Mash's Musings

My favorite interview question

Published Jan. 23, 2022

Interviewer: So, what's your deal?

Simple. Profound. And most importantly, unexpected. Those are the reasons why, of all the interview questions I've come across, this is my absolute favorite. For the record, I certainly don't think this is the best interview question (I still don't really know what signal this would provide about the competency of a software engineer) but this question has certainly lingered with me the most, and provided the basis of many interesting conversations.

For context, this was only portion of a gauntlet of highly unorthodox interview questions a friend was recounting after a brutal on-site at Palantir in 2017. At the time, Palantir was not the r/wallstreetbets meme stock it has become, but instead a mysterious shadowy organization that seemed to be on the cutting edge of applied machine learning and Big Brother conspiracies. And it seemed that this mysterious organization had a touch of Kantian humor in its interview process.

The elegance of this seemingly farcical question is the inability to take it at face value. There is no obvious answer, no rehearsed STAR-format story you can regurgitate, no way to pander to what you think the interviewer might want to hear. Given the force of such a question, the conversation is likely to continue as it did with my friend:

Friend: Uhh... What?
Interviewer: Assume I've read everything on your resume so don't bother covering any of that. What's your deal?

With your attempt to get some clarity foiled and your hope that there was a misunderstanding crushed, you're left again with the looming question: "What's your deal?" For most people, I think the interview ends there. This is not a question that many people have ever considered for themselves and not one they are equipped to tackle in the stress of an interview. I suspect the first part of this interview is simply to assess whether the candidate can even muster any sort of self-reflective response, regardless of what the answer may be.

For the rest, this question hits an existential nerve. Why are you sitting in this interview room in the first place? And what are you hoping to get out of it, out of life? And how can you possibly try and capture this in a few minutes?

I have thought about this question many times over the years and still find it fascinating. It comes to me every time I find myself questioning the meaning of work or the fulfillment derived from it. This post is not about my answer, I'll save that for another day or an in-person conversation — this post is to make you consider this question for yourself. After all, if we can't answer a question so simple, then what is our deal?