The Impossible Question
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
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
"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
"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
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 Trek
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
"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 résumés 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
So Microsoft's "not exactly fair" questions are not exactly new. The company
has repackaged the old "ordeal by riddle" for our own time. With its use of
puzzles in its hiring decisions, Microsoft plays to the more appealing side of
the digital generation mythos - of maverick independence and suspicion of
established hierarchies. Puzzles are egalitarian, Microsoft's people contend, in
that it doesn't matter what school you attended, where you worked before, or how
you dress. All that matters is your logic, imagination, and problem-solving
For of course Microsoft is an egalitarian meritocracy. It is ruthless about
hiring what it calls the "top ten percent of the top ten percent." Microsoft's
interviews are carefully engineered to weed out the "merely" competent who don't
have the Microsoft level of competitive drive and creative problem-solving
ability. It is estimated that less than one in four of those flown up to Redmond
for a day of interviews receive a job offer. Like most riddle-bearing sphinxes,
Microsoft's human resources department leaves a high body count.
Microsoft is a fraught place. It represents the best and worst of how
corporate America lives today. The software company that Bill Gates and Paul
Allen founded was one of the great success stories of the last quarter of the
twentieth century. The Justice Department's 1998 antitrust suit against
Microsoft has not entirely dimmed that reputation. Maybe the opposite: Microsoft
is now bad, and as we all know, bad is sometimes good. People have misgivings
about Microsoft, just like they do about pit bulls and the Israeli Army. People
also figure that if Microsoft hires this way, well, it may push the ethical
envelope, but it must work.
Microsoft's role in changing interview practice is that of a catalyst. This
influence owes to a shift in hiring priorities across industries. With bad hires
more costly than ever, employers have given the job interview an importance it
was never meant to have.
There was a time when a corporate job interview was a conversation. The
applicant discussed past achievements and future goals. The interviewer
discussed how those goals might or might not fit in with the company's. If the
applicant was "put on the spot," it was with one of the old reliable human
resources chestnuts such as "describe your worst fault." At many companies, that
type of low-pressure interview is on its way out. The reasons are many.
References, once the bedrock of sound hiring practice, are nearing extinction in
our litigious society.The prospect of a million-dollar lawsuit filed by an
employee given a "bad reference" weighs heavily on employers. This is often
dated to 1984, when a Texas court ruled that an insurance salesman had been
defamed when his employer, insurance firm Frank B. Hall and Company, was asked
for a reference and candidly rated the salesman "a zero." The court added a few
zeros of its own to the damage award ($1.9 million).
Employment attorneys observe that awards of that size are rarer than the near
hysteria prevailing in human resources departments might suggest. They also
allow that - theoretically - the law protects truthful references. It is tough
to argue against caution, though. "We tell our clients not to get involved in
references of any kind," said Vincent J. Appraises, former chair of the American
Bar Association's Labor and Employment Law Section. "Just confirm or deny
whether the person has been employed for a particular period of time and that's
it. End of discussion."
Equally problematic for today's hirers is the generically positive reference
letter. Some companies are so terrified of lawsuits that they hand them out
indiscriminately to any employee who asks. It's no skin off their nose if
someone else hires away an inept employee.
With references less common and less useful, hirers must seek information
elsewhere. The job interview is the most direct means of assessing a candidate.
But the ground rules for interviews have changed in the past decades. It is
illegal in the United States for an interviewer to ask an applicant's age,
weight, religion, political view, ethnicity, marital status, sexual preference,
or financial status. Nor can an interviewer legally inquire whether a job seeker
has children, drinks, votes, does charity work, or (save in bona fide
security-sensitive jobs) has committed a major crime. This rules out many of the
questions that used to be asked routinely ("How would your family feel about
moving up here to Seattle?") and also a good deal of break-the-ice small talk.
Hiring has always been about establishing a comfort level. The employer wants to
feel reasonably certain that the applicant will succeed as an employee. That
usually means sizing up a person from a variety of perspectives. In many ways,
today's job candidate is a blank slate. He or she is a new person, stripped of
the past, free of social context, existing only in the present moment. That
leaves many employers scared.
One popular website for M.B.A. recruiting offers a "Social Security Number
Decoder for Recruiters." Based on the first three digits, it tells where a job
candidate was living when the social security number was issued. "The point
being..." you ask? Well, it's one way of telling whether someone is lying about
his past - a way of spotting contradictions when employers can't pose direct
The Two-Second Interview
There are other, more serious reasons to worry about the American way of
hiring. In the past decade, the traditional job interview has taken hits from
putatively scientific studies. An increasing literature asserts the fallibility
Two Harvard psychologists, Nalini Ambady and Robert Rosenthal, did a
particularly devastating experiment. Ambady had originally wanted to study what
makes teachers effective. She suspected that nonverbal cues - body language and
such - were important. To test this, she used some videotapes that had been made
of a group of Harvard teaching fellows. She planned to show silent video clips
to a group of people and have them rate the teachers for effectiveness.
