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How to Answer Google’s Hypothetical Questions (Transitions & Space)

google interviews Jun 28, 2022

Two items will help you to have more success when answering hypothetical questions in a Google interview: transitions and space. I work with many clients who struggle with these two areas. If you are also struggling with these concepts, you should find this article helpful. We’ll cover why transitions and space are so important, as well as how to deal with an aggressive interviewer.

Item #1—C.F.A.S. Method

I talk a lot about the C.F.A.S. (Clarify. Framework. Assumptions. Solution.) method on my blog and in my videos. This is a proven approach to answering open-ended/hypothetical questions that are common in Google interviews. Here is a quick review of the process, and then we will go through them step-by-step in relation to transitions and space:

  •   Clarify—Ask clarifying questions to gather important data
  •   Framework—Focus on the key items and concepts needed to solve
  •   Assumptions—Make specific role-related assumptions about the scenario
  •   Solution—Solve for one key concept at a time

Item #2—The What

Let’s start with the transitions. These are the statements you make throughout the C.F.A.S. method. They are the glue that connects everything together as you present your response. Good transitions will help you create better flow. They will also lead and guide you from one step of the process to the next, and this allows you to focus on your core strengths.

Transitions are the yin, but we also need the yang. This is where space comes in. You’ll need to build in the appropriate amount of space after your transitions. More specifically, we’re talking about space in the form of silence. You’ll want to allow your interviewer to speak and contribute valuable data that will benefit you during your answer. If they want to change directions, you are giving them the space to guide you. After all, it’s always good to talk about what they want to talk about!

Item #3—Clarify

There are numerous transition statements you can use during the clarification stage. Typically, the first transition is to let the interviewer know that you are going to ask clarifying questions:

“There are a few items that I would like to clarify…”

Ask 1-2 questions and then pause. You’ll need to see if you have an engaged audience and see if they are going to respond or not. After the first two questions and pause, you will want to transition to grouping your questions: 

“A few additional questions I have are…” 

Once you’ve completed your questions, you will want to ask your interviewer (Sue): 

“Sue, can you clarify any of these items for me?” 

Here, you will take a pause for 3-5 seconds. It may feel very uncomfortable, but you are building in space for Sue to respond and this is important. You just threw a lot at her, so don’t rush. You will also want to read her body language and gauge if she is going to answer or not. If it’s clear she isn’t going to respond to your questions, then move on and keep the interview flowing.

Item #4—The Framework

The transitions before and after the framework may be the most important. Before starting the framework, you want to use a really casual transition: 

“A few items we might want to focus on are…” 

“Some concepts we should explore are…”

“In order to solve, a few items we may want to discuss are…”

You don’t need to build in any space after this statement. You can just dive right into listing out your framework concepts. Be succinct in this stage. Think 30 seconds or less to cover the items that you feel will best represent your strengths. After this, you will use the following transitional statement:

“Sue, I think we should start by focusing on X, but is there another area you want to discuss?”

Again, this is another place for a pause. You just stated a number of key concepts. Give your interviewer some time to decide if she wants to switch up your direction or not. She typically will not, but you still want to give her the space in case there is a more important concept she really wants to cover instead.

Item #5—Assumptions

In this part of the C.F.A.S. method, your transitions will help keep you much more organized and engaged with your interviewer. Here, the transition may sound something like:

“Okay Sue, if we’re going to start by focusing on X, let’s make a few assumptions…”

Again, you can dive right into these assumptions and then you’ll have another transition statement after:

“If we’re going to take those assumptions and focus on X. The first step I would take is…”

These transition statements help maintain a good flow within your answer. In addition, you have just mentioned the key framework concept multiple times. It connects your interviewer with your desired focus area and will also help keep your brain focused on this one important item. A very common failure point for interview candidates is trying to solve everything at once. This method allows you to stay focused on what matters most.

Item #6—Solution

One of the most common missteps that happens at the end of a solution is that there is no transition statement. Your solution transition is critical. You will present your solution, ideally within two minutes or less. Then, you will instantly make your solution stronger by saying:

“Sue, I think it will be super interesting to dive more in depth into concept A or B. Or, we could go back to one of those original concepts I mentioned and talk more about C. Is there one area that you prefer?”

You are opening up the possibility of digging deeper into concepts that have already been introduced (this makes it easier for your brain), and you are opening up the opportunity to discuss another framework concept (one of your strengths) in more detail. Those initial framework concepts you discussed were important, so you don’t want to ignore them. 

You can also take another approach:

“Some of those initial concepts I mentioned might be worth exploring further, such as A, B or C.”

This transition statement should be used when you feel as though you have exhausted the concepts you have just discussed in your first solution, and you want to move onto another subject.

Item #7—Interviewer Adjustment

There are maybe 15-20% of interviewers who will shut you down right at your first clarifying transition statement. They make it clear they aren’t going to answer any of your questions. In this case, you are still going to follow your process and use all the same transitions. The main differences are that you will remove the spaces for interviewer responses and you will avoid the questioning components.

State your clarifying questions more as your thought process as you work through the problem. After you present multiple frameworks, you simply pick which one to focus on and then go through your assumptions and solution. The interviewer is not going to contribute, so you have to keep your answer flowing as you work through each stage on your own. Then, when you get to the end of your first solution, you can use the transition statement and build in space. 

To watch my full video on this topic, view below.

You can also follow my YouTube channel, blog and Practice Interviews for more interview coaching resources and tips.

Jeff H. Sipe

Jeff has interviewed over 1000 people in his career and previously spent five years working at Google headquarters in Silicon Valley. You likely found Jeff through YouTube and you will find the same level of dedication in his one on one practice interview sessions.

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