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In August 1957 William Shockley was recruiting staff for his Palo Alto, California, start-up, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. Shockley had been part of the Bell Labs team that invented the transistor. He had quit his job and come west to start his own company, telling people his goal was to make a million dollars. Everyone thought he was crazy. Shockley knew he wasn't. Unlike a lot of the people at Bell Labs, he knew the transistor was going to be big.
Shockley had an idea about how to make transistors cheaply. He was going to fabricate them out of silicon. He had come to this valley, south of San Francisco, to start production. He felt like he was on the cusp of history, in the right place at the right time. All that he needed was the right people. Shockley was leaving nothing to chance.
Today's interview was Jim Gibbons. He was a young guy, early twenties. He already had a Stanford Ph.D. He had studied at Cambridge too - on a Fulbright scholarship he'd won. Gibbons was sitting in front of him right now, in Shockley's Quonset hut office. Shockley picked up his stopwatch.
There's a tennis tournament with one hundred twenty-seven players, Shockley began, in measured tones. You've got one hundred twenty-six people paired off in sixty-three matches, plus one unpaired player as a bye. In the next round, there are sixty-four players and thirty-two matches. How many matches, total, does it take to determine a winner?
Shockley started the stopwatch. The hand had not gone far when Gibbons replied: One hundred twenty-six.
How did you do that? Shockley wanted to know. Have you heard this before?
Gibbons explained simply that it takes one match to eliminate one player. One hundred twenty-six players have to be eliminated to leave one winner. Therefore, there have to be 126 matches.
Shockley almost threw a tantrum. That was how he would have solved the problem, he told Gibbons. Gibbons had the distinct impression that Shockley did not care for other people using "his" method.
Shockley posed the next puzzle and clicked the stop-watch again. This one was harder for Gibbons. He thought a long time without answering. He noticed that, with each passing second, the room's atmosphere grew less tense. Shockley, seething at the previous answer, now relaxed like a man sinking into a hot bath. Finally, Shockley clicked off the stopwatch and said that Gibbons had already taken twice the lab average time to answer the question. He reported this with charitable satisfaction. Gibbons was hired.
Find the Heavy Billiard Ball ...
Fast-forward forty years in time - only a few miles in space from long-since-defunct Shockley Semiconductor - to a much-changed Silicon Valley. Transistors etched onto silicon chips were as big as Shockley imagined. Software was even bigger. Stanford was having a career fair, and one of the most popular companies in attendance was the Microsoft Corporation. With the 1990s dot-com boom and bull market in full swing, Microsoft was famous as a place where employees of no particular distinction could make $1 million before their thirtieth birthday. Grad student Gene McKenna signed up for an interview with Microsoft's recruiter.
Suppose you had eight billiard balls, the recruiter began. One of them is slightly heavier, but the only way to tell is by putting it on a scale against the others. What's the fewest number of times you'd have to use the scale to find the heavier ball?
McKenna began reasoning aloud. Everything he said was sensible, but somehow nothing seemed to impress the recruiter. With hinting and prodding, McKenna came up with a billiard-ball-weighing scheme that was marginally acceptable to the Microsoft guy. The answer was two.
"Now, imagine Microsoft wanted to get into the appliance business," the recruiter then said. "Suppose we wanted to run a microwave oven from the computer. What software would you write to do this?"
"Why would you want to do that?" asked McKenna. "I don't want to go to my refrigerator, get out some food, put it in the microwave, and then run to my computer to start it!" "Well, the microwave could still have buttons on it too."
"So why do I want to run it from my computer?" "Well maybe you could make it programmable? For example, you could call your computer from work and have it start cooking your turkey." "But wouldn't my turkey," asked McKenna, "or any other food, go bad sitting in the microwave while I'm at work? I could put a frozen turkey in, but then it would drip water everywhere."
"What other options could the microwave have?" the recruiter asked. Pause. "For example, you could use the computer to download and exchange recipes." "You can do that now. Why does Microsoft want to bother with connecting the computer to the microwave?" "Well let's not worry about that. Just assume that Microsoft has decided this. It's your job to think up uses for it." McKenna thought in silence.
"Now maybe the recipes could be very complex," the recruiter said. "Like, 'Cook food at seven hundred watts for two minutes, then at three hundred watts for two more minutes, but don't let the temperature get above three hundred degrees.'"
"Well there is probably a small niche of people who would really love that, but most people can't program their VCR."
The Microsoft recruiter extended his hand. "Well, it was nice to meet you, Gene. Good luck with your job search." "Yeah," said McKenna. "Thanks."
