So I get back from a week-long trip to the San Francisco Bay Area and find a slew of e-mails from readers who wanted to share a link to this hilarious article in The Atlantic:

Google Finally Admits That Its Infamous Brainteasers Were Completely Useless for Hiring

google_arrowAnd every Ask The Headhunter reader who sent me the link offered a sarcastic remark on Google’s notorious practice of asking interview questions like this one:

How many golf balls will fit into a school bus?

Laszlo Bock, senior vice president of “people operations” at Google is quoted in the article:

“We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time… They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.”

Well, anyone who reads Ask The Headhunter already knew that.

But in career circles, Google’s idiotic practice was of course lauded and marked as state-of-the-art interviewing technology. The emperor’s imaginary clothes were beyond reproach because, after all, it’s Google.

This revelation wouldn’t even be worth noting if not for Bock’s explanation of what Google does today in job interviews:

Bock says Google now relies on more quotidian means of interviewing prospective employees, such as standardizing interviews so that candidates can be assessed consistently, and “behavioral interviewing,” such as asking people to describe a time they solved a difficult problem.

In other words, Google’s personnel jockeys are using the same goofy “techniques” loads of other personnel jockeys use:

Standardized interviews
A list of canned questions designed to make sure everyone is inteviewed fairly and without discrimination.

Yo, Google: The point is to find the candidate who has an unfair advantage over every other candidate because they’re the best candidate — and you can’t assess that by making sure you ask every putz who shows up the very same questions. (Imagine trying that with the next five people you go on a date with.) The point in a job interview is to discriminate! To discriminate means to identify key differences and to carefully select the person that stands out as different from the rest and best suited to your needs. “Standardized inteviews” tie a manager’s hands and turn interviews into a meatgrinder.

Behavioral interviewing
This is a tried and dopey interview technique that HR consultants invented to justify their sorry existence and bloated fees. It’s named after what’s missing in the method entirely: behavior. That’s right: There is no behavior in the behavioral inteview. It’s all talk. These interviews are about what you did last year, two years ago, or sometime in your life:

So, the last three women I dated really liked me, and I bought them flowers now and then, and took them out for dinner, and listened to them tell me their problems. I’m a great guy. You can ask them. So, will you marry me?

What you did last year is not a good reason for hiring or marrying (or even dating) you. How you solved a problem two years ago tells us nothing about how you’ll tackle the specific problems and challenges a specific manager at Google is facing today. Not any more than being able to guess at what you might charge to wash all the windows in San Francisco.

Yo, Google: Ask each candidate to show you how he or she would do this job today, tomorrow, next week, next month, this year! Put them in front of the work and let them show you.

Google’s admission is no surprise. Managers who interviewed using goofy questions like, “How many barbers are there in Chicago?” were basically saying, “Search me!” about who was worth hiring. Trouble is, they’re still saying, “Search me!” when they use canned personnel jockey questions to figure out who can do the work.

Or, they could just put on one of those “arrow through the head” props and ask job applicants how they think it got there. Seems to me Google is still pretty stupid about inteviewing.

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  1. I am so going to quote your dating analogy. That’s awesome.

  2. What makes the story even better are the droves of companies who mimicked this state-of-the-art interviewing technique…simply because “Google does (or did) it.” Brilliant!

  3. Nick, the dating analogy is a thing of beauty! Job searching and interviewing is like dating (agonizing, painful) but if you find the right person, then it can be awesome. Sounds like Google needs a yente, or a Nick. And they need lots of common sense. So stop with the stupid interview tricks and leave them for Dave Letterman. No more “what kind of animal would you be” or “what color are you” kinds of idiotic questions. No psycho-babble questions. How about “here’s a problem we’re facing (describe problem)…now how would you solve it?” And I think it is okay to use what I’ve learned in past jobs, but only if it helps me solve the problem before me.

    Sometimes it is HR asking these idiotic questions, othertimes it is the hiring manager asking them (I had one hiring manager tell me that HR required him to ask these questions; I politely wrapped up, withdrew myself from consideration, thanked him for his time, and wished him luck finding the right person for that job).

    Just goes to show how pervasive this behavior is. Nick, please, if you ever get anyone who has any authority at Google or elsewhere in a room, please slap them silly and tell them that they’re wasting time and squandering talent, and losing money and skills.

  4. Imagine asking your date how many golf balls (or children) can you fit into a school bus. For a number of reasons that probably wouldn’t go over too well.

    Seriously though, the whole interviewing thing is pretty messed up. Try to sum up your entire career in a few sentences, while trying not to saying anything stupid around someone you barely know. A real recipe for success….

  5. Interviewing is very much like dating. We’re checking one another out with a plan to spend a lot of time together – maybe to get married. The analogy spawns more analogies. When I suggested “meeting the parents” in my PBS NewsHour column, many readers cried that’s not reasonable…

  6. @Nick: I just read the post and comments on PBS newshour. I’m with you. When I interviewed for my current job, I asked to meet folks in other depts., because I knew that who they were and how they ran those depts. would affect not only my job but also my job performance. I met those who were available, given a tour, got to ask them questions. No one thought it was strange or gave me the stink eye for asking to meet with those working in other depts. in the library. I didn’t learn everything (some things you learn the longer you’re there), but it was enough. I think that there’s a couple of things going on re the Newshour posters’ comments: 1. it is an employer’s market, and for those who are desperate, they don’t think they have the right or the clout to ask out of fear (employer will move on to next candidate) and 2.) people (both job hunters and employers) have been so brainwashed re what the process is “supposed” to be that they’re not noticing that it isn’t working anymore, and if they do, they’re too afraid to speak up (the emperor’s new clothes).

