The job interview is today. You have your sharp suit, typo-free resume and elevator pitch. You’ve researched the company and practiced responses to questions such as “tell me about yourself” and “explain your weaknesses.” But are you prepared to answer how many golf balls can fit into a school bus?
That question was asked of Don Dodge when he interviewed for a developer advocate position at Google, according to the Boston Globe. “Sometimes the precise answer doesn’t matter,” Dodge said. “The purpose is to observe your thought process, test your quick thinking ability under pressure, and see how you articulate your thoughts and ideas.”
Logic puzzles, riddles, hypothetical questions and trick questions have a long tradition in computer-industry interviews. They’re used by employers to weed out brilliant superstars from average programmers. The reason is that high tech employees are expected to adapt to rapidly changing landscapes and tools, question assumptions, think outside the box and have effective critical and analytical thinking skills.
Microsoft is notorious for using unconventional interview questions in their hiring. In the book How Would You Move Mount Fuji? (whose title is based on an actual interview question), the Microsoft process is explained:
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.
Previous interview questions at Microsoft include: Why aren’t manhole covers square? How would you test a vending machines? Design a cellphone for a blind person. How would you explain what a database is to a five-year-old?
Most logic puzzles use a relatively small set of mental “tricks,” explains the book Studying some unusual questions and knowing the unspoken expectations on how you go about answering them can help immensely.
Here’s a list of questions outlined in How Would you Move Mount Fuji? When preparing for your next interview, you may want to ponder how would answer these, or other logic puzzles, to land the job.
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?
— Chandler Harris