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In How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, author William Poundstone provides strategies for job seekers walking into a world of job interviews affected by "Microsoft's cult of the puzzle" (the book's subtitle). What's interesting, though, is that he spends a fair chunk of the book discrediting performance in solving puzzles as a true measure of a person's intelligence, and intelligence testing as done using the Stanford-Binet test as a whole. He's certainly right in that regard. Because there's little agreement on what "intelligence" is (note the recent spate of titles on "emotional intelligence" and similar concepts), the best a new methodology can claim is that it correlates to the results of the Stanford-Binet test.
Poundstone highlights two reasons why puzzle interviews have caught on at Microsoft. The first is that most senior executives, including Bill Gates, are puzzle solvers and game players by nature. Gates is a competitive bridge player and I saw him playing $3-$6 Texas hold 'em (the same game played in the World Series of Poker) at the Mirage hotel in Las Vegas to see how he stacked up against the locals. The second reason is cultural. Poundstone quotes Chris Sells, the manager of a web site devoted to Microsoft-style interview questions, as noting that "[t]hey tend to get the exact folks they're looking for, the ubergeeks. They are people who have spent some of their time, while growing up, obsessing over logic puzzles, stretching their brains. And that's really what Microsoft is looking for: a certain way of thinking, a certain level of technical expertise, and certain other qualities that fit into their culture."
After advice to interviewers (on how to make the tests fair and meaningful) and interviewees (on how to succeed), Poundstone takes the latter half of the book to present the solutions to the logic problems presented in the first half,. The author pays particular attention to the methodologies for arriving at the solutions to the puzzles, with the nice touch that the book is written for someone who may not be an "ubergeek" puzzle solver, but does have a good intuitive feel for this sort of problem and needs a push in the right direction. As Poundstone states, the best questions can be changed a little to throw off candidates who simply memorize answers, so it's much better to have strategies in mind when attacking these questions.
As the author or co-author of six books from Microsoft Press, I found How Would You Move Mount Fuji? to be an excellent introduction to the puzzle interview process, and as a re-affirmation of the Microsoft corporate culture I've observed first hand. Where I felt Poundstone fell a little short was in a general tone of puzzle interviews being "unfair". Perhaps he aimed his rhetoric toward winning over an audience to the idea that puzzle interviews can be conquered given the right approach, but if a candidate goes into an interview with the sense that they're about to be faced with arbitrary demands, instead of being challenged to show their creative problem-solving abilities, they're less likely to succeed. If he had spent less time casting aspersions on the process and more time on strategies written for the non-ubergeek, Poundstone would probably sell fewer books but would have created a better guide for interviewees.
Curtis D. Frye (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is also the author of three online courses and twelve books (six for Microsoft Press) , including Privacy-Enhanced Business from Quorum Books.