In an interview for a big tech company, I was asked if I’d ever resolved a fight — and the exact way I went about handling it. I felt blindsided, and I stammered my way through an excuse of an answer.
It’s a familiar scenario to fellow technical job seekers — and one that risks leaving a sour taste in our mouths. As candidate experience becomes an increasingly critical component of the hiring process, recruiters need to ensure the problem-solving interview questions they prepare don’t dissuade talent in the first place.
Interview questions designed to gauge a candidate’s problem-solving skills are more often than not challenging and vague. Assessing a multifaceted skill like problem solving is tricky — a good problem solver owns the full solution and result, researches well, solves creatively and takes action proactively.
It’s hard to establish an effective way to measure such a skill. But it’s not impossible.
We recommend taking an informed and prepared approach to testing candidates’ problem-solving skills. With that in mind, here’s a list of a few common problem-solving interview questions, the science behind them — and how you can go about administering your own problem-solving questions with the unique challenges of your organization in mind.
Key Takeaways for Effective Problem-Solving Interview Questions
- Problem solving lies at the heart of programming.
- Testing a candidate’s problem-solving skills goes beyond the IDE. Problem-solving interview questions should test both technical skills and soft skills.
- STAR, SOAR and PREP are methods a candidate can use to answer some non-technical problem-solving interview questions.
- Generic problem-solving interview questions go a long way in gauging a candidate’s fit. But you can go one step further by customizing them according to your company’s service, product, vision, and culture.
Technical Problem-Solving Interview Question Examples
Evaluating a candidates’ problem-solving skills while using coding challenges might seem intimidating. The secret is that coding challenges test many things at the same time — like the candidate’s knowledge of data structures and algorithms, clean code practices, and proficiency in specific programming languages, to name a few examples.
Problem solving itself might at first seem like it’s taking a back seat. But technical problem solving lies at the heart of programming, and most coding questions are designed to test a candidate’s problem-solving abilities.
Here are a few examples of technical problem-solving questions:
1. Mini-Max Sum
This well-known challenge, which asks the interviewee to find the maximum and minimum sum among an array of given numbers, is based on a basic but important programming concept called sorting, as well as integer overflow. It tests the candidate’s observational skills, and the answer should elicit a logical, ad-hoc solution.
This problem tests the candidate’s knowledge of a variety of programming concepts, like 2D arrays, sorting and iteration. Organizing colored balls in containers based on various conditions is a common question asked in competitive examinations and job interviews, because it’s an effective way to test multiple facets of a candidate’s problem-solving skills.
This is a tough problem to crack, and the candidate’s knowledge of concepts like strings and dynamic programming plays a significant role in solving this challenge. This problem-solving example tests the candidate’s ability to think on their feet as well as their ability to write clean, optimized code.
Based on a technique used for searching pairs in a sorted array (called the “two pointers” technique), this problem can be solved in just a few lines and judges the candidate’s ability to optimize (as well as basic mathematical skills).
This is a problem of moderate difficulty and tests the candidate’s knowledge of strings and searching algorithms, the latter of which is regularly tested in developer interviews across all levels.
Common Non-Technical Problem-Solving Interview Questions
Testing a candidate’s problem-solving skills goes beyond the IDE. Everyday situations can help illustrate competency, so here are a few questions that focus on past experiences and hypothetical situations to help interviewers gauge problem-solving skills.
1. Given the problem of selecting a new tool to invest in, where and how would you begin this task?
Key Insight: This question offers insight into the candidate’s research skills. Ideally, they would begin by identifying the problem, interviewing stakeholders, gathering insights from the team, and researching what tools exist to best solve for the team’s challenges and goals.
2. Have you ever recognized a potential problem and addressed it before it occurred?
Key Insight: Prevention is often better than cure. The ability to recognize a problem before it occurs takes intuition and an understanding of business needs.
3. A teammate on a time-sensitive project confesses that he’s made a mistake, and it’s putting your team at risk of missing key deadlines. How would you respond?
Key Insight: Sometimes, all the preparation in the world still won’t stop a mishap. Thinking on your feet and managing stress are skills that this question attempts to unearth. Like any other skill, they can be cultivated through practice.
4. Tell me about a time you used a unique problem-solving approach.
Key Insight: Creativity can manifest in many ways, including original or novel ways to tackle a problem. Methods like the 10X approach and reverse brainstorming are a couple of unique approaches to problem solving.
5. Have you ever broken rules for the “greater good?” If yes, can you walk me through the situation?
Key Insight: “Ask for forgiveness, not for permission.” It’s unconventional, but in some situations, it may be the mindset needed to drive a solution to a problem.
