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Directions

Level 17

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My wife called me for the third time, and I could hear that she was working hard to remain calm but was undeniably at the end of her rope. She had missed the freeway exit. For the third time. And was going to be late for our lunch date. Could I PLEASE tell her JUST ONE MORE TIME what the exit name was?

We were in Switzerland. The company I worked for had moved us there just a week earlier, and my wife was meeting me so we could have a quick lunch and then go house hunting. I told her, again, that the exit was "sheb." Since this was our third time on the phone, I was beginning to doubt myself. Did I have the exit name wrong?

And that's when it hit me. My wife's second language is Spanish. I, on the other hand, learned French growing up. For those unfamiliar with linguistic differences, Spanish is a delightfully phonetic language. It is almost impossible to misspell a word in Spanish, presuming you know how to say it out loud. French? Not so much. I had been telling her to get off at the exit named "sheb," because my French-speaking brain never gave it a second thought.

And how do you spell "sheb" in the French-speaking part of Switzerland? (Answer: "chexbres")

I learned something that day about how I process and communicate directions, regardless of the language. Those lessons continued for the duration of our stay. Of course, distances and speeds were measured in kilometres. But it turns out the Swiss don't hold much stock in street signs. Roads operate as a network of roundabouts pointing to various villages. Getting from place to place means knowing you are going from Lausanne to Crissier to Pully to Renens. It's a far cry from "turn north at Elm and Wadsworth."

Directions, it turns out, are an incredible way to find out how someone thinks, and how they might work (both as an individual and within a team). Not just in terms of geography, but in other areas as well.

From time to time during my IT career, I've been on the other side of the desk, evaluating people we wanted to hire.

I discovered a few truths early on.

             

  • Everyone's background and path to IT is as unique as are their personalities, so you can never expect to understand someone's skills or level of accomplishment just by looking at how they got here.
  • Asking cookie-cutter technical questions rarely tells you anything except whether the individual on the other side of the table is good at answering cookie-cutter technical questions.
  • Questions like "tell me your biggest shortcoming" rarely elicit an honest answer (let alone foster a sense of trust or open-ness).
  • Questions that begin with "Tell me about a time when ...." are really an invitation to see if the candidate could improvise a work of fiction on the spot.
  • Asking deep technical questions usually just proves whether the candidate knows the same weird trivia about a certain technology that I know well, rather than whether they have meaningful skills to bring to the job.

After a bunch of really bad interviews, I was struggling with this issue yet again when I thought back to that day with my wife on the phone in Switzerland, and it all clicked. The next time I had a chance to interview a candidate, I threw out all the other frou-frou and tested my theory:

"Tell me how to get to your favorite restaurant."

The beauty of this question is that it's immediately obvious there's no wrong answer, and equally obvious that there's no way to "game" the system. You can't fake your way through it to give the answer the interviewer wants. You can't study a list of really good answers or crib off someone else. For the interviewer, this question also cancels out interviewer bias. Directions aren't dogmatic, and even if a candidate gives a different route to a location I know, that's not the point of the question anyway.

It's the way in which the candidate answers which reveals so much.

Do they ask clarifying questions? Things like “From here, or from your house?” or “Are you walking, biking, or driving?” or my favorite, “Are you a north-south person, a left-right person, or a ‘There's a K-mart on the corner’ person?”

Do they validate that I'm understanding their instructions? Anything from "Does that make sense?" to "Do you want a minute to write this down?"

Do they ensure that I'm even interested in going to that location? "Hey, my favorite restaurant is this weird little Thai place. Do you like Thai food?"

Do they skip all the niceties and just give me their set of directions, without preamble?

When I ask for clarification or even change the rules ("Oh, I forgot to tell you, I love public transportation. Can you get a bus to this place?") are they able to adapt?

And still, the point is that there's no right answer. I may be interviewing for a position where I need the employee to get right down to business, to avoid chit chat, to execute instructions as documented. Or I might be looking for a someone who can put themselves in the user's place, and therefore ask a lot of clarifying questions.

In the world of IT, there's an almost continuous focus on understanding where we've been, by collecting and analyzing baseline data; where we are, in terms of real time system statistics and performance metrics; and of where we're going, in terms of predictive analysis and data-based recommendations.