    As you noted in your column, anyone who takes offense because I ask to meet others in the dept. (future colleagues, underlings, supervisors) and in the depts. immediately upstream and downstream from me isn’t someone I want to work for. That’s a red flag, and I’m learning to thank the interviewer for his time, withdraw myself from consideration, and wish him well in finding someone. I currently work at a community college in an academic library; at my last job at a large state university, I ran an online master’s program. With both employers, both jobs have been made easier when I know and can work with those outside my dept. but whose depts./jobs/work affect my own. If I didn’t work on and have such a great relationship with the grad sch at my last job, that job would have been 300% harder and more cumbersome. I didn’t work for the grad sch, but their policies, deadlines, etc. affected me. Likewise, if I didn’t do something they needed, my failure impacted them and their workflow, making it harder, making it take longer.

    Your comments are absolutely dead on, and this is something I think about and consider when I’m researching companies and agencies, networking and talking to people.

  7. Yo, Nick! You absolutely have cornered the market as far as I’m concerned. Not only do you continue to provide us with a healthy dose of current reality, you do it with attitudes and language and emotions to which we can relate no matter what field (besides the job hunt field) we’re in.

    And you do it all over the place, too, which proves how respected your opinion has become. Every time you mention another outlet or resource you work with, my mind starts throwing applause and kudos your way. The more people who have a chance to follow your advice, the better the next generations of interviewees, hiring managers and, hopefully, HR involvement will be.

    That’s a good plan.

  8. I’ve interviewed software engineering candidates at Google for a while, so I figure I’d add facts to the story. Standard disclaimers, not speaking for Google, just as a Googler, etc.

    – These “How many X are in Y” questions are banned questions, at least for software engineers, and have been for years. Not sure what gets asked for non-technical positions.

    – The heavy lifting of interviewing for engineers is done by other engineers.

    – For software engineers, we usually ask two kinds of questions. “Tell me how you would design SOME SYSTEM” where SOME SYSTEM is representative of systems we design at Google. Additionally, “Tell me how you would solve SOME PROBLEM”, where SOME PROBLEM is an excuse to see if the candidate knows how to write computer code and paid attention in school. Some interviewers tailor these to real problems they’ve solved at Google, but honestly most of the canonical questions are canned questions. Googling for “Google interview questions” should bring up plenty of examples.

    – The internship system is a better interview system IMO, since internships are basically three month job interviews. At the end, good candidates end up with full-time engineers that can vouch for their quality.

    In my opinion it’s not the Platonic ideal of interviewing systems (for a variety of reasons, buy me a drink sometime). It’s pretty different what you advocate, so I’m not expecting you to suddenly love it. But there’s a lot of public information on what we do, so it’s worth criticizing on its actual merits and drawbacks versus what gets filtered by random news sites.

    Been following you for a while, I really like your writing. Keep up the good work!

    P.S. For those interested, I realized I’m basically restating stuff from here: – This goes into more detail (and is semi-official)

  9. @Googler: Thanks for the inside perspective. I was wondering if anyone would speak up. Certainly, it can’t be as bad as the recent articles suggest, and there are of course managers (probably many) who use their own questions about the work that needs to be done. The ATH approach is a variant of the intern method you describe: Ask candidates to show how they will do the work. It’s nice when you can have them for 3 months! But I think a lot can be done in the context of one or two interviews that reveals (1) what the applicant knows about your business, and (2) how he or she would do the work.

    Most important note I see in your post is that engineers interview other engineers. One question: Who does the “screening?”

    Thanks for posting, and for your kind words.

  10. I interviewed with Google a year or two ago. Didn’t get that far in their process.

    While I didn’t get the silly questions about golf balls or a barber, I did get many esoteric questions about topics I studied as an undergrad a decade or more ago. I understand what they are trying to get at (can you solve problems and do you have a basic understanding of engineering), several of the topics discussed I would simply look up in a book – I had been exposed to the idea(s) but have not used them in years. This doesn’t make someone “unqualified” per se.

  11. Nick,
    I work in another company where engineers interview engineers (true for every place I’ve worked.) As for who screens them, for new college hires, HR or whoever goes to campus kind of screens them, and the resumes anyone making it through gets mailed to interested parties. But I’ve been able to circumvent the process and interview (and hire) good candidates from schools not on the official list. Resumes from on-line posts go straight to the hiring manager. I don’t think anyone here uses job sites at all, so anyone not believing your advice on them shouldn’t expect to get an interview at my place.
    And I agree about interns. My intern from last summer is now working full time right down the hall from me. We didn’t even have to compete with anyone else to get her here, and she has told fellow students how cool we are. :)

  12. Google can pay me orders of magnitude more than if the hired me when they acquire my successful startup. I have no time to waste on geeky foolishness that does nothing to build products people love.

  13. I recently interviewed in a big company in Silicon Valley and got asked one of those completely idiotic questions. Note that I was interviewing for a global supply chain/purchasing/sourcing position. I talked to a few people over the course of 5 hours,and the person who asked me that was my 1st. Imagine my nerves, stress, brain-fog and also the need of trying to figure out the “perfect” answer for something like this. What gives?

    I wish companies would just stop doing this. It DOES NOT determine whether the person you are talking to is fit for the job or not. I absolutely agree that it only demonstrates how much better the interviewer is.
    I would be fine with specific written tests to determine your knowledge of the subject, but this is ridiculous.

    I didn’t get the job, by the way. Probably dodged a bullet. I don’t want to be defined by my ability to play a smartass.