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November 18, 2004

Gretchen Ledgard Reviews "How Would You Move Mount Fuji?"

Microsoft blogging recruiter Gretchen Ledgard has some unkind words about William Poundstone's book How Would You Move Mount Fuji? (to be fair, she also had some kind words. Here they are: nice, understood, captured, interesting, agree, truth, useful, good, well-written, fun).

First of all I have to disagree with her statement that "Going behind the closed doors of our processes won’t necessarily help anyone 'cheat' our system." This is what ETS says about SAT prep classes. In fact they say it right here: "ETS does not recommend expensive and elaborate coaching courses. Although the courses vary according to objectives, duration, and method, we believe that most of the claims made by commercial coaching companies are greatly overblown."

Actually I don't think Gretchen is saying that because she is following a mandate from HR higher-ups to downplay books like this so we can get back to the days when this was all shrouded in a delicious air of mystery. I think she just feels that way. And I disagree with her -- knowing about the interview process in detail is a huge help to candidates. What we could both agree on is that there are now lots of places, besides this one book, to get this information.

Gretchen also says, "As much as we say it and as much as people don’t believe us, puzzle questions really are about the journey, not the destination. Even more so, these types of questions probe on communication skills, team work, and ability to draw from both raw intellect and common sense to isolate issues." I disagree with this, in general. Most puzzle questions are about getting the answer. Communication skills...not much. Team work?!? Huh? What does a puzzle have to do with team work. But the problem is that you can find some questions where watching a candidate journey to the answer is revealing. You can find a lot where it isn't, and there's no quality control on that. There's the same problem with arguing about open-ended design questions. Yes, some of them are reasonable, but I think most are stupid. Gretchen thinks most are reasonable and some are stupid. Not much point in arguing that.

Plus she doesn't address one of Poundstone's central points, which is the assertion that people make up their minds about a candidate in the first 15 seconds, and it is a fallacy to assume that Microsoft interviews, be they brainteasers, open-ended questions, or what have you, are more objective than traditional "So why do you want to work for company X" kind of interviews.

When I interviewed a year ago, the first interview started out with the interviewer saying "Stop me if you have heard this before." I was pretty confident that I had heard whatever it was before. So when he said "You have ten boxes of marbles" I yelled "Stop!" even though I wasn't sure which specific "ten boxes of marbles" question it was. And that was the last puzzle question I had all day.

Gretchen does make one important point. Microsoft has de-emphasized the brainteaser interviews during interviews. Or more precisely, it is attempting to do so. In interviewer training I took when I restarted, the trainer said that some "executive guidance" (read: from Bill and Steve) had come down a couple of years before to nix the straight brainteasers (not sure what had happened a couple of years before to inspire this, except my book came out where I complained about this kind of question -- hey a guy can dream, right?). So they were telling everyone who went through interview training about this. But they hadn't told the company at large about it. The stated reason was that they wanted to commmunicate the reason behind the change at the same time, which worked best during small training sessions. But the problem is that most people don't re-take interviewer training. So the only people who are learning about the brainteaser deprecation are all the n00bs. It will take 5-10 years for this knowledge to sink into the Microsoft collective consciousness. Until then, dust off your Dudeney before heading to Redmond.

Posted by AdamBa at November 18, 2004 09:10 PM

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wrt teamwork: I was asked the one about the parachuting trains, but was not given enough information to answer it. I kept asking questions until I understood the problem, and I was able to solve it. The point of the question was not to get the pseudo-code on the whiteboard, it was to see how many questions I asked.

Another one I got was the car at the bottom of the hill question. I, sadly, didn't ask enough questions and didn't think of the answer. shrug.

Posted by: Ry Jones at November 18, 2004 10:52 PM

I absolutely 100% agree that knowing about the interview process will help candidates perform better. Why do you think I started by blog? :)Why do I direct candidate to Chris Sells' site?

What I was getting at is that these resources won't help you "cheat" the system. They can help great candidates do better (and hopefully get offers when otherwise they wouldn't) but they won't help completely unqualified people pass the interviews. That's what I was getting at.

So, yes, got an interview with Microsoft? Do all the research you can. And even read Poundstone's book if you don't get freaked out easily. But also read all the other resources available to you.

That's what I was trying to say. :)

And to the point that interviewers make up their mind in the first 15 seconds of an interview ... I think that happens every where - with every company and every interviewer. It's the good interviewers who can re-evaluate that first impression. But it's a common problem everywhere. :(

Posted by: gretchen at November 19, 2004 09:24 AM

But of course you're going to disagree with what Gretchen says. She's an HR person for chrissake. They *like* to think they have their finger on the pulse of the company but they don't. Surely you've noticed several recognizable blue badgers in HR who are now employed by Spherion? Hmmm?

And heres another big tip to people who get wet dreams about the microsoft interview process. Its just a freakin interview, just stay cool, calm and composed and THINK before you say anything. Its ok to take a few seconds to think before answering/asking a question. Fuck all this mount fuji shit. Oh, and have a shot of vodka or two an hour before you start. Helps loosen ya up.

Well it worked for me?

Posted by: mr otis b driftwood at November 20, 2004 07:03 PM