Are You a Koan Head?

Get Your Lego Skills in Gear: Acing a Job Interview Just Got More Puzzling

"Brainteasers that have [one right] answer are fairly stressful," reports Meyzin, who eventually took a job with an upstart consulting firm. "The key is to take one step at a time and play off the interviewer's reaction. Most of the time they realize it's extremely difficult to solve the problem on the spot, so they will hint whether you're on the right track or not. They want to see how fast and coherently you think under pressure, and how poised you remain when you're stuck—whether you panic or pick yourself up and attack in a different direction."

Obviously, the more possible answers, the merrier the candidate. By posing the elevator conundrum, Meyzin says, "The interviewer wants to see if I can make plausible assumptions and develop a hypothesis based on them. They're also looking for originality. When I got those I really tried to have a good time with them and show a sense of humor. Knowing you can be wrong by two orders of magnitude, and still give an answer the interviewer likes, definitely takes off a lot of pressure."

One of Gates's many mottos, immortalized as a book title, is "Business @ the Speed of Thought," and there are surely worse ways to assess a person's intellectual capacities than essentially asking him to think out loud. But Fuji's reservations about the puzzle paradigm might well be gleaned from one of its epigraphs: "To understand that cleverness can lead to stupidity is to be close to the ways of Heaven." (Spinal Tap fans, note the echo.) Poundstone explains, "One of the first reactions almost everyone has to Microsoft-style interviewing is 'Gee, people who can solve logic puzzles are clever,' and OK, clever is good, but does cleverness necessarily translate into real-world skills? If not, focusing on cleverness could be 'stupid.' "

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