And maybe because of this, we can lose sight of two other data sets that are incredibly important: how we came to be here, and how we want to get to the step of our destination.

38 Comments
Level 7

well worded and very insightful! Thanks for sharing with us!

Level 13

Excellent article.  I enjoyed this one!

Level 15

Thanks for the write up Leon! very good points made.

One of my friends is a retired long haul trucker and I'm pretty sure he has every mile marker in the United States memorized. I could be talking about some place in the middle of Montana and he would say 'oh yea, at mile marker 338, I know that place'

In interviews and in real life, effective communication makes a difference.

When we interview potential new hires, there are several parts ot the interview.  All of them revolve around how well a person communicates. 

Some of that communication is a test, but it's NOT a test about "how would you design a resilient hospital-grade network" or "draw your trouble-shooting flow on the whiteboard" (which is useful to see how they draw and think).  Some of that communication we test goes towards showing how a person gets along with others, how they communicate while under stress, how they can be more universally understood, and what kind of a team player they can be if they're communication skills aren't where we need them to be.

Throw mulit-liguality in and you've REALLY got a challenge.  I know a tech in another company who has excellent network skills, but the person faces challenges with peers and advancement due to an inability to communicate effectively.  Their English has only recently been learned, and it's a hurdle they must quickly overcome to be efficient and competitive.  Thankfully they're getting lots of experience and are becoming a better communicator quickly!

When we say "draw a resilient and highly available network on the whiteboard; one that can suffer loss of any path or single point, and show how HA and resilience are accomplished in your design", we're taking away many different things.  Drawing ability, familiarity with HA concepts, recognition of single points of failure, industry resilience standards--and the ability to communicate ideas effectively.

A second example:  a friend earned a four-year degree in English and began working as a teacher, despite the fact that they don't enjoy teaching.  They took the job to satisfy their parents--who are teachers.  This person wasn't happy, and left teaching after just one year.  To my amazement a large multi-national I.T. corporate hired my friend and leveraged my friend's ability to effectively communicate.  The skills they learned in college were exactly the ones this company wanted, and soon the person was earning five times the starting salary of a teacher.  And they were much happier in the new job.

Which taught me good communications skills are valuable.  And that teachers are underpaid and under appreciated.  But that's for another thread.  ;^)

Level 12

I am honestly unsure how I would initially respond if I walked into an interview and was asked a question like that. I would certainly be caught off guard by it to say the least. Being in the midwest we have a different approach to directions and distances then most other people in the country. A lot of times we measure distance by time, not miles. We usually use landmarks as cornerstones of directions as well. The only reason I know the street name I live on is because I need to know it for my mailing address. I could not tell you the name of any other street at all in my city, or anywhere else really. I honestly do not really have a favorite restaurant either. So I would have to spend some time even thinking about that part of the question lol.

I love the directions my relatives and neighbors provide when asked how to get to a particular place.  Their answers are often couched in local and tribal knowledge, rendering them undecipherable to an outsider.  I promise, this is strictly unintentional; it's just how they think & talk--from the mind set and viewpoint of a local person.

"Well, to get to the nearest gas station, head south out the driveway and take a right where the Tuominen's barn burnt down back in 1990.  Yep, that was quite a blaze--we saw the sky lit up 'bout 2 in the mornin', and the cows up at Toivo's were makin' sucha racket it woke us up 'fore th' firetruck come by.  Didja know my Dad used ta polish the fire trucks for fifty-cents an hour back in 1960?  And he counted it good pay, too!

Anyways, the barn's gone, butcha can't miss the foundation, even if it's all covered with weeds & shrubs.  Keep goin' 'til ya come to the swamp where Ma and I slid offa the road that one winter and got goodnstuck.  Once yer there you've gone a good halfmile too far, so go back & turn where ya shoulda, 'n' head east for a good ways.

