Entrepreneurials‎ > ‎Jobs‎ > ‎

The Most Revealing Interview Question

The Most Revealing Job Interview Question

Interview Question
Interview Question
Interview Question

Now that Y Combinator has wrapped, we’ve been doing a lot of interviewing at Referly, and my team asked me to share an interview question we’re getting the most mileage out of.

I’ve been doing this question for years and now have seen over two hundred different answers. It’s without a doubt my favorite interview question, because it only take 5 minutes and tells me a remarkable amount about candidates. Even though it’s not a technical question per se, I still give it to every programmer I interview.

Want to experience it first hand? We have open engineering and marketing positions at Referly right now.

Setting Up the Interview Question

Here’s how I set up the question:

I want you to explain something to me. Pick any topic you want: a hobby you have, a book you’ve read, a project you worked on–anything. You’ll have just 5 minutes to explain it. At the beginning of the 5 minutes you shouldn’t assume anything about what I know, and at the end I should understand whatever is most important this topic. During the 5 minutes, I might ask you some questions, and you can ask me questions. Take as much time as you want to think it through, and let me know when you want to start.

When I give this, I usually emphasize each of these points multiple times, with a real stress on their goal: have me understand what’s most important about the topic.


As they start explaining, I make sure to have the most vacant look on my face possible. I do not give any “uh huh” or “I see” kind of interjections that underlie most conversations. A star candidate will pick up on this and ask if I understand so far. On the job, these star candidates also are the same kind of people that empathize with customers and think about it in all the work they do once we hire them. Conversely, weaker candidates think that presentation and communication are one in the same, and lose sight of their audience. They end up being the hardest developers to work with just to understand how they’re solving a problem, much less have a constructive argument with them.

Explaining by analogy is a shortcut some of the best candidates use. One example I heard while someone was teaching me the basics of poker was to take advantage of the fact I had played backgammon even though I hadn’t played poker. He talked about how in backgammon all the pieces on the board are exposed information that both players can see, but in poker you have hidden information. These type of explanations go a long way towards quickly communicating an idea with all kinds of implications very succinctly.

Goal Directed and Organized

It is amazing how many candidates will not premeditate before diving into this interview question. Once the trigger happy type candidates get going, they don’t have any kind of bulleted list or outline in their head of what they hope to get across. What’s most incredible about this is how accurately it predicts disorganized and non-goal directed behavior on the job. I’ve been over ruled a few times by my manager on a hiring decision, and question was a harbinger of things to come. Conversely, the people that think it through and have a few crystal clear points are amongst the best people I’ve worked with. They are not just easy to communicate with, but get results in their work.

Leaders Have the Guts to Say No

For senior positions, I will ask a question early in the 5 minutes that is a complete tangent and has little to do with their goal. A star candidate will politely refuse to go down this rat hole and insist that we stay on topic. This seems unfair since an they’re in an interview and just doing what they’re being asked. In reality though, the very same thing happens often in real work. Even mangers do not innately know what is most important about a topic, and it’s key to have confident people on the team that add focus to conversations.

Stacking Up

Usually only 1 or 2 out of every 10 candidates will do well on all these points. That has held true after giving this interview question over two hundred times.

I take a risk sharing this, because this question has been an amazing tool in picking apart the best talent from rest. I ended up deciding this was worth sharing because after years of telling people exactly what I am looking for in the set up, weaker candidates still can’t help but get tripped up.

Want to experience it first hand? We have open engineering and marketing positions at Referly right now.