Sunday, January 15, 2012

"Creative" interview questions

Next up in my end-of-2011 article catch-up is a Wall Street Journal piece on the growing trend by companies to ask off-beat questions in their interviews of prospective employees. Pioneered by Google, these include questions like:

You are shrunk to the height of a nickel and thrown into a blender. Your mass is reduced so that your density is the same as usual. The blades start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

Design an evacuation plan for San Francisco.

Use a programming language to describe a chicken.

What is the most beautiful equation you have ever seen? Explain.
The reasoning behind such questions, explains reporter William Poundstone, is:
that Google isn't looking for the smartest, or even the most technically capable, candidates. Google is looking for the candidates who will best fit Google.
Eerily reminiscent of the open-ended "creative" questions on the Aurora Battery, a giftedness-screening test that Robert Sternberg has proposed as a replacement for the traditional IQ test, and on the college entrance exam that Mr. Sternberg has designed as a replacement for the SATs, such questions presume that the best way to measure people's creativity is to gauge their spontaneous responses to off-beat, open-ended questions. As Poundstone notes:
By design, none of these questions has a right answer. This has led to intense speculation and even paranoia among Google job candidates. It's also led to other companies adopting Google-esque questions without having any idea what constitutes a good answer.
Copy-cat questions from AT&T, Johnson & Johnson and Bank of America (respectively) include:
"If you could be any superhero, who would it be?"

"What color best represents your personality?"

"What animal are you?"
Unfortunately, there's no more evidence that this kind of question actually does measure creativity--especially of the sort that's relevant to the given workplace--than there is evidence that the ability to write spontaneously from an off-beat prompt measures the kind of creativity it takes to be a good creative writer. The main effect of such questions may instead be to screen out the many left-brainers who clam up when asked for their spontaneous responses but who may be extraordinarily creative when it comes to search engine optimization, telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, and investment banking.


Amy P said...

Yeah, I've been wondering about that. It seems like it would reward the glib. I wonder how well Einstein or Edison would have done with these interview questions.

Katharine Beals said...

"reward the glib"--yes! Very well put. And great question about Einstein and Edison. (Much more interesting than the blender question).

Lsquared said...

I'm not sure the Google ones are bad questions (the blender one is a bit idiosyncratic, but describing a chicken with a programming language sounds like it would tell you rather a lot about a programmer you were thinking of hiring--for instance it would tell you if them if you think in an object oriented programming way (I don't--my son would fare much better on that question)). The copy-cat questions you've included aren't of the same quality, and aren't worth defending (though I seem to remember some from Microsoft from the WSJ article that were also good).

Applying to Google is different from applying to college--you're going to be admitting thousands of students to the university, so you need a standardized process. Hiring anyone you're going to work with is always a somewhat ill defined process (and even with Google, a lot of the people hiring are looking for a few people for their team, not a bunch of people to run tech support). There are always some applicants with different strengths than other applicants, and deciding which person is best for your team is tricky because it's really hard to tell just who is better than whom even if the task is clear--and it almost never is. Sometimes an unusual question or task will tell you something you didn't know about an applicant, and sometimes it doesn't. Most of the times the unusual questions aren't make-or-break questions, but you're hoping to get some insight into who this person is beyond the grades they got in school. True left-brainers have other things to show off to make them stand out in an application process (programs they've written that they can demo, for instance). Someone who can show something cool they've created (but who has no idea what they'd do in a blender) is going to, for most jobs at Google, have an advantage over someone without that experience (even if they are an expert on escape from the blender scenarios).

Google has enough left brain people in it that they know enough not to weed all of them out. So does Microsoft. Bank of America maybe not so much.

Niels Henrik Abel said...

I've often thought if you really want to "get some insight into who this person is beyond the grades they got in school," ask them what their favorite book is, and perhaps why so. That alone would give you a wealth of information above and beyond an answer to an inane interview question.

Obi-Wandreas, The Funky Viking said...

As far as Google is concerned, they know best what sort of personalities they are looking for. The questions are designed to evoke the sort of reaction that allows them to judge whether the applicant has the sort of personality they are looking for.

The problem arises when people think that the way to find someone who can think outside the box to find an innovative solution to a specifically defined problem is to ask them an idiotic question that has no point. Creativity is like suaveness - there is nothing more pathetic than someone pretending to have it.

Barry Garelick said...

I tried asking an off beat question once when I worked at a consulting firm. We were interviewing many candidates and I was getting tired of doing so, so I made up what I thought was a "creative" question. Fortunately I can't remember it. I do recall that one young woman was totally flustered by it and couldn't come up with an answer. I felt bad for her and told her it wasn't important--and it wasn't. I wrote my evaluation based on all the other questions I asked. I don't recall if we hired her or not, but I stopped that silly exercise after that.

Anonymous said...

This approach was not invented by Google, nor even by Microsoft ("How Would You Move Mount Fuji?" was published in 2003). One review of the latter book dates this technique to as far back as 1957!

SymbolicSoliloquy said...

There is really a lack of respect for larger choices, which depend upon smaller choices to unify. To get a human being to animate their arms, requires the large amount of coordination effort of many cells. Actually I think the unfortunate reality is, reality is better than we are at dealing with complexity, and why are we in charge?