The Impossible Question
Logic puzzles, riddles, hypothetical questions, and trick questions have a long tradition in computer-industry interviews. This is an expression of the start-up mentality in which every employee is expected to be a highly logical and motivated innovator, working seventy-hour weeks if need be to ship a product. It reflects the belief that the high-technology industries are different from the old economy: less stable, less certain, faster changing. The high-technology employee must be able to question assumptions and see things from novel perspectives. Puzzles and riddles (so the argument goes) test that ability.
In recent years, the chasm between high technology and old economy has narrowed. The uncertainties of a wired, ever-shifting global marketplace are imposing a start-up mentality throughout the corporate and professional world. That world is now adopting the peculiar style of interviewing that was formerly associated with lean, hungry technology companies. Puzzle-laden job interviews have infiltrated the Fortune 500 and the rust belt; law firms, banks, consulting firms, and the insurance industry; airlines, media, advertising, and even the armed forces. Brainteaser interview questions are reported from Italy, Russia, and India. Like it or not, puzzles and riddles are a hot new trend in hiring.
Fast-forward to the present - anywhere, almost any line of business. It's your next job interview. Be prepared to answer questions like these:
How many piano tuners are there in the world? If the Star Tre k transporter was for real, how would that affect the transportation industry? Why does a mirror reverse right and left instead of up and down? If you could remove any of the fifty U.S. states, which would it be? Why are beer cans tapered on the ends? How long would it take to move Mount Fuji?
In the human resources trade, some of these riddles are privately known as impossible questions. Interviewers ask these questions in the earnest belief that they help gauge the intelligence, resourcefulness, or "outside-the-box thinking" needed to survive in today's hypercompetitive business world. Job applicants answer these questions in the also-earnest belief that this is what it takes to get hired at the top companies these days. A lot of earnest believing is going on.
To an anthropologist studying the hiring rituals of the early twenty-first century, the strangest thing about these impossible questions would probably be this: No one knows the answer. I have spoken with interviewers who use these questions, and they have enthusiastically assured me not only that they don't know the "correct answer" but that it makes no difference that they don't know the answer. I even spent an amusing couple of hours on the Internet trying to pull up "official" figures on the number of piano tuners in the world. Conclusion: There are no official figures. Piano-tuner organizations with impressive websites do not know how many piano tuners there are in the world.
Every business day, people are hired, or not hired, based on how well they answer these questions.
The impossible question is one phase of a broader phenomenon. Hiring interviews are becoming more invasive, more exhaustive, more deceptive, and meaner. The formerly straightforward courtship ritual between employer and employee has become more one-sided, a meat rack in which job candidates' mental processes are poked, prodded, and mercilessly evaluated. More and more, candidates are expected to "prove themselves" in job interviews. They must solve puzzles, avoid getting faked out by trick questions, and perform under manufactured stress.
"Let's play a game of Russian roulette," begins one interview stunt that is going the rounds at Wall Street investment banks. "You are tied to your chair and can't get up. Here's a gun. Here's the barrel of the gun, six chambers, all empty. Now watch me as I put two bullets in the gun. See how I put them in two adjacent chambers? I close the barrel and spin it. I put the gun to your head and pull the trigger. Click. You're still alive. Lucky you! Now, before we discuss your résumé, I'm going to pull the trigger one more time. Which would you prefer, that I spin the barrel first, or that I just pull the trigger?"
The good news is that the gun is imaginary. It's an "air gun," and the interviewer makes the appropriate gestures of spinning the barrel and pulling the trigger. The bad news is that your career future is being decided by someone who plays with imaginary guns.
This question is a logic puzzle. It has a correct answer and the interviewer knows what it is. You had better supply the right answer if you want the job. In the context of a job interview, solving a puzzle like this is probably as much about stress management as deductive logic. The Russian roulette question exemplifies the mind-set of these interviews - that people who can solve puzzles under stress make better employees than those who can't.
The popularity of today's stress - and puzzle-intensive interviews is generally attributed to one of America's most successful and ambivalently regarded corporations, Microsoft. The software giant receives about twelve thousand r?sum?s each month. That is amazing when you consider that the company has about fifty thousand employees, and Microsoft's turnover rate has been pegged at about a third of the industry average. Microsoft has more cause to be selective than most companies. This is reflected in its interview procedure.
