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Mind bender Featured

1:15pm EDT September 22, 2003
How would you weigh a jet plane without using scales?

How do they make M&Ms?

How much river water flows past New Orleans each hour?

If you can't answer these questions, then forget it. You're never getting a job at Microsoft. Because it's those kinds of unusual riddles and logic puzzles that the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant uses to screen its new recruits.

Author William Poundstone has been fascinated by these types of puzzles since he was an 8-year-old boy in West Virginia, when a friend of his father gave him a copy of "Martin Gardner's Mathematical Puzzles & Diversions."

"I gladly devoured that book," says Poundstone, author of nine books and twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. "I bought and read all of Gardner's subsequent books."

Now it's Poundstone's turn. His latest book, "How Would You Move Mount Fuji?" (Little, Brown, 2003) explores the intelligence and creativity testing in corporate America, centering on how Microsoft uses its unconventional testing to select the brightest and most creative young minds.

Poundstone spoke with Smart Business when he was in Cleveland for his sold-out speech at The Weatherhead Bold Thinkers Series at Case Western Reserve University.

What drew you to investigating this kind of testing?

As a kid, I was always crazy about puzzles, and my friends know that.

So, a few years ago I started getting these frantic e-mails from friends that they'd been on a job interview, and they'd ask me the puzzle about the island of truth-tellers and liars, and what's the right answer? After I got a certain critical mass of these e-mails, I figured maybe there's a book here, and I knew it would be a lot of fun to write, which it was.

What happened next?

I checked the Web, and as I mention in the book, there are several people who basically collect these types of interview questions and have them on the Web. I talked to them, and then they put me in touch with the people who had actually contributed these things, and they put in me in touch with their friends, so it just kind of multiplied geometrically. I got tons of people who were willing to help.

How did Microsoft feel about you revealing its testing methods?

Microsoft, officially, did not cooperate with the research, but lots of people from Microsoft did, just on a private basis. Although, I should maybe explain that Microsoft has made peace with it because I was there last month and gave a talk for their speakers' program.

Is this kind of testing a trend among corporations?

Yes. What I found in tracing the history is that it goes back to the 1950s in Silicon Valley, so it's been around awhile, at least in technology companies.

But what's happened in the last few years with a very uncertain economy is that a lot of other companies have started adopting this, and they're almost finding themselves in this quasi-Microsoft condition of having very few open positions and lots of applicants.

What is the appeal of this kind of testing for companies?

Several things. One is just the Microsoft effect: They've heard Microsoft is doing this, Microsoft is successful, so let's try that. Another rationale, the one they use in the technology companies, is that it's really because of the pace of technological change.

It's very hard for a technology company to hire someone just because they have a certain skill set because they know that's going to be obsolete in a few years, and they're hoping the employee won't be obsolete in a few years. So, they're really looking for mental flexibility, and that's what they're trying to gauge here.

The buzzword they tend to use is it's 'noncontent specific knowledge.'

What's the most unusual question you stumbled across in your research?

One that is kind of notorious with Microsoft, it's even unusual for them, is this one: If you could remove any of the 50 states, which would it be and why? Of course the only wrong answer is whatever state you happen to be interviewing in, but I asked a lot of people, how do you evaluate it? If someone says 'Texas,' how do you decide if that's a good answer or not?

What they really want you to do is -- they know it's a stupid question -- but they want you to find some smart way of dealing with this stupid question. The type of approach they like is if you analyze what's going to happen to the people in the state you remove. Are you killing them? Are you paying to relocate them elsewhere?

Sometimes the interviewer will give you a little guidance, but based on that, you want to stay with a very small population, probably one where the aggregate real estate is not very much, so the most popular answer tends to be North Dakota with those criteria. It's the Dakota without Mount Rushmore.

What was the overriding lesson you learned after writing the book?

I started in this thinking puzzles are fun, but I wasn't crazy about the idea of really analyzing people with puzzles. But then what you realize is, if you don't analyze people with these puzzles, you're going to hire on the basis of the firmness of the handshake or whether you like what they're wearing, almost any other criteria that you use being even more arbitrary than this would be.

I ended up feeling that this was a pretty good idea, at least for these companies that are in the position where the technology is changing so quickly. "How Would You Move Mount Fuji?" is available for $22.95 at major booksellers.


The Microsoft interview

Here are some of the unconventional questions Microsoft uses to screen the skills and creativity of potential employees.

* Why are manhole covers round rather than square?

* Why do mirrors reverse right and left instead of up and down?

* Which way should the key turn in a car door to unlock it?

* If you are in a boat and toss a suitcase overboard, will the water level rise or fall?

* How many piano tuners are there in the world?

* What does all the ice in a hockey rink weigh?

* On average, how many times would you have to flip open the Manhattan phone book to find a specific name?

* How would you design Bill Gates' bathroom?

Sorry, there's not enough space to answer these questions here, but they are available in William Poundstone's new book, "How Would You Move Mount Fuji?" (Little, Brown, 2003), available at booksellers everywhere.