6 Memorable Engineering Interview Questions

March 12, 2013

Featured in 2015 Guide to Getting an Engineering JobCongratulations, you got an interview! But the sense of accomplishment is short-lived. The next thoughts that come to mind are visions of sweaty palms, dusty suits, and uncomfortably long silent pauses. 

Fortunately, interviewing is a skill, and like any other, it can be learned and improved upon. For some insight, we asked six engineers what their most memorable or difficult interview questions were, how they responded, and whether they were offered the job or not.

How would you Design a Camera for a Blind Person?

“When I was just out of school I interviewed with Apple for a job with their Safari team. During the interview they asked me: “You are tasked with designing a camera for a blind person to use. Tell us how you would go about it, and what features it would include.” This question caught me off guard, and I doubt I gave a very impressive answer. Trying to figure out how the user would know where to point the camera, while on the spot, was not very fun. Later, I found out that the specific role was with the text-to-speech team, so in hindsight the question made sense.”

Company: Apple (jobs)

Result: “I was not offered the position, which I’m now glad of.”

Submitted by: Hunter Sherman, CTO of BizBrag, Inc.

Fourier Transforms, anyone?

“The job was an entry-level engineering position with CBS. It wasn’t a single question, but the entire interview. The first question the interviewer asked began ‘What’s the Fourier Transform of …’

For the next half hour, the interviewer had me perform Fourier Transforms.”

Company: CBS (jobs)

Result: “…no, I wasn’t offered the job.”

Submitted by: Steve Silberberg

How Does a Computer work?

When I interviewed for a product engineering position with WibiData in 2011, I was asked to explain how a computer works. I began by explaining my understanding of computer architecture, how programs are executed, and the correspondence between the binary and physical representation of a number.

The kicker was when he asked me to explain what happens when you push the power button. I ended up learning more about bootstrap loading of an operating system from him. It turns out, admitting when you don’t know something and trying to learn from it works out. I got the job, and have been at WibiData ever since.”

Company: WibiData

Result: Offered the job; accepted.

Submitted by: Juliet Hougland

Can you Comment Critically on a Programming Language?

“The question that stood out to me in an interview for an engineering position was, “What did you like / dislike about Django?” referring to the framework I chose for my pet project.

It’s not much of a brainteaser, but it stuck with me because of how much it communicated: it let them determine if I could think critically about how I solved a problem, not just getting to an answer. At the same time, it showed me that they care about developer comfort, using good tools, and the real process of software engineering. I definitely remembered that when it came time to decide where to go, and I have been happily working at Emcien ever since.”

Company: Emcien

Result: Offered the job; accepted.

Submitted by: James Dabbs, Software Engineer

Assessing Fit is a Two-Way Street (or, why “What are your Weaknesses?” can be a great question).

“I always had trouble with the ‘what areas or aspects of yourself do you feel need improvement/what are your weaknesses’ question.

The hardest part was trying to understand what they were getting at with the question. Some places, particularly the environmentally focused engineering firms, had a weird way of asking relatively straightforward questions. A lot of, I’ll say traditional, engineers have awkward social skills, and that can be a little weird in the interview for people used to more in-your-face, contact sports, type personalities. At least it was for me. Needless to say, I don’t work for any of those places, and I don’t think I would have taken a position offered by them due to the lack of personality compatibility. And my current employer, who I have been with since graduation (over ten years ago), has guys that hunt wild game, sportfish, ride motorcross, race airboats, and other activities of the like… this was huge for me.” (Personality compatibility.)

“Knowing your own personality and being able to evaluate how you would gel with the interviewing party on the fly was important for me.” (And the interviewer.)

Company: Simmons & White 

Result: Offered the job; accepted.

Submitted by: Paul Buri PE, Civil Engineer

How would you react?

“I am a female and was being interviewed by a male, obviously larger and stronger than myself. He closed his hand tightly and told me he wanted me to try to open it. I made a small effort to open it by force, but I knew I wouldn’t succeed.

I thought for about 5 seconds and then said, ‘Could you please open your hand?’

He complied, opened his hand and said, ‘Well, that was easy.’

Another employee, interviewed for a drafting position, said that he was asked the same question in his interview too. He tried for quite a while to get the hand open by force unsuccessfully and finally gave up.

We were both offered and accepted the positions. There wasn’t a wrong way to respond to this… but our boss learned how we would react to future complications.”

Company: RJR Engineering PC

Result: Offered the job; accepted.

Submitted by: Robin M Closs PE SE, Structural Engineer


5 Simple Tips to Improve Your Interview Answers

While the questions above may not reflect what you will be asked, it’s easy to see even tough questions are more easily answered when you’re relaxed and thinking clearly. Here are five more takeaway tips to help you improve your engineering interview skills.

  1. Know the company. This is a no-brainer. Hiring managers are looking for employees interested in their company and products. Researching the company and their product line before walking into the interview will not only make you look prepared, it will help you ask intelligent questions in return.
  2. Remember, interviews are an exchange of information. The more you ask, the more information you’ll have for you to assess whether the fit is right for you, too… regardless of whether or not a job offer is made.
  3. Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know. Honesty and brevity are intangible skills that can’t be assessed through a resume. Plan on having at least one question that tests the limits of your engineering knowledge, no matter what your discipline. And know ahead of time how you’ll respond if you are stumped… it could be the hiring manager’s intention to see how you react under pressure or when you don’t have all the information.
  4. Be Positive. For example, questions about former employers, coworkers, and bosses are a common tool to measure a candidate’s character. If you have criticism, keep it constructive. Otherwise keep your responses positive, factual, and steer clear of the character trap.
  5. Practice, practice, practice. Nothing will help you build confidence going into an interview more than practice. If you are a college student with a career center on campus, use it. If you’re a seasoned professional engineer, ask a colleague, friend, or spouse to run through a list of typical interview questions with you. Specifically, make sure they give you feedback on your body language and how you talk (too fast? too slow? long-winded? tangential or irrelevant stories?).  The better you get in practice, the better you’ll perform on the big day.

(For more interview tips, check out our post Engineering Resume and Interview Tips from the Experts).

What was Your Most Memorable Engineering Interview Question?

Please let us know using the comment form below, or on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo credit: Alex France