Google starts a fad of “tricky” interview questions

Rochelle Kopp Back when I was in business school, those of us who wanted to work at top tier consulting firms like McKinsey had to learn how to do the dreaded “case interview.” This was an interview technique in which the interviewer (one of the firm’s consultants) would pose to us a problem and ask us to solve it right then and there. Usually it would be something based on one of their current consulting projects. Unlike ordinary job interview questions like “tell me about your greatest strengths and weaknesses”, these questions were terrifying because they were completely unpredictable and forced you to think on your feet.

Now, thanks to the search engine giant Google, these kind of brain teaser interview questions are becoming mainstream in the U.S. It started when a math puzzle was posted on a billboard on Highway 101, the main freeway running through Silicon Valley in 2004. The billboard read”{first 10-digit prime found in consecutive digits e}.com.” The answer,, led to a Web page with yet another equation to solve. If that equation could be solved correctly, one would be led to another web page with a congratulations and an invitation to apply to the company.

The uniqueness of this approach, and its appeal to Silicon Valley’s geeks and their competitive spirit, got a lot of attention for the company and boosted its reputation as an exclusive employer that people would vie to work for. But Google didn’t stop there, it began to incorporate tricky questions and brain teasers into all its interview questions. “How many cows are there in Canada” or ” How many lines can be drawn in a 2D plane such that they are equidistant from 3 non-collinear points? became the questions that people could expect if they were trying to get a job at Google.

As word of Google’s interviewing technique spread, other companies began to adopt these kinds of novel questions. Now more mainstream and established firms such as AT&T, Johnson and Johnson, and Volkswagen are asking unusual things in interviews. The questions don’t always involve hard math problems. For example, the upscale supermarket chain Whole Foods asks applicants to describe their perfect “last meal.” Goldman Sachs asks interviewees the firm’s stock price. Candidates at travel site Expedia are asked where they would pitch their tent if they could travel anywhere. The idea is gauge how a candidate thinks on their feet, and to determine if their style is a match for the company culture.

It’s not proven that such unusual interview questions effective, but they do demonstrate the frustration that many companies have about being able to choose truly the best candidates. And in Silicon Valley, there are rumblings that Google’s emphasis on questions for programming candidates that utilize algorithms learned in school but that don’t have much everyday use thereafter serve as a covert way to discriminate against older applicants whose school days are farther in the past. But now that oddball questions are becoming the norm, it’s something that American job seekers will simply need to get used to.


Japan Intercultural Consulting

3 thoughts on “Google starts a fad of “tricky” interview questions

  1. Lou Adler authored a great book entitled “Hire with Your Head”. The book details many methods to determine the most suitable candidate for a position. None of them that I recall involved silly questions to determine if someone can determine the angle of a vector given a magnitude and theta between 2 points, x and y. One of the most important criteria for hiring someone for a job is have they done it before? If so, how well did they do it? Do they possess the skillset and tools to get the job done? Some people are “savants” and can spew out PI to 200 decimal places. So what? Does this make him the right choice for the position? It does if spewing out PI to 200 decimal places is a big part of the job.

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