A lot of time for decent tech jobs you have to go through a phone screening process. If you suck over the phone you generally don't get a chance to show how bad ass you are in person.

These interviews, even for experienced and advanced positions, very often involve trivia style questions over basics. Unfortunately for me they're always in something I don't generally think about and didn't imagine to prepare for. With more experience with them (I haven't applied for a lot of such positions) I imagine I might get better but in the meantime...

So for example, converting some decimal value XX to hexidecimal or binary. Last time I interviewed for something I had a total brain-fart on how to actually do this. I very rarely have to care. I use hexidecimal any time I want to be associating values with bit construction and decimal when I want to think of the value as a number. I rarely convert between the two. When I do need to I just pop open the calculator and let it do it for me. It's not like it's hard or anything but for some reason I simply couldn't even remember how to do it. I told the interviewer the truth and told him I'd have a better chance to convert the other way (since it's way, way easy and still shows understanding I guess).

He then mentioned that most people struggled with that and wondered if it was some sort of age difference thing. Maybe, maybe not. I explained where I was coming from and let it at that.

But, being a phone interview he couldn't exactly tell how I'd come up with the answer. Perhaps it's perfectly legitimate to just use the tools I always do?

What do you think? If you where interviewing someone, asked a question like that, and then found out that they'd used a tool or reference to answer your question rather than do it by hand or in their head....would you be pissed off? Would you consider that dishonest or a good use of tools available to solve the problem?

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    Early programmers were physicists, electrical engineers, mathematicians ... one would just know how to do such conversion. Don't want to be a dick, but I converted decimal to binary in 10th grade. A couple of classes in hardware certainly solidified it. However, given pen and paper, one can do base conversions easily. You just need to keep dividing the number by 2, 8, 16, 5 or what have you, and keep track of the result and the remainder. That is fairly basic math, so I think this question is a good one. I have strong anti-use-calculator-be-dumb bias. Other trivia questions tick me off though. – Job Jun 14 '11 at 20:22
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    @Job: Try not doing something for 10-15 years than suddenly attempt it unprepared. You'd be surprised at yourself as you won't recall even the basics. – user8685 Jun 14 '11 at 20:29
  • Yeah, I remembered after the fact how to do it (or re-learned it...whatever) but not being something I regularly do and already being nervous... Frankly, I prefer to use the calculator anyway most of the time. Unless I can actually do it on paper faster than activating the calculator and doing it for some reason I figure why waste the time with something so trivial. My kick-ass brain is meant for more interesting things than doing long-division :P – Edward Strange Jun 14 '11 at 20:29
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    The edit to "Would it be dishonest to cheat" makes the question a trivial tautology. Yes, it is dishonest to be dishonest. Perhaps the OP can find a better wording? – Rein Henrichs Jun 14 '11 at 20:30
  • Someone beat me to it. – Edward Strange Jun 14 '11 at 20:36

15 Answers 15


Here is my universal ethics test, which can also be applied to this situation.

If there are other people involved, (the interviewer, for example,) does the idea that you might be discovered make you feel uncomfortable? If yes, then it is probably unethical enough to not do it.

  • Well, that's a reasonable starting point I think, but as with all universals it's not without its problems. Cross-cultural issues apply and basic perspective differences as well. For example, I have no problem with the 'f' word even in polite conversation. Other people do. In this case, I've got no qualms in using a tool for something when that tool's available, but others could be offended by it. Since the object is more to sell myself than to verify my own ethics, my lack of shame is probably not a good enough measure. – Edward Strange Jun 17 '11 at 5:35
  • I doubt they would be offended. The point is what they are trying to tease out of the conversation by asking the questions. The only way you will that is by asking them at the start of the call. If you are uncomfortable asking this question, then go back to rule #1. – JohnFx Jun 17 '11 at 14:03
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    This maybe a good test for job interviews, but I wouldn't apply it to things like, erm, sex. – quant_dev Nov 4 '11 at 16:55
  • @quant_dev: That's easily fixed by prefixing a phrase like "When you're wondering whether your behavior is ethical..." It's the same idea as "Would I be ashamed to tell this to my mother/father/rabbi/priest/mentor?" – Caleb Nov 5 '11 at 19:13

I've conducted many phone interviews and I frequently Google my own questions so I know if someone is looking up the answers or knows them. And yes, I consider it cheating.

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    oo google your own questions, I'll have to remember that one. – jhocking Jun 14 '11 at 20:45
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    Do you explain "no Google" beforehand? – David Thornley Jun 14 '11 at 20:58
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    How can it be wrong for an employee, especially a coder, to be trigger happy when it comes to google? – Denis de Bernardy Jun 15 '11 at 13:12
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    If I asked you to do an arithmetic problem do I need to explain that you shouldn't use a calculator? I'm not trying to see if you can type what I say into a box and read me the answer. – Christopher Bibbs Jun 15 '11 at 13:57
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    @Denis They problem isn't relying on Google for concrete technical issues (e.g. all the methods in a given interface), but I've never seen a developer sit down and Google design patterns before he starts designing a new class. Those are things you need to know off the top of your head or you'll never use them. – Christopher Bibbs Jun 15 '11 at 15:12

IMO the real issue that nobody has addressed here is the idea that the interviewer would be asking such kinds of questions, that any decent programmer would probably Google if they were unsure of something. It's akin to asking minutiae about a particular class's implementation - the question isn't testing anything other than memorization, so the question itself is worthless.

