Keil Hubert: Stuff Your Giraffe

Keil Hubert: Stuff Your Giraffe

Interviewing IT staff is tough enough without being silly about it. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert takes umbrage with interviewers who waste both parties’ time with vapid, abstract questions.

Human resources and hiring have been interests of mine for many years, going back long before I was actually hiring my own new people for the IT department. My undergraduate focus was on sociology and anthropology because I’m fascinated with why people do things – especially irrational things. I’ve also had some peculiar experiences with the whole ‘hiring process’ as a young buck; I starting asking a lot of ‘why’ questions about what led to my selection in my first jobs out of university. The answers I was given sparked my imagination, and I’ve been keen on learning more about the art of hiring people ever since. [1]

This past month, a gentleman [2] posted a new discussion topic on one of the LinkedIn forums, challenging his readers to share the ‘hardest interview questions’ that they’d experienced. The discussion quickly caught fire; it was a popular topic for several days. People really seemed to enjoy sharing the off-the-wall situations that they’d found themselves embroiled in during a job interview.

One young lady [3] shared this:

‘In an interview on Monday, I was asked, “How would you fit a giraffe in a refrigerator?”

‘Of course, after the interview, I looked up the question on the Internet and found out that I answered it completely wrong.’

For the official record, the young lady wasn’t wrong. She couldn’t have been wrong, because it’s an inherently vapid and worthless question.

Have you heard this so-called ‘challenging question’ chain before? If you weren’t asked it, you probably saw it float by you as a chain e-mail or as a motivational post. User ‘bonzodog’ posted a synopsis of the whole Q&A chain out on the Ubuntu (LINUX) forums back in February 2007. I like his version, which starts off like this:

1. How do you put a giraffe into a refrigerator?

The correct answer is: Open the refrigerator, put in the giraffe, and close the door. This question tests whether you tend to do simple things in an overly complicated way.

2. How do you put an elephant into a refrigerator?

Did you say, Open the refrigerator, put in the elephant, and close the refrigerator??

Wrong Answer.

Correct Answer: Open the refrigerator, take out the giraffe, put in the elephant and close the door. This tests your ability to think through the repercussions of your previous actions.

User bonzodog’s posting attributes the so-called ‘test’ to Anderson Consulting, but that attribution has been thoroughly debunked. A quick shifti through Google showed that urban myth defenestrator Snopes.com gave it the once-over back in 2005, referenced a copy of Advertising Age magazine from 1999, and made mention that the original version of this chestnut goes back to at least 1985. I didn’t bother researching it any further back, because I actually remember this bit from the late 1980s, back before we had Internet chain letters. [4]

Whoever originally penned this ‘giraffe in the refrigerator’ joke was being silly – clever, sure, but mostly just silly. The joke (and it is nothing more than a joke) is designed to make the person you’re asking the questions of look and/or feel foolish for having missed the childishly simpledesired response. It’s anywhere from a two-part to a five-part joke, depending on which version you use. The teller sets up the premise, gets any answer, and delivers the punch line. Everyone is supposed to have a laugh and forget about it, because it’s all based on a meaningless premise. What it most certainly is not (as-written) is a useful interview question. Here’s why:

Tell me one job on this planet that involves putting a giraffe in a refrigerator?

Stuck? All I’ve been able to come up with so far is Amazon.com’s Fulfilment division (which mightsomeday require putting a stuffed giraffe into a refrigerator box for safe shipping) and possibly a forensic medicine practice serving the zoo sector (storing mysteriously-murdered giraffe remains in cold storage for a future necropsy). Beyond that, the giraffe-in-the-fridge premise has nothing at all to do with actual business. The original joke has as little practical value for an interviewer as my favourite nonsense question: ‘What is the orbital declension of the Lilac Star when sea snails cry beryllium tears?’ [5]

So why ask it at all, then? If the question can’t possibly stimulate a meaningful answer, than what’s the bloody point of asking it?

Several commenters in the forum opined that it might be a test of logical thinking; that, perhaps, the interviewer is trying to assess the applicant’s mental agility. Perhaps asking about the size of the giraffe first is better or worse than asking about the size of the refrigerator. Or if the applicant asks about possible harm to the giraffe, it shows empathy for living creatures. Personally, I call shenanigans on that idea. This kind of silly ‘what have I got in my pocket?’ questioning demonstrates that the interviewer is probably a rank amateur, and is putting on airs – trying toappear cunning and sophisticated, when in fact they have no idea how to conduct a productive interview. On my interviewer proficiency scale, they’d barely rate a ‘one.’

To be sure, there is a lot that you can learn from abstract questions that don’t have concrete answers. There is great value to be found in learning how an applicant thinks. An interview issupposed to be a two-way conversation, after all. The trick is, you have to understand how to interpret the answers that you’ll receive before you ask an abstract question. Otherwise, you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

I think that the giraffe-in-the-refrigerator joke can be turned into a reasonable discussion starter for IT hiring, but only if it’s presented properly (so that the applicant understands that you’re not a complete loon), and if the question is asked in such a way as to address a very specific function of the job. For example:

For a helpdesk tech: A novice user is on the phone, complaining that she’s unable to fit a multi-gigabyte database file onto a CD-R so that she can take her data to a different office. She’s mad atyou that ‘the computer doesn’t work.’ Please pretend that I’m the angry user, and explain the problem to me using (as a silly metaphor) how her file problem is like trying to stuff a giraffe into a home refrigerator. 

