When You Can’t Solve That Brain-Stumper

puzzle pieces

Although many tech firms have voluntarily abandoned the “creative” brainteasers that stumped many a job candidate, interviewers still like to hurl the occasional coding or word puzzle at the candidate. (“Why are manhole covers round?” might have gotten old around 1998 or so, but calculating probabilities or finding sub-arrays with the largest sum never gets old.)

Many tech pros are problem solvers, and can work almost any puzzle if given enough time. But every so often, a question comes along that taxes their analytical skills; no matter how much they mentally wrestle with its variables, the answer doesn’t seem to manifest. What do you do if this happens during a job interview?

Unfortunately, the interviewer will probably count your inability to find the correct answer against you. That being said, working through the problem in an analytical and careful way can still score you points; and if you get close enough to the solution, while displaying solid reasoning skills, you might be able to mitigate nearly all the damage from not having arrived at the right answer.


In general, it’s a good idea to incorporate a little puzzle work into your interview-preparation regimen. Even if the interviewer poses a problem you’ve never seen before, working on practice brainteasers beforehand will put your brain on the right analytical footing.

Take a Shot

Picture this: Your interviewer presents a puzzle. It’s a real head-thumper, the sort of thing you dreaded. You know from the first instant you’ll never solve it. What to do? Instead of saying, “I don’t know,” spend a moment (or three) plotting a line of attack, and then try working the problem through. At each stage, explain your thinking. Make it clear that you’re the type of job candidate who perseveres, and can analyze things.

Stay Strong

Puzzle questions that revolve around code are meant to test your aptitude as a programmer. Generalized puzzlers, on the other hand, are more to evaluate your flexibility and analytics skills. But don’t lose heart if you can’t figure out the solution: Most jobs don’t require candidates to definitively answer complicated conundrums in under 10 minutes. And if you work the interview problem as hard as possible, chances are decent that the interviewer will be impressed with your tenacity.