Finding and hiring top talent is a challenge at any time. Thanks to a tight labor market, choosy employees, and ongoing debates about what knowledge work will look like post-pandemic, right now it’s a blood sport.
Which makes now the perfect time for Talent, a new book by economist, blogger, and noted super reader Tyler Cowen and VC Daniel Gross. The book digs into how to spot undervalued talent, and its Amazon page is packed with glowing blurbs from luminaries like Malcolm Gladwell, Marc Andreessen, and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt.
What will you find in it? In his regular Bloomberg column Cowen shared a snippet in the form of the co-authors’ pick for the best job interview question. It’s weird, but Cowen insists it’s also highly effective.
Painting a portrait through open browser tabs
Given how much time most of us spend in front of our screens these days, Cowen suggests you can learn a tremendous amount about a candidate by taking a careful look at their online behavior. And what better way to probe that than to ask a candidate: “What are the open tabs in your browser right now?”
Why is this unusual question so effective? First, your browser tabs are a real-world signal of what you’re truly interested in (as opposed to what you think the interviewer wants you to say you’re interested in). It’s revealing, but not invasive or nosey. Because you’re asking candidates to talk about their open tabs not show them to you, they can just not mention anything too personal.
“It’s not just cheap talk,” claims Cowen. “Some job candidates might say they are interested in C++ as a programming language, but if you actually have an open page to the Reddit and Subreddits on that topic, that is a demonstrated preference.”
The underlying logic here is similar to asking “What do you like to do on the weekends?” which has been recommended by several other VCs as a way to gauge a candidates’ true passions. But Cowen points out it’s harder to BS about browser tabs than it is about theoretical leisure time activities. “Hardly any applicants are prepared to talk about their open browser tabs. So you are testing for spontaneous and largely truthful responses,” Cowen notes.
What’s the right answer?
If you’re sold on the question, what are you looking for in an answer? That depends on the job. Tab abusers (like me) who frequently have dozens of tabs open simultaneously might worry that confessing to their browser chaos will count against them, but Cowen insists the right number of tabs depends on the type of job you’re interviewing for.
“I have known people who have dozens or hundreds of open browser tabs at a given time. That is a sign of curiosity and internet fluency — but perhaps also insufficient prioritization and poor organization. Depending on the job in question, it could be either a positive or negative,” he writes.
Nor does every job require a person to be ten tabs deep into scientific articles or job specific technical documents. Personal and offbeat topics can tell you important information about how a candidate thinks and approaches problems.
“When I asked media personality Megyn Kelly about her open browser tabs during a recent radio program, a bunch of them had to do with solving problems with the family dog. A problem-solving mentality is a good sign,” says Cowen, adding: “If you get a heated pitch about why a particular website is the best guide to ‘Lord of the Rings’ lore, you may have found a true nerd with a love of detail.” Whether that’s a plus for your open position is up to you.
The bottom line is that there is no right answer to this question. But there are also very few unrevealing answers. Ask about browser tabs and you’re likely to get an unvarnished look at what truly gets a person excited and how they work day to day. Which is just what you want to know when you’re interviewing job candidates.