'Bout three quarter mile past the old Poplar tree that got blown down in '75 (remember how we used to climb that thing?  Man, we got all covered with white dust & wood ticks, but it sure was fun!  Donny usedta climb all the way t' the top & wave at cars, hopin' they'd drive off the road for fear he'd fall!  What a trickster he was.  How 'bout the time he FELL from the top, and took Lizbeth outa the tree on the way down?  Ha!  That was a thing!).  What?  The gas station?  What's that got to do with Lizbeth fallin' out the tree?

Huh?  Well, I'll be!  Guess I WAS givin' ya directions . . .

MVP
MVP

Great article

Level 14

Excellent.  I've long held the view that, when interviewing, there is no point in asking tricky technical questions to gauge someone's knowledge.  I know that if I don't know something I just Google it.  I'd expect someone else to do the same.  I'd much rather find out how someone thinks through a problem to come up with a plan to fix an issue. 

As for directions.  I use pubs as landmarks.  Probably because I spend so much time in them.

Level 14

There's an old Irish thing.

Q:  How do I get to X.

A:  Well I wouldn't start from here.

Level 15

My sister also provides directions in the same manner. Funny thing is she is constantly getting lost.

Level 14

Very good write up.  I'm not doing interviews in my current job.  However, I will keep this in mind for future interviews.

Level 13

thanks for the article. been asked a few strange questions over the years and I'm sure I was been brought in for interview on one occasion  just to give the interviewer some practice.

MVP
MVP

I too have given directions far too many times, that have been misunderstood. I've learned that it's the "speakers" responsibility to help others understand. Most people have the impression that what they say is correct and the listener needs to understand. If the listener doesn't understand they need to re-evaluate or try harder. Once you realize as the speaker you have that responsibility it's easier to think about things from the other persons point of view.

How many times, as a parent, have you told your child to "clean up your room." You come back later to find it still a mess and they respond "I did clean my room." Maybe they are being insolent, but maybe they just see things differently and as the parent we need to make our expectations clear and provide direction rather than just commands.

Level 14

I can certainly empathise with this.  IBM sent me out to India to train some of their people out there to audit security settings on Netware servers, eDirectory and GroupWise.  I spent three weeks training 7 people using really low level slides, notes and actual live mouse clicking.  I continually checked to see that they understood what I was telling them and all seemed good.  When I got back home (UK) I let them do the next set of checks (and did them myself too).  Their results were all wrong.  Was it my fault for not doubly checking that they understood, did they understand what I was saying but couldn't apply it, were they at fault for not speaking up and asking me to go over stuff again.  My defence is that I gave my completely non technical manager a copy of the slides and notes.  No hands on instruction at all and she got it right first time.  Maybe sometimes it IS the listener at fault.   

Level 11

I would give you the name of the restaurant and say that you can look it up on your favorite map! Not so sure I would pass that question in an interview.

Great article, adatole​, and thanks for sharing.  As I have mentioned, I was a BSA in a former life, and spent much of my time in that position asking clarifying questions.  As you can imagine, translating "geek speak" to American English (yes, there is a difference!) and vice versa can be a daunting task.  Two of my favorite things to ask clients were "What do you like about what you have now?" and "What, if anything, would you like to see different/changed?"  This can open up Pandora's box for sure, getting everything from "I want this widget to talk to this gadget and then put that on a dashboard...and oh, by the way, I need it tomorrow for my presentation to the board!" to "Just make it work; I don't care what it looks like." (That's a fun one, by the way.  Kind of gives the programmers some latitude and, as we all know, programmers with latitude can be dangerous!  Oops, did I say that out loud? 😉

I appreciate people who ask critical thinking questions because it solicits actual thinking and sometimes great responses.  None of this "I'm going to say what I think the interviewer or the programmer/analyst wants to hear" type of fluff.  The more we can dig into what our clients/customers need and want, and then get our agendas and egos out of the way and really LISTEN (we have two ears and one mouth for a very good reason!), we can get a truer feel for where folks are coming from.  As we know, there are two hemispheres of the brain that act and respond to stimuli very differently.  By asking probing questions and listening to the responses - and there are tomes written on building rapport, reading people's body language, interpreting linguistics and modalities ("I see what you're saying" versus "I hear you"), seeking to understand first, then to be understood - we will get along much better in this world we call IT.