To answer the OP, I wouldn't consider it dishonest at all since in a typical work environment you would be able to make use of those "side tools" to look up the answer to that question if you encountered it during the course of a workday; I would consider it more a poor reflection of the interviewer to even ask those kind of questions when they know that in most cases it's not something you have memorized.

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    Exactly. Unless the workplace forbids the use of Google for some bizarre reason (perhaps it's an interview with Microsoft, ho ho!), why not allow interviewees to use it? If my job involved doing nothing but tasks I could solve in seconds via a Google lookup, well... I'd get a different job, probably, because I'd be bored out of my mind. Task for the day: "Describe the lifecycle of a .NET web form! No Googling, you 'orrible grunts! I expect the answer on my desk by 5!" If the job doesn't involve such tasks, why on earth would you recruit for them? – Ant Jun 15 '11 at 13:29
  • @Ant the problem from my side is that I never ask my developers "describe the Scrum SDLC" or such. I need them to know it so they'll make good decisions where appropriate. – Christopher Bibbs Jun 15 '11 at 17:09
  • +1, totally agree. They shouldnt be asking trivia questions in a phone interview. In any interview, really. – GrandmasterB Jun 15 '11 at 17:17

If they tell you not to use any assistance then don't.

One of the hidden tests they conduct with a phone interview is seeing if the person would cheat presented an opportunity and a way to get away with it. If they do then it is a no hire.

I've heard stories from people telling they heard over a phone the candidate typing in the question in google and hearing the "ding" from the Windows as the results page would show up then clicking the results through. That though additionally shows the carelessness of the candidate since he didn't think of turning off the system sounds.

Wherever the interview is going, don't lie.

  • I suppose, "Well, windows calculator tells me that it's 0x13," would make a good test. If they ask you again and say, "No more calc," then you know you're screwed if you can't answer. Personally, as an interviewer I'd find that just as good or better than one who could do it in their head...but that's me I guess. People I've interviewed for haven't been impressed when I say, "I'd ask google or XXX reference." Like I know the bigO of all the major algorithms off the top of my head :P Haven't even implemented one since college. – Edward Strange Jun 14 '11 at 20:25
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    @Crazy Eddie: That's a common problem with the interviewers. Some of them believe a good programmer must remember everything. See it as your own test for the people you don't want to work with. – user8685 Jun 14 '11 at 20:27
  • I think this one actually was OK with it but then he got hash tables in my brain and when he asked a question that's correct answer was to use a basic lookup table I said I'd use a hash table with an identity hash and enough room to hold the whole thing :P Pretty embarrassed by that answer actually. – Edward Strange Jun 14 '11 at 20:32

Only if there is an expectation that you would not do so.

Perhaps your actual question is "is there an implicit expectation that I cannot use such tools?" We can't read people's minds any more than you can. Why don't you ask your interviewer next time?


If they're faster at solving the problem with a tool than with their brains, and they admit this and demonstrate ability with the tool, I wouldn't have a problem with that. Of course, I've never worked a job where the mental ability to quickly convert between decimal and hexadecimal was critically important, so it's unlikely I'd ask such a question.

If the interviewer specifically said not to use a tool or assistance, and the candidate did, that would not be honest. If I were the interviewer and a candidate admitted they could not solve the problem without a tool, I'd ask them what would they do if they could use a tool, just to see that they have some idea in their head about how to solve the problem.


For me when interviewing I've typically tried to concentrate on the understanding of the problem, not necessarily the answer itself. So if a person used a tool or looked up the answer, then I would try and gauge their understanding of how the person/resource found that answer.

I personally believe that it's the knowledge in knowing where to look and then grasping the concept and solution provided in the resource that is more important than just being able to whip something off the top of the head. Or being able to find something that helps to provide the answer and then being able to take that resource and adapt it to what you require.

However in saying that there are probably fundamental basics that one might consider crucial for a potential employee to have knowledge of without external resource help. This knowledge I would think is specific to the job being applied for so every job might have a different set of requirements for what they expect the person to know and what they consider available for research.

So essentially I would think it's a good use of tools. However.... if you were one of those people that found everything from external resources and just copied and pasted or used word for word in discussions then I think that you would be found out at some point when it came down to the more difficult tasks.


Using tools isn't dishonest. But then, he wasn't asking you that question because he thought you did such a thing all the time. I don't think anyone would expect that you would.

You were asked that question to see your thought process when presented with a simple problem. You could have walked the interviewer though how you would write code to solve that problem. This would have told him first off, do you know basic math principals? Do you know how to write a simple loop? Can you communicate efficiently enough?

You can start off by saying "I normally use $someTool to do this, but if I had to code it myself I would...." but you shouldn't just leave it at 'I use $someTool'.


