So, are you smart enough to work for Google?

Thinking of applying to a job at Google sometime soon? Author William Poundstone looks at the types of questions the tech giant and other corporations are asking these days.

**CORRECTION: The original interview incorrectly described the number given as a correct answer to a brain teaser. The number, 96, is one of the largest numbers that fit the pattern posed by the brain teaser.

Kai Ryssdal: Whatever Google might be to you -- your email account, your search engine, the dominating force (dare I say) of your entire digital life -- it is, first and foremost, a company. A place where people work.

To work at Google, though, you have to be hired by Google -- and that is notoriously difficult. Job interviews at Google, and increasingly other places, are unusual -- to say the least. Brain teasers and logic puzzles are par for the course.

I got a taste of it last week with author William Poundstone, whose new book is called "Are you Smart Enough To Work at Google?" Turns out, I'm not. But in my defense, I was sick when we spoke. Here's the first question he asked.

William Poundstone: OK, get a pen and write down these numbers: 10, 9, 60, 90, 70, and 66. Now the question is: What number comes next in that series?

Ryssdal: Are you kidding me? Really?

Poundstone: Yeah.

Ryssdal: I have absolutely no idea. I'm a history and political science guy.

Poundstone: Well, even if you were a mathematician, expecially you would be stumped because there is no mathematical sense whatsoever to that sequence. So maybe you should think in non-mathematical terms. And if you do that, you might try out writing out the numbers and see what you get.

Ryssdal: Uh, 10, 9, 60, 90, 70, 66. Three, four, five, six... So there you go.

Poundstone: Yeah, 66 has eight letters.

Ryssdal: So I need a number that has nine letters in it and whatever that might be.

Poundstone: 96 is the largest one.

Ryssdal: 96. So this will not endear me to friends and colleagues who have applied for jobs at Google, my brother included I think. But it does seem a bit pretentious. And Google, as we know, is a company with an attitude. It's a little bit, "They're better than we are, and they just want to stump us and have a good time," at what seems to be our expense. Right? Making us squirm in these interviews.

Poundstone: There's an element of that, I think. But they ask this because it's engineering. You're inventing a new product. And a lot of the questions they ask at these technology companies are really designed to see if you can recognize that there are simple solutions as well as more complicated ones.

Ryssdal: So we are, here at Marketplace, there are some open jobs. We're going to have job candidates coming through as all companies do. Is this mechanism -- these, brainteasers is too simple a word, but you know what I mean -- are these kinds of questions good for non-technical companies?

Poundstone: These kind of very challenging questions really have spread throughout the economy, partly because of the very tight job market. There's a website Glassdoor.com, where people have posted interview questions. And I've actually used that to trace the spread of these. And now most of them reported are from non-technology companies -- from Aflac to Volkswagen. So it's really become pretty prevalent.

Ryssdal: Is there a way that you can prepare for these? I mean, you can prepare for, "What are you biggest weakness," right? I could go into an interview today and figure that out. What about these tougher sort of more challenging questions?

Poundstone: Certainly one of them is with all of these questions, the first thing that pops into your head is gonna be wrong.

Ryssdal: Say that again. A good life lesson.

Poundstone: Yeah. So you should realize that and actually so that you have something to say, start talking about, "Well, the obvious answer would be this." But explain why it's probably going to be wrong. I mean, the interviewer does not have a particular answer in mind. They want to see the thought process.

Ryssdal: It does seem, I guess this would tell you more about somebody than, "Tell me about a time when you failed."

Poundstone: That's one of the things they try to address. Interviews tend to be conversations where you kind of do chit-chat and they've found that that's a very poor predictor of how you're actually going to be on the job. So they want to get something that's a little more like the types of mental challenges that you might actually be confronting.

Ryssdal: Also, those conversations -- those "Tell me about a time" conversations -- those are just deathly boring. They're boring for you as a perspective employee and they're boring for the person doing the interview.

Poundstone: Yeah, people have learned the safe answers to give to that, so they want to shake up things a little bit with these questions.

Ryssdal: Right. You got another one for me?

Poundstone: OK. Suppose you're shrunk to the size of a nickel and thrown in a blender.

Ryssdal: OK?

Poundstone: Now, the blades are going to star spinning in 60 seconds. What do you do?

