Setting: Two interviewers meet in a small conference room to discuss a recent candidate interview.
Hiring Manager: That was different.
Hiring Executive: Yeah, I'm not sure what to think. Different doesn't begin to sum it up. Just out of curiosity, did the term, "Fermi Squirmies" come up?
M: It did. He spelled it out for me. F-e-r-m-i. So do you think we even need to do this? I mean - I couldn't tell if he was just like the world's smartest person or if he was just doing this as a lark, messing with us like some kind of prank he'll post in Reddit later.
E: Just to clear my head after that - I kinda need too. Let's go through the interview questions and see if we can't make sense of this.
M: Okay, first the technical questions. Those were filled out prior to the interview - I asked him about his use of json, how he integrates Swift, and his experience with mobile apps with more than a million downloads. All of those were good - matched what the recruiter told me.
E: I asked him about his motivation - he said he was looking to fix complex problems with kinder code.
M: Kinder code?
E: Yeah - he said it was simpler, easier to read, and better for younger programmers to pick up.
M: How old is he? Like 25? How many younger people does he think there are?
E: Right? And if this is how expensive a good 25 year old is, I don't want to know what a 30 year old architect would cost.
M: So it was all good for me until the "how do you think questions."
E: We'll get to those in a second, but I noticed something weird when I asked him what we do. He said, "I've read what your recruiter sent me, and looked at two videos you say explain it, and I read the website and the profiles of two of your programmers, but that doesn't really give a good sense of what you're trying to do.
M: Wait - he said what? He doesn't know what we do?
E: That's what it sound like. But then he went on. "So I went into your applications and some of your code base to see if I could understand it."
M: So he hacked us? Jesus this kid is a nut!
E: He might have. I asked him how he looked at our code base, and he sat there for a second. And then he shook his head, and said, "what do you mean? It's there on the internet."
M: It's not on the internet. Maybe for someone like him.
E: He said he pulled a number of sites down verbatim and looked at their code. And then he said, "not the queries, of course, but I could see your architecture, and ran that against basic sites to test your images and scaling and load times."
M: We should have brought the VP in. I don't know what any of that means.
E: Well, it gets worse. He told us the dual site efforts we were working on are a mistake, as in the next six months, Angular 2 would probably replace all of our efforts to run 2 platforms, which would require a code base similar - I can't really follow. He started talking about hamburgers and cards and quirks.
M: Are we missing something here? I mean - I can't tell if this is the regular mumbo-jumbo or if he's onto something new. It's a lot different than the code I used to work on.
E: He seemed competent, and tested off the charts, but I can't see him on any of our teams. How do you manage someone like that?
M: You don't. You stick them in a room and hire a translator who's half Vulcan.
E: He finished explaining what he did, and then he sat back. I didn't say anything for a moment, and then he looked across the table at the interview form. He says, "I guess it's time for me to play the Fermi Squirmy."
M: He didn't tell me that until after the questions, but let's get to them. So I started with the bathrooms in Cowboy Stadium...
E: Bathrooms? That's where they're supposed to guess how many you need of each, right?
M: Yeah. So he says, "I'd call three stadium owners in the league and ask them how many bathrooms they built. And then I'd ask them if they would have added more or less if they were starting over, than I would have added 25% for both men and women."
E: Really? That actually sounds like a really good answer.
M: Wait until you hear the reasoning. He said, the fastest way was to call people who did it before. You ask them how they would correct it to see if their lines are too long. And then he said you add 25% more because bathrooms are cheap over the long-run, but the cost of 10 minutes in line for a game could cost you as much as $500 a bathroom per concessions for every half-hour of the game. And then he said you add as many bathrooms for men as women, because women will have a longer line, but the average ticket concession for men is twice what it is for women.
M: People standing in line buy less, but they tend to go at the same time. Men have a higher concession ticket because they eat and drink more and they also buy for others. While most stadiums want to cut the lines for women, his point was that the concessions people want equal amounts so men have more time to buy more.
E: I can already see this as an article on Medium from one of our female managers.
M: I see where he was going - but no one has really answered it like that before.
E: Aren't we supposed to use those to figure out how they think? It sounds like he just wants to copy other people.
M: I asked him that. He laughed and that's when he promised he wasn't one of the Fermi Squirmies.
E: That's when he spelled it for you.
M: Yeah. He said, the question is a Fermi estimate, and the four ways to answer it include estimate with 3-4 variables, calling in expertise, questioning the interviewer for more details, and claiming it was impossible.
E: Son of a bitch. That's what he did to me.
M: He told you all four?
E: No, he started asking me questions.
M: Which one did you ask?
E: He knew the question was coming, so I asked him how many basketballs would fit in the room.
M: That's good - he can't call someone and ask that one.
E: No, but he asked questions. I wrote them down. 1) Do I have a ruler or a yardstick? Do we want this in meters or feet? Is it for the volume of the room, or just the length and width? Is it allowed to have structures, like bamboo shelves? Is the goal to get as many in as possible? Can we deflate the basketballs, or are they fully inflated? What do you call inflated? Can we move out all of the furniture and take everything off the walls?
M: He said all of those.
E: Yeah. And then he looked me in the eye and said, 3,176.
M: He said 3,176. Someone must have given him the questions.
E: They must have. He said, the room is 20 feet by 10 feet, and the ceiling is 16 feet. If the radius if each fully inflated ball is 6 inches, that's one square foot each ball can fit inside, which means 3200 balls, but you have to deduct some. You could fill the room if you have bamboo to hold each ball in place and took off the door, but the last few balls wouldn't fit because you wouldn't have a way to fill in the balls just above the door without them spilling out. You could fit that with wood hammered over the door at each level but the last twenty four wouldn't fit unless you could glue them to the ceiling, in which case you could probably get to 3196 or 3197.
M: That is a batshit crazy answer.
E: I know. But it's also, I guess, accurate? And we ask them to see how people think.
M: I just can't see him on any team. That's so disrespectful. And childish. He says our questions turn programmers into Fermi Squirmies - and until we told him which answer we'd like, it makes him look bad. How about just answer the question, dude?
E: Yeah. But I think I may stop asking these. I only get weird answers or stupid answers.
M: So this one goes into the discard pile. I'll pass it on to the recruiter.
E: Make sure to let him down easy, and tell him I'm connecting to him on LinkedIn. I wouldn't hire him, but I could see bringing him in on a project to see if we can think differently.
M: Are you sure? That seems - the guy was just a nut.
E: Yeah. You should think about this one. It's weird when you get answers you don't expect. I'll take those over someone who starts painfully walking through how many times they went to the bathroom during a game, or the one who gets offended and says it's not professional to talk about the toilet during an interview.
M: I can't stand how unprofessional people are. It's like, it's a work place here. Answer some questions and here's your paycheck.