All of the above are real questions you may be asked at a job interview for Google or a number of other top companies. In today’s new economy, one marked by significantly more job applicants than positions available, many employers are free to choose among a pool of well-qualified applicants in order to find the best fit for the company. For many firms, this means throwing “oddball” questions at interview candidates in order to test creativity and mental thought process. William Poundstone, author of the recently released book “Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?” took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some questions from the Northwestern Business Review on the historic evolution of the job interview, the different types of questions job candidates can now expect and the effects of the tough job market on interviewing.
NBR: What is the main message you are trying to get across in your book?
Poundstone: Job interviews used to be conversations where employers would typically ask behavioral questions such as “Describe your worst fault?” or “How do you get along with coworkers?” Today, in the tight job market, employers are obligated to be a little pickier than they have been. This started in the technology industry but it has spread across the board. Employers now expect to see how you think during a job interview. It is not so much that the new questions are incredibly hard, it is more a matter of being prepared about what to expect.
NBR: In your book, you talk a lot about the new economy. What is it about the tough job market that is prompting companies to throw “oddball” questions at interview candidates?
Poundstone: There is this feeling that things are changing so quickly that a company can’t hire someone for a certain set of skills because that job will be obsolete in six months. Google is the most extreme case of it but the phenomenon is happening everywhere. At Google, a lot of people are hired for one job but now work in a completely different department doing something else. It is creative thinking type questions that address that concern.
NBR: Could you briefly go through a couple of these different types of questions candidates can expect in a job interview at Google?
Poundstone: The most common are Fermi questions, where the candidate will be asked to estimate something really crazy like the amount of window cleaners in Seattle or golf balls in a bus. These questions have bcome common not only in technology but also in banking, insurance even at companies like Volkswagen. These questions test certain thought processes, such as how you evaluate a certain population or put a lot of information together. Of course, once you are hired no one will ask you these types of questions but this is something you need to know how to do to get hired. Another type of question that candidates can expect is the logic question, pioneered by Microsoft. However, a lot of companies are moving away from questions with clever, defined answers to more open ended questions. One example is “How would you weigh your head?” which can be viewed as an engineering problem with many different answers.
NBR: In your book, you mention the evolution of human resources departments toward finding a better way to evaluate candidates. Can you briefly talk about that and how its shaped the interview questions that Google and other companies are asking today?
Poundstone: Human resource departments tried to do behavioral questions or use biodata, for example if you had an early interest in aviation or computers, you would probably be good at that. There was some validity to that method. What I think scared a lot of people was study conducted at Harvard, in which a random sample of people were asked to examine video tapes of interviews, ten-second clips of interviews. After watching the clip, they were asked whether they would hire certain candidates based only on the ten-second clip. What they found was the verdict of those people was statistically indistinguishable from what the interviewers came up with after hour-long interviews. So either people are good at judging character or people are incredibly swayed by first appearances; it had to be the latter. Today, human resources are open to many new ideas to combat that problem, asking difficult types of questions is one such method they have adapted.
NBR: What is the best advice you can give a young graduate looking to work at Google or any innovative company today in terms of getting through one of these tough interviews?
Poundstone: These are very tough interviews and you cannot fake your way through them. So you have to be comfortable and understand that the first idea that pops into your head is most likely going to be the wrong answer. That gives you a running start; you can identify to the interviewer that the obvious answer would be so and so and then explain why its wrong. It is really the thought process that matters and not your final answer. Companies really want to see how you develop your thoughts. Also, if asked to answer a trick question or difficult puzzle, many people don’t realize that it is an interactive process and do not ask the interviewer for clarifications or assumptions they can make. That is also really important during the interview stage.