re the interview question “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”

I turned on the television and heard a sentence about expecting a question during an interview – “what did you do with your extra time during the pandemic”. I don’t know the context or if this is a common question. I certainly hope is isn’t!

Is this an illegal question?

I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know. It feels dangerously close to illegal questions though. You aren’t allowed to ask someone at an interview if they have kids. And guess what group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with young children.

Similarly, you aren’t allowed to ask if someone had COVID-19. Guess what other group of people did not have extra time during the pandemic? People with long haul COVID-19.

Is this an insensitive question?

Absolutely. Some people had less time during the pandemic. Some were upset. Some found it hard to concentrate. Some lost an immediate family member. Also, it’s none of your damn business.

Why are you asking in the first place?

I’ll assume you aren’t being nosy or trying to cleverly find out information that would be illegal to ask. And how does it help you find out that your prospective hire is now an expert in making sourdough bread. The only answer I can think of that is relevant to the job is what skills the person has learned that are RELEVANT to the job. In which case…

What could you ask instead to accomplish the same result?

“What is the last thing you learned about technology?” – this is an appropriate question to ask. I’ve asked it before the pandemic. This question doesn’t have assumptions in it about how recently you learned something. It doesn’t suggest something is wrong with you if you haven’t had time or energy during a pandemic to learn something new, you can still list something you learned in 2019.

What would be my answer

It’s hard to answer this hypothetically because it depends on how much one needs the job. Let’s assume I do and decided to answer the question in some form.

Side note: When I was interviewing for entry level jobs, I was asked “how would you handle being treated differently because you are female.” My answer was “why? is that a problem here?” (with some attitude in my tone.) I still got an offer. I declined.

“I finished writing the OCP 11 Practice Tests book with Scott, read some technical books, passed the AWS associate architect exam and served on the planning committee for the first ever JChampions conference.”

What is my honest answer

While my answer is factually true, none of that was what I did with my extra time for several reasons.

  • I would have done those things anyway.
  • I read less books in 2020 than in any of the past years I can remember. (I read tech books during my commute.) Trying to read at home, I get distracted. Most of the tech books I managed to read were when it was warm enough to sit outside.
  • I was unable to do my annual CodeRanch “JForum Day” feature for the first time in 11 years. I really wanted to do this. But I spent the finite amount of energy I had in the winter for coding/thinking on work. It wasn’t available for my extra time. So I objectively did and learned less in 2020 than in a normal year.
  • Studying for and taking the AWS exam was a mistake. I wasn’t able to retain information even in the short term. I cried numerous times trying to force myself to do so. I’ve already forgotten what I ‘learned’ and will have to re-learn it when things are better. I wish I had noticed what was going on earlier and stopped trying.
  • I spent most of my “extra time” trying to be physically and mentally ok.
  • All but one of the people I know who is comfortable physically getting together are two train rides (and over 90 minutes) away. This means it takes pretty much a whole weekend day to have any human interaction.
  • Having video/virtual contact is more tiring than real human contact. So the energy I put into trying to keep myself ok came out of my ability to do other things.

And none of this is bad. I believe expecting people to have learned and accomplished more during a pandemic is inconsiderate. Unless you believe we are going to be under stay at home orders for another year and learning during it is a requirement for your job, ask a different question!

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