What would happen if you went into an interview and, instead of asking you about your experience with wireless technologies, the interviewer asked you why manhole covers are round instead of square? (Round covers won't fall through.)
According to a report on money.cnn.com, questions like these are being asked more frequently at A-list tech companies. Some companies feel that these kinds of off-the-wall questions are key to finding the best personnel. From the article:
"Seemingly random questions like these have become commonplace in Silicon Valley and other tech outposts, where companies aren't as interested in the correct answer to a tough question as they are in how a prospective employee might try to solve it. Since businesses today have to be able to react quickly to shifting market dynamics, they want more than engineers with high IQs and good college transcripts. They want people who can think on their feet."
The strategy reminds me a little of the Sphinx from Greek mythology who asked passersby the famous riddle:
"Which creature in the morning goes on four feet, at noon on two, and in the evening upon three?" (The answer: Humans, who crawl as babies, walk as adults, and shuffle using a cane later in life. Let's hope Silicon Valley doesn't fully adopt the riddle strategy since the Sphinx strangled anyone unable to answer the question.
Most people credit Microsoft with being the first to insert logic questions into interviews in order to measure a candidate's creativity and ability to think on his feet. The interviewer doesn't necessarily want the correct answer, but is looking to see if you can make an estimate in the ballpark, "within an order of magnitude."
The questions can get weirder and even more complicated. According to the money.cnn.com piece, eBay often hits candidates with this word problem:
You have five pirates, ranked by seniority from 5 to 1 in descending order. The top pirate has the right to propose how 100 gold coins should be divided among them. But the others get to vote on his plan, and if fewer than half agree with him, he gets killed. How should he allocate the gold in order to maximize his share but live to enjoy it? For the answers to this riddle and others you may encounter, see Techinterview.org.
(Personally, I would just look at the interviewer, smile sagely, and ask, "How close is the pirate to retirement age?" just to show him I can be as weird as his questions.)
Google is gaining a reputation as being one of the quirkier companies with which to interview. About three years ago Google posted complex math problems on a billboard in the Silicon Valley. Passing motorists were invited to submit their solutions to a Website whose address was hidden in the answer.
Wow. Wonder if there's also a secret handshake once you get hired on?
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.