Mind games

You know what’s worse than mind games in relationships?

Mind games in interviews… or as they’re more commonly known—puzzles.

I had my first experience with them in college during on-campus recruiting. Instead of being quizzed on my engineering chops, I had to answer brainteasers about ants, triangles, and eggs. I was incredibly frustrated to say the least, because even as a lowly undergraduate with barely any work experience, I wasn’t sure how solving puzzles was an indication of my fit for the role. I mean I was nervous enough interviewing for jobs for the very first time, but to top that off, I had to do mental acrobatics while a panel of interviewers looked at me expectantly.

I hated it.

Ken Norton wrote what is now a legendary blog post about “How to Hire a Product Manager” nearly 10 years ago and his very first point talks about how to hire smart people.

I usually ask an interview candidate a series of analytical questions to gauge intelligence and problem-solving ability. Generally I’ll ask questions until I’m sure the candidate is smarter than me. For some reason, lots of people I know are reluctant to do that. They argue that it’s insulting to the candidate. I think the right candidate will relish the challenge. In fact, that’s the first test – how do they react when I say “I’d like to pose some theoretical problems, is that okay?” The best of the bunch are usually bouncing out of their chairs with excitement. The super smart sometimes counter with questions of their own.

From my admittedly limited experience, the only people bouncing out of their chairs with excitement are the ones who’ve pre-Googled solutions to all the popular puzzles online. Every single question I’ve ever been asked has been a variation of an existing question – so really, the only thing these questions test is your preparedness. But because Ken Norton is awesome, he admitted that his emphasis on logic puzzles was misguided. I agree with his sentiment that product managers need to be smart, however there are more effective ways to judge smartness. As Lazlo Block, Google’s SVP of People Operations says:

At worst, puzzles rely on some trivial bit of information or insight that is withheld from the candidate, and serve primarily to make the interviewer feel clever and self-satisfied. They have little if any ability to predict how candidates will perform in a job.

It is hard to solve a complex problem when put on the spot with a time constraint. In the real world, you can step out, take a break, drink some coffee or just spend more time to come up with an answer. But you can’t do any of that in an interview. Essentially, you’re weeding out some really smart people who may not necessarily think fast when under pressure. We all have different ways of solving the same problem and we all have different speeds at which we do it. Is one better than the other? I don’t think so.

With that said, it seems like most companies have finally seen the light. Google for instance has stopped asking brainteasers in their interviews and I’m hoping that this trickles down to companies in India as well. It is also amazing that companies like Stripe are so transparent about what to expect in their interviews. This comprehensive document demystifies what they are looking for and helps aligns expectations accordingly.

Now if only more companies would follow, maybe we can stop scouring the internet for hints of what to expect before every job interview.

Image credit: http://www.puzzlevilla.com/

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