Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?

William Poundstone’s new bookAre You Smart Enough to Work at Google? is a 21st-Century guide to landing a job in the competitive, creative world of today’s top companies. Interviewers at many of the largest companies- not just  hip Silicon Valley start-ups and Google – including AT&T, Johnson & Johnson, Bank of America, and even Walmart are asking seemingly impossible-to-answer interview questions that test one’s creativity and divergent thinking. Gone are the days of just quizzing you about past jobs and where you want to be in five years. With a glut of job seekers – outnumbering openings 6 to 1 – top companies can afford to be choosy and seek the best of the best.

Probably the most useful aspect of this book, in my opinion, is the definition and exploration of different types of questions and how to recognize them when they pop up in the interview. Here are a few examples:

Fermi Questions. Named for the physicist Enrico Fermi (1901-54), these are questions that ask for a quick, off-the-cuff estimate of an unknown quantity. The assumption is that any critical thinker should be able to estimate odd quantities in an interview.

  • Fermi’s most famous classroom riddle: “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?”
  • How many gas stations are there in the United States? [asked at General Motors]
  • How many garbage collectors are there in California? [Apple]
  • How many golf balls would fit in a stadium? [JP Morgan Chase]

Algorithm Question. You are asked how you would perform a task and are usually graded on how well your solution conserves time, effort, or money. There are any number of answers to the question. They usually involve

  • a task that has nothing to do with the work for which you are applying
  • an odd constraint on the task
  • a goal
  • an algebraic N, usually a big round number like 100, 1000, etc.
  • EXAMPLE: You work in a 100-storey building and are given two identical eggs. You have to determine the highest floor from which an egg can be dropped without breaking. You are allowed to break both eggs in the process. How many drops would it take you?
  • ANOTHER EXAMPLE: You’ve got a fleet of fifty trucks, each with a full tank of gas and a range of 100 miles. How far can you deliver a payload? What if you have N trucks?

Whiteboarding. You will be asked to diagram your thoughts as you answer a difficult question.

  • Break a stick at random into three pieces. What’s the probability the pieces can be put together to form a triangle?
  • How many lines can be drawn in a plane such that they are equidistant from three noncollinear points?

Standard logic puzzle.

  • You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

After browsing through this book, I discovered that, no, I am not smart enough to work at Google. But for the young, creative thinker, the book provides a pretty good guide on the types of questions to look for and how to prepare yourself for them. It will definitely give you a leg up on someone who has never been exposed to these types of interview questions.