Blog by Sumana Harihareswara, Changeset founder

17 Apr 2017, 9:15 a.m.

Alternate Questions

Hi, reader. I wrote this in 2017 and it's now more than five years old. So it may be very out of date; the world, and I, have changed a lot since I wrote it! I'm keeping this up for historical archive purposes, but the me of today may 100% disagree with what I said then. I rarely edit posts after publishing them, but if I do, I usually leave a note in italics to mark the edit and the reason. If this post is particularly offensive or breaches someone's privacy, please contact me.

Is it still in vogue for US tech companies to ask quantitative estimation/implausible-problem questions like "how many phone booths/piano tuners are there in Manhattan?" in hiring interviews, particularly for programming-related jobs? Fog Creek asked me one of those in 2005. There was even a book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji?: Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle -- How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkers.* How many companies are still into that?**

I ask because I came up with a couple you could use, maybe for a digital humanities kind of position:

  1. How many people, throughout history, have actually been named "Flee-From-Sin"? I feel like you see this as a jokey Puritan first name in books like Good Omens or the Baroque Cycle, but was it a name that some non-negligible number of people actually had?
  2. Out of all the people currently within New York City limits, have more of them written a sonnet or a dating profile? What's the ratio?

* That's right, two subtitles. That's how you know you're getting a lot for your $16.00 MSRP.

** It's hard to tell these things sometimes even if you listen to lots of people discuss hiring and recruiting. "Five Worlds" and its decade-later ramifications apply to work culture, not just software development methodology. Stripe's engineering interview aims to "simulate the engineering work you'd do day-to-day" (link via Julia Evans) so I think you can expect your interviewer won't show up wearing a question-mark costume and screeching, "Riddle me this, Batman!" This software engineer, who's just been through scads of hiring interviews, doesn't mention puzzle questions. This level of detail ain't exactly on the "How to Become a Computer Programmer" page in the Occupational Outlook Handbook from the US Department of Labor -- but then again we already knew that the assessment vacuum in software engineering skills is a huge problem.


Ava Jarvis
17 Apr 2017, 11:25 a.m.

Ah, those puzzle questions. When I was young, had lost all family support, and desperate for a job in software dev as the $4000 left in my savings account drained out, I bought that software riddle book, which was still new at the time. I ended up working for Amazon, and Amazon ended the puzzle questions a few years after, if not sooner. These days apparently big tech companies no longer pull these shenanigans because they aren't afraid of looking at the data when people flame out and leave. I certainly didn't during my last years of interviewing candidates at Amazon.

Small companies, though. They sometimes still use the riddle rubric. It's a very very bad sign.

Sumana Harihareswara
17 Apr 2017, 12:54 p.m.

Lindsey Kuper has pointed out to me that the "how many x in y" questions are also known as "market sizing" questions, often used in interviewing people for management consulting jobs, and that one might want to distinguish market sizing questions from the category/categories of puzzle or brain-teaser questions. Fair point!