Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Interview Brainteasers

by Laurel Mylonas-Orwig, Strategic Programming and Outreach Manager

Most mornings when I arrive at work, there are already a handful of students in business attire loitering in our reception area. Since interview season officially opened at the end of October, I've observed a lot of different waiting room activities. Many students bring a laptop or a book while others read the newspaper; some pace nervously, while others sit, staring straight ahead, until an interviewer appears to collect them.

Let's face it, interviews can be nerve-wracking. While on one hand getting an interview is good news--at least you're being considered--on the other, getting an interview means that you have to prepare yourself for at least a 30-minute barrage of questions about who you are, what you do, and why you want to do it at Organization X. So, in summary, yikes.

The good news is that there are a lot of different ways to prepare yourself for an interview. As you may have heard before, CAPS offers practice interviewers (call 773-702-7040 to schedule an appointment with one) who can grill you as much as you'd like. We also have a new tool called InterviewStream, which you can access via your Chicago Career Connection account. InterviewStream allows you to record yourself answering questions, and then review it yourself or send it to us. Just a tip, though--even though you can use it anytime, anywhere, please, if you're going to send it to us, put a shirt on.

One of my favorite strategies for preparing for an interview is to review the company information and come up with questions that you think they may ask you (or that you want to ask them). This is an especially good strategy if you're interviewing with a company famous for its tough interview, say, Google. A recent article on Business reviewed 15 of the questions that prospective Googlites have been asked in interviews. Take a look at a few of them below (answers are at the bottom; for all of the questions and more detailed answers, see the article). Although questions like these are certainly not going to be the norm in interviews, they're amusing/interesting to read (and if you are interviewing with Google, congrats and best of luck)!

  1. How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?
  2. How much would you charge to wash all of the windows in Seattle?
  3. How many piano tuners are there in the entire world?
  4. Design an evacuation plan for San Francisco.
  5. Explain the significance of "dead beef".
  6. A man pushed his car to a hotel and lost his fortune. What happened?
  7. Explain a database in three sentences to your eight-year old nephew.
  8. You are shrunk to the size of a nickel, and your mass is proportionally reduced so as to maintain your original density. You are then thrown into an empty glass blender. The blades will start moving in 60 seconds. What do you do?

Here are the answers:

  1. This purpose of this question is to see if you can explain the challenge to solving the problem. When it comes down to it, this is really just a glorified math problem, like the type that your 5th-grade math teacher thought were tons of fun. The short answer is, ballpark an estimate for the size of the bus (we'll assume 8' x 6' x 20'), and then determine the amount of space inside the bus (960 cubic feet = ~1.6 million cubic inches, since there are 1728 cubic inches in a cubit foot). Do the same for a golf ball (V = 2.5 cubic inches, if r = .85), then divide the former by the latter to come up with the number of golf balls (~640,000, my math says, though the author of the article above claims 660,000). Assume some space will be taken up by things already inside the bus, like seats, so round down accordingly, leaving you with ~500,000 golf balls. The important thing about this question is not whether you get the answer exactly right--this isn't a math exam--but that you can explain the process clearly and show that you know how to go about solving the problem.

  2. This problem is deceptively simple. While you might be tempted to try to figure out how many windows are in Seattle, and then come up with a lump sum for the total number. This is a good way of complicating your answer needlessly. Instead, think of something like $15 per window. This answers the question, without causing you to do a lot of unnecessary mental gymnastics.

  3. This is a problem of supply and demand. There can only be as many piano tuners as there are jobs for, so that's the answer. If you want to be more specific, lets assume that pianos need to be tuned once a week, and it takes a piano tuner one hour to tune. If he works a 40 hour week, that's 40 pianos. So, one tuner for every 40 pianos. If you want to go deeper into this type of problem (a Fermi problem), check it on Wikipedia.

  4. There a multitude of ways to approach this problem, so the first thing to do is ask what kind of emergency you are planning for. From there, you can proceed. This is another question that's designed to see how you attack the problem.

  5. This is a tech problem, despite how it sounds. Here's the answer, cribbed from the article: "DEADBEEF is a hexadecimal value that has was used in debugging back in the mainframe/assembly days because it was easy to see when marking and finding specific memory in pages of hex dumps. Most computer science graduates have seen this at least in their assembly language classes in college and that's why they expect software engineers to know it." In all likelihood, you're not going to get asked this type of question unless you're applying for a job that is more tech involved.

  6. He landed on Boardwalk! Yes, it's really just a bad joke.

  7. There are a lot of different answers to this question, mostly because it's designed to test your ability to convey complex ideas in simplified terms. Here's what the article suggests: "A database is a machine that remembers lots of information about lots of things. People use them to help remember that information. Go play outside." (I agree, minus the last sentence.)

  8. This is all about testing how creative and inventive you can be when put on the spot. So, put some thought into it!
So, there you have it. Remember, interview skills are like muscles--the more you work on them, the stronger they'll get. Good luck!

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