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Odd interview exchange, what should I do?

post #1 of 80
Thread Starter 
I recently had a job interview. Most of it went smoothly but there is something that came up that might have made me look bad. I'm going to write a thank you letter and wanted to know if the issue is worth addressing, and if so, how should it be approached? The interview is for a job that would involve a lot of research on my part, among other things.

Out of the blue the interviewer asks me "If you needed to know how many gas stations are in the US, and you only had a short amount of time to research it to give a rough estimate, what would you do? The process of how you find the answer is more important than the final answer. Answer this very quickly."

I laid out a good plan on how to find a rough answer very quickly. He then said "Do you need to use some paper*gesturing to my note pad*?" I told him I had no numbers to work with, and if I did, I would use Excel to find the answer instead of paper. He said "You should probably use the paper. How many gas stations are in the US? Just give me a rough estimate." I told him there was no way I could do this without any research. He said "So you don't have a final number for me then?" I said "How could I? I would need numbers and a computer to work with. All I can tell you now is how I would arrive at my answer. He then continued to other subjects and questions.

I don't know if he really wanted me to present him with a number, or if it was a trick question to find out how uncomfortable I would be pulling numbers out of my ass, which would be an awful quality in this job. So did my (lack of)answer make me look good or bad? If it made me look bad, then should I try to repair the damage done in my thank you letter. If so, what should I write? If my answer made me look good, then would it be to my detriment to show him that regret my answer and now view it as a mistake?

Please post responses quickly. I should send the letter out in the next day or so. 

Update: Look at pg. 3
Edited by Reggs - 3/1/12 at 11:16am
post #2 of 80
I think he was trying to see what you would do when he acted like a jerk. I wouldn't write him, because, in my opinion, it would make you look weaker, like it shook you.


good luck
post #3 of 80
Quote:
Originally Posted by Reggs View Post

I recently had a job interview. Most of it went smoothly but there is something that came up that might have made me look bad. I'm going to write a thank you letter and wanted to know if the issue is worth addressing, and if so, how should it be approached? The interview is for a job that would involve a lot of research on my part, among other things.
Out of the blue the interviewer asks me "If you needed to know how many gas stations are in the US, and you only had a short amount of time to research it to give a rough estimate, what would you do? The process of how you find the answer is more important than the final answer. Answer this very quickly."
I laid out a good plan on how to find a rough answer very quickly. He then said "Do you need to use some paper*gesturing to my note pad*?" I told him I had no numbers to work with, and if I did, I would use Excel to find the answer instead of paper. He said "You should probably use the paper. How many gas stations are in the US? Just give me a rough estimate." I told him there was no way I could do this without any research. He said "So you don't have a final number for me then?" I said "How could I? I would need numbers and a computer to work with. All I can tell you now is how I would arrive at my answer. He then continued to other subjects and questions.
I don't know if he really wanted me to present him with a number, or if it was a trick question to find out how uncomfortable I would be pulling numbers out of my ass, which would be an awful quality in this job. So did my (lack of)answer make me look good or bad? If it made me look bad, then should I try to repair the damage done in my thank you letter. If so, what should I write? If my answer made me look good, then would it be to my detriment to show him that regret my answer and now view it as a mistake?
Please post responses quickly. I should send the letter out in the next day or so. 


What company did you interview at? like a market research company like nielsen? or in the energy and oil industry?

I've had a couple situations in the past and have been passed up. I think he was hinting strongly to do some random math on the pad using ball park numbers. I guess he was looking to see if you could adapt quickly to situations, your overall thought process, and how much you know about current events or whatnot. A lot of these

If you are going to be working in the energy industry he may actually want a ball park number and be pretty close give or take a few thousand ie if the answer was 117k, he'd be looking for something in the 115-120k range. No answer = not good.

He sounds like an asshole honestly though. Typically these questions are designed to allow you to see the thought process of someone solving it. Unfortunately too common of a situation is you get some dick on a power trip ask you the question, doesn't give you any info, or hints like they are supposed to and watch you fail. It's easy to answer if you know the answer, but in the moment when you are in an unfamiliar environment and nervous in an interview a lot of things you normally would have thought of you don't.
post #4 of 80
Looks like the job was for a number cruncher position? Maybe a business analyst of some sort? Anyways, as a hiring manager for a small group of business analysts, I interpret the answer you gave as fail. He was testing to see how you deal with ambiguity....which is critical. If every fact is known at all times, i could just throw it in an algorithm and out would pop the right answer. However the ability to navigate gray area situations with imperfect data is a key attribute in a good analyst. I could be reading the situation wrong.....don't respond in your thank you letter....what's done is done.
post #5 of 80
The answer is "I would google it."
post #6 of 80
I read about a company that asks that exact question on an interview.....It was either MSFT or Google but VERY well known. Just a test to see how you reason.
Don't address it in the letter.....Not necessary....since from your answer, you ain't getting da job!
post #7 of 80
Obviously he just wanted to see you sketch out some idea on how to do it just to see how you think quickly.

But you mostly failed because you failed to humor his "creative and unique" interview process. Always play to these people's egos, always.

I wouldn't bother with a response in a thank you letter.

But you are not me, so I say what have you got to lose? Make it short and sweet if you are going to do it, in fact, unless you can come up with a clever way of doing this, don't do it.

