Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google? by William Poundstone

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Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google? by William Poundstone

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Category: Business and Finance
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: A brilliant book that lets you answer the question in the title...though you might not approve of the result. William popped into Bookbag Towers to chat to us about job interviews.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 290 Date: April 2012
Publisher: Oneworld Publications
ISBN: 978-1851689170

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I find recruitment fascinating. I started my career on a top 10 graduate scheme whose recruitment process included a 24-hour simulation of life in the role, and now some years later I'm on the other side of the table, taking part in the recruitment of the next generation. Prior to that I worked everywhere from multinational software companies to British high street department stores and over the years I've heard everything from the boring (What are your strengths and weaknesses?) to the predictable (Tell me about a time you worked as part of a team and encountered conflict) to the quite frankly brilliant, in my mind (How many piano tuners are there in Barcelona?) Once I had to come up with a variety of uses for a cocktail shaker after first gaining points for being able to identify the item correctly, despite being a tee-total teen at the time. If interviews are a time to shine, I prefer the latter two tasks to the first two because they let you show what you can do, and how you would approach a task, rather than just making you prattle off a prepared response.

Google gets about 130 applicants for every job according to the book, which compares to 14 applicants for every place at Harvard. That doesn't actually sound massively high to me (my year, the odds for my grad scheme worked out as 78 to 1, and Google we ain't) but it's still a lot, and no doubt growing year on year. The issue isn't so much about the on-paper calibre of the applicants, many of whom have top degrees from top universities. Instead, Google and other companies like them (Apple, Microsoft, even Amazon and Bank of America) are looking for people who can deal with the unexpected, think both logically and outside the box, depending on what the situation requires, and who can ask the pertinent questions needed to clarify the ambiguous. That's why they ask questions like these.

Can you swim faster in water or syrup?

How many bottles of shampoo are produced in the world every year?

When there's a wind blowing, does a round-trip by plane take more time, less time, or the same time?

Look at this sequence. What comes next?


And, my personal favourite:

On a scale of 1 to 10, how weird are you?

This isn't a book about how to get a job at Google and most people who read it probably wouldn't have a hope of landing a job there. After all, there's more to getting a job than just having slick answers to interview questions – and in companies like that, even getting an interview in the first place can be a hurdle that trips up the vast majority of wannabe Google-ites. Instead, as it says in the title, this is a book that lets you work out if, in theory, you might vaguely have a mind that thinks in the way Google want their employees' minds to work. Solve the puzzles 'correctly' (and sometimes there is no one correct answer) and you can pat yourself on the back and feel a little smug at your smartness, if only for a day.

You might not think a book that is really just questions, answers and explanations would be a good read, or even a bearable one. I'm really not looking for a new job at the moment (in fact I've 3 weeks left in my notice period before I start one I've already been interviewed for and offered) and therefore in principle, this book should be of no interest to me right now, but I was hooked. The book is highly entertaining, accessibly written and full of 'Duh!' moments.

The book has 10 chapters that cover everything from where these approaches to interviewing came from to how to estimate just about anything in 60 seconds or less and what to do if you literally don't have a clue about something. Each section is brimming with questions, but as some have rather long, protracted answers, these are provided in a second part of the book, after the main text so as not to interrupt the flow. It works and it doesn't – I spent most of the time flipping to the back anyway to see if my ideas matched their ideas, but now and then I saved a question for later and kept on reading through which was easier because the answer narrative was out of the way. The only real downside was that in a 290-page book, the main text covers only the first 136 pages. I got to page 137 and realised it was all over, and I had in fact already read the remainder as it contained answers to questions featured earlier. Not a big criticism, but it did leave me high and dry at the gym with nothing to read for the rest of my workout.

Back to the positives, though, and this is a book that will make you think. Along the way, you'll also find out how typical your mind is – there are various questions where the usual response is given… and then proven wrong. The aim of the questions posed by Google et al is to see how creative you are at solving problems, and so although definitive answers are given to the questions, I found myself using some as a starting point to see if I couldn't come up with something even better now they'd launched me down the right path. Alongside the questions, you get tips on what to expect from the interviewers and how companies try (and ultimately sometimes fail) to reduce bias in interviews. There's a warning note on Facebook profiles and the detrimental effect they can have on your image, and the goal behind using wacky questions - sometimes it's the journey… not the destination, as in my piano tuner conundrum which I got 'right' with a final tally that was almost certainly not correct.

I'm not sure this book would be much help in preparing for a 'normal' interview in a 'normal' company, and I really wouldn't advocate reading this in lieu of more usual research on the role and organisation, but when you want something to read for the sake of it, want to be entertained, challenged, amused and baffled, and want to have great brain teasers to stump your friends with, this book is the one you need.

Thanks go to the publishers for supplying this book. Your brain will be aching at the end of it, but you'll have a wry smile on your face too.

An internet geek (or just want to be one)? Why not have a peek at our views on The Filter Bubble: What the Internet is Hiding from You by Eli Pariser, The Accidental Billionaires: Sex, Money, Betrayal and the Founding of Facebook by Ben Mezrich or best of all our Top Ten Books For Slightly Geeky People. You could shelve this next to Do You Think You're Clever?: The Oxbridge Questions by John Farndon.

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