March 02, 2013

google leads the world in ... oddball interview questions... ?!? (part 1 in a rant on searching for your HR mission)

Human Resources is one of those areas that seemed fatally closed to the geek world. Warning to reader: if you do not think Human Resources displays the highest volatility in ROI of any decision you can make, you're probably not going to want to read anything more of this rant. However, if you are bemused about oddball questions asked at interviews, maybe there is something here for you.

A rant in three parts (I, II, III).

Let's talk about google, which leads the world in infamous recruiting techniques. So much so that an entire industry of truthsayers, diviners and astrologers have sprung up around companies like it, in order to prepare willing victims with recipes of puzzlers, newts eyes and moon dances.

Why is this? Well, one of the memes in the press is about strange interview questions, and poking sly fun at google in the process:

  • "Using only a four-minute hourglass and a seven-minute hourglass, measure exactly nine minutes--without the process taking longer than nine minutes,"
  • "A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?"

These oddball questions are all very cute and the sort of teasers we all love to play as children. More. But what do they have to do with google?

To be fair to them, it looks like google don't ask these questions at all and indeed may have banned them entirely but we need a foil to this topic, so let's play along as if they do spin some curveballs for the fun of it.

Let's answer the implied question of "what's the benefit?" by reference to other so-called oddball questions:

  • "If Germans were the tallest people in the world, how would you prove it?" -- Asked at Hewlett-Packard, Product Marketing Manager candidate
  • "Given 20 'destructible' light bulbs (which break at a certain height), and a building with 100 floors, how do you determine the height that the light bulbs break?" -- Asked at Qualcomm, Engineering candidate
  • "How do you feel about those jokers at Congress?" -- Asked at Consolidated Electrical, Management Trainee candidate

The first one is straight marketing, understanding how to segment the buyers. The second is straight engineering, and indeed every computer scientist should know the answer: binary search. Third one? How to handle a loaded question.

So, all these have their explanation. Oddball questions might have merit. They are searching... but more than that, they are *directly related to the job*. But what about:

  • "How would you cure world hunger?" -- Asked at, Software Developer candidate

A searching question, I'll grant! But this question has flaws. Other than discovering ones knowledge of modern economics (c.f., Yunis, de Soto) or politics or entrepreneurship or farming, how does it relate to ... software? Amazon? Retail markets? It doesn't, I'll say (and I'll leave what it does relate to, and how dangerous that is, as an exercise to the reader after having read all 3 posts).

Now back to google's alleged questions. First above (hourglasses) was a straight mathematical teaser, but maths has little to do with software. OK, so there is a relationship but these days *any discipline on the planet* is about as related as mathematics, and some are far more relevant. We'll develop this theme in the next post.

Second question above, about pushing cars to a hotel. What's that about? Actually, the real implied question is, "did you grow up with a certain cultural reference?" Again, nothing to do with software (which I think google still does) and bugger all to do with anything else google might get access to. Also rather discriminatory, but that's life.

In closing, I'll conclude: asking or being asked oddball questions is not a correlation with a great place to work. Indeed, chances are, it is reversely correlated, but I'll leave the proof of that for part 2.

Posted by iang at March 2, 2013 02:58 AM | TrackBack

Cook's Law

"The Decline of any Organisation begins with the appointment of the first Human Resources person"

....because that means that the founders have delegated an essential function to someone with no stake in the outcome.

Posted by: Chris at March 2, 2013 06:30 AM

Speaking as a guy who interviews people that third question [Jokers] is highly relevant if asked by the team the person will be working with instead of the initial HR person as it's indicative of how well they will mesh with the team and how they think. In real life personality matter and having a black panther and a KKK member on the same team doesn't end with two highly productive workers nor does hiring somebody who despises unions into a low level union job gig. The real challenge, given obnoxious discrimination laws, is getting folk to answer the question honestly or making sure the questions you ask don't run afoul of some policy. Nothing worse that hiring a person only to find out oil and water.

As for the world hunger question, I love asking questions like that also (and hell, might even use it now). Not because there is a right or wrong answer (I'm indifferent how you choose to answer it though your answer might lead to more branching questions) but it shows how you think. If you can't methodically come up with an answer (even if wrong IMO) or answer at all (i.e. you just perm freeze) then I don't need you in a technical position give you inability to troubleshoot.

The only real problem is when the interviewer expects the interviewee to confirm the interviewers biases / world view on these questions (i.e. gotcha questions). To try and avoid this I make a consciousnesses effort to focus on the the process, not the actual belief, i.e. when I say "your answer wont' be used against you" I truly do mean it short of, as I said, a non-answer/freeze.

Posted by: Peter at March 4, 2013 02:35 PM

"[...] Human Resources [...] neither are they human nor are they resources." -- Mike Williams from Ericsson (IIRC)

Posted by: JH at March 6, 2013 10:26 AM

I was part of the "stupid oddball questions" chorus before I actually started preparing for my Google interviews. Lo and behold, after some quality time with an algorithms book (never studied CS), most[0] of the questions I had thought stupid puzzles unrelated to software turned out to have straight up solutions that jumped at you if the basics of sorting, searching and data structures were on your mind, and as such seem quite relevant to identifying candidates that had not only studied these things out of a book, but were also able to apply them to real world problems.

The hourglasses are a great example - if you're smart and think algorithms, the state space and search tree jump out at you and enable you to find an answer, then generalize to finding all times you could possibly measure with this set of hour glasses, then any combination of hour glasses, how long that would take and so on.

My actual (engineering) interviews were quite straightforward software questions btw, with the potential exception of one aside that was about a concretized variant of the halting problem.

Eagerly waiting for part 2 and part 3 then.

[0] I still fail to see the point of the monopoly thing, and there are a few other questions that are just stupid, but most of the time when I hear dumb examples, they're from the forbidden list.

Posted by: Thomas Themel at March 9, 2013 04:39 AM

So how do to people managment and hire people then while I agree with everything you wrote?

Posted by: alex at May 7, 2015 01:01 PM
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