But a lot of this depends on how much you truly want to work there? Is it just another job to eat? Or the company of your dreams sort of thing?
If dreams, then I would be clever about it by doing some crazy convoluted calculations, perhaps how you initially suggested in excel. I assume you're research is math related, so do all those statistical calculations for show, some graphs.
Edited by bringusingoodale - 2/29/12 at 4:20pm
post #8 of 80
the answer I would say is: I wouldn't want to give you the wrong answer, even if it was just a guesstimate, so I would ask if I could get back to you with something more concrete. Then, here's how I would figure out the answer...
post #9 of 80
Too late, you bombed it. Was this an interview for a consulting firm by any chance?

When firms ask questions like this, they actually want you to come up with a number. Yes, even though it seems ridiculous. The exact answer isn't important, like your interviewer said. What is important is your ability to use common sense, your ability to think creatively on the fly, and your general numeracy.

You say you would need some numbers to do an estimate. How about doing this instead: start by trying to guess how many households there are in the US, how many cars in each, how many miles driven per year, and average MPG. If you were clever you might then realize that estimate left out how many commercial vehicles there are and do another quick estimate of that. All of these figures can be guessed to a reasonable approximation, and even if you are off by an order of magnitude you are displaying an ability to structure an abstract problem and come up with a solution. They won't hold a bad guess at one of the components against you nearly as much as simply failing to do it at all. In fact, if you have a bad guess for one of the component figures they might very well ask you about it and you can have a nice little discussion about improving that particular figure.

As a corollary, if the question they ask involves any kind of economic issue ("I'm a store owner - should I do X or Y?") they want you to go from first principals: What are the components of revenue, what are the components of cost, how will they be affected, and thus how will profits be affected?

A secondary reason for asking these questions is to see whether, if you start down the wrong track like you did, you get the hint and come up with a number, or instead you either get frustrated, refuse to cooperate, or otherwise come across like you would be difficult to work with.

Let it go and use this as a learning experience for your next interview. I failed my first consulting interview in a similar manner. The interviewer was kind enough to stop in the middle, tell me I had blown it, and explain to me what I just explained to you. At the next company I sailed through each round thanks to his advice, even though when asked in the very first round to estimate the volume of water held in reservoirs to supply New York City I somehow only considered drinking water as a source of usage and not baths/showers/toilets. As you can see, the bad estimate didn't matter as much as having a reasonable process for getting there.

Anyway, I hope this post will help you in the same way that guy's advice helped me all those years ago. Good luck.
post #10 of 80
Quote:
Originally Posted by gort View Post

The answer is "I would google it."

lol
post #11 of 80
Quote:
Originally Posted by mcbrown View Post

Too late, you bombed it. Was this an interview for a consulting firm by any chance?
When firms ask questions like this, they actually want you to come up with a number. Yes, even though it seems ridiculous. The exact answer isn't important, like your interviewer said. What is important is your ability to use common sense, your ability to think creatively on the fly, and your general numeracy.
You say you would need some numbers to do an estimate. How about doing this instead: start by trying to guess how many households there are in the US, how many cars in each, how many miles driven per year, and average MPG. If you were clever you might then realize that estimate left out how many commercial vehicles there are and do another quick estimate of that. All of these figures can be guessed to a reasonable approximation, and even if you are off by an order of magnitude you are displaying an ability to structure an abstract problem and come up with a solution. They won't hold a bad guess at one of the components against you nearly as much as simply failing to do it at all. In fact, if you have a bad guess for one of the component figures they might very well ask you about it and you can have a nice little discussion about improving that particular figure.
As a corollary, if the question they ask involves any kind of economic issue ("I'm a store owner - should I do X or Y?") they want you to go from first principals: What are the components of revenue, what are the components of cost, how will they be affected, and thus how will profits be affected?
A secondary reason for asking these questions is to see whether, if you start down the wrong track like you did, you get the hint and come up with a number, or instead you either get frustrated, refuse to cooperate, or otherwise come across like you would be difficult to work with.
Let it go and use this as a learning experience for your next interview. I failed my first consulting interview in a similar manner. The interviewer was kind enough to stop in the middle, tell me I had blown it, and explain to me what I just explained to you. At the next company I sailed through each round thanks to his advice, even though when asked in the very first round to estimate the volume of water held in reservoirs to supply New York City I somehow only considered drinking water as a source of usage and not baths/showers/toilets. As you can see, the bad estimate didn't matter as much as having a reasonable process for getting there.
Anyway, I hope this post will help you in the same way that guy's advice helped me all those years ago. Good luck.

+1

They ask this sort of thing in management consulting case study interviews all the time.
post #12 of 80
Sorry man, but +1 to those who said you bombed it.
post #13 of 80
You really FUCKED UP, just saying.... I've done many interviews that require critical thinking and I've been asked "how many text messages are sent in the United States per day".

You need to have common knowledge (what's the population of the United States) and problem solving skills (where you need to estimate the demographics of individuals who have cell phones and send text messages, but in your case, how many people own cars and how many gallons they use roughly, and you need to take into consideration peak times [summer]).

These are common questions asked by consulting firms: Booz, McKinsey, BCG, etc. My suggestion is to be more prepared next time.
post #14 of 80
I don't know the answer to your question about the letter, but I would recommend reading this book before your next interview.

300
post #15 of 80
Quote:
Originally Posted by GreenFrog View Post

Sorry man, but +1 to those who said you bombed it.

+1. Better luck next time.
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