So for those that don’t really know me, I tend to be a bit of an introvert (ok, ok, for those that really know me, a lot of an introvert) and can have some pretty geeky tendencies at times. But I think the subject matter of this post could be useful to both introverts and extroverts, geeks and non-geeks.

It all centers around this basic question:

Tell me about an experience you’ve had that excited you. What were some of the obstacles you encountered during that experience, and how did you overcome them?

Before taking my new position, I was the Web Development Manager for an advertising agency. One of my responsibilities was interviewing potential developers to get a feel for their skills, and how well they would be able to perform the duties for the position.

Many times other managers or co-workers asked me what types of questions I asked. I also worked with recruiters, and they’d often ask what type of questions I’d be giving their applicants. Both groups of people often laughed at my answer.

Here’s the deal, I’ve interviewed a decent number of people, and most times I only ever had “The question” prepared. The great thing about this question is that it starts a true conversation. Based on how the applicant answered, I almost immediately knew whether I was interested in hiring them or not. Let’s look at why the question is successful. The question has 3 basic parts.

1) Tell me about a project you worked on that really excited you.

What I want is to see the candidate get excited. At the least though, it should help put them at ease. They can pick a project they’re confident about overall and hopefully can be a little more relaxed while telling me about it. This part of the question gives them every reason and every chance to do so.

2) What were some of the obstacles or difficulties you had while building the project?

This is potentially a nicer way to ask, “what are some of your weaknesses.” However, it is a little open-ended in that regard. The difficulties they encountered might not be due to a weakness at all, but just a problem that was genuinely difficult to solve. Either way, the answer they give you is worthy of hearing. It also potentially gives you the opportunity to discuss some of your personal experience, and how your team operates.

3) How did you overcome them?

This is the real meat of most interviews anyhow. Remember in math class how your teacher would sometimes give you partial credit if you showed your work but made a mistake somewhere along the way? I think this question is somewhat like that. You get a chance to see how they thought through problems, how their brain works, and their approach to things.

I think the managers, coworkers, recruiters chuckled at me because all they heard me say was, “I only come prepared with one question to an interview.” I would say back to them, “but look at the question I ask.” Usually, once they’d thought it over, it made a lot more sense to them.

Let me tell you though, I had some real varied responses to the question in interviews. Everything from “well, I guess my personal site because it has some flash and that was tough” to 30-45 minute enlightening responses. The latter was closer to what I was looking for. The former potentially shows a lack of experience or lack of interest in the work, and little regard for my time to be quite honest. But again, I’d argue that’s one of the best things about The question. If they give me the short quip, I know almost instantly that they’re not a person I’m interested in hiring. The ones that engage me in conversation, I’ll know enough about to make an informed decision on whether they have the technical aptitude to fulfill the position’s requirements or not. That’s the whole point of an interview, isn’t it?

Even when I’m interviewing for positions, I try to give myself the opportunity to answer this question. It’s pretty easy to work in. Just wait for the interviewer to ask you a fairly open-ended question (which they pretty much always do), and then answer them by answering this question. It has a couple of benefits for you as well. You get to show them excitement, you get to show off something cool you did instead of just listing technical skills (boring!). It also gives you a chance to engage them in a conversation, instead of worrying about what question is coming next. It takes away some of that innate nervousness that comes with being interviewed. That’s a major plus if you’re an introvert like me.