"Up da hill, down da hollar, an' turn lef' at da Wocopep!"  (And no offense intended to sutherners...I is part one too!)

My Mother's side of our family is from the deep south, sparda963​, so I appreciate the whole "Yeah, jes go down dere a fur piece an y'all'uns'll git dere." type of directions.  When I was growing up, I used to go down to Florida over the summer and stay with my Nana and Papa.  The dirt roads, the "no street signs", yeah...brings back memories.

I remember doing an exercise in a Project Management class a few years ago where we had to stand back to back with someone and direct them on how to tie a four-in-hand tie.  It's definitely not as easy as it might seem.  You learn very quickly how good your communication skills are...or not!

Level 17

That's the best part of the question: no answer is wrong. Maybe I'm looking for someone who can avoid getting pulled into "rescue" operations when the caller/user has the tools to fix it themselves. Or someone who doesn't feel obligated to help every needy person who comes along.

Plus, even if that WASN'T the response that fit the bill, it's how you responded to my follow up that also comes into play.
"So let's say I'm from out of town, and I looked at the map but it's not making sense. Help me out so I can eat lunch."

I love to use acronyms and my wife, God bless her, is always correcting me saying "Do you want to be technically superior or do you want to communicate?"  That brings me back to reality so I have spent a lot of time checking myself and asking "Am I communicating this effectively?"  My wife and I also have this back and forth on the word "forté".  I pronounce it "fortay" and she pronounces it "fort".  Who's right?  If she tells someone, "That's not my 'forté'" and they translate that as "Oh, she doesn't have a fortified building or strategic position", is she communicating?  To adatole​'s point about his French upbringing trying communicate with his wife's second language, Spanish, there are obvious linguistic challenges that exist in foreign countries.  There are also customs/traditions/idioms in other countries that might have been hindering your students' learning.

I think to the question of "who is at fault?", it comes down to being a both/and situation, not an either/or.  If you don't mind my saying so, even though you were doing everything right (checking, asking about comprehension, etc.), there were still gaps if your pupils were not able to complete the next set of checks correctly.  It's an age-old question that has been asked in the American school systems for years: If a child doesn't learn something, who's at fault?  The teacher?  The student?  The parents?  The Superintendent?  Teachers want to blame the system, saying that there's not enough funding to get the tools they need (which, by the way, is true in many parts of the country).  Parents want to blame teachers because the parents don't have time to sit and do homework with their kids.  Students wants to blame everyone because they're not getting a medal or a trophy for just showing up at school.

So who is to blame?  The answer I found that works for me, anyway, was from a friend I met at a Tony Robbins event.  He said "Alex, just look: when you are pointing your finger at someone else, you have three fingers pointing back at you.  So who is to blame?  Majority rules!"

Having said all of that, though, I do like the words of the great Art Williams who said: "All you can do is all you can do. But all you can do is enough!"

Level 20

Sometimes people seem to interpret directions differently that's for sure!

I like the old musician's directions:

Q: How do you get to Carnegie (Royal Albert) hall?

A: Practice, man!  Practice!

"Oh, ya, shure, yew betcha, dere, Richy!  Uf da!!  Got dat Meeneesoda ting goin' dere, ya, know!  Oh, for land sakes!"  Of course, no offense intended, rschroeder​...as I have said, my wife is from Fergus Falls so I love the midwest twang.

This is so spot on it hurts when I laugh!  :'-D  When my wife and I went to Fergus before we got married, we sat around the living room at her uncle's house and I heard story after story relayed just like that.  Land a goshin!  But that's how things are done back dere...uh...there!  Stop it!! Now you got me doin' it!!  😉

The funny thing to me is that none of my friends or family speak that way, and I grew up here and have stayed here for nearly sixty years.  Yet "we" Minnesotans recognize that there ARE some folks who speak that way, and when we use their form we're not poking fun, but are opening a shared and common reference for informality.  There's a method to it that it seems many people learn, that's not "dumbing language down" or "speaking down" or denigrating those who use those forms.  It's an effective way to promote communications.

The movie "Fargo" did nothing to improve that image in the eyes of the world, and it's perhaps fair to say most Minnesotan's would rather tease themselves than have outsiders generalize about that accent and attribute it to all Minnesotans.

