In a competitive job market, what stands between a candidate and gainful employment at a prestigious tech company is not just his or her credentials, but also how well the candidate performs under pressure.
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In Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?, his follow-up to the career guide How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, William Poundstone gives readers an inside look at some of the most challenging interview questions—and their solutions—from the hiring managers at Google.
Where did you find the examples to use in your book?
I had written How Would You Move Mt. Fuji? about the questions they were asking at Microsoft. That one I actually started because I would get e-mails from friends who were going on job interviews, and they were asked to solve logic puzzles. They knew that I was a fan of logic puzzles, so they e-mailed me to see if I knew the correct answer, and whether they got it right.
After that book, I got letters from people who said, “I came across a question that wasn’t in your book,” so they would send it to me and I kept a file. But the interesting thing I found was that Google had evolved a new type of interview question that’s, again, very hard, very tricky, but it’s a little bit different because it doesn’t necessarily have a single right answer, like a logic puzzle would.
They’ll ask something like, “How would you weigh your head?” And as I say in the book, there’s really no entirely good answer for that, at least no one knows of an entirely good answer for that, but they really want to see how you handle it—whether you can come up with some good, valid ideas even if a complete solution might elude you.
For what kinds of jobs do they ask these questions?
The interesting thing is, traditionally, it was high-tech jobs, but what’s happened with The Great Recession is that all sorts of other companies have started using them. All these companies have found that they have 20 applicants for every open position, and they’re kind of desperate to find some way to justify why they’re hiring one person over another, so a lot of them are adopting these sort of Google-style questions. I think in many cases it is overkill, but in this very strange job market, that’s something that you’re seeing a lot of.
What is the history of using logic puzzles in interviews?
It goes back to IBM. This was when they were first hiring computer programmers, but they didn’t even have that term at that time. They were belatedly coming to the idea that programming a computer is not electrical engineering—it’s this whole new talent and you need people who are really very creative thinkers.
So what they started doing was asking old-fashioned logic puzzles, and they’ve always worked pretty well at IBM. It was used at the early Silicon Valley companies, and it became a very popular thing in the high-tech industries.
Then Microsoft started popularizing it. A lot of companies in the ’80s were trying to hire like Microsoft, so they started adopting it. More recently, Google has been particularly associated with this, and now everyone is kind of crazy to emulate Google or Apple or companies like that, so now you see a lot of companies using them.
What’s so great about working for Google?It’s famous for all its perks. It’s got free food, free exercise equipment and all these amazing benefits. They also have what’s called “20-percent time.” The engineers there literally get to spend one day out of the week working on a project of their own devising.
Many of their most famous products like Google Maps have actually started that way.
If you’re in the engineering field, Google really is the Shining City on the Hill. A lot of people aspire to work there. Of course, I mean this figuratively. It could be your own personal Google, which might be something completely different.
What do you like about logic puzzles?
I grew up reading Martin Gardner’s books and columns in Scientific American where he would often address these sorts of things. I suppose it’s kind of a metaphor for the way the world is, which is very confusing and chaotic, but you find out that there is a certain solution.
It’s kind of subtle. It takes a little work to find it, but suddenly everything falls into place and it makes sense. I suppose it represents this wish that the world were that simple and that in the world, everything would fall into place and make sense, which doesn’t always happen, but certainly the puzzle gives you that experience.