I don’t know

In a previous post, I already share the common questions that get asked during an interview. However, sometimes you get a tricky question that you don’t know the answer to. I have a process to answer these questions:

  1. Walk them through my thinking process. When I get ask a question that I don’t know the answer to, I would walk them through my thinking process.
    • Question: For example, an interviewer asked me “How many cup of coffee are being sold today in Singapore?”
    • Answer: “Let me walk you through my thinking process. And let me say upfront that I don’t have the accurate statistics on top of my head. So we will make some assumptions. The statistics are easy to look up online. The point here is for you to understand how I would solve a problem. We know that Singapore has around 5.5 million people. Assume that 80% is at the coffee drinking age between 15-75 years of age. So we are down to 3.5Million people. Assume further that 1/3 of these people will drink 1 cup of coffee per day. So we are down to 1.2 Million people. Assume that 1/3 of these people will buy coffee outside and the rest will drink at home or at work, then we have 380,000 cup of coffee per day being sold in Singapore.” I would actually bring out my calculator on my Iphone to do the math. If there is a white board in the room, I would get up and draw out my assumptions on the board. Or I would draw out my assumptions on a piece of paper. The point of drawing it out on a board or on paper is to make it easier for the interviewer to follow. And by doing so, I end up looking energetic and dymanic. By the way, if you want to see the correct way of answering this question, read here.
  2.  Fall back on something I do know. When an interviewer asks a questions that I don’t completely know the answer but know part of the answer, I would highlight what I do know and focus on the impact of that event.
    • Question: “What changes to our product within last year that you like?”
    • Answer: Here I knew the company made some important changes to the products but I don’t know exactly what year. But I knew these changes were important and hence I choose highlight the importance of those changes. I highlighted two changes (instead of one) in case one of them is the accurate answer. “I thought it was fantastic when Khan Academy launched Learn Storm. Learn Storm has helped many students to discover that they enjoy Math, which could spark a life-long interest for such fundamental skill. I also thought it was helpful when Khan Academy launched in three new South Asian languages. This means million of students instant have access to world-class education.”
  3. Be honest and highlight what I do know. When an interview asks a question that I compeletely have no idea and it would be too risky to fake an answer, I would be honest and share with them that I am making some educated guesses. Your honesty will come across as genuine. Don’t risk faking an answer that you truly don’t know the answer to.
    • Question: Why is Gmail free?
    • Answer: “To be honest with you, I have not think about why Gmail is free. Maybe because most of Google products are awesome and free, so I just take it for granted. I am sure a 5 minutes Google search would review a host of reasons. If I have to take a guess, I would say perhaps Gmail is free because it is an important part of the Google ecosystem where other products are dependent on it. It coudl also be free because this is how Google can get new users, who become more dependent on Google products. It could also be free so that Google can understand users’ preferences and behaviors.”
    • In case you really can’t think of anything, direct the interviewer toward another question that you do know the answer to:  “To be honest with you, I have not think about why Gmail is free. Maybe because most of Google products are awesome and free, so I just take it for granted. I am sure a 5 minutes Google search would review a host of reasons. I do know the answer to a related question which is why Google distingush between paid search results and organic search results. The reason is to ensure that the users get the best possible relevant results. Without trust, people would not continue to use Google as a search engine.”