Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? by William Poundstone is a short, engaging read that puts a magnifying glass to the tactics desirable workplaces use for hiring new employees.

The job interview has been around for a long time. Even though studies have shown that interviewing potential workers is not a good indicator for future performance, this prescreening tool has remained implacable–causing many hopeful job-seekers many a sleepless night. Of course, employers need to assess whether or not a candidate possesses the skills, or the ability to quickly acquire the skills, necessary to complete daily tasks; but many interviews have now morphed into insanely ridiculous puzzles that can throw the unsuspecting interviewee for a loop.

Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? supplies many of these trick questions and answers. I’ll share a few of them in a bit, but I think it’s interesting to discuss why Google (and Amazon, Apple, Bank of America, and many, many others) use difficult, riddle-like questions to weed through the thousands of applicants seeking a limited number of jobs.

To start with, the difficult interview question is a corollary to the zeitgeist of our times. The economy is bad (but hopefully improving) and “good” jobs require skills that may not have even been around five to ten years ago. Conflate this with the probability that technology and the way we live our lives will change more rapidly over the next five years than they did over the last five years, and it’s safe to assume that the job a person is hired for may not be the same job she will bevperforming in the near future. This may be because her skill set will expand, or she’ll move, or–maybe–the job she is working on will become obsolete and the company will want to utilize her talents on some other venture.

In this new economy, the difficult job interview assesses a candidate’s ability to think on her feet and  follow a path of thinking that logically attempts to solve a problem. In many cases, the ability and willingness to solve a problem is the most valuable asset a company is seeking when hiring. Skills can be taught, but developing curiosity and creativity within a person is difficult.

Which leads to a question: What is more important, intelligence or creativity? Poundstone references Ellis Paul Torrance, who believed creativity was more important. In fact, Torrance believed “that you have to be intelligent in order to be creative–but the opposite isn’t the case. If you look at a random sample of creative, successful people, you will find that virtually 100 percent of them are highly intelligent. But if you look at a random sample of highly intelligent people, you’ll find that few of them are creative or conspicuously successful in business or life” (pgs. 27 and 28).

So, companies such as Google seek to not only find intelligent people, but to find the creative person who is (most likely) intelligent. It’s the “hacker” mentality, which isn’t referring to the person who attempts to gain unauthorized access to some database. Rather, I’m referring to the individual who is curious… who “pokes the box“… and who tries to create products that haven’t been thought of yet.

That’s what the trick interview questions are for. So without further ado, here’s the first question Poundstone shares in his book:

1. You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in sixty seconds. What do you do?

If you go into an interview expecting only to be asked about your skills and previous work experience, this question could be a punch to the stomach. (I’ll supply an answer at the end, along with some answers to a couple of the other questions I’ll include.)

For a programmer, or engineer, or human resource hopeful, why is this question necessary? And does a candidate have to get it right?

First, I think it can be debated whether the best person for a job answers this question well. The person who does formulate an adequate response is displaying the ability to be think quickly, problem solve under pressure, and explain an answer coherently.

Second–does the answer have to be right? Poundstone would say not necessarily. If the candidate is able to give an answer and elaborate upon how she came to that conclusion by walking the interviewer through her thought process step by step, then the management looking to hire will be impressed.

It seems after reading the book that even a willingness to answer the questions–to tackle a problem and thrive in the uncertainty–is possibly the most important attribute a job-seeker could possess. Personally, I found all the questions in Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? very challenging. I walked away from the book happy I read it, but I also felt a little deflated about how much my riddle-solving ability is lacking. I also imagined myself being asked some of these questions during a job interview, and let me just say, some of these questions are extremely difficult. Here’s my takeaway of what to do if asked a question you’re struggling to answer:

  • Clarify the question.
  • Sketch out your though process. (Asking for a pad of paper or whiteboard is usually okay.)
  • Think aloud. Many times, the interviewer wants to listen to how you’re going about solving a problem.
  • Keep talking. Words create words. It’s like when you sit in front of a blank screen–if you just start typing, the thoughts will begin to flow.
  • Stay positive.
  • Give at least some answer. A half-baked answer is better than no answer at all.

Here are a couple more questions that have been asked during an interview. Scroll down below for the answers.

2. What comes next in the following series?

SSS, SCC, C, SC

3. A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened? 

 

 

 

Answers:

1. As long as muscle energy and mass shrink in proportion, jump height should stay the same. So basically, you’d be able to jump out of the blender no problem before the blades start turning.

2. The series of letters is a code. A, as a capital letter, is made of three straight lines. Encode that as SSS. Capital B is one straight line and two curved ones, or SCC. C is one curved line and remains just C. D is one straight and once curved line. That brings us up to the next term, which must represent a capital E. That’s four straight lines, or SSSS.

3. The man is playing Monopoly.


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