The best companies in the world always strive to improve, at each level of the organization. Innovating and changing processes, the employees, and in particular the engineers and managers, face problems on a daily basis. Some of them are simple and won’t make your head spin, but in the most successful companies in the world, such as Amazon or Google, you will often face the unknown, having to deal with a serious issue (typically of a technical or managerial character). Needless to say, hiring managers wonder if you have such an experience, and how you handled a similar situation in the past.

In an ideal case, you should talk about a relevant problem, which means a type of an issue you can realistically face in your new job as well. If you lack such an experience, however, and do not want to make something up, you can also narrate a difficult situation you had to handle at school, or even in your personal life. At the end of the day, your attitude matters more than anything else to the interviewers. And what attitude they are looking for?

In this particular case, they are looking for your ability to simplify things. They want to hear that you can think outside of the box, and do not look only for obvious solution–which are typically complex when we deal with complex problems. On the contrary, you can come up with unexpected solutions, saving both time and resources of yourself and your employer. Easier to say than do in reality :), but let’s have a look at some sample answers, and hopefully after reading them you will know what to say in your job interview.

7 sample answers to “Describe a time when you have a simple solution to a complex problem.”

  1. I remember such a situation from my last engineering job. Facing a tricky app development task, a team of developers were stuck at one point. They were just adding new layers to the code, making the entire app more robust and complex, which isn’t the worst thing, but such an app is prone to bugs and issues, and once something gets wrong it is harder to troubleshoot it. I was overseeing the project, and I was worried. At the end of the day I knew we had to make things differently, unless we wanted to miss the deadline. And so I spent two days talking to other engineers, brainstorming ideas. Eventually I came with a simple workaround, using a functionality of an already existing app of one of our business partners, which allowed us to simplify the code of our own app, and move to the next stage of the development. It was just one of these situations when we tried to reinvent the wheel… It took me some time to realize it, and I was the only one in the team to see it, but I did see it and solved this complex issue with a simple solution.
  2. I remember one from my last managerial job in a big logistics center. Things just weren’t working well there–that’s why I got the job at the first place. The last managers tried to improve the workflow in countless ways, but they still failed to reach the productivity targets expected by the executives. They were improving many processes, but somehow they still failed to get things done. When I stepped in, instead of complicating things, I had a one on one meeting with every single employee of the place, including the janitors. With some people I talked for five minutes only, with some managers I talked for an hour. I tried to be very honest and expected the same from the people I met. After a week I came to a conclusion that the core of the problem didn’t consists in bad processes. We just didn’t have enough people in some teams to keep the workflow going, and to avoid delays. I hired two new employees and contracted three other through a staffing agency. The next month we reached the desired productivity levels and didn’t miss a single deadline. Hence I solved this complex problem, which my predecessors failed to solve in more than a year.
  3. This is my first job application, and logically I cannot recall such a situation from work. However, I can talk about a situation from my personal life. As a young man I faced depression. My parents sent me to one specialist after another, and I went to group therapy and what not. Doctors also prescribed me some medications, but deep down I knew it wasn’t a way to go, since every medication has side effects, and I didn’t want to eat pills for the rest of my life. Hence I decided to make a radical change to my diet: I stopped drinking coffee and alcohol, and I stopped consuming sugar and meat. It was a radical move, and not an easy to make in a country where they put sugar everywhere. But once I found what I could eat and drink, it was just a question of forming a habit, and getting rid of my addictions (to sugar and coffee). The changes in diet had a profound impact on both my energy levels and mental well-being. I was able to dash all the specialists and medications, and I can proclaim now that I haven’t felt depressed in years. My problem seemed complex, and people around me tried to solve it in a complex way. But my experience taught me that it is often better looking for simple solutions, and that we shouldn’t be afraid to think outside of the box. I want to maintain this attitude in my working life.
  4. The best example is perhaps my last employment at Tesla. I really tried to make things work for me there, though I wasn’t on the same page with leaders when it came to many issues. Initially I tried to convince them, coming up with arguments and presentations, trying to win them over. Looking at it retrospectively, I wasted so many hours trying to prove my point…. Eventually I realized it was not going to work, because the direction I wanted to take just didn’t get along with the philosophy of the company, and with the goals they tried to achieve with the particular product line. And so I quit. It was the simplest solution to the complex problem of my employment with Tesla. Instead of trying to change a big company, I changes something in my own life. And here I am, trying to get a job with you…
  5. In my opinion, complex problems demand complex solutions. Of course, people like to believe in miracles. Such as that the entire planet will become vegan and it will solve the climate change crisis we face right now in the world. But that’s not how things work in reality, in this world where everything relates to everything. When I face a complex problem, I try to break it down to smaller issues, to smaller problems which I can address personally, or someone in my team can, or an external provider. And then I simply address them one by one, in the right order. For an outsider it may look like we are solving simple issues, but in fact we are addressing a complex problem with a complex solution. This is how I worked in my last job, and I want to apply the same principles in my new job with you.
  6. The best example I can come up with from my young life is when I made a bet with my friend that I would run a marathon within a year. It was four years ago, I was overweight, and could not run for hundred yards, let alone a marathon. At first I thought about complex changes to my life–such as quitting smoking, changing my diet, working with a running coach, etc. But I quickly realized that I did not have time for it, and had to come up with something else. Hence I simply decided to run every day, progressively prolonging my distance, and increasing my pace. I started with one mile slow jog, and though it was very hard at the beginning, I got used to it in two weeks, and started to prolong my distance and quicken my pace. Before I knew it six month had passed, I was fitter than ever and running five miles a day. I ran my first marathon in less than four hours, and the entire experience taught me an important lesson about simple solutions to relatively complex problems–both in life and in work.
  7. I faced such an issue when writing a code for XYZ app in my present job. I knew I could address the problem we had with a loop in different ways. One was easy, and it could be done in thirty minutes, but it wasn’t a complex solution, and in later stages of the development it could actually backfire. Surely, someone else would take the bullet then, working on the later stages, or testing the app. But I did not want it to happen. So I opted for a more complex solution that took me an entire day to implement, but I knew that once we had it in place, other developers would not deal with the same problem in later stages of the project. Looking at the things from perspective, I believe I took the best action for the entire team. And that’s always my attitude: I do not look for a simple solution. I look for the best solution for the entire team, and I always try to see the bigger picture…

Ready to answer this tricky interview question? I hope so! Do not forget to check also sample answers to other tricky questions you may face while trying to get any good managerial or engineering job:

Matthew Chulaw
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