Why Google interviews will still be hard

June 21, 2013

Google’s senior vice president of people operations made an interesting disclosure in an interview with The New York Times: brainteasers are pretty much useless outside of being an ego boost for the interviewer.


long- In this Oct. 17, 2012, file photo, a man raises his hand during a meeting at Google offices. (Mark Lennihan/AP)

In the interview, published Wednesday, Laszlo Bock told the Times:

“On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

Instead, Laszlo went on to say, structured behavioral interviews provided a more consistent and reliable way to evaluate candidates, revealing what they find difficult and how “they actually interacted in a real-world situation.” Cue cheers from the global workforce, right? Well, wait a second. The brainteasers may have been deemed useless, but that doesn’t mean Google interviews — or interviews in the tech sector generally — are likely to get any easier.

I asked William Poundstone, author of “Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google,” what he thought of the revelation. Poundstone is also author of “Priceless” and the biography “Carl Sagan“.  He has written for The New York Times, Harvard Business Review, The Economist and Playboy. With that, let’s dive in, shall we? And, yes, I left the brainteasers at home.

Is this a good/bad/neutral move from the perspective of someone hoping to get hired at Google?

I think one point to emphasize is that Google’s interviews have always been difficult, and they’re not changing that. They still ask people to write hundreds of lines of working code in the interview, for instance. In that context, the brainteaser-type questions would be seen as the “fun,” low-pressure part of the interview — to certain people, anyway.

Puzzling interview questions have been a tradition in the tech industry since at least 1950, when IBM began using them. They have almost always been an underground phenomenon, perpetuated by the rank-and-file employees who conduct the interviews and (usually) frowned upon by the human resources staff. Periodically a company will announce that they’re banning such questions — Microsoft tried, though it doesn’t seem to have had a long-term effect. It’s a little like a college announcing that they’re banning frat keggers and hazing. The trouble is, it isn’t the dean who’s doing these things, it’s the frat boys, and they’re hard to police. I can’t say whether this time will be any different, but it has been tried before.

If, given the opportunity to launch in on writing a book today, what would you write about hiring at Google?

My book does go into many other unusual/innovative hiring practices at Google, including their use of “the package,” a dossier they compile on every job applicant. (For the record the book mainly isn’t about Google; we just used it for the title because it’s always in the news and known for tough interviews. There are crazy/puzzling/deceptive questions at all sorts of companies, from AT&T to Wal-Mart. Generally speaking, this is a phenomenon wherever non-HR employees conduct interviews.)

Finally, do you have a favorite brainteaser that you would be sad to see go?

I don’t think it’s a good or fair question, but there is a certain crazy charm to “How would you weigh your head?”

Disclosure: Emi’s sibling went through the Google interview process successfully.

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Emi Kolawole | June 21, 2013