Why you should ask IT people to write limericks during job interviews

This past month, it was announced that the CIO of a publicly-traded company (where I just happen to work) would be stepping down in a few months. This was devastating news to me, and to many of the 200+ IT members of the company. She is an amazing CIO — someone who I respect for her strong leadership, her drive, and her intellect. When the news broke, I didn’t know what to say to her, so I avoided her for a few days while I thought about it.

And then I came up with an idea.

I decided to write her a limerick. I also asked everyone in the IT department to write her a limerick. My goal was to compile the submitted limericks into a book to present to her on behalf of her department, and to select a handful to read aloud during the upcoming semi-annual IT department meeting. I thought this would be a fun send-off for a special individual.

I believed my idea to be brilliant, because:

  1. Limericks are fun and light-hearted.
  2. Limericks are short and easy to write.
  3. There are countless examples easily found online.
  4. Limericks follow a very specific pattern. IT people like patterns and formulas, and therefore should be comfortable adhering to the simple system requirements of a limerick.

I put a plan in motion and, over the next several days, the limericks trickled in via email. By the end of the week I had received 63 limericks from 59 IT people (four people submitted two limericks). While I was a bit disappointed by the poor response rate (recall that my IT department is about 200 people), I was more surprised and disappointed by the limericks themselves.

They kinda mostly sucked.

To be fair, there were some truly outstanding submissions. One in particular was so well-written and poetic that it gave me chills when I first read it. But sadly, about 50% of them just plainly sucked.

Before you beat me up for applying such a negative value to subjective art, keep in mind that I did the math. That’s right, objective measurements can be applied to a limerick. And that’s what I did to each of the 63 that I received.

I started noticing that the best limericks were submitted by the star employees.

You may be thinking, ‘You did the math? Why bother?

Because I wanted to test a hypothesis I was beginning to formulate in my head. I started noticing that the best limericks were submitted by the star employees. Star employees get things done, win Employee of Quarter awards, and are out-of-the-box thinkers. So if there truly is a correlation, then maybe I can use limerick writing in the interview process as a possible predictor of future success. So I did the math.

To be as objective as possible, I created a spreadsheet with three columns:

  1. Column 1— Does the limerick follow the proper structural pattern? Does it have 5 lines? Does each line have a balanced number of syllables?
  2. Column 2 — Does the limerick follow the correct rhyming pattern? Do lines 1,2, and 5 rhyme, and do lines 3 and 4 rhyme?
  3. Column 3 — Do the 5 lines of the limerick work together contextually to form a story? Is it cohesive and somewhat creative?

Admittedly, column 3 is not very objective, but I was very lenient in my grading of this factor. For the most part, as long as all of the lines worked together to tell a story, then I gave a favorable score.

Column 1 is worth one point. You either get it right and earn a 1, or get it wrong and earn a 0. Column 2 is exactly the same — a 1 or a 0. Column 3, however, is worth 2 points. You can get a 2 for a creative story, or a 1 for a story where at least all of the lines work together contextually, or a 0 for a complete creative failure (which is hard to achieve).

Using this grading system, a perfect score is a 4, with 50% of the score based on just getting the structure right (i.e., following directions), and 50% for creativity (i.e., actually telling a discernible story).

Native Language is a Factor

Obviously, English is not everyone’s native language. In my instructions to the IT team members I clearly stated that they could submit their limerick in the language of their choice. And a few people did. In fact, the one limerick which I cited earlier as giving my chills was written in Spanish.

How They Did

Overall, only 55% got the structure right (column 1). But 82% got the rhyming right (column 2). When I added in the creativity column, the grade distribution came out as follows (An “A” is a 4 … an “F” is a 0).

All Limericks (n=63)

The chart shows that just under 40% of the limericks were great — a perfect score. And another 14% were pretty good. Add those two together and you can say that about half of the IT professionals (53%) in this sample can write a decent limerick. Sadly, 47% cannot.

…what does stand out to me is that when I looked at the limericks with a perfect score, the authors of those limericks are indeed top performing employees.

I also looked at the breakdown by roles (programmers, designers, DBAs, etc), but these numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, since the sample sizes get pretty small. Here’s what it looks like for the larger roles.

Programmers (n = 15)
UI/UX Designers (n=6)
BA & QA (n=12)
Help Desk and Networking (n=11)

The charts are interesting, but again, the sample sizes are too small to draw definitive conclusions. However, what does stand out to me is that when I looked at the limericks with a perfect score, the authors of those limericks are indeed top performing employees. It’s clear.

On the opposite end, for the most part, low scores correlate to lower performing (or less engaged) employees, with one or two very notable exceptions (I was surprised to see two high achievers in this category).

You Want to Hire Creative People

I’ve hired many IT professionals. Until now, I have relied on a combination of interviews (phone, video, on-premise), skills tests, and reference calls. For the most part, those tools have helped weed out the unqualified candidates, but they do little to help find creative out-of-the-box thinkers. And that’s what I want — creative people who are self-starters, problem solvers, and innovators. I believe that asking a candidate to write a limerick could be a valuable data point, which may useful in the hiring process.

And conversely, it just might help in avoiding a bad hire.

Creativity is a difficult trait to measure. Are limericks the solution? Certainly not as a singular measure. But I will be asking future candidates to complete one, as a glimpse into their creative process. If nothing else, I’ll enjoy reading them and adding them to my statistical analysis.

Finally, I’ll leave with you with two hiring-related limericks and one computer science-related limerick, all of which I penned for this article. Grade me. And please leave a limerick for me in the comments.

A programmer was recently hired
Whose resume was greatly admired
Null pointer exceptions
Revealed the deception
And the recruiter was hurriedly fired

He coded a function recursive
So blatantly out-right subversive
Though highly outdated
And equally hated
A GOTO would be less perversive

One zero one zero is ten
Letter ‘a’ is the same, ten again
In octal, one two
But the common purview
Is one zero base ten, my friend

Avid software developer, hack musician, creator of Kompoz.com

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