be back at the airport.

Time seemed to slow to an agonizing crawl. Involuntarily, I pondered the previous 12 hours…

2:45AM Wake up, shower… 3AM Dress up in suit and tie (20 minutes devoted to fighting with tie)… 3:45AM Drive to airport… 5AM Sit in terminal… 6AM Board flight to San Francisco… 9AM Arrive SFO… 9:15AM Sit in (completely stationary) BART train… 10:00AM Miss Caltrain connection… 10:30AM Arrive at office, thanks to a ride from their helpful administrative assistant… 10:45AM Interview with the head of products… 11:30AM Interview with the head of development… 12:15PM Lunch… 2:00PM Interview with CEO…

As the epinephrine circulated through my body, creating a sensation akin to somersaulting backwards, I began to feel resentful. I’d flown there on my own dime, after having already talked with these guys by phone for several hours. I was under the impression that the trip would be more of a “meet & greet the team” social hour. Not a repeat of the entire interview process, from square one. The Head of Products had given me several assurances that I was his top choice and that they’d only be asking me to fly out if the position were essentially mine to refuse.

So, there I was. The CEO sat across the table from me, expecting an answer.

What I wanted to say was that I was in no position to guarantee anything of the sort, given my radical ignorance of the data domain, the data’s source(s), the sources’ track record(s) for accuracy, or how the data get manipulated by the in-house systems.

What I wanted to say was that his question was prima facie absurd. That I, as a tester, couldn’t “guarantee” anything other than that I would use my skills and experience to find as many of the highest risk issues as quickly as possible in the given time frame. However, when you’re dealing with any black box, you can’t guarantee that you’ve found all the problems. Certainty is not in the cards.

What I wanted to say was that anyone who sat in front of the CEO claiming that they could guarantee the data’s accuracy and integrity was clearly a liar and should be drummed out of the profession of software testing.

I wanted to say all that and more, but I didn’t. Given the day’s exhausting schedule, all these thoughts were little more than fleeting, inchoate, nebulous impressions. Plus, it seemed highly unlikely that the CEO, who struck me as an impatient man (your typical “Type A” personality), would be interested in spending the remaining 4 or 5 minutes discussing epistemology with me. Honestly, I’m not sure what I said, exactly. The question, and the CEO’s demeanor while asking it, had drained away any enthusiasm I had for the position. In all likelihood, my response was along the lines of “I have no idea how to answer that question.”

Whatever I said, it was obviously not how to impress an MBA from Wharton. I didn’t get offered the job.

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  1. Every moment in an interview is a moment where you are displaying who you are. Don’t try to guess what they want to hear. Just say what you believe.

    My answer?

    “No. I don’t make the quality. What I do is keep a good lookout for trouble. I can guarantee that I will give you my best effort to discover important problems before they bite us. I can guarantee that my best effort will become better over time as I learn and experiment with new and better ways of working. I can guarantee that if anyone asks me or compels me to give less than my best effort, or puts gratuitous obstacles in my way as I try to give you the service you are paying me for, I will go to my manager and ask for help. If I still think there’s a problem, I will document it in an email. That’s a guarantee.”

    If anything in that answer frightens my potential employer, he should not hire me.

  2. James, thanks very much for the comment.

    Your focus on how you would learn and improve continuously on the job is excellent.

    I definitely disappointed myself in this interview.

  3. Abe,

    I think you not getting offered the job was a good thing. You are right in your statement of the CEO being a certain type (one who wouldn’t listen to you in the first place, they would only hear what they want to hear). And I agree with James’ statements, you are being hired to find issues/problems and to report them to the people who can make the changes/fixes. Your guarantee as an employee is to do your best on the job and give the maximum effort. You cannot magically make something happen.

    Look at it this way, as you are already doing, this was a learning experience and you need to be sure to stay true to your convictions. Personal ethics is a tough thing to have and maintain in this industry, but in the end you can sleep at night.

    Best to you.

    Jim

  4. Thanks, Jim, for taking the time to comment. It’s appreciated!

    And you’re right. It’s probably best that I didn’t get offered the job. I would’ve been tempted to take it, and might have ended up hating it.

    I’m just disappointed I lacked the presence of mind to have James Bach’s answer roll off my tongue.

    🙂

  5. Most often than not employers like to play games… to torture the individual a bit, see how he/she reacts.
    Maybe it was one of those questions… meant to see how high is your tolerance threshold…

  6. Yeah those are though questions. I can see that I would have blocked to that one. Maybe its good to practice answers to this type of questions. Its harder when you have a dog in the fight (you were expecting that position probably and had hopes).
    Like the Google interview questions (supposedly) they look not for a direct solution but for approaches. I think James gave very good examples as response. And I think for that answer the interviewer will say maybe “Fair enough”.

    Sebi

  7. Robi,

    Thanks for the comment!

    You might want to re-evaluate your criteria for what is acceptable behavior from an employer. My own tolerance threshold for torture is quite low.

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