What a peanut butter and jelly sandwich shows about dev skills - Technical.ly Baltimore


Nov. 13, 2017 12:55 pm

What a peanut butter and jelly sandwich shows about dev skills

The tried-and-true sandwich is a go-to part of the job interview for Mind Over Machines CTO Dustin Sitton.

Your path to a dev job goes through this sandwich.

(Photo by Flickr user Matias Garabedian, used under a Creative Commons license.)

This is a guest post by Mind Over Machines Chief Technology Officer Dustin Sitton.
I was nervous the first time I asked a candidate to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich during an interview.

I take interviews seriously. We are interviewing each other, and irrespective of fit, they will become an ambassador of our company. Our paths will most likely cross again to boot.

At the interview, the awkward silence as I carefully placed each item onto the conference room table was the worst part:

“Jif peanut butter!”

“Will they find this demeaning?” I thought.

“Welch’s Grape Jelly!”

“Inappropriate?” I thought.

“A knife!”

“I’m bringing a knife to a business meeting… this will go over well…,” I thought.

“Don’t forget the Wonder bread!”

“This was a terrible idea,” I thought.

Except that it wasn’t a terrible idea. “Investigate these ingredients carefully,” I said.  “I want you to write down in exacting detail how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You will then read your instructions back to me, and I will attempt to construct one based on what you wrote. If you leave ANY room for ambiguity, I will seize on it, and you will fail. For example, if you tell me to: ‘pick up the knife…’ I will pick it up by the sharp end. You must explicitly state how to pick the knife up. Which hand, etc.”

Of course, they don’t “fail” for missing some innocuous step. There are other questions to consider:

  • Are they are enjoying the test?
  • Are they asking me questions?
  • Are they digging in and looking at the ingredients?
  • Oooh she’s drawing instructional illustrations!

That’s the test: Do they seek to understand the issue, engage the client and communicate effectively?


Most importantly, are they enjoying what they are doing?

Some have excelled at it. Others have found their skillsets lie elsewhere. But all felt better off for having tried. At least that’s what they told me.

But wait, one might ask, where is the code test? Where is the barrage of test questions on libraries and APIs?

Mind Over Machines stopped caring about one’s acronym history a long time ago. Five Years JSON? Three years Python? 10 years .NET? Snooze fest. Conventional development is commoditized.

This test isn’t the only thing we do in an interview, but it gives us a tremendous sense as to how someone will communicate and approach problems. Communication and problem solving are the key ingredients to tomorrow’s “software developers” – those that will graduate beyond slinging code.

The future is for those who can develop AND write AND speak AND collaborate, all while constantly determining new and innovative ways to solve business needs.


    I cannot express with words how much I hate this idea.
    First of all, I can’t stand peanut butter. I NEVER eat PB&J. Never. And as such, I never make a PB&J sandwich. I happen to know how to make one, but what if the person being interviewed was simply unfamiliar with how to make a PB&J for other reasons besides hating peanut butter? Say, they grew up in England, for example.
    Also, some people are just inept in the kitchen. Will that inept PB&J translate, in the interviewer’s mind, to a person who is bad at the job in question?
    I get it — it is supposed to be a generic test for one’s ability to communicate clearly and effectively. Using something so specific as a generic test for communication skills just seems like a fail waiting to happen.
    Do you think this cute, gimmicky little interview trick does that? Or does it turn off more people than it filters? Do you have any metrics to show this tool is effective?

    • Dustin

      As far as metrics go – clearly it’s working already, we aren’t a match. We need someone who CAN express with words how much they hate this idea! 🙂

      The ability to embrace a challenge, a love of learning, and DIY grit is vital for success in tech. The exercise above is about discovering how the candidate thinks, plans, and then communicates steps to achieve an outcome. It has nothing to do with the type of sandwich being made. We could have made it preparing a package for shipping… but then I wouldn’t get free food.

      We need the kinds of minds that won’t be turned off by interview questions like these, that’s part of the test!

      • POOL-POG

        Well, I was really just using that first statement as rhetorical hyperbole to emphasize a point.

        Obviously, I was able to express it with words, considering I did just that in the immediately following paragraphs.

        I actually do enjoy challenges, learning, and have “DIY grit”. And I have had a career in tech that can only be assessed as “successful” so far. I’m not a CEO of a tech company but I have worked at progressively more complex technology positions for almost 20 years now.

        I just hate this arbitrary, “out of the box”, irrelevant type of interview question. The specificity of this question, without an option for another outlet, is what I don’t like about it. Really: what if you meet someone like me, who checks all your technology boxes, and is actually a good communicator, but it turns out they hate peanut butter or just aren’t good in the kitchen? Also, do you have any actual metrics on the effectiveness of this type of interview question? I just don’t see how being unable to make a sandwich translates to “unable to embrace a challenge”

        Thanks 🙂


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