Shelf Life

So, are you smart enough to work for Google?

Kai Ryssdal Jan 10, 2012

**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, 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.

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