Ambady wanted to use one-minute clips of each teacher. Unfortunately, the
tapes hadn't been shot with this end in mind. They showed the teachers
interacting with students. That was a problem, because having students visible
in the clips might unconsciously affect the raters' opinions of the teachers.
Ambady went to her adviser and said it wasn't going to work.
Then Ambady looked at the tapes again and decided she could get ten-second
clips of teachers in which no students were visible. She did the study with
those ten-second clips. Based on just ten seconds, the raters judged the
teachers on a fifteen-item list of qualities.
Okay, if you have to judge someone from a ten-second video clip, you can. You
probably wouldn't expect such a judgment to be worth anything.
Ambady repeated the experiment with five-second clips of the same teachers.
Another group of raters judged them. Their assessments were, allowing for
statistical error, identical to the ratings of the people who saw the ten-second
Ambady then had another group view two-second clips of the same teachers.
Again, the ratings were essentially the same.
The shocker was this: Ambady compared the video- clip ratings to ratings made
by the students of the same teachers after a semester of classes. The students
knew the professors much better than anyone possibly could from a silent video
clip. No matter - the students' ratings were in close agreement with those of
the people who saw only the videos. Complete strangers' opinions of a teacher,
based on a silent two-second video, were nearly the same as those of students
who had sat through a semester of classes.
It looks like people make a snap judgment of a person within two seconds of
meeting him or her - a judgment not based on anything the person says. Only
rarely does anything that happens after the first two seconds cause the judger
to revise that first impression significantly.
All right, but the raters in this study were volunteer college students. Who
knows what criteria they used to rate the teachers? Who knows whether they took
the exercise seriously?
A more recent experiment attempts to treat the hiring situation more
directly. Another of Rosenthal's students, Frank Bernieri (now at the University
of Toledo), collabrated with graduate-student Neha Gada-Jain on a study in which
they trained two interviewers for six weeks in accepted employment interviewing
techniques. Then the two people interviewed ninety-eight volunteers of various
backgrounds. Each interview was fifteen to twenty minutes, and all the
interviews were captured on tape. After the interview, the trained interviewers
rated the subjects.
Another student, Tricia Prickett, then edited the interview tapes down to
fifteen seconds. Each fifteen-second clip showed the applicant entering the
room, shaking hands with the interviewer, and sitting down. There was nothing
more substantial than that. You guessed it - when another group rated the
applicants just on the handshake clip, their opinions correlated strongly with
those of the two trained interviewers who had the full interview to work from.
This would be funny if it weren't tragic. These studies suggest that the
standard job interview is a pretense in which both interviewer and interviewee
are equally and mutually duped. The interviewer has made up her mind by the time
the interviewee has settled into a chair. Maybe the decision is based on looks,
body language, or the "cut of your jib." What's certain is that it's not based
on anything happening inside the job candidate's head. The questions and answers
that follow are a sham, a way of convincing both that some rational basis exists
for a hiring decision. In reality, the decision has already been made, on
grounds that could not possibly be more superficial.
Human resources experts categorize interview questions with terms such as
"traditional" and "behavioral." Traditional questions include the old standards
that almost any American job seeker knows by heart. Where do you see
yourself in five years? What do you do on your day off? What's the last book
you've read? What are you most proud of?
Traditional-question interviews walk a tightrope between concealment and
disclosure. They often invite the candidate to say something "bad" about
himself, just to see how far he'll go. These questions seem to be about honesty.
Really, they're about diplomacy. What you're most proud of might be your
comic-book collection. That's not necessarily what the interviewer wants to
hear, and you probably know that. There are safer answers, such as "the feeling
of accomplishment I get from doing something - it could be anything - really
well." The trouble with the traditional interview is that both sides are wise to
the game. Practically everyone gives the safe answers. The interviewers nod, not
believing a word of it.
This has led to the rise of behavioral questions. These ask the candidate to
describe a past experience bearing on character and job skills. An example (used
at Microsoft) is "Describe an instance in your life when you were faced with a
problem and tackled it successfully." Another is "Describe a time when you had
to work under deadline and there wasn't enough time to complete the job." The
rationale for asking behavioral questions is that it's harder to fabricate a
story than a one-liner.
Unfortunately, traditional and behavioral interview questions do almost
nothing to counter the two-second snap judgment. These are soft, fuzzy, and
ambivalent questions. Rarely addressed is what you're supposed to make of the
answers. It's mostly gut instincts.
Ask yourself this: "Is there any conceivable answer to a traditional
interview question that would cause me to want to hire someone on that answer
alone? Is there any possible answer that would cause me to not want to hire
someone?" I guess you can imagine alarming answers that might betray the candid
psychopath. But most of the time, job candidates give the cautious and
second-guessed answers everyone expects. With half-empty or half-full logic, an
interviewer can use any answer retroactively to justify the first impression.
Rarely does an answer challenge that first impression. This probably makes some
interviewers comfortable. It may not be the best way to hire. It is far from
clear that traditional and behavioral questions are a good way of spending the
always-too-limited time in a job interview.