Level 13

The English have a word which seem to accurately describe this blog.

Brilliant!

Level 15

Wow Leon, a lot of dialog on directions. You always do great write ups and I would love to hear what you have your compass set on!

Level 14

I spent two weeks in Plymouth Minnesota on a training course and didn't notice anything unusual about how people spoke.  I had a great time and everyone was very pleasant.  Then again I have quite a strong accent (or maybe everyone else has and I'm the only normal person).

Level 14

You are correct.  The accent above the e means you pronounce it.

Level 10

Q: Where's X

A: That direction

Q: How far is X

A: Depends which way are you going

Q: How far to X

A: About 20-30 Mins

The English also have something else that is, um...:

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Level 13

Great post adatole​.  The directions illustration is spot on.  I think one of the most important skills you can learn (and it takes a lot of time and deliberate effort) is to be able to communicate (translate might be a better word) what you know to anyone you need to communciate with so that they actually understand.  Of course, you do have to ask clarifying questions to make sure they actuall did understand.

Level 8

This is a great write up, adatole ! I love the out-of-the-box questioning during an interview, this is great advice. Some of the bullet points you mentioned made me reflect back to some challenging times on the other side of the interview desk. Yikes!

Is that like Han using a linear measurement as a measurement of time?  "It's the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve 'parsecs'."

Level 14

No because Han was referring to the fact that he took a shortcut through the supposedly unnavigable Pit which was an asteroid belt near The Maw.  The normal journey would be to travel around The Pit making it a much longer journey.  He took a shorter route so made the run by travelling less than 12 parsecs.  Watch the movie 'Solo' to see the journey.

Head up to Lake Wobegon country and have a coffee and a piece of pie in any little town (under 2500 population) and you'll be treated to a lovely bit of small-town Americana.  I'm thinking of any little town in Stearns County.  Holdingford (population 710) would be a great start.

They are good people, nothing "big city" about them.  Treat them honestly and speak from the heart to them; you can make a lifelong friend by listening and empathizing and sharing.

Of course, that should apply anywhere in the world, but I've seen it a lot in Minnesota.

Like you, I felt Han's boast was poorly written English, that he was confusing distance and time measurements. 

As petergwilson​ noted, Han's boast was for finding a shortcut no one had successfully taken before.

In my case, the distance from Duluth, MN to Minneapolis, MN (both are "my towns") might be said to be 150 miles.  I could drive it in 2.5 hours legally.  But, while driving no faster, if I knew a hidden shortcut that would make that 150 miles only 50 miles, I'd be able to claim I could drive the distance in less than an hour.

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Since I'm a musician, I do pronounce it "for-TAY" because that's the Italian word "loud" and that's what I'm used to.  But it appears that this is almost as bad as "Laurel" and "Yanni":

pronunciation - Is "forte" pronounced "fort" or "for-tay"? - English Language & Usage Stack Exchange

Level 9

Thanks!

Level 8

So much sense is a well written article.
there is always much more that meets the eye and there is a good chance that another person knows a different proces on how to do and activity that you know as well.
you can learn anything from anybody if you pay attention and ask the right questions .
Props to you bro.



About the Author
In my sordid career, I have been an actor, bug exterminator and wild-animal remover (nothing crazy like pumas or wildebeasts. Just skunks and raccoons.), electrician, carpenter, stage-combat instructor, American Sign Language interpreter, and Sunday school teacher. Oh, and I work with computers. Since 1989 (when you got a free copy of Windows 286 on twelve 5¼” floppies when you bought a copy of Excel 1.0) I have worked as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. Then about 14 years ago I got involved with systems monitoring. I've worked with a wide range of tools: Tivoli, Nagios, Patrol, ZenOss, OpenView, SiteScope, and of course SolarWinds. I've designed solutions for companies that were extremely modest (~10 systems) to those that were mind-bogglingly large (250,000 systems in 5,000 locations). During that time, I've had to chance to learn about monitoring all types of systems – routers, switches, load-balancers, and SAN fabric as well as windows, linux, and unix servers running on physical and virtual platforms.