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Have you ever heard that question before?

If you have, it’s probably because you’ve read somewhere that it’s one of the questions that Google asks prospective employees during interviews. I don’t know if this is entirely true, because I’ve read accounts of people who have been hired at Google who never had to answer anything like this, and yet other online sources say they do, in fact, ask this and many other bizarre and pointless questions. I’ve had this on my mind for a long time, but today I read a blog post by 37signals (one of the smartest companies I know of) that explains why they don’t hire this way. From my perspective, I can kind of see it both ways.

Part of my job description when I worked for a homebuilder was to screen applicants that wanted a job with our company. We would get lots of applications and resumes, and I would often find myself taking a half-day or even a whole day going through stacks of 25-50 applications trying to look for one or two candidates worth calling for an interview. Though that was time consuming, it was actually fairly easy: all I had to do was go through my stack of resumes with my “junk glasses” on, looking for the ones that were obviously junk and throwing out as many of the “not a good fit” applications as possible. (I actually wrote all about that process here:  “Getting The Job.”)

Aside from finding ways to eliminate the obvious time-wasters, once I actually spoke with someone, whether it was in-person, or on the phone, we had a great little quiz to make the process much easier. All I had to do was ask an applicant the following question, without any warning:

“Explain how you build a house, from start to finish, in 60 seconds or less. Go.”

That’s all the instruction I would give, then I’d sit back and listen. Some people would get really flustered or give up, and some would take the whole minute trying to collect their thoughts. Was I being sadistic? No, and here’s why: the applicants who had the hardest time answering this question were often the ones who had been in the industry for 20 or 30 years and bragged about how experienced they were.

Our little surprise question showed us a few things, including:

  • How the applicant thinks on his toes
  • Whether he actually knew how to build a house or not
  • Whether he could explain the building process to someone else (a crucial skill for a Project Manager or Superintendent)

Did the question annoy them? You bet. Was it unfair? Hardly. Some people were actually able to answer the question, and some aced it. Whether they did a good job or not, nobody had ever been asked a question like that before. Which is kind of funny, because it’s so obvious. If you build houses for a living, you should be able to tell someone how to build one, right?

So while a potential hire would start rattling off various steps to take, I would look at my little cheat sheet that had over 250 bullet points that explained exactly how we would build a house from start to finish. Was my guide the gospel truth? No, but all I was looking for was something close. The interviewee that could calmly and intelligently explain how he would start building a house was usually the one who was called back for another interview. We never used this quiz as the *sole* determining factor for deciding whether an applicant was a keeper or not—it was just one of many stages of the interview, designed to give us a feel for the applicant’s personality, temperament and speaking skills.

So although I do see the value in having a surprise question designed to catch a potential hire off-guard, I really don’t understand why the larger tech companies do (allegedly) ask questions that are downright irrelevant. (“If you were only the size of a nickel and were stuck in a blender, how would you escape?“, “How many piano tuners are there in the entire world?“, etc). That seems unfair, and almost insulting, as if it were designed to make you feel inferior. I hate these questions. And I don’t want to work at a company that would force me to ask them.

**Update 2016**

I’m thrilled to announce that my intuition was accurate: if you actually go to Google’s website and look at their hiring page, they have an FAQ section that says “Does Google still ask brainteasers in job interviews?” Check out their answer:

“Nope. Our data showed that brainteaser questions didn’t predict how well someone would do on the job so we no longer ask them. Instead, we do work sample tests and ask structured interview questions.”

#smile