An Interview Question

A little over two years ago, I was doing a lot of interviewing. It’s what you usually have to do to get a job. One of the things that I’ve always been encouraged to do, but usually didn’t, was ask questions of my own. Normally when recruiters tell you to do this, they mean to make sure you ask about the office culture and management style. But I started surprising my interviews with a question they didn’t expect, much like how they try to catch potential hires off guard with things like “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, or “Tell me something about yourself that we might only learn after working with you for a year.”, or “What would be your spirit animal?” The question I ask is:

How will the work I’ll be doing make the world a better place?

For nine and a half years, I worked at one company. For the first seven and a half, I stayed because I could see, on a daily basis, how the work I was doing made the world a better place. For the last two, after the company was sold to a much larger entity, I was walled off from seeing how my work made the world a better place.

You might be asking, “Where did this guy work?” I worked at a company that made, primarily, an automated answering service for apartment communities.

Now you are asking, “How does that make the world a better place?” You see, as the people interviewing me stammer to answer my surprise question, they’re probably thinking too big. The software I wrote wasn’t feeding the hungry, or spreading world peace, but it was making the work and lives of the people who used it better. As their answering machine, we replaced a physical device with limited storage – we could keep their messages for years. And when residents called in after hours with a maintenance issue, our automated service got their message and then automatically called the people on the schedule. Then we’d conference the two together, recording the call, eliminating many he-said-she-said claims of who was rude to who. We offered tracking of the maintenance problem, so that the manager could be sure work was getting done, and maintenance workers could be sure to get paid. We offered a notification system for the residents, so they could be alerted by phone, email, or text about things going on at their community – pool parties, parking lot paving, etc. And for the office they could send those messages, and get confirmation that they were delivered. And more. And every day I could drop in and listen to our customer service department on calls with our customers, solving problems, training them to use the software, and hear them singing our praises. Every day I got a little glimpse of how the work I was doing was making things better for the people who used the software.

Until the new bosses took over, and did what a lot of companies do: they moved development into it’s own cave, away from everyone else. No more contact with customers, no more contact with customer service – except through tickets entered into the tracking system and filtered through committee by project owners. I lost all visibility to the good my work did, and became completely mired in problems. Every day I was faced with a list of things that were broken and new challenges to solve. In the long run, it was demotivating. “Why should I fix this? Who is going to notice? Who asked for this feature?”

Back to the interviews…

Some of the people I’ve asked this question to have completely and utterly failed. Either because their company is just like the one I left, where developers are in the dark, or because their company doesn’t make the world a better place.

One example, and I won’t name names, was a company that made medical billing software. I asked my question and he had no answer, so I prodded.

“Does the software assist in some way that leads to better care for patients?”
“It doesn’t help the doctors provide better care?”
“Not really.”
“So, what exactly is the main function of your software?”
“Well, it helps doctors use the right codes to maximize billing to insurance companies.”
“So that people get the correct treatment?”
“No, the treatment is unrelated to the billing. This software just maximizes the billing for insurance.”
“So, like a guy comes in sick, and normally the doctor would bill for the office visit.”
“Yes, and our software would alert them that they should be billing everything in the visit separately. Did he perform a physical? Did he take temperature? All the things within the visit, so that the office can maximize the billing for the insurance company.”
“And they need to do this because it allows them to provide care for uninsured people or something?”
“I don’t know about that. We just maximize the billing for the insurance company, so the doctor can collect more.”

I was … unsatisfied … with that answer. So when they offered me the job, I turned it down.

Asking this question was dangerous. I got the feeling that after I did, and they couldn’t answer or just straight up admitted that their work didn’t do anything to make the world better, I was removed from consideration. But where I didn’t care, you might. If an interviewer were willing to drop me because of that question, I probably didn’t want to work there anyway.

So, did I end up getting a job that makes the world a better place? Yes, viewed from a certain angle. We provide software/service that is usually reserved for large enterprise type customers to companies with much smaller footprints much more affordably. And for now, that’s good enough.

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