I was immediately taken by its title, “How Would You Move Mount Fuji?” Below the title, there are tag lines that say – Microsoft’s Cult of The Puzzle and How the World’s Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers. William Poundstone makes it easy and enjoyable to read.
The synopsis: For years, Microsoft and other high-tech companies have been posing riddles and logic puzzles like these in their notoriously grueling job interviews. Now “puzzle interviews” have become a hot new trend in hiring. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, employers are using tough and tricky questions to gauge job candidates’ intelligence, imagination, and problem-solving ability – qualities needed to survive in today’s hypercompetitive global marketplace. For the first time, William Poundstone reveals the toughest questions used at Microsoft and other Fortune 500 companies – and supplies the answers. He traces the rise and controversial fall of employer-mandated IQ tests, the peculiar obsessions of Bill Gates (who plays jigsaw puzzles as a competitive sport), the sadistic mind games of Wall Street (which reportedly led one job seeker to smash a forty-third-story window), and the bizarre excesses of today’s hiring managers (who may start off an interview with a box of Legos or a game of virtual Russian roulette). Managers seeking the most talented employees will learn to incorporate puzzle interviews in their search for the top candidates. Job seekers will discover how to tackle even the most brain-busting questions and gain the advantage that could win the job of a lifetime. And anyone who has ever dreamed of going up against the best minds in business may discover that these puzzles are simply a lot of fun.
Here is the list of things that I found informative and amusing in this book:
- Microsoft’s interviewing practices are a product of the pressures of the high-technology marketplace. Software is about ideas, not assembly lines, and those ideas are always changing. A software company’s greatest asset is a talented workforce. “The most important thing we do is hire great people,” Microsoft CEO Steve Balmer has stated more than once.
- How do you recognize great people? It is harder than ever to equate talent with a specific of skills. Skills can become obsolete practically overnight. So can business plans. Microsoft is conscious that it has to be looking for people capable of inventing the Microsoft of five or ten years hence. Microsoft’s hiring focuses on the future tense. More than most big companies, Microsoft accepts rather than resist the “job candidates as blank slate.” Its stated goal is to hire for what people can do rather than what they’ve done.
- Microsoft does puzzle interview because it does not want to see itself as a place for high-IQ never-do-wells. One of the claimed merits of its interviews is that they test motivation and persistence. The successful puzzle solver must be persistent as well as smart.
- Microsoft’s people are “hard core” and it’s a place where winning is everything. Possibly Bill Gates’s most famous saying is “That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!!!” A runner up is “Why don’t you just give up your stock options and join the peace corps?!?” (meaning you’re fired!)
- Like Gates himself, Microsoft’s hiring has always been cautious. Gates wanted to be sure that everyone hired was very good at what he or she was supposed to do. Programming candidates were expected to write code during the interview. From Microsoft’s viewpoint, puzzles test competitive edge as well as intelligence. Like business or football, a logic puzzle divides the world into winners and losers. You either get the answer, or you don’t. As a coach will tell you, winning is more than ability. You have to be hungry. Winning has to matter.
- Joel Spolsky, now CEO of Fog Creek Software in New York, sees two biggest challenges in technical hiring are identifying people who are smart but don’t get things done and people who get things done but aren’t smart. A company in a competitive industry needs to avoid hiring both classes of people. These two groups of people can be hard to distinguish from those you do want to hire, people who are smart and get things done.
- “Paradigm” is a popular word in the Microsoft vocabulary. Bill Gates claims that no corporation has ever managed to maintain its position of dominance through a paradigm shift in technology. (Therefore, big, successful Microsoft is in constant peril from every upstart start-up.) Gates has said that his goal is for Microsoft to break that rule and find a way of prospering through paradigm shifts.
- When the technology is changing beneath your feet daily, there is not much point in hiring for a specific, soon-to-be-obsolete set of skills. You have to try to hire for a general problem-solving capacity, however difficult that may be.
- A bad hiring decision is likely to hurt the company more than a good hiring decision will help it. Above all, you want to avoid bad hires.
- Remember, the guiding principle should be that it’s better to lose some good people in order to avoid hiring unsuitable people. One weakness of interviewing is that smart people generally come off well. Selective companies tend to hire smart people and then are baffled when some turn out to be disastrous employees. Just like everyone else, smart people can lack motivation.
- It is not intelligence, not solely. Confidence and motivation figure into it too. The ability to accept uncertainty, questions assumptions, and bring projects to completion is one way of putting it.
- OK, let me know your answer to this question: In front of you are two doors. One leads to your interview, the other to an exit. Next to the door is a consultant. He may be from our firm or from a rival. The consultants from our company always tell the truth. The consultants from the other company always lie. You are allowed to ask the consultant one question to find out which is the door to your interview. What would you ask?
As for me… what do I look when I interview a would-be candidate? I observe and look at overall package – the way people talk, the way people walk, their body language, their assertiveness, their honesty, how well they know their previous work, how they relate to their team, etc. Nah… I mostly rely on my intuition for hire- or no-hire decision. However I like a person if my heart says ‘no hire’, I do trust it.