Monday, April 27

How Would You Move Mount Fuji? - William Poundstone

Cumbersomely subtitled Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle - How the World's Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers, this slender tome combines an exploration of the kind of questions now commonly asked at job interviews (designed to assess problem solving skills) with a study of corporate hiring in general and Microsoft’s work culture in particular.
Readers hoping to get a leg up on these questions for upcoming interviews are likely to be disappointed – it’s in the nature of the format that answers are not formulaic, and the specifics are likely to change over time. But if you’re interested in the changing nature of upper level interview theory and practice, problem solving and logic problems, or techniques for improving the way you tackle these kinds of issues you may find *How Would You Move Mt Fuji? more rewarding. Most useful is the process of being confronted by the limitations of your assumptions – one review I read suggested also trying David Perkins’ *Eureka Effect for more on this aspect.
I have to admit that I found this book disappointing, for the most part, and was quite pleased that I borrowed it from my brother-in-law rather than buying it. I am, of course, far from its target audience, and this kind of interview technique is unlikely to ever be used in my industry. I do, however, have an interest in the application of logic and theory to real life scenarios, and an academic interest in sociology. This last is probably why I was most interested in the information Poundstone reveals about experiments run on interviewer evaluation based on first impressions, where there were strong correlations between people who interviewed candidates for a standard period of time, asking traditional questions, and volunteers who watched fifteen second sections of video of the same participants. There’s far less objectivity in play than either participant believes.
It seems likely that puzzle- or problem-based interviews are similarly subjective. The initial issue, of judging interview performance on initial impressions, is not ameliorated, and though the process can seem thoroughly objective, people are very good at rationalisation – if a disliked candidate does well it’s easy to dismiss their performance by assuming they’ve encountered the problem before; a poorly performing candidate may have need some prompting to arrive in the right vicinity but they were only gentle hints. Like other kinds of IQ tests, solving these scenarios is a better indicator of puzzle solving ability than real intelligence or aptitude.
Like it or not, valid or not, however, this kind of testing is becoming increasingly common in a job market that’s getting tighter and more competitive. Like all kinds of intelligence and puzzle solving tests, however, performance improves with practice. If this is an area that you are not particularly strong in, if this is a market in which you’ll be competing, or if you interview poorly despite strong work performance, this may be of some assistance. Just bear in mind that a poor aptitude for this kind of mental work doesn’t reflect on your ability to problem solve in real life cases, or on your intelligence as a whole - Alex

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