What you will learn from a toaster in a spaceship

“How would you design a toaster in a spaceship?” It’s one of my favorite questions as an interviewer.

Why?

Well for starters, I get to watch the candidate’s face change, sometimes dramatically. She could smile, or show sign of contempt. It usually depends on how the interviews have been going for the candidate up to that point…

Regardless, I believe it’s a good question for testing the candidate’s thought process.

The conversation typically goes down like this:

Candidate: (quick thinking on his feet) I would color it pink.

Me: Pink? Odd choice for an appliance, but okay. What else?

Candidate: Uh, I… let me see what I need to consider here. Does the toaster need to be bound to the shuttle wall to prevent it from floating?

Me: Good question. I don’t know anything about spaceships. You’re the NASA contractor. By the way, what form of energy is required to power the toaster? How to prevent risk of fire or explosion?

Candidate: Right! We also need to deal with… (goes on to list a few more things before I intervene)

Me: OK, seems like we have a few design considerations. How do you go about figuring this out? What’s your process?

Candidate: (shifts gears and begins to describe the process to work with NASA to get this done) Well, I’d start with a discovery meeting to kick off the project at NASA. I’d invite, uh, the spaceship engineer responsible for…

Me: Got it. Let me summarize what we’ve got so far.

You started off listing factors to consider when designing the toaster — and you were on a roll for a good few minutes there — but then you took a step back and described the process at a high-level, including at what point we would be discussing those factors and with whom. Good job there.

Candidate: Thank you.

Me: Let me ask you though, did you ever wonder why NASA would want to design a toaster for use in the spaceship? Why on earth do they need a toaster?

Candidate: Oh… I just assume the astronauts want toasted bread up there…

Me: Well, the reason I threw you this curveball question is because I wanted to make a couple of points:

1. The “Why” is the most important question when building a product.

Why should it exist? What’s its raison d’etre? Because sometimes the solution the customer has in mind may not be the best way to solve the problem.

Henry Ford was solving the problem of getting from point A to point B faster. If he had asked the customer, he said, “they’d just say they want faster horses”.

2. Asking “Why” is a way to make sure you’re working on the most important things.

At a startup, time and resources are limited so prioritization is key. While doing what is asked makes someone a good soldier, having a conversation about priorities creates clarity and alignment.

Me: Thanks for coming in. You’ll hear from us soon.

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