The purpose of the phone screen is to see if you have a basic level of intelligence - enough to warrant bringing you in for a face-to-face interview. If you're going to be googling the answers, then you probably aren't smart enough for the job. Maybe you are, maybe you aren't, but the general consensus among folks I know is that it is cheating. Having listened in on a number of interviews, we can even tell when you mute the phone so we can't hear you hitting the keyboard.

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    As a counterpoint, asking trivia questions that anyone with half a brain would Google the answer to if they weren't sure isn't a good way to gauge a candidate's worth; in fact IMO it reflects poorly on you as the interviewer because you're asking things that can easily be looked up. – Wayne Molina Jun 15 '11 at 12:55
  • @WayneM, would you use Google to convert, say, 0xD6 to decimal? – Caleb Nov 4 '11 at 17:38

Yes, I'd consider it cheating - and that's the reason I wouldn't ask such questions in a phone interview at all. What's the point of asking a question checking whether the candidate knows the answer if you have virtually no way of checking whether he knew the answer or just was clever enough to use Google?

But I also see this from another side: If I cheat during an interview to get the job, because the question I was asked is something I didn't know, then chances aren't that small that I won't be very happy even getting the job. The person on the other end of the phone asks the question for a reason. Maybe it's something that's really important for the job (okay, that's hardly the case for very simple examples but let's continue the thought) and when I'm sitting on my desk a month or two later that's something that's expected of me. Of course I cheated during the interview and now I'm stuck - which makes nobody happe. Not my boss, not me. Lose-lose.

Additionally how can I expect the company to trust me with decisions to be made in the job if I cheated during the interview?

No, it's the wrong thing to do (and - as said - it's the wrong thing to ask such a question in a phone interview in the first place).


These interviews...very often involve trivia style questions over basics. Unfortunately for me they're always in something I don't generally think about and didn't imagine to prepare for.

The point is to help the interviewer judge how much you know. Questions like that are meant to be random enough that there's no way you can prepare for them right before the interview, but general enough that you'll be able to answer if you have a certain amount of experience.

If you have some idea, talk it out a bit. Sometimes just saying what yo do know will jog your memory, and if it doesn't then you've shown that you know something and that you're doing your best.

If you have no idea about the answer, say so -- nobody expects you to know everything, and any interviewer will appreciate an honest answer. It's easy to tell when someone is trying to look up an answer either online or in a book. Keyboards and pages both make more than enough noise to be heard over the phone, and the change in the tone of the conversation as you shift your attention away for a moment is a dead giveaway.

So for example, converting some decimal value XX to hexidecimal or binary. Last time I interviewed for something I had a total brain-fart on how to actually do this. I very rarely have to care.

The reason you couldn't convert from hex to decimal under pressure was exactly that you don't do it very often, and when you do you use a calculator. That doesn't make you a bad person, it just means that your experience in this particular area is limited, and that's exactly what the interviewer is trying to learn about you. Will it disqualify you from the position? It might, if the job requires the ability to covert between bases in your head, but there aren't too many jobs like that. On the other hand, it's very likely that you'll be disqualified if the interviewer senses that you're not being honest with them. On that basis alone, I think it's a poor idea to use "side tools."

You did the right thing by telling the truth.


As a frequent interviewer, I can always tell when someone is googling an answer or otherwise not paying attention while doing the phone interview.

Being honest and trying to work through the problem logically will get you a lot more points. I often am looking more at wether this person can solve the problem at hand logically than if they can regurgitate some answer from a website or book.

As an aside I once worked with someone who could give you theory all day along about how object oriented programming should work etc., but he couldn't code his way out of box if he had too. I am always on the lookout for those types. I want to know that given some killer bug or problem you can apply your knowledge and solve it.


Einstein told me not to memorize anything I can't find in a book.

If I can google search it really quickly, then why not?

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    You got the quote wrong - did you look it up? – user1249 Nov 4 '11 at 17:07

Yes it's cheating, but....

I don't see anything wrong with saying something like "I don't know the answer off the top of my head, but I am fairly sure I could find the answer quickly", and then with the interviewers permission go Google to your hearts content.

At the very least, it'll show off your problem solving skills and ability to learn :)


I'm not involved in hiring, but if I was, one of the qualities I'd be looking for is resourcefulness and efficiency. My software product does not depend on the abstract capacity for knowing how to derive an answer, it relies on getting the right answer. You'd pass that test.

If I wanted to test for some more abstract ability, I'd ask the question differently, e.g. "How do you convert from decimal to binary?", or I'd constrain the environment by brining you in to do it face to face, or ask "without using any calculators or other tools..." and leave it as a question for later whether or not you were honest about it.

In any case, a decent interviewer who himself knows what he's talking about can tell canned google answers apart from understood and thoughtful answers, and if there is some doubt, can follow up with more targeted questions. If he doesn't know what he is doing and is just parroting a canned interrogation, your innate do-it-in-your-head abilities are not really being tested anyway, plus there's a whole new can of worms to consider, starting with "what would it be like working for this company?".

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