Job interviews: Great answers for bizarre questions

Job seekers once dreaded being asked where they saw themselves in five years. These days, they’re more likely to be asked whether they can swim faster in water or syrup.

 
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(Photo: Henrik Sorensen/Getty)

Picture this: you’re at a potential employer’s offices, on your third interview, sporting your sharpest suit. Just when you think you’ve made a good impression, the interviewer throws you a curve: “Can you swim faster in water or syrup?” You’ve never bathed in syrup. You didn’t think this job would require it. And you have a question of your own: Seriously?

These sorts of odd-ball questions—logic puzzles, brainteasers and riddles—have been favoured by some employers as a means of testing problem-solving and communications skills for over half a century. In his recently published book Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?, Los Angeles–based author William Poundstone explains the origin of the brainteaser (IBM pioneered this line of questioning in the 1950s), and discusses how by the early 2000s it had become common among technology, finance and consulting firms. Today, Poundstone says, “You’re getting these questions from all sorts of companies that didn’t previously ask them. It’s a reflection of the very high unemployment rate. They’re desperate to find some rationale for picking one person over the others.”

Some experts dispute that the oddball question is on the rise, however. Technology blogger Gayle Laakmann McDowell served on Google’s hiring committee for three years, and she says that Google now prohibits many of the sorts of questions listed on the jacket of Poundstone’s book (gems like “How would you weigh your head?” and “A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?”). “By and large, tech companies have moved away from these crazy brainteasers,” she says, “because they don’t test anything relevant.”

That said, so-called Fermi questions (named after Italian-born physicist Enrico Fermi)—which test a subject’s ability to devise, on the fly, a logical method for estimating an unknown quantity—are still quite common. “Things like: ‘How many pizzas are delivered every year in Manhattan?'” she says. “Another one that comes up pretty often is: ‘If you were given a million dollars to redesign Bill Gates’s bathroom, what would you do?’ It seems bizarre, but it’s actually about product design.”

Google management admits that brainteasers have been used in job interviews throughout the company’s history. But Shannon Deegan, the company’s director of People Operations, says that Google studied its data and determined they generally don’t elicit useful information. “We’re encouraging employees to ask them less and less,” he says, “because we don’t think it gets to the meat of what we’re trying to find out about the candidate.”

SIX STEPS TO HANDLING THE CURVEBALL QUESTION

1. Prepare yourself. Web sites like Glassdoor.com and Careercup.com provide first-hand accounts of what interviewers ask. If there’s evidence a potential employer favours certain types of problems, become proficient at solving them. Google’s Deegan says he encountered brainteasers frequently in business school and in a previous management consulting job, and that, as with just about anything, you improve with practice.

2. Interview the interviewer. Many of the puzzles and brainteasers presented to interviewees don’t contain enough information to solve them—at least, not immediately. “You’ll get interviewers who are specifically testing to see if you ask questions,” says Laakmann McDowell. “Microsoft is famous for telling candidates to design a pen. And if you ask the interviewer a few questions, you’ll find out it’s actually a pen for astronauts.”

3. Restate the question in your own words. This will help you frame the problem to be solved, and allows you to check with the interviewer that you’ve understood the problem. “If you keep in mind what the interviewer is looking for, the direction of the problem will become a lot clearer,” Laakmann McDowell says.

4. Think aloud. Since most interviewers are testing communications and problem-solving skills, they want to know what’s going on inside your head. “It’s like psycho-therapy,” Poundstone says. “You have to supply this running narration as you try to solve the problem.” You’re more likely to stumble across a viable approach, too. Silence is only going to make all parties uncomfortable.

5. Discount the easy answer. If a response comes to mind promptly, consider aloud why it may be unsatisfactory. Isaac Newton pondered the water-or-syrup dilemma centuries ago and concluded that because syrup is more viscous than water, swimmers would make slower progress in it. Poundstone’s book argues that this answer, however intuitive, is wrong (for the right answer, click here).

6. Summarize your final response. “If you’ve tossed out a number of half-baked ideas, at the end you should wrap it up in a pretty package and say, ‘I think this one is the most promising for this reason,'” Poundstone advises.

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