William Poundstone demystifies Google interview questions

Why is it that Google asks such puzzling questions during its interviews? That is the question William Poundstone, author of the new book Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?, sought to answer in his lecture at Medill on Tuesday.

“Why would someone ask a question where the interviewer may not know the answer, where maybe no one in the world knows the answer?” Poundstone asked.

Poundstone explained the history behind the use of logic puzzles in interviews, and using a highly publicized example interview question from Google, he led the audience through the steps of a successful answer:

1. Keep talking – avoid dead air

2. Ask for clarification or details

3. Describe why the obvious answer fails

4. Look for the parts of the question that don’t fit

5. Form analogies

6. Critique your ideas and settle on the best one

In sum, it comes down to a thought process. There isn’t necessarily one correct answer to each of these logic questions; the interviewers want to know how interviewees approach problems and think creatively about their solutions.

Watch William Poundstone’s complete lecture.

“I think the more thoughtful people at Google would tell you that it’s not so much a matter of being smart enough to work at Google, as it is just having this passion that will allow you to keep plugging away at a problem until you find whatever you need to find,” Poundstone added.

Poundstone said that the growing popularity of logic puzzles as interview questions today may have to do with the economic climate. With so many people out of work, companies are receiving many qualified applicants and need a way to distinguish between the good and the great.

IMC student Chris Egusa said that the lecture provided him with information that he will be able to use in the future.

“The big takeaway for me was the understanding of the philosophy behind it,” Egusa said of the propensity of interviewers to ask logic questions during interviews. “To understand it from a bigger context than me trying to get a job.”

Poundstone’s talk was the first of three Knight Chair Lectures to be presented by authors of Google-focused books this spring. The lectures coincide with a Special Topics undergraduate course about Google and the American Media taught by Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy Owen Youngman.

“I was looking for a way to get undergraduates thinking about the ambiguous, complicated world in which they'll be doing journalism,” Youngman said. “That's a big topic, so I asked myself if there was a single lens we could use to make it manageable. And because Google seems to be neatly everywhere – yet is just one organization – I thought it could be that lens.”

The next Knight Chair Lecture will be given by Siva Vaidhyanathan on March 8.

“I was blown away by Siva Vaidhyanathan's book The Googlization of Everything (and Why We Should Worry)," said Youngman. “He will be surprising and insightful and maybe a little controversial. So that will be fun.”