How Would You Move Mount Fuji?



Book Author: William Poundstone

Book Review by : Anil Kumar
Faculty, ICMR (IBS Center for Management Research)


figsaw puzzles, riddles, puzzles, Microsoft, employer-mandated IQ tests, Law firms, banks, consulting firms, insurance firms, airlines, media, advertising, armed forces

Abstract: How Would You Move Mount Fuji? explores the riddles and puzzles used in interviews by Microsoft and other high-tech companies. The author traces the rise and controversial fall of employer-mandated IQ tests, the peculiar obsessions of Bill Gates (who plays figsaw puzzles as a competitive sport) and the sadistic mind games of Wall Street (which reportedly les one job seeker to smash a forty-third story window).


About the Author: William Poundstone is the author of nine books, including Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos, Prisoner's Dilemma, Labyrinths of Reason, and the Popular Big Secrets series, which inspired two television network specials. He has written for Esquire, Harper's, The Economist, and the New York Times Book Review, and his science writing has been nominated twice for the Pulitzer Prize. He lives in Los Angeles.

It was 1957, William Shockley, the inventor of transistor, was hiring staff for his Palo Alto, California, start-up, Shockley Semiconductor Laboratory. That day's interview was of Jim Gibbons, a Stanford Ph.D. The first question posed was: There's a tennis match. One hundred twenty seven players are participating in the match. There are one hundred twenty-six people paired off in sixty-three matches, plus one unpaired player as a bye. In the next round, sixty-four players remain, and thirty two matches are held. Then how many matches, will it take to determine a winner?

Shockley picked up stop watch. Started measuring the time. Not long before Gibbons shot forth the answer: One hundred twenty-six. The above instance is one example of how logic puzzles, riddles, hypothetical questions, and trick questions have been a consistent practice in computer-industry interviews. This attitude is a reflection of the belief that every employee must be a highly logical and motivated innovator, capable of working seventy-hour weeks when shipping1 a product. This attitude further relies on the assumption that higher technology industries are no way similar to traditional industries neither in stability aspect, nor in change aspect.

A hirer of high-technology company expects hiree to be able to question assumptions and see things from new dimensions. Puzzles and riddles, as argued, test this ability. However, in the recent years this chasm between old economy and new economy is increasingly getting narrowed. The uncertainties of high tech economy can be found in old economy based industries as well. Ever-shifting marketplace is behind all these shifts in the corporate and professional world. This world is now adopting the “nerd” style interviewing that was the obsession of lean, hungry technology companies. Fortune 500 companies are preferring Puzzle -laden job interviews. Law firms, banks, consulting firms, insurance firms, airlines, media, advertising, and even armed forces are increasingly looking towards Puzzles as solutions to their hiring problems. Whether one likes it or not, puzzles and riddles are a significant development in hiring.

Riddles and Sphinxes

Microsoft's “not exactly fair” questions are not entirely new. Microsoft uses puzzles in its hiring to conform to the digital generation mythos-of maverick independence and suspicion of established hierarchies. Microsoft touts puzzles as “egalitarian”. It tries to impress by saying that puzzles make the background and lineage (academic) irrelevant by stressing only candidate's logic, imagination, and problem-solving ability.

Microsoft played a catalyst role in the change of interview process. A closer look will show that this influence is due to shift in priorities in majority of industries. This shift was necessitated primarily by increasing costs of bad hires. It was not long back, when a corporate job interview was just a conversation, in which, the applicant elaborated on his past achievements and future goals. The interviewer just had to bother about whether these goals will fit or not with those of company. In many companies, this type of low-pressure interviews are no longer used.

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