6. Tell me about a weakness you overcame at work, and the approach you took.
Key Insight: According to Compass Partnership, “self-awareness allows us to understand how and why we respond in certain situations, giving us the opportunity to take charge of these responses.” It’s easy to get overwhelmed when faced with a problem. Candidates showing high levels of self-awareness are positioned to handle it well.
7. Have you ever owned up to a mistake at work? Can you tell me about it?
Key Insight: Everybody makes mistakes. But owning up to them can be tough, especially at a workplace. Not only does it take courage, but it also requires honesty and a willingness to improve, all signs of 1) a reliable employee and 2) an effective problem solver.
8. How would you approach working with an upset customer?
Key Insight: With the rise of empathy-driven development and more companies choosing to bridge the gap between users and engineers, today’s tech teams speak directly with customers more frequently than ever before. This question brings to light the candidate’s interpersonal skills in a client-facing environment.
9. Have you ever had to solve a problem on your own, but needed to ask for additional help? How did you go about it?
Key Insight: Knowing when you need assistance to complete a task or address a situation is an important quality to have while problem solving. This questions helps the interviewer get a sense of the candidate’s ability to navigate those waters.
10. Let’s say you disagree with your colleague on how to move forward with a project. How would you go about resolving the disagreement?
Key Insight: Conflict resolution is an extremely handy skill for any employee to have; an ideal answer to this question might contain a brief explanation of the conflict or situation, the role played by the candidate and the steps taken by them to arrive at a positive resolution or outcome.
Strategies for Answering Problem-Solving Questions
If you’re a job seeker, chances are you’ll encounter this style of question in your various interview experiences. While problem-solving interview questions may appear simple, they can be easy to fumble — leaving the interviewer without a clear solution or outcome.
It’s important to approach such questions in a structured manner. Here are a few tried-and-true methods to employ in your next problem-solving interview.
1. Shine in Interviews With the STAR Method
Situation, Task, Action, and Result is a great method that can be employed to answer a problem-solving or behavioral interview question. Here’s a breakdown of these steps:
- Situation: A good way to address almost any interview question is to lay out and define the situation and circumstances.
- Task: Define the problem or goal that needs to be addressed. Coding questions are often multifaceted, so this step is particularly important when answering technical problem-solving questions.
- Action: How did you go about solving the problem? Try to be as specific as possible, and state your plan in steps if you can.
- Result: Wrap it up by stating the outcome achieved.
2. Rise above difficult questions using the SOAR method
A very similar approach to the STAR method, SOAR stands for Situation, Obstacle, Action, and Results.
- Situation: Explain the state of affairs. It’s important to steer clear of stating any personal opinions in this step; focus on the facts.
- Obstacle: State the challenge or problem you faced.
- Action: Detail carefully how you went about overcoming this obstacle.
- Result: What was the end result? Apart from overcoming the obstacle, did you achieve anything else? What did you learn in the process?
3. Do It the PREP Way
Traditionally used as a method to make effective presentations, the Point, Reason, Example, Point method can also be used to answer problem-solving interview questions.
- Point: State the solution in plain terms.
- Reasons: Follow up the solution by detailing your case — and include any data or insights that support your solution.
- Example: In addition to objective data and insights, drive your answer home by contextualizing the solution in a real-world example.
- Point: Reiterate the solution to make it come full circle.
How to Customize Problem-Solving Interview Questions
Generic problem-solving interview questions go a long way in gauging a candidate’s skill level, but recruiters can go one step further by customizing these problem-solving questions according to their company’s service, product, vision, or culture.
Here are some tips to do so:
- Break down the job’s responsibilities into smaller tasks. Job descriptions may contain ambiguous responsibilities like “manage team projects effectively.” To formulate an effective problem-solving question, envision what this task might look like in a real-world context and develop a question around it.
- Tailor questions to the role at hand. Apart from making for an effective problem-solving question, it gives the candidate the impression you’re an informed technical recruiter. For example, an engineer will likely have attended many scrums. So, a good question to ask is: “Suppose you notice your scrums are turning unproductive. How would you go about addressing this?”
- Consider the tools and technologies the candidate will use on the job. For example, if Jira is the primary project management tool, a good problem-solving interview question might be: “Can you tell me about a time you simplified a complex workflow — and the tools you used to do so?”
- If you don’t know where to start, your company’s core values can often provide direction. If one of the core values is “ownership,” for example, consider asking a question like: “Can you walk us through a project you owned from start to finish?”
- Sometimes, developing custom content can be difficult even with all these tips considered. Our platform has a vast selection of problem-solving examples that are designed to help recruiters ask the right questions to help nail their next technical interview.