The Brain Teaser Route to World Domination

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Over at the Observer, Leo Benedictus reviews William Poundstone’s Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

Some way into this book, you realise something, or at least I did. Only the first 136 pages have anything to do with Google’s interview technique. The rest, for almost as many pages, is consumed by “answers” to the many questions that we find along the way….Might I have preferred to settle down with a book that didn’t bother trying to be a practical, topical and revealing guide to hi-tech job interviews, but instead just called itself “101 Great Maths and Logic Puzzles”?

….You will get to ponder things like this: “You’re playing football on a desert island and want to toss a coin to decide the advantage. Unfortunately, the only coin on the island is bent and is seriously biased. How can you use the biased coin to make a fair decision?”….There is quite a lot of sucking up to Google, actually, even though the effectiveness of the company’s methods is far from proven.

Indeed. First Microsoft, and then all of Silicon Valley, became famous for subjecting potential hires to questions like the one above, or queries about how many gas stations there are in the United States. But has anybody ever produced even halfway persuasive evidence that this is a great way of hiring brilliant employees? My own suspicion is that it isn’t. It rewards a certain kind of shallow cleverness that might well be useful in certain roles at high-tech companies, but I’d be surprised if it were anything more. In fact, putting together an entire company characterized by shallow cleverness might well be sowing the seeds of one’s own destruction. It’s a mental trait that I suspect is organizationally useful is modest quantities, but might very well be actively harmful in larger quantities. Even in the high-tech world, producing clever coding hacks is only a tiny part of success.

But then, I have no proof of that either. All I know is that I’d probably be reluctant to work for a company that even asked questions like this in the first place. It’s a fad, and a lazy way of convincing yourself that you’ve figured out a shortcut to assembling a world-class staff. But there are no shortcuts. Not even in Silicon Valley.

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