If your palms are starting to sweat just thinking about how you would even begin to answer that question, just be glad that you aren’t in a job interview. And yes, that is a real job interview question reportedly used at Amazon.com in 2011.
Glassdoor, an online career community, compiles an annual list of the weirdest job interview questions out there, and it comes as no surprise that tech companies feature prominently. After all, when cutting-edge innovation is the game, the ability to be creative, think critically and come up with solutions are key skills. Check out some of the wackiest tech interview questions from the past few years - and what companies can expect to learn by asking them. (Check out Glassdoor's most recent list of oddball interview questions here.)
The Whys of Weird Interview QuestionsThere’s little sound evidence about how the bizarre questions that many top companies ask of potential candidates arose, but it’s likely that the recent recession in the U.S. has something to do with their rise in popularity. This is a double-edged sword for employers: They have more candidates to choose from, but whoever is chosen is likely to hang on to that job like it’s the only one the world ... which isn’t that far from the truth. Now, if you boil those numbers down even further, you can imagine that a company like Google, with its reputation not only as a major mover in its industry, but also as a workplace utopia, actually needs to ask really difficult questions to narrow down the field.
The wackiest questions, according to William Poundstone (author of "Are You Smart Enough to Work for Google?"), are related to a long-standing tradition among tech companies to test candidates using logic puzzles. Because Google reportedly receives one million applications per year, it has to raise the bar - and make applicants do the limbo under it ... in a zero-gravity environment. (Check out some of questions Google posed of candidates in 2012 here.)
Flexing those Math MusclesMath and problem-solving feature prominently in many tech interview questions. Here’s a question from Epic Systems, a health care software company:
You have a bouquet of flowers. All but two are roses, all but two are daisies, and all but two are tulips. How many flowers do you have?
Or what about this one, which was reportedly used by Google in 2009:
Develop an algorithm for finding the shortest distance between two words in a document. After the phone interview is over, take a few hours to develop a working example in C++ and send it to the manager.
What’s the answer? In many cases, there isn’t one right solution because the question is designed to mislead. What the interviewer is probably looking for is a candidate’s ability to reason and come up with a solution that makes sense. This isn’t easy on the spot, but no matter what you come up with, rest assured that the interviewer is expecting you to come up with something very innovative.
Other questions like this include:
- If Germans were the tallest people in the world, how would you prove it? - Hewlett-Packard, 2011
- How many tennis balls are in this room and why? - Yahoo, 2009
- Given the numbers 1 to 1,000, what is the minimum number of guesses needed to find a specific number if you are given the hint "higher" or "lower" for each guess you make? - Facebook, 2010
How to Solve a Problem Like GoogleSimilar to the math-oriented problems you’ll find in many tech interviews are the tough problem-solving questions, many which also may not have one right answer. But then again, this is also true in the workplace. When a project fails, a system crashes or a new project is being developed, employees face problems that could be solved in a number of ways.
One of the wackiest interview questions reported by Glassdoor in 2010 came from Google, which reportedly asked a candidate for the role of People Technology and Operations Analyst this:
How many basketballs can you fit in this room?
A candidate could answer this question in a number of ways. How big is the room? Are the balls inflated? How many does the interviewer want to fit in the room? Or maybe, the answer is just to Google it ... (Learn more about how Google filters results in 3 SEO Tactics that Google Loves.)
Some other questions like this include:
- Given 20 light bulbs that break when dropped from a certain height and a building with 100 floors, how do you determine the height at which a bulb will break? - Qualcomm, 2011
- Name five uses for a stapler without staple pins. - Evaluserve, 2011
- How would you move Mount Fuji? - Microsoft, 2009
- Given a square grid of numbers, considering all the numbers at the boundary as one layer and numbers just inside as another layer and so on, how would you rotate each of the layers of the numbers by a given amount? - Microsoft, 2009
- Given a dictionary of words, how do you calculate the anagrams for a new word? - Amazon, 2009
Who You AreWhether you’re applying to be a programmer, developer or software engineer, being skilled at your trade is a key factor that interviewers will look for. But there’s something many interviewers are even more interested in: your personality. After all, many key job skills can be honed over time, but if your personality and personal philosophy are not a good fit for the company to which you’re applying, that is unlikely to change - and your interviewer knows it.
Here's a question that aims to get at a candidate's personality:
If I put you in a sealed room with a phone that had no dial tone, how would you fix it?
According to Glassdoor, this question came from Apple in 2009. Yikes! Now, this could be a question used to evaluate a candidate's ability to reason, but it also gives the interviewer a sense of how that person approaches a difficult situation with limited resources. Candidates who freak out need not apply. (Learn more about the history behind the Apple company in Creating the iWorld: A History of Apple.)
Other questions like this include:
- If you saw someone steal a quarter, would you report it? - Amazon, 2009
- Would Mahatma Gandhi have made a good software engineer? - Deloitte, 2011