Without need of human intervention, each résumé received at Microsoft is scanned for keywords and logged into a database. Promising résumés lead to a screening interview, usually by phone. Those who pass muster get a "fly back," a trip to Microsoft's Redmond, Washington, headquarters for a full-day marathon of famously difficult interviews. "We look for original, creative thinkers," says a section of the Microsoft website that is directed to college-age applicants, "and our interview process is designed to find those people." Six recent hires are pictured (three are women, three are black). "Your interview could include a technical discussion of the projects you've worked on, an abstract design question, or general problem-solving puzzles or brainteasers. The types of questions you'll be asked vary depending on the position you're looking for, but all are meant to investigate your capabilities and potential to grow. It's important for us to find out what you can do, not just what you've done." Another company publication advises bluntly: "Get over your fear of trick questions. You will probably be asked one or two. They are not exactly fair, but they are usually asked to see how you handle a difficult situation."
Riddles and Sphinxes
"Not exactly fair"? It's little wonder that some compare this style of interviewing to fraternity hazing, brainwashing, or the third degree. As one job applicant put it, "You never know when they are going to bring out the guy in the chicken suit."
Another apt analogy is that familiar type of video game where you confront a series of odd and hostile characters in a series of confined spaces, solving riddles to get from one space to the next. Not many make it to the highest levels; for most, after three or four encounters, the game is over. As classicists point out, those video games update the ancient Greek legend of Oedipus and the sphinx. The sphinx devoured anyone who couldn't answer her riddle: "What is it that walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?"
Oedipus solved the riddle by answering "Man." A baby crawls on all fours, an adult walks on two legs, and the elderly use a cane as a third leg. It was, in other words, a trick question.
The sphinx tale puzzles people even today. Why didn't they just shoot it? is the reaction of most college students. The principal source for the story, Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, is a realistic and psychologically nuanced tragedy. There the man-eating she-monster is as out of place, one scholar noted, as Godzilla would be if he were to lumber into the New York of Coppola's Godfather trilogy. Still, something about this crazy story strikes a chord. We all undergo tests in life. Maybe we succeed where all others have failed - or maybe not; at least, it's a common fantasy. There is something familiar in the banality of the riddle too, and in the weirdness of its poser. They remind us that the tests of life are not always reasonable and not always fair.
Tales of people proving their mettle by solving riddles exist in cultures around the globe. The "ordeal by trick question" was possibly raised to the highest art by the monks of Japanese Zen. Zen riddles are the antithesis of the Western logic puzzle, though one might describe them as demanding an extreme sort of outside-the-box thinking. A student of Zen demonstrates worthiness by giving a sublimely illogical answer to an impossible question. Zen master Shuzan once held out his short staff and announced to a follower: "If you call this a short staff, you oppose its reality. If you do not call it a short staff, you ignore the fact. Now what do you wish to call this?" In traditional Zen teaching, the penalty for a poor answer was a hard whack on the head with a short staff.
So Microsoft's "not exactly fair" questions are not exactly new. The company has repackaged the old "ordeal by riddle" for our own time.
Excerpted from How Would You Move Mount Fuji? by William Poundstone Copyright © 2003 by William Poundstone
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
|1||The Impossible Question||3|
|2||The Termans and Silicon Valley||23|
|3||Bill Gates and the Culture of Puzzles||50|
|4||The Microsoft Interview Puzzles||78|
|6||Wall Street and the Stress Interview||111|
|7||The Hardest Interview Puzzles||118|
|8||How to Outsmart the Puzzle Interview||121|
|9||How Innovative Companies Ought to Interview||130|
|Bibliography and Web Links||257|
Posted October 21, 2005
We recommend this book to people trying to get hired at Microsoft or companies influenced by its hiring practices people who want to think critically about how hiring practices work and people who want to see how smart they are. The last group includes those who enjoy puzzles, and will relish the fun, challenging questions presented here. The book¿s core is a collection of entertaining brainteasers from job interviews. Given the high level of competition, most people who are trying to get hired at Microsoft probably need the edge it provides. Readers can work methodically through the questions, and the reasons behind them, to build a general approach for dealing with most puzzles. Readers who want to reflect on hiring practices - such as human resources personnel or scholars of corporate culture - will find the book intriguing but incomplete. Author William Poundstone is incredibly useful when discussing the gaps between what these questions do and what they are intended to do, but he delivers only quick sketches of explanations about how corporate culture retains these approaches despite their relative lack of function. His suggestions for alternative approaches are equally brief. Even after reading this entertaining book, readers are likely to find that perfecting their companies¿ interviewing processes will continue to be something of a puzzle.
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Posted October 28, 2008
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