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Brainteaser or Interview Torture Tool?

Jeremy Solomon sat across the table from a well-known national consulting company's interviewing manager, grappling with the question just posed to him. Suddenly, the $70,000 education he received from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government was momentarily useless. This topic hadn't popped up in public policy, economics or stats classes. In fact, the vexing issue was one few ever think about: How many quarters -- placed one on top of the other -- would it take to reach the top of the Empire State Building?

You might think that's an odd question for an interview -- unless, of course, you're one of the many prospective employees who have contended with such brainteasers while trying to land a job.

This genre of interview questions has gained popularity in technology companies, consulting outfits, investment banks and law firms, and includes questions like:

  • What does all the ice in a hockey rink weigh?
  • How do they make M&Ms?
  • How many gas stations are there in the US?
Sometimes the questions literally have no correct answer, like "If you had to get rid of one state, what would it be?"
This technique has become so prevalent that William Poundstone decided to write a book about it. How Would You Move Mount Fuji? was first published in May 2003 and has had several printings since then.

"Ever since I was a kid, I was really into puzzles," explains Poundstone. "A few years ago, I started getting these emails from friends saying they'd encountered these types of logic puzzles on job interviews, and they were basically asking for the answers to know if they had said the right thing. After I got about a half dozen of these questions, I figured there'd be a book in it."

Poundstone researched the topic and its origins at Microsoft. The company has used these interviewing tactics for decades, going back to when Bill Gates personally vetted every prospective employee before the company made an offer. Gates felt these puzzles were a good way to gauge a person's true intelligence and thought process.

Poundstone went into the book interested in the puzzles themselves but skeptical about their effectiveness in evaluating prospective employees. But his views changed as he learned and thought more about it.

"The more I talked to people who explained why they did this, [I] sort of realized that hiring is not a very scientific thing anywhere," explains Poundstone. "If you don't judge people on the basis of something like these puzzles, you're probably going to be judging them on the basis of how firm their handshake is or whether you like how they're dressed, which are even less relevant. At least in the companies where you can say what you're doing constitutes a kind of problem solving, I think this is a very good idea actually."

Poundstone also explains why the origins of this interviewing approach can be traced back to the technology field. "I talked to a lot of people [at technology companies] who use these types of questions. They usually mentioned that it has to do with the pace of technological change. It's very hard to hire someone for a specific set of skills today, because some of those skills are going to be obsolete in a few years."

For many folks making hiring decisions in the technology field, puzzles became accepted as a way to assess what cognitive scientists call "noncontext-specific knowledge."

Poundstone points out that while various industries have glommed onto this interviewing trend, it makes little sense for many types of workers. "I think the phenomenon has been -- in the past year or two -- maybe oversold a little with some companies and some fields. Certainly, whether you're a counter person at Starbucks or a brain surgeon, the skills you're hired for are still going to be valid, so I don't see these [questions] are necessarily an especially good way of evaluating those people."

Even so, the question being used to evaluate you at your next interview may be one that doesn't even have an answer. Encouraging? Not exactly. But if you prep yourself mentally, you might end up giving a wrong answer that lands you the job.

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