For a software developer: The requirements team has sent you a design document for a zoo app that requires you build a data validation solution to track the current size of all the animals in their collection, and to provide the zookeeper with up-to-the-minute information about the capacity all of the animal carcass storage refrigerators on their compound. The intent is for the user to know, at any given moment, should an animal die in the zoo, which is the nearest fridge to the site of the death that will hold the dead animal. How would you go about structuring this process?

For a cybersecurity tech: The CFO just called. Wilkins in accounting has gone berserk in the office, claiming that ‘aliens have placed a giraffe in this refrigerator.’ While the PC talks him off the ledge, we need you to swiftly isolate all of his systems access, figure out what he’s been doing on the network, forensically image his PC and smartphone, download all his voicemails, and lock him out of the buildings’ key card swipe systems. Tell me how you’ll go about it, and in what order. Then explain why you chose to do it that way. 

The alternative method of getting some value out of this silly joke is to be forthright about just how silly it is: This is a meaningless question that can’t have a ‘correct’ answer. I’m asking it specifically to learn how you approach solving ridiculous problems, since we get some reallystrange user requests. If I asked you ‘how do you put a giraffe in a refrigerator?’ how would you attack the problem? And please don’t say ‘slap the user,’ because we’re not allowed to do that.

It should be obvious that I’m not a fan of ‘gotcha’ questions at all. I like difficult questions, and I adore entertaining questions. That being said, I believe quite strongly that any question asked in a job interview ought to have value for both parties (both for the interviewer and for the candidate). If a question can’t reveal anything meaningful, then it really has no place in the interview.

Lastly, it’s entirely possible that a silly question like the giraffe puzzle will tell you all you need to know about the potential employer. It may demonstrate an unacceptable level of cluelessness, and may indicate that it’s not a place where you’d feel fulfilled. When situations like that arise, it’s sometimes necessary to probe the interviewer to validate your suspicions.

In that exact vein, one of the posters on thegiraffe forum took umbrage with the question and went on the attack. Consummate smart-arse John Benfield from New York suggested that the optimal answer to the giraffe-in-the-fridge question should be: Rip the flesh from it with my teeth, break the bones with my bare hands and shovel the resulting slush into the fridge using the hollowed-out skulls of my enemies.’ [6] I read John’s post and laughed until I could barely breathe. Had he answered thusly with us, it would be graded as an ‘excellent’ answer; This fellow would likely fit in just fine with ourcorporate culture – he recognized that the question is inherently silly, and refused to demean himself by playing along.

Along those lines, I sat an interview for a technical infrastructure team leadership job a few months back where the interviewer started asking me the old ‘three light switches’ puzzle question right out of the software developer’s playbook. I interrupted the fellow and asked him why he was wasting our time with silly logic games. When he couldn’t articulate a reason, I told him to bin the question and move along – as a direct result, I was sent forward to a second interview … for a higher-level position. [7]

Time is valuable. You have precious little of it with which to evaluate a potential new team member. Don’t squander it.

[1] Probably more so these days since I’m on the other side of the interview table, trying to decide where I want to plant my flag next. If something in this column sparks your interest, you can skim my CV over here at LinkedIn. Or contact me directly. Or come attend my session at the European Information Security Summit in London this coming February.

[2] Who shall remain nameless, at the gentleman’s request. I prefer to get people’s permission first before I’ll write anything that might identify them.

[3] See [2]

[4] To anyone under age 25, no – the 1980s are not what historians mean when they refer to the ‘Dark Ages.’ They were the end of the ‘Disco Age,’ which was much, much worse.

[5] That’s an actual quote from Ogg’gggol, the extra-terrestrial rutabaga from Greg A. Vaughn’s outstanding book ‘The Wake of the Watcher.’ Rated five stars by me, in no small part because it features an extra-terrestrial rutabaga. Okay, technically it’s a ‘Cerebric Fungus Oracle’ (see pages 51-52), but everyone around here simply refers to it as a ‘malevolent vegetable.’

[6] Attributed with permission.

[7] I haven’t accepted an offer yet. I’d dearly love to interview with a UK-based company, just to see how different the process is between the USA and the UK. If you’re interested in test-driving a Texan, feel free to skim my CV over here at LinkedIn, or to contact me directly.

Keil Hubert

Keil Hubert

POC is Keil Hubert, keil.hubert@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert. You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store. Keil Hubert is the head of Security Training and Awareness for OCC, the world’s largest equity derivatives clearing organization, headquartered in Chicago, Illinois. Prior to joining OCC, Keil has been a U.S. Army medical IT officer, a U.S.A.F. Cyberspace Operations officer, a small businessman, an author, and several different variations of commercial sector IT consultant. Keil deconstructed a cybersecurity breach in his presentation at TEISS 2014, and has served as Business Reporter’s resident U.S. ‘blogger since 2012. His books on applied leadership, business culture, and talent management are available on Amazon.com. Keil is based out of Dallas, Texas.

© Business Reporter 2021

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