Recently, I had a job interview at a big Silicon Valley company for a senior software developer/R&D position. I had several technical phone screens, an all day on-site interview and more technical phone screens for another position later.

The interviews went really well, I have a PhD and working experience in the area I was applying for yet no offer was made. So far, so good. It was an interesting experience, I am employed, absolutely no hard feelings about this.

Some of the interviewers asked really detailed questions to the point of being suspicious about new technologies I have been working on. These technologies are still in development and have not come to market yet. I know some major hardware/software companies are working on this too. I have had many interviews before and based on my former interviewing experience and the impression some of the interviewers left behind, I know now all this company wanted from me is to extract some ideas about what I did in this field. Remember, I am referring to a R&D position, not the standard software developer stuff.

Has anybody encountered this situation so far? And how did you deal with it? I am not so much concerned about "stealing" ideas but more about being tricked into showing up for an interview when there is no intension to hire anyway. I am considering refusing technical interviews in the future and instead proposing a trial period in which the company can easily reconsider its hiring decision.


first, vet the interviewer - are they in a competing field? why are they interested in you?

second, refuse to answer any question that goes beyond the general/common knowledge of the field, on non-disclosure-agreement grounds (politely)

third, expect some level of giving them 'free advice'; but cut it off after (say) 3-5 minutes.

fourth, take control of the interview as soon as you can, to make sure that your questions get answered. Since you are interviewing from a position of strength it is important that you understand how you might fit in the company culture, what would be expected of you, where they are at currently with their R&D efforts, and so on. You're interviewing them as much if not more than they are interviewing you.

good luck!

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    +1 You're interviewing them as much if not more than they are interviewing you. This is especially true in mark's case. – George Marian Nov 11 '10 at 16:53
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    There are any number of reasons why someone may take you down this path. One of those is to find out just how you'll handle their sensitive information during and after your employment with them. – Ross Patterson Nov 12 '10 at 17:59

If you're technically adept and you put your career in play, you may run into slime, silliness, and/or shenanigans.

While I haven't had a bogus interviewer try to pick my brain for proprietary information, here are some of my less savory experiences:

  • A potential consulting client asked me to come do a sales pitch, so I flew on my own dime as a deductible marketing expense. When I arrived, the client's VP said he just wanted to interview me for a job, and the putative consulting was a ruse to avoid paying for my travel.

  • A client asked me for a proposal, which I submitted. A few days later, an Indian outsourcing firm submitted a word-for-word identical proposal, except for lower pricing. Did I mention the procurement manager had ties to that firm?

I've done a lot of interviews, and I'd guess 90% are legit, 9% are silly-but-honest wastes of time, and only about 1% involve that kind of dishonesty.

What's silly-but-honest? In the late 80s, a bioinformatics firm halted an interview for a job to write software for a DNA sequencer when I remarked about having done my grad work in organic chemistry and knowing a lot about their field. They explicitly did not want their programmers to understand DNA sequencing. Aside from the stupidity of such a policy, somebody must have missed the large parts of my resume that referred to my education and prior career as a research chemist.

I am considering refusing technical interviews in the future and instead proposing a trial period in which the company can easily reconsider its hiring decision.

Almost no Silicon Valley company will accept this. In my experience, most of them would rather not get work done than permit telecommuting, and what you're suggesting is far more radical.

Instead, I encourage you to be more philosophical, accept that some percentage of your interviews will be bogus, and laugh when they are. Oh, and go post about the dishonest interviews on anonymous-reporting site glassdoor.com.

  • Did the DNA company give any reason why they explicitly did not want their coders to have relevant domain knowledge? That sounds really backwards to me... – Mason Wheeler Nov 12 '10 at 0:21
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    @Mason Wheeler: Yes, I thought my experience would have been a huge plus. When I asked about the policy, the software development manager mumbled nervously about wanting people to write user interface code to a spec and not bother the chemists. With a couple decades more experience, I'd guess it was most likely his personal policy, not an official company policy. The chemists and biochemists understandably had most of the influence in the company, and perhaps he was afraid having one of his programmers getting buddy-buddy with them would undermine his position. – Bob Murphy Nov 12 '10 at 0:38

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