Allow “Phone a Friend” during Technical Interviews?

I’ve been thinking about this recently and it seems a little crazy, but what if you allowed people who were going through technical interviews the option to either phone a friend to help with the question, or even allow them to look for an answer online?

I haven’t tried this out yet “in real life” but it does seem like a pretty interesting experiment.  Here’s what I think of both these options and why i’m not shrugging this off as insanity:

Phone a Friend

This is what popped into my head first: the candidate has a question to answer and can’t figure it out.  They get 5 minutes to call a friend to get advice.  The candidate then has to explain the solution and how the friend helped them do it.  How could this possibly be a good idea?!

Well, for one thing this closely matches the real world.  People don’t always have the answers and talking to co-workers and good friends is a always a great way to find them.  Having the ability to articulate the question quickly, and understand the solution quickly is a great quality to have for a hire.

In addition, having peers to ask shows a little about their social group and the types of knowledge in that circle (this says nothing negative about candidates that don’t have friends to ask).  Bonus: their friends are exposed to the candidates hiring process and experience.  It’s a great way to get exposure!

Find an Answer Online

If phoning friends doesn’t sound crazy to you, this shouldn’t either.  This again is a normal activity engineers do when confronted with a problem they don’t have an immediate answer to.  They scour the internet for hints, papers, sample code, etc to help them formulate some type of solution. Why not allow this process during a technical interview?  Give the candidate 5 minutes to go online and do what they want to find a solution.  Then let them explain the solution and where they found help to formulate it.

Not having the immediate answer is less important than the ability to find a great solution that the engineer completely understands and can explain.  I honestly think that there is a group of people out there who aren’t great at figuring out something they haven’t encountered before, but who are excellent at implementing and leveraging solutions they have encountered – even in creative and new ways (I definitely know some people like this).


The more I think of it, the more I like it.  Obviously it all depends on the candidate’s comfort level with this, and the types of questions that will be asked.  I do know that i’ll be mulling this over for a while to come.

What do you think?

11 Responses to Allow “Phone a Friend” during Technical Interviews?

  1. quami77 says:

    It’s a shame that this post can even be deemed heretical when in fact it’s the normal mechanism for completing tasks by the vast preponderance of developers for overcoming technical challenges.

    Understanding the ways in which technical people find answers, and can fully grok and socialize those answers internally with options is invaluable in a technical interview.

    • matan says:

      I agree… and that seems to be the main motivation I had in sharing this. This is what we do on a regular basis. The trick then is asking the right questions..

      • rammurtee says:

        yes, that is completely true..that’s the way we work now..because there are so many things to learn and so many different problems come around every time we start a new project, various websites like stackoverflow helps us.

  2. fecak says:

    Great article. Just a few minutes ago I posted something on my blog about recovering from a botched technical interview question that is fairly relevant and mentions that the real world is essentially an open book test, so interviews could be as well.

    • matan says:

      Thanks for the link. Overall, I do agree interviews should be “open book”… unless the exact nature of the job is to be a source of information in a specific field.

      • fecak says:

        Agreed, there are definitely circumstances when ‘open book’ is not helpful, but for most software/tech roles where they will have ample resources while performing their tasks, why not allow that during any tasks given.

  3. Allon says:

    Sounds like a great idea tbh. I love it. Will definitely be trying this out.

  4. Joe Heyming says:

    I once had an interview at vmware where one interviewer put me in front of a computer to solve some vm and statistics problems. I asked if I was allowed to google anything and they seemed to only care that I was able to solve the problem, not how I solved the problem.

    Also, in my experience interviewing people, I’ve allowed them to do some internet searching during a pair programming exercise and you can tell pretty fast if they thrash to solve their problem or even have a clue about the problem.

    So if they can have access to a computer, I approve if they use internet searching as long as the problem is complex enough so that the search doesn’t yield the exact answer, but instead a piece of the answer.

    I think allowing phone a friend wouldn’t hurt, but process wise, it could take up too much time. Maybe it would work if you were also on a speaker phone with the candidate. But you need to be careful that the interview is directed towards the candidate and that the person being called doesn’t take over the show.

    • matan says:

      Absolutely. It has to be focused and specific. The point is for the candidate to answer the question, not actually to call any friends… but allowing it could be an interesting surprise as well.

  5. jc says:

    I was reading your “From Java To Node.js” post and digressed to this post.. and thought I throw in my 2 cents…

    Like everything, there are good and bad interviewers, and different requirements when hiring someone for a job.

    I prefer to hire people, who in my judgement, have good potential for growth and will be able to do the job, rather than what they know, did in the past or memorized.

    One of my best hires 5 years ago, was a fresh grad who showed phenomenal creativity and analytic ability, knew basic Java but did not know much about relational databases and object oriented design. With good direction and encouragement, he thrived during the 3 years we worked together.

    The technical part of my interview was “open book”. It was the first time I had tried it – more out of desperation, since we were having a hard time finding candidates who knew or were interested in our niche and outdated set of technologies or business domain.

    One piece was to provide the username and password to a Postgresql database, have the candidate log in from the command line, and then do various sql against it for query, updates, joins etc. to produce various results. The candidate could search on the internet, which relaxed the tension specially for those who had no Postgresql experience.

    It became pretty obvious who would make it to the next round by observing how they did this kind of simple research, and eventually I selected my guy who turned out to be a superb software developer.

    Or it can be like the Akamai phone interview I had in 2009 when I could not remember the version of Oracle I worked with 15 years earlier. The last question from the interviewer was “How can you not know the version of software you worked with?”. I think he thought I was lying about my Oracle experience. Wish I could have phoned a friend!!

    • matan says:

      Great read.

      I agree that the best people I’ve hired were the ones with more potential growth rather than current skill set – their curious drive to know how things really work and why, and ability to make steady progress.

      I’m glad that you follow the same philosophy and you found some awesome people because of it.

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