3 Interview Questions for Picking the Right People


3 Interview Questions for Picking the Right People

If you need to interview people, what are the key questions to ask when you’re interviewing someone?

In How to Run Successful Projects III: The Silver Bullet (3rd Edition), Fergus O’Connell suggests using three basic questions during the interview to help you evaluate your candidates.

3 Questions to Ask When You Interview

The three questions that O’Connell suggests are:

  1. What have you done?
  2. What do you want to do?
  3. What are you like?

1. What Have You Done?

The question tells you about the candidates past experience and qualifications.  O’Connell says you can find out more on this by asking:

  • What was the greatest moment of your life?
  • Tell me the three things you’ve enjoyed doing most in your life?
  • What was your biggest setback?

2. What Do You Want To Do?

This is the key question.  Ideally you find somebody who is passionate about the work.  O’Connell suggests asking:

  • What do you definitely not want?
  • If you could pick any job in the world what would it be?
  • How would you like your career to go?
  • What drives you?
  • Are you a task-oriented or people-oriented person?
  • What do you do in your leisure time?
  • What would someone else say about you — a former boss?  It almost doesn’t matter who it is — it’s just that if the person is hanging tough on this question, you need to get an answer.
  • How hungry are you for the job?

3. What are You Like?

This helps you get a feel for their personality.  O’Connell suggests asking:

  • Describe your personality.
  • Are you the kind of person that if I ask you to do a job I can regard it as done?
  • What strengths and weaknesses would you be bringing to the table?
  • Say something negative about yourself.
  • What do you like to read?

Key Take Aways

I know using three questions seems oversimplified but I’ve used variations of these questions with a lot of success.  Granted you need to know what you’re looking for, but these questions definitely help bring out some of the most important aspects of whether somebody is a fit.

Knowing their past experience can be an indicator of capability and skill level.  Knowing what they want to do can help you understand motivation. Knowing what they are like can help you anticipate whether they’ll be a good fit for the team.

At the end of the day, I don’t think an interview can replace first-hand experience so ideally you get to try them on the job before you buy, such as in a contract position.

Image by xlanrendujia.


  1. Hi J.D.

    These are great questions, as are the variations. I think it’s always best to ask open ended questions.

    Asking someone what their weaknesses are, can be an eyeopener (if they are being honest).

    I’ve also found that hearing them out, can reveal a lot. A lot of times without knowing they begin to show their true personality and give you more information than your originally asked for. If someone starts telling me stories about their previous company (and I feel the information should have been kept confidential), a red flag goes up, and I know they have “loose lips”.

    We have had past employees who gave us all of the right answers, but when it came time to work, they didn’t walk their talk. When that happens, it’s best to cut the cord and send them on their way.

  2. Hey Barbara

    You reminded me that the most important thing to try and tease out in an interview is values.

    Conflict in styles is OK, but conflict in values is tough.

  3. These are great questions. We all no one is perfect, I always like to ask what skills they would like to improve on as well.

    When taking on a new business partner I ask myself if this is a person I would like to go on vacation with:~)

  4. J.D.

    All three are great. You can add one more question,

    Why you think you are the best person for this job?

    This makes them speak from their heart. While they speak, seeing their facial expressions and body language can reveal great deal about their confidence and personality.


  5. @Brandi — good test! I use a similar “would I want to have lunch with them?” test.

    @Shilpan — very good point! There’s a lot to be said for confidence. I’ve seen a high correlation between confidence and competence over time. If somebody shows confidence in why they think they’re the best for the job, this can be very telling. More importantly, if somebody is not confident in their own ability, why should I be?

  6. J.D.

    “I’ve seen a high correlation between confidence and competence over time.”

    I’m surprised to hear that. I’ve found zero correlation, at least among engineering/ maker/ technical positions. I believe there could be correlation in leadership-focused positions.

    The more you know the more you realize how much you don’t know. Humility and confidence are not mutually exclusive. However, many of the best developers I’ve worked with would not appear confident in an interview setting.

  7. @ Al — It’s a subtle distinction but I don’t mean confidence in what you know — I mean confidence that you’ll figure things out or find a way forward.

    I think my experience matches yours, but I would say it like this … the developers I know with great competence, don’t necessarily have great self-confidence, but they do have great confidence in their ability to solve problems … throw a problem their way, and they forget about themselves as they fully engage on the problem.

    Of course there are always exceptions, but I do think the key is to separate confidence in ability to tackle something from projecting self-confidence.

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