Rickover was awesome. He invented the high-stress engineering interview, for which we all might be thankful when we cross a bridge. Nothing like a good engineering interview to get the blood flowing:
Hire the Best
There is little disagreement that successful organizations must have adequate leadership. Yet, the Naval Reactors experience strongly suggests that followers are just as important to organizational effectivenes—a fact that did not escape Rickover. He stated, "The only thing I've done is to hire people smarter than me." In this regard, Rickover went to extreme, and some would say, bizarre ends to ensure that Naval Reactors got only those with the "right stuff" from both the U.S. Naval Academy and civilian universities. The selection process began with a long interview (perhaps several hours), conducted by Rickover's senior staff, in which the candidate was quizzed about his technical knowledge, intellect, and character. A report of the interview was then sent to Rickover. Eventually, the candidate was led into the admiral's office. Generally speaking, Rickover's interviews lasted a few minutes to perhaps one-half hour, and his techniques soon became legendary within the Navy. Some called them cruel, others in ane, but most candidates never forgot their few minutes with the admiral. His purpose was to put the candidate under stress. "I've got to shake them up," Rickover told his senior staff. Thus, he often asked questions that were unexpected. For instance, he would ask a midshipman about his marriage plans. After hearing the response, Rickover might ask if the candidate would be willing to postpone his wedding for the sake of Naval Reactors. Or, he might ask why a candidate's class rank was not higher, and why they had not done better. Such a question even prompted a future president (Jimmy Carter) to name his autobiography after a question Rickover had posed to him—"Why Not The Best?" There usually were no right or wrong answers. What Rickover hoped to discern was a person's motivation, strengths and weaknesses, along with their reactions under fire.
Jimmy relates his Rickover interview: "I had applied for the nuclear submarine program, and Admiral Rickover was interviewing me for the job. It was the first time I met Admiral Rickover, and we sat in a large room by ourselves for more than two hours, and he let me choose any subjects I wished to discuss. Very carefully, I chose those about which I knew most at the time—current events, seamanship, music, literature, naval tactics, electronics, gunnery—and he began to ask me a series of questions of increasing difficulty. In each instance, he soon proved that I knew relatively little about the subject I had chosen. He always looked right into my eyes, and he never smiled. I was saturated with cold sweat. Finally he asked a question and I thought I could redeem myself. He said, "How did you stand in your class at the Naval Academy?" Since I had completed my sophomore year at Georgia Tech before entering Annapolis as a plebe, I had done very well, and I swelled my chest with pride and answered, "Sir, I stood fifty-ninth in a class of 820!" I sat back to wait for the congratulations—which never came. Instead, the question: "Did you do your best?" I started to say, "Yes, sir," but I remembered who this was and recalled several of the many times at the Academy when I could have learned more about our allies, our enemies, weapons, strategy, and so forth. I was just human. I finally gulped and said, "No, sir, I didn't always do my best." He looked at me for a long time, and then turned his chair around to end the interview. He asked one final question, which I have never been able to forget—or to answer. He said, "Why not?" I sat there for a while, shaken, and then slowly left the room."