Are You a Koan Head?


Much like the U.S. government, Microsoft tends to consider itself exempt from standard operating procedure, as its antitrust woes have indicated all too well. And Bill Gates’s baby certainly doesn’t follow the usual script in selecting staff, as illustrated in William Poundstone’s forthcoming book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji?: Microsoft’s Cult of the Puzzle (Little, Brown). The Redmond, Washington-based behemoth gets some 12,000 résumés monthly; if lucky enough to be plucked from the herd, an aspiring ‘Softie journeys to headquarters for a day-long interview mill. Current employees pummel supplicants with confounding math and logic puzzles, occasionally jacking up anxiety levels with openly rude behavior.

They also volley an eccentric type of non-quantitative question, resembling a Rorschach blot or a Zen-koan parody: How would you make an M&M? Which U.S. state would you remove? How would you design Bill Gates’s bathroom? After long hours of straining the mind’s muscles to the limit, the exhausted candidate may feel he’s not only been asked how to move Mount Fuji, but lugged it across Honshu on his back.

Until a few years ago, such trial by fire only posed a concern for applicants to Microsoft and other software firms looking for the proverbial outside-the-box thinkers. Increasingly, though, the “cult of the puzzle” has infiltrated investment banking and management consulting. (On the job-search site, the subject heading of a post to the law-school message board last August read, “Logic games are kicking my arse.”)

In a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles, Poundstone says, “Particularly with the economic downturn, people are looking at which corporate cultures have succeeded. Microsoft seems to have weathered this pretty well compared to all the other dotcom companies, and part of it seems to be an ethos of an extremely competitive workplace.”

As Poundstone writes in Fuji, “The uncertainties of a wired, ever-shifting global marketplace are imposing a start-up mentality throughout the corporate and professional world. That world is now adopting the peculiar style of interviewing that was formerly associated with lean, hungry technology companies.” Odd as these lines of inquiry might seem, they’re designed to gauge flexibility and creativity in problem-solving, not to mention how quickly and persistently your synapses can fire under stress. For more and more job seekers, it’s no longer enough to research a target company and prep a few flattering anecdotes.

As Fuji makes clear, Microsoft did not pioneer the idea of interview as sudden-death braintease. Nobel laureate William Shockley, the racist, paranoiac, and brilliant founder of the short-lived Silicon Valley pioneer Shockley Semiconductor, used logic puzzles in hiring his engineers in 1957. Hewlett-Packard was doing it in 1979. “As with so many other things,” Poundstone writes, “Microsoft seems to have appropriated an idea that was already in the air and made it famous.” The pressure cooker of an MS interrogation, wherein mental duress is often compounded by intimations of hostility or humiliation, aims to replicate the Gatesian office environment, depicted in Fuji as a secretive frat house for workaholics with penchants for practical jokes and anger mismanagement.

“From their early days they had a nerd-hacker ethos; you were basically hired on your ability to sit in a cubicle for 18 hours a day drinking Pepsi and eating Doritos,” Poundstone says. “I don’t think they’ve really changed that much. The terminology they use is ‘Bill clones.’ Part of the reason they ask these puzzles is to see if you fit into their corporate culture.”

Evidently, more companies want to be like Bill. The 2003 edition of the get-a-job bible What Color Is Your Parachute? still contends there are only “five questions that matter.” (E.g., “Why are you here?”) But Marcy Lerner, VP of content for, says that finance and consulting firms have been adapting the MS template for about five years now. “The classic Microsoft question is ‘Why is a manhole round?’ ” she says. “We’ve heard that one from all sorts of companies.”

When not Googling common questions and answers (for a good start, check out Chris Sells’s site,, prospectors may want to take a crash course in a discipline you might call quasi-math. “Some of these questions aren’t brainteasers per se, but more like guesstimates,” Lerner explains. “They might ask, ‘How many traffic lights are there in Manhattan?’ They might not have the right answer, but they want to see how a person would go about estimating the number. And then they might say, ‘OK, can you give me another way you might come to that estimate?’ ”

But there’s no way to cram for an interview that turns into a bizarre experiment in workers’ playtime. “The most extreme example is when they just give you a sack of Lego blocks and you have to build something,” says Poundstone, “and then when you’re done, you have to explain why you built it.”

This past autumn, Yale senior Ilya Meyzin did the interview rounds at the top New York investment and consulting firms. (No Legos were involved.) Among the i-bankers, logic puzzles popped up only twice. Consultants, however, apparently exhibit much more enthusiasm for the wacky guesstimate—Meyzin got hit with “How many elevators are there in Manhattan?” and “How many people in the world are playing chess at this very moment?”

“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.’ “

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 15, 2003

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