In the Sunday Times I read that Google is going to stop asking the teaser questions at interview such as “How many piano tuners are there in the world?”

The article was based on a more extensive article in the New York Times.

There are a whole heap of these sorts of questions asked at interview and they are meant to test deep thinking.

Some interview are also used at Oxford and Cambridge University but do they test deep thinking? Here are some more examples

  • If the probability of observing a car in 30 minutes on a highway is 0.95, what is the probability of observing a car in 10 minutes (assuming constant default probability)?
  •  If you look at a clock and the time is 3:15, what is the angle between the hour and the minute hands? (The answer to this is not zero!)
  •  Four people need to cross a rickety rope bridge to get back to their camp at night. Unfortunately, they only have one flashlight and it only has enough light left for seventeen minutes. The bridge is too dangerous to cross without a flashlight, and it’s only strong enough to support two people at any given time. Each of the campers walks at a different speed. One can cross the bridge in 1 minute, another in 2 minutes, the third in 5 minutes, and the slow poke takes 10 minutes to cross. How do the campers make it across in 17 minutes?
  • How many piano tuners are there in the entire world?

Laszlo Bock, Senior Vice President, People Operations at Google said “How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart” he told The New York Times.

When I used to work for Royal Mail as interviewers and assessors we would ask questions at interview to see how a candidate would think. Interview questions such as how to move a distribution hub from Manchester to Liverpool or to get the candidate to talk through how to implement a change to driving on the right instead of the left hand side of the road.

But we also used behavioural interviewing. This is where the interviewer asks questions about how the candidate would respond in a particular situation. Occupational Psychologists and other experienced interviewers use these questions as past behaviour is a good indicator of future performance.

This article then moves on to discuss unconventional recruitment techniques such as extreme interviewing and describes Campbell Mithun, an advertising company based in Minneapolis, whose application process was to be in the form of 13 Twitter messages designed to find ‘digitally savvy, creative thought leader’s. But this is about finding candidates, not about the interview.

I’ve heard of an interviewer ask a candidate to shock him, and he threw a chair out the window.

As an occupational psychologist I’ve personal experience of recruitment, being assessed over dinner, and asking for mineral water when I was applying for a job with a water company was probably not a great move. We were also given a large ring binder full of data to read over night. Skimming through took me till 01.00 and I’m still not sure if I should have stayed up all night.

I was also interviewed for a role within a Police Force and the consultant Psychologist sat at the top of a long board room table. When I entered and sat at the table near him he asked me why I didn’t sit at the other end of the table. Because then we would have to shout I answered, which seemed odd and he spent more time telling me about his latest book than asking me questions, and more importantly listening to my answer.

I didn’t get either job, nor did I want them.

And that’s important, when we go for a job interview it’s a two way thing, it is just as important that we, as candidates also get a good vibe about the company and feel like it will be the type of company we want to work for.

The bigger article is well worth reading. Google did what few companies do, a validation study. As a recruitment consultant we never know about the longer term outcome, did the person turn out to be a success, yes they passed their probation period, we hope, but over 3 years or more were they a success? Of course to do this properly we should also take on people who fail the selection process but I’ve not known an organisation do that.

The article also says that GPAs don’t predict success. In the UK graduate recruitment will often put a filter of having a 2.1 or above, but this is mainly to manage the numbers and to aid short listing.

Working on assessment centres as an experienced interviewer, and as a senior manager and project leader I’ve found it is the personal qualities that will be more helpful in predicting success. I want people with drive and determination, resilient to bounce back from disappointment and to put in some effort to try and do something new rather than to keep seeking guidance.

Back when I gained my degree from the Open University, (1988!) having studied part time over 8 years, this was a great example to discuss and showed drive, resilience, commitment and excellent time management.

Google are looking for people who can figure it out, other companies will have different criteria and for some jobs you need your vocational qualification such as to be a chemist, a Quantity Surveyor, an Occupational Psychologist. But there’s still much more. These qualifications just get you to the gate.

Details on how to answer competency based questions in an interview via the links below.

Published On: June 24th, 2013 / Categories: Interviews, Job Search / Tags: , , , /

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