Saturday, January 7, 2012


Could you make it past Google's gatekeepers?

Sally Adee, features editor
9780316187671.jpgHow many taxis are there in New York City? You either know how to answer that question or you don’t. If you read William Poundstone's Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? you’ll find out the trick.
And they really ask you that question when you interview at Google. A friend of mine recently spent the day in a tent at the Googleplex in front of a rolling cast of interviewers, one of whom asked the taxi question. Knowing her, she probably rolled her eyes. She didn’t get the job.She thought the question was ridiculous, but the book explains why Google—a famously creative, anarchic place where the number of job applicants per year could probably populate a small European country—uses this class of question to cull the choicest cuts of meat from the job seeking hordes. Everybody wants to work for Google, and when thousands of identically amazing people apply to work for you, you need to get creative about sorting the wheat from the chaff. It’s hard even for Google to know ahead of time whether a person will be a good fit. Most companies rely on interview chemistry, which has been proven again and again to be no better than chance. You’ve probably guessed by now that the answer to the taxi question isn’t about pinning down the exact number; it’s all about watching a prospective employee think on her, or his, feet in real time. The taxi question is meant to elicit some kind of basic knowledge from you: the population of New York (indicating that you’re in touch with a few basic real world facts), which, more importantly, you then use as a starting point for a guided tour through your deductive reasoning process.Google may be famous for this interview technique, but they’re no longer the only company trying to do it. In a job market with ever fewer jobs to offer the ever-increasing ranks of the unemployed, now companies much less attractive than Google can afford to make applicants sweat with real-time logic puzzles.But there’s an art to these invasive questions, as Poundstone reveals in this neat little manifesto on interview technique. An interviewer gets little from asking the first thing that pops into their head if they have no clear idea of what the answer should reveal about the candidate.In the book’s most cringe-inducing anecdote, Poundstone relates the story of an overenthusiastic newbie interviewer asking a hapless interviewee a spontaneously generated question about what he’d do if he met the Devil. “Run?” the interviewee offered timidly. “You WASTE HIM!” the interviewer shrieks in response. Perhaps it won’t surprise you that the results of this kind of freelancing are useful for neither party.By far the strongest chapter of the book is Poundstone’s breakdown of how to tackle questions like the taxi dilemma. Touring through a huge number of similar puzzles, he provides a truly exhaustive account of all the factors you’re meant to consider when thinking your way through the solutions. Tackling these puzzles is incredibly gratifying, when you’re not withering under the baleful eye of a potential employer.Though the challenge of becoming winningly creative is appealing - after all, don’t we all want to be smart enough to deduce the approximate number of taxis in New York City? - I find it troubling that the prospective employees are asked to dance for interviewers at gunpoint in this way, regardless of the job up for grabs.The philosophy behind the social welfare system in Germany, for example, used to be that an out-of-work accountant should be supported by the state until he or she can find that same class of job again. Don’t make him or her get a job at Starbucks. Not because the candidate is better than Starbucks, but because they will take the Starbucks job from someone whose education precludes him from applying for the open accountant jobs.Can you be a good employee and not be able to answer these questions?  More important, what happens when everyone asks these questions and everyone has heard the answers and knows how to regurgitate them on command? Will that necessitate a sequel: Are You Still Smart Enough to Work at Google? At the very least, Poundstone is ensuring job security for himself.

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