Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

First test: See how you do with this book.

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    Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?
    By William Poundstone
    Little, Brown
    275 pp.
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You are shrunk to nickel height and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start turning in 60 seconds. What do you do?

You read William Poundstone’s Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google? before you answer. And you may need his book of tough job interview questions like this one, because Google receives a million job applications a year and hires only one of every 130 people interviewed.

The blender question is the kind of mental challenge you can expect in an interview at the search engine giant, where human resources is called People Operations (People Ops) and every job candidate is the subject of a 50-page “package.” This dossier includes detailed information on the potential employee’s academic, professional, and social history, not to mention his or her overall “Googliness.” Yet, after five peer interviews, a candidate is still vetted by hiring committees, and Larry Page must approve every hire. As Poundstone notes, “At Google, hiring is more bureaucracy than algorithm.”

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For some, Google represents a utopian workplace, though it is a utopia with ongoing privacy, copyright, and antitrust concerns. Granted, there are many perks at the Googleplex, including climbing walls, communal scooters, free food, foosball, coin-free laundry machines, foreign language lessons, and an annual ski trip. And Google is considered the most valuable brand in the world, with a worth of approximately $86 billion, according to Millward Brown Optimor. But even in  a utopia, someone has to cook all that free, organic, locally grown food. And a software engineer at Google is still sitting in a cubicle writing code. (Yes, they have cubicles.)

But if you’re determined to pursue a job at Google, or one of the many companies that include logic puzzles in the interviewing process, Poundstone’s collection of questions and answers may be a helpful guide.

Here’s a sample question. Can you swim faster through water or syrup? The surprising answer is there is no difference in speed. The book provides a long explanation detailing why the viscosity doesn’t matter, but if Isaac Newton and Christiaan Huygens couldn’t agree about the answer, I don’t feel the need to supply it here. Even Edward Cussler, the chemical engineering professor who solved the riddle with Brian Gettelfinger, has noted, the reasons for this are “complicated.”

Logic puzzles like the ones presented in Google interviews are an attempt to better predict employee performance. At rapidly expanding companies where a person hired for one position may move into another, asking job candidates to demonstrate specific skills during an interview may not be adequate. The unconventional interview questions for which Google is known are part of an effort to measure mental flexibility, entrepreneurial potential, and the ability to innovate. In other words, Google wants the best overall athlete rather than a position player. This is in part why Google’s interviewing riddles have been eagerly adopted by other companies, where the interviewer asking you to use programming language to describe a chicken may not know the answer himself.

But how innovative is this interviewing process? Most of these mental challenges are answering metaphors with physics. It’s about rational deductive reasoning.

It’s about smart people who read comic books. For example, the answer to the blender question comes down to superheroes. Would you rather be Spiderman, who climbs out of the jar, or Superman, who leaps out? Sorry Spiderman fans, Superman wins. If everything that jumps, from a flea to an NBA star, jumps about 30 inches, then being the height of a nickel will not affect how high you can jump. And since post-shrinkage your surface area to mass will allow you to fall from any height, you will be fine when you land on the other side of the jar. Your post-shrinkage mass and volume may also allow you to climb out of the blender Spiderman style, but you have only 60 seconds. What if you slip and have to try again? In short, Google prefers superheroes from other planets (like Krypton) to ones from planet Earth who can crawl across ceilings but are still susceptible to human frailties.

On the one hand, this style of selecting employees seems very democratic and merit-based, but it is an assessment of a certain kind of intelligence. Maybe this form of measuring talent is a product of our times: test, test, and test again. So brush up on your physics, your Bayesian filtering, and your RSA cryptography.

Can Google interview prep classes be far behind?

Amy Rowland is a freelance writer based in New York.

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