Microsoft's interviewing practices are a product of the pressures of the
high-technology marketplace. Software is about ideas, not assembly lines, and
those ideas are always changing. A software company's greatest asset is a
talented workforce. "The most important thing we do is hire great people,"
Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer has stated more than once.
But how do you recognize great people? It is harder than ever to equate
talent with a specific set of skills. Skills can become obsolete practically
overnight. So can business plans. Microsoft is conscious that it has to be
looking for people capable of inventing the Microsoft of five or ten years
hence. Microsoft's hiring focuses on the future tense. More than most big
companies, Microsoft accepts rather than resists the "job candidate as blank
slate." Its stated goal is to hire for what people can do rather than what
Because programming remains a youthful profession, Microsoft hires many
people out of college. There is no job experience to guide hiring decisions. Nor
is Microsoft overly impressed by schools and degrees. "We fully know how bogus
[graduate school] is," one senior manager is reported to have said. This
attitude has changed somewhat - Harvard dropout Bill Gates now encourages
potential employees to get their degrees -but Microsoft has never been a place
to hire people because they went to the right schools.
Microsoft is also a chauvinistic place. The private suspicion in Redmond
seems to be that Sun, Oracle, IBM, and all the other companies are full of big,
lazy slobs who couldn't cut it at Microsoft. The only kind of "experience" that
counts for much is experience at Microsoft. So even with job candidates who have
experience, the emphasis is on the future tense. Microsoft does not have a time
machine that lets its human resources people zip ten years into a subjunctive
future to see how well a candidate will perform on the job. Predictions about
future performance are perforce based largely on how well candidates answer
"Microsoft really does believe that it can judge a person through four or
five one-hour interviews," claims former Microsoft developer Adam David Barr.
Barr likens the interview process to the National Football League's annual
draft. Some teams base decisions on a college football record, and others go by
individual workouts where the college players are tested more rigorously. At
Microsoft, the "workout" - the interview - is the main factor in hiring all but
the most senior people.
Why use logic puzzles, riddles, and impossible questions? The goal of
Microsoft's interviews is to assess a general problem-solving ability rather
than a specific competency. At Microsoft, and now at many other companies, it is
believed that there are parallels between the reasoning used to solve puzzles
and the thought processes involved in solving the real problems of innovation
and a changing marketplace.
Both the solver of a puzzle and a technical innovator must be able to
identify essential elements in a situation that is initially ill-defined. It is
rarely clear what type of reasoning is required or what the precise limits of
the problem are. The solver must nonetheless persist until it is possible to
bring the analysis to a timely and successful conclusion.
What This Book Will Do
The book will do five things. It will first trace the long and surprising
history of the puzzle interview. In so doing, it will touch on such topics as
intelligence tests for employment, the origins of Silicon Valley, the personal
obsessions of Bill Gates, and the culture of Wall Street.
The book will then pose the following question: Do puzzle interviews work as
claimed? Hirers tout these interviews, and job candidates complain about them. I
will try to supply a balanced discussion of pros and cons - something that is
often missing from the office watercooler debates. The book will present a large
sample of the actual questions being used at Microsoft and elsewhere. Provided
your career is not on the line, you may find these puzzles and riddles to be a
lot of fun. Many readers will enjoy matching their wits against those of the
bright folks in Redmond. For readers who'd like to play along, there's a list of
Microsoft puzzles, riddles, and trick questions in chapter four (most of which
are in widespread use at other companies as well). A separate list of some of
the hardest interview puzzles being asked at other companies is in chapter
seven. I will elaborate in the main narrative on some of these questions and the
techniques used to answer them but will refrain from giving answers until the
very end of the book.
The final two chapters are addressed in turn to the job candidate and the
hirer. There is a genre of logic puzzle in which logical and ruthless
adversaries attempt to outsmart each other. This is a good model of the puzzle
interview. Chapter eight is written from the perspective of a job candidate
confronted with puzzles in an interview. It presents a short and easily
remembered list of tips for improving performance. Chapter nine is written from
the opposite perspective -that of an interviewer confronted with a candidate who
may be wise to the "tricks." It presents a list of tips for getting a fair
If this appears a paradox, it is only because these interviews have been
touted as being difficult or impossible to "prepare" for. Most logic puzzles
exploit a relatively small set of mental "tricks." Knowing these tricks, and
knowing the unspoken expectations governing these interviews, can help a
candidate do his or her best.
The hirer, in turn, needs to recognize the possibility of preparation and
structure the interview accordingly. The merits of puzzle interviews are too
often defeated by the hazing-stunt atmosphere in which they are conducted and by
use of trick questions whose solutions are easily remembered.
HOW WOULD YOU MOVE MOUNT FUJI? gives a proposal for how innovative
companies ought to interview and explains how this type of interview can be
improved by refocusing on its original goal of providing information that the
hirer can use.
Copyright © 2003 by William Poundstone