Sunday, February 17, 2008

Trick Question

I found William Poundstone's excessively-titled book How Would You Move Mount Fuji?: Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle ━ How the World's Smartest Companies Select the Most Creative Thinkersin a long-forgotten corner of Barnes & Noble last Friday, just as my brain was starving for more fodder. Poundstone is an unclassifiable author, although if I had to, I'd say he examines intellectual gnosticism in the tradition of Martin Gardner or Douglas Hofstadter. He's written about topics such as the Prisoner's Dilemma, clandestine "numbers station" radio broadcasts, the secret ingredient in Dr. Pepper, and the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory. I guess the common theme is that they all require some critical thinking against the status quo to make real sense of. How Would You Move Mount Fuji? is an expose of sorts on the Microsoft job interview process, how Gates and Ballmer find the best and brightest computer scientists to revolutionize your desktop with Clippy, Minesweeper, and a bunch of other bloated programs that individuals, apparently not the best and brightest, in the open-source community have made much-improved versions of. I don't understand why anybody would even want to work at Microsoft: I mean, have you used any of their programs?

Microsoft receives about 12,000 resumes a month. I have some personal experience resume-vetting from my intern days, and I can tell you that it's easy to sort applicants' life experience, condensed to a single sheet of paper, into piles of "never" and "maybe" spending no more than ten seconds on a resume. (Interestingly enough, Poundstone cites a Harvard study that suggests the hiring manager has already made their decision about you within the first two seconds of the interview, before you've even said a word.) Ten seconds per resume means three-hundred sixty resumes an hour, two-thousand five-hundred twenty resumes per seven-hour workday, and over twelve-thousand resumes set aside or rejected every week. Microsoft, like many large businesses, has replaced the resume monkey with keyword-scanning software, which sounds more efficient except for the fact that it's Microsoft's keyword-scanning software and therefore probably dies a Blue Screen of Death every twenty or thirty resumes. Microsoft Resume 2007 Professional Media Edition rejects three-quarters of the applicants, and the remaining one in four gets an all-expense paid trip ━ I assume flying coach ━ out to Redmond, Washington for full-day interviews of the, um, open-ended variety. How would you move Mount Fuji? If you could remove one state from the United States, which would it be? How many piano tuners are there in the world? Presumably, there's a question or two about computers in there, too.

I have a love-hate relationship with brain teasers. I bring this up because, while reading Poundstone's book, I've come up with a new and subversive answer for the question, "How many windows are there in New York City?"

Q: How many windows are there in New York City?

You'll recall that the old answer ━ which, I should point out, doesn't technically answer the question asked ━ requires taking a representative sample of New York City buildings, counting the windows in the sample, then dividing by the percentage of the city that the sample represents. Not that this is a particularly obfuscated answer; it's a straightforward answer to a straightforward question asked in a dickish manner just to make the applicant sweat.

A: 2,109,356.

Q: Really?

The trick is that you have to give this answer with supreme confidence.

A: Exactly.

See, I have this issue with my fellow language-users, and that is that I'm never all that certain whether to take people's ambiguous words at face language or not. Like, I'm ninety-five percent sure that what the interviewer means to ask is something along the lines of, "How would you approach the problem of determining the (exact?) number of windows in New York City?" He wants access to my critical thinking, but he's not asking a question that requires critical thinking. He might as well ask me what the capital of Azerbaijan is (Baku) or what's America's longest suspension bridge (the Verrazano Narrows): either I know the fact or I don't.

Q: How do you know?

The intended question.

A: As to the number of windows in New York City, I know that you don't know how many windows there are. Even if I did pull this number out of thin air, you can't prove that it's wrong. You'd have to count either all the windows in the city, or 2,109,357, whichever is smaller, and you're not going to do that.

Maybe I did just happen to stumble across that statistic the other day, straight from the City Bureau of Windows, Doorways, and Portholes.

This is probably not the ideal way to ace a job interview, pointing out the interviewer's ignorance and subverting the whole process by taking advantage of that ignorance. New question: if you could remove any state from the United States, which would it be? (No wrong answer here.) And why?

That second question has a correct answer: such-and-such either is or isn't the reason I gave my particular answer to the first question. But I still don't see the point. For example, I'd dump Oklahoma, because Oklahoma has two crazy right-wing senators devoting their lives to hampering America's progress in the twenty-first century. Seems like a good reason to me (especially because it doesn't assume anything that's not in the question), but how would you argue that my answer is in any way better than, "I just never liked New Hampshire." Maybe I'm indifferent to the other forty-nine states and I hold a grudge against the Granite State (it knows what it did); it wouldn't make any sense to give a different answer. What am I supposed to do, lie?