Ryssdal: I lie down. Right? I'm the size of a nickel. Those blender blades are, in theory, a millimeter or two higher than a nickel. I lie down and those blades go right over my head and I'm fine.

Poundstone: The answer that a lot of people came up with is that you would just jump out of the blender. You can do that and you can use physics to explain how this would actually happen. And that's considered a good, creative answer.

Ryssdal: Yes, and once again I'm not smart enough to work at Google. William Poundstone. His book is called "Are you Smart Enough To Work at Google?" Thanks a lot.

Poundstone: Good to be with you.

Ryssdal: That part you heard about Marketplace hiring? It's true. So we came up with some Bill Poundstone-approved public radio interview questions for all you potential applicants out there. Take Marketplace's interview test here.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
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Which physics were you using to conclude that a nickel sized person placed in a blender with sixty seconds before the blender starts could save himself by jumping out of the blender?

According to the US Mint, a nickel is 0.835in in diameter. The container for my blender is about 8 inches tall from the interior base to the upper lip. That is 9.58 times the diameter of the nickel. Using the average height of an adult US male of 69.4 inches (according to the CDC), a nickel size man jumping out of my blender would be equivalent to a man jumping over a wall 55.4 feet high. The current record for the high jump is 8 feet 0 inches, set by Javier Sotomayor in 1993. The prospect of being chopped into pieces by giant blender blades may have motivated him to jump sightly higher, but probably not to 55.4 feet.

efredham, the physics that let this work are known as the square-cube law. Strength depends on the cross-section area of your muscles. Your weight depends on your total volume. Area changes as the square of your height; volume changes as the cube of your height. If you halve your height, your strength will be a quarter of what it was, but your weight will be an eighth of what it was - making you twice as *relatively* strong. Think of how insects like ants and fleas can lift and jump hundreds of times their weight/height - it's not because their tissues are any stronger, it's because of the square-cube law.

Thanks, KArchon! That makes sense. But I bet many people who responded "I'd just jump out of the blender" didn't quote the square-cube law. They were simply thinking "outside of the box" - the blender in this case.

It is a fantasy, so any response could be justified.
I think they would want you to say that depends on what else is in the blender, and ask that question.
If nothing, then lying down should be OK, or hanging onto the blade rotor, but not jumping.
If solid(s), you might be able to climb and/or jump out.
If liquid, you'd have to swim or float and not get sucked into the whirlpool...
Do you have a miniature phone to call somebody to pull the plug, cut the power or stop whoever is going to turn it on?

I once interviewed for Microsoft in 1995. They were then what Google is today in terms of innovation IMO. Nevertheless, the technical manager asked me, "How many gas stations are in the US?" and "If you have two cars driving toward one another at 50 MPH. They are 200 miles apart and a bird travels above the car going twice as fast. When it reaches the other car, it turns around and heads back. How long did the cars drive and how far did the bird travel?"

I stumbled my way to answer the gas station question but I was stumped at the bird one. He later explained that they want to see how we think and approach problem solving. I didn't get the summer position but, I valued the experience.

In response to your segment about an IQ test for Google it occurred to me that I don't believe there is a test for tenacity. Before my 30 year career as a programmer I became very good at taking IQ tests to see if I would be a good programmer. None of them allowed for failure. The answer was always finite, correct or incorrect. Over the years I realized that I would often have to fail many times before I fixed a problem. Failure was often the norm and if a problem failed quickly that was also a virtue. Testing a problem many times was something I often encountered. The clues for the solution were often very subtle but I persevered. My IQ is not remarkable but I often accomplished what I set out to do. My ego was not an issue. Getting the job done was the goal. I seriously doubt there is a test for perseverance.

kai- i hope you realize that you were given the wrong answer to the brainteaser. a 9 letter number might be logical but 96 is far from the smallest(17 would be that). the other numbers are not the smallest in their size category either but are the largest. your best response might have been to challenge his answer to you! that might have gotten you the job! jeff hanson

oops for poundstone. unless i spelled these wrong or can't count - ninety one, ninety two, eighty two, eighty one, sixty nine, sixty five, sixty four, fifty nine, fifty five, fifty four, forty nine, forty five, forty four, thirty one, thirty two, twenty one, twenty two and seventeen are also smaller than 96.

he must have meant largest. googol is 6 letters.

Perhaps he meant to say the largest number.
But wouldn't that mean ninety would have to give way to a 'googol' ? ;-)


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