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How to Handle Puzzle Job Interviews

By Laura DeCarlo

With the expanding IT market, some companies have adopted creative "outside-the-box" strategies to identify the best candidates for a job.

If a job seeker is targeting visionary positions with one of the technology gurus, such as Google, you may want to prepare for the puzzle interview. The good news is that you won't run into this type of interview very often.

What Is a Puzzle Job Interview?

In 2003, William Poundstone wrote, How Would You Move Mount Fuji: Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle -- How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers.

According to NPR's Wendy Kaufman in the article, Job Interviews Get Creative: Employers, In Search of 'Right Stuff', Hone Questions, the trend is to introduce problem-solving questions that help companies seek out talented individuals who fit into the company's culture.

While this is similar to the case interview style previously mentioned, and a job seeker facing these questions is usually an MBA graduate, the puzzle interview is not a straightforward problem or question.

Puzzle questions can appear tricky and loaded, especially when coupled with the stress and pressure of the interview.

According to Poundstone, a job seeker can prepare for and attempt to outsmart the puzzles. However, those with limited puzzle experience may be at a disadvantage and will first need to learn how puzzles work.

He states that there are "tricks" in the interview questions themselves and that if job seekers "look inside, [they will] find that most puzzles repackage the same small set of cognitive tricks."


How to Handle Puzzle Job Interviews

Following are Poundstone's tips for survival from Chapter 7 of How Would You Move Mount Fuji. A job seeker should:

1. Determine required answer type: monologue or dialogue.

Logic puzzles typically call for a monologue. A job seeker is given limited information and is expected to find the solution without receiving further information.

"Design questions" (e.g. "design a spice rack") have no single right answer. However, that doesn't mean everything is a right answer, and job seekers should be prepared to ask questions to gather more information before answering. Good questions may include, "Who will use it?" and "Where will it be placed?"

Open-ended questions such as, "Which of the fifty states would you remove?" are similar to Rorschach blots, and are purposely unstructured. The concept of this question is to actually generate one-half hour of conversation, which allegedly shows how smart the person is.

Bottom line: you should assume a dialogue is required unless it is a conventional logic puzzle.

2, Accept that the first answer is wrong.

These puzzles are intended to "puzzle" and, often, to deceive.

3. Realize that logic puzzles rarely require higher math.

Look for the easy answer first!

4, Understand that the more complex the question, the easier the answer.

Just like on a quiz show, the typical expectation with the quiz question is that the largest fraction of the viewing audience should be able to say, "I should have gotten that!" The answer was typically right there all along.

5. Conversely to #4, if the question is simple, the answer is most likely complicated.

Sometimes very simple questions (like the spice rack) are actually demanding that you request further information.

If you get a one-liner, such as, "Why are beer cans tapered at the top and bottom?" then you should use logic and detail to spell out the answer.

A first thought might be, "Because it lets them be stackable." However, this would not be the logical, well-thought-out answer the employer is seeking. By not jumping on the first right answer, you can have more time to think and get more detail around the answer. <.p>

6. Deal with the unrealistic reality of the "PLB" or "Perfectly Logical Being."

With a PLB question you make certain assumptions:

PLBs have simple, one-dimensional motivations. They may obey silly laws, focus on getting the most money, or escaping the dragon. They never help others.

PLBs think quickly, are extremely logical, never forget, and never make a mistake.

PLBs understand the psychology of other PLBs and can make precise conclusions about their actions, which unlike real humans are always certain. This is not real world and the intended solutions to these puzzles are therefore wildly unrealistic.

For these questions, do not use your own reasoning but try to use that of the PLB: black and white. These questions usually come in the form of, "What would you do in this situation?"

7. Question the assumptions.

If unable to come up with an answer, you should try to list the assumptions being made and see what happens when each is rejected in succession, assuming the opposite.

8. Don't let crucial missing information in a logic puzzle stump you.

When a puzzle has missing information that could be a few different things, the best strategy is to try each of the possibilities. If it were "X", what conclusions could you draw? How about "Y?" Plug each one in.

9. Try to present an original answer whenever possible.

Employers have heard it all before -- this is your chance to truly show how you can think outside of the box.

Bottom Line

In a poll conducted by Career Directors International as a part of their annual Career Industry Expert Trends, 8% of surveyed human resource professionals worldwide stated that they had used or planned to use this type of interview. If you would like to learn more about this unusual type of interview, I recommend the book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji: Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle -- How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers by William Poundstone.

About the author...

Laura DeCarlo is recognized as the career industry’s ‘career hero’ making a difference to both job seekers and career professionals as the founder of Career Directors International. She possesses 11 top-level certifications in resume writing, career coaching, and career management; 7 first place resume and job placement awards; and has written three books on interviewing and job search including Interview Pocket RX, Interviewing: The Gold Standard, Resumes for Dummies,and Job Search Bloopers. Follow Laura on Twitter at @careerhero.

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