The Washington Post

Unconventional interviews lead to a better company, Appian says


Matt Calkins, chief executive, develops board games in his spare time. He is pictured here with his first two games: Magnet and Sekigahara. (Jeffrey MacMillan/Capital Business)

Company: Appian.

Area locations: Reston.

Number of employees: About 200.

Jed Fonner went through nine, maybe 10 rounds of interviews in 2002 before he was hired at Appian, a local company that sells software to businesses.

Fonner solved puzzles, drew diagrams and worked through hypotheticals.

“It was very intense,” said Fonner, a principal consultant. “There were behavioral-type questions, logic questions. I had one interview with the chief architect where all we did was brain teasers. Six or seven of them.”

In addition to puzzle-based interviews, Appian’s chief executive, Matt Calkins, personally vets all employees before they are hired. The un­or­tho­dox process helps ensure that the company is hiring the right people, Calkins said.

“It’s one of the primary ways I can shape the company,” he said. “But once we bring in new employees, we entrust them with more responsibility than any other place would.”

Here’s a sample question: You have a shape — a tetrahedron — with an ant at every vertex. At the beginning of the puzzle, each ant will walk toward another vertex. What is the probability that every ant will have made it to the next vertex without encountering another ant?

(The answer, though Calkins said he’s more interested in how the candidate tackles the problem, is 6:81 or 0.074.)

“I want to see diagrams,” Calkins said. “How quickly can you eliminate variables and simplify a complex situation?”

Tarun Abraham, who graduated from Carnegie Mellon in December and began working at Appian this January, said the unconventional interviews were a refreshing change of pace.

“It’s fun,” said Abraham, a consultant at the company. “You don’t have to worry about whether you studied this or that, or whether you know all the concepts. It’s more situational.”

The company recruits heavily on college campuses.

“We believe in hiring aptitude,” Calkins said. “It’s far more important to us than experience.”

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