Good Enough for Google

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

William Poundstone is the author of Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?: Trick Questions, Zen-like Riddles, Insanely Difficult Puzzles, and Other Devious Interviewing Techniques You Need to Know to Get a Job Anywhere in the New Economy. He joins us to share some brain teasers used to screen applicants at Google and other companies looking for creative thinkers. 

Have you ever gotten a brain-teaser or other sort of puzzle question in a job interview? Tell us about it!

shares some of the brain-teasers used to screen applicants at Google and other Cleared No
companies looking for creative thinkers.


William Poundstone

Comments [15]

John A.

How many job candidates who could not answer brain teaser questions are currently in the WNYC audience? (So how many who could are too busy being employed to be in this audience?) Therefore not a popular topic here methinks.

Jan. 11 2012 11:58 AM
Graham from Bronx

If given a collection of shovels, and asked to take your pick, say I can't there isn't one there.

Jan. 11 2012 11:47 AM
Edward from NJ

This meme has been floating around for years. As comments here indicate, Google doesn't really do this anymore (if they ever did). The really bad effect is that other companies are now trying to emulate these practices without necessarily knowing why they might be useful.

Jan. 11 2012 11:47 AM
Ethan from Manhattan

In Mr. Poundstone's last example (is it faster to swim in water or syrup) he showed exactly why this question is useless. He said it was a way for employees to show they can think through a problem and be confident of their answer. But then he said the actual research shows that it makes no difference!

At Google, engineers like to pride themselves as scientists. The "correct" answer would be: "I don't know, but here's how we could do an experiment." Someone who took a side based on speculation and fought for their side might be the type of person you want at your company, but it's not what a scientist does. A scientist starts from data, not speculation.

Jan. 11 2012 11:44 AM
The Truth from Becky


Jan. 11 2012 11:42 AM
Mark from NY

My questions at Google were quite practical, not at all similar to the article. I have, at other interviews however, gotten questions like "how many quarters would you need to stack in a 1 ft. by 1 ft. box to equal the height of the Empire State Building", which is definitely in the "not relevant" category.

Jan. 11 2012 11:40 AM

This sounds like malarkey.

The best question I ever got from an interviewee, and it is so obvious that I'm surprised that I got it only once in the roughly 70 interviews I did (for research assistants) over the years: What's the most important thing I need to do this job well. She expected me to say something like knowledge of macroeconomics.

Instead, I answered: You've got to come to work every day and ask yourself is there a better way.

Jan. 11 2012 11:39 AM
Deborah from East Brunswick nj

I am struck by the type of higher order thinking questions being discussed as part of interviews in contrast to the current emphasis in education on standardized tests as a means of evaluating student progress. I wonder, if this is what the high tech companies are looking for - these analytical skills, if we are educating students who will succeed in that environment.

Jan. 11 2012 11:38 AM
Richard Johnston from Upper west side

Asking who would take the children in a divorce is marginally illegal, since it is tantamount to asking marital status, which is outright illegal.

Jan. 11 2012 11:38 AM
clif from Brooklyn

Yes, I've been asked similar questions for web-based jobs. I also found it arrogant, obnoxious and pretentious. The good part was that it told me that I definitely did not want to work for that Brooklyn-based, REALLY BIG web shop.

Furthermore, the guy who did it was a total jerk about it too. I walked out laughing to myself because it really seemed like a power trip on his part and nothing else.

The interview generally had nothing to do with the job I was applying for (web developer). I was asked to plan a routing system for an inter-office telephone network.

Jan. 11 2012 11:37 AM
The Truth from Becky

Are you smart enough not to buy this book?!!

Jan. 11 2012 11:36 AM
The Truth from Becky

Whaaa?? This is nuts! I would not subject myself to brain-teasers to get a job! uhhnnnless there are major dollars involved!

Jan. 11 2012 11:36 AM
Ed from NYC

I hear this is not happening as much these days. They finally figured out that this was arrogant and obnoxious and was not done to truly judge analytical thinking or creativity. It was done for the sole purpose of disorientating the candidate at the amusement of the Googler.

The real truth is that Google is not known as a leader in employee development or for hiring creative thinkers.

Jan. 11 2012 11:32 AM

This reminds me of a construction job a friend went for. Those tricky-dickies - they lined up 5 shovels and asked him to take his pick. Very confusing.

Jan. 11 2012 11:27 AM
Ethan from Manhattan

As an interviewer for Google, I think Mr. Poundstone's articles and book reflect, at best, an outdated story of what our interviews are like. I won't say that no Googlers have ever conducted an interview with brain-teasers, or even that none do today, but the engineers who coordinate on our interview standards actively stamp out this sort of interviewing whenever we hear of it, and we maintain a banned questions list that every question printed in a book or article is included in (brain-teaser or not).

Google is a data-driven company, and brain teasers have proven to be useless in screening the kind of candidates we want to hire. Questions may be complex, they might have fanciful premises to get the candidate thinking, but we do not ask brain teasers as policy. Our hiring process is complex, famously difficult and can seem arbitrary to outsiders, but the inability to answer a riddle is not part of the process.

Jan. 11 2012 11:03 AM

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