Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Book review: 'Are you smart enough to work at Google?'

You need to toss a coin for a football match. The only coin you have is bent and biased towards one outcome. How do you use the coin and ensure a fair toss?

I love a good a puzzle and there are certainty plenty of thought provoking mind benders in this book - most of which I had not heard before. Author William Poundstone (author of 'How Would You Move Mount Fuji' and 'Fortune's Formula') describes various puzzles that are describes various puzzles that are likely to be part of a Google interview process - that company now estimated to be running over one billion search requests per day!  Some other aspects of Google are covered, but the subject matter is predominately puzzles - all types of puzzles: fermi questions, deductive logic, numeracy skill, algorithmic questions and some grade A counter intuitive mind boggling teasers!

William Poundstone
One can't help asking the question why Google bothers with all of this?  Surely, the point of an interview is to see if someone can do a certain type of work and the interview should be a fair attempt to assess a candidate's suitability. I have had the fortune (some would say misfortune) to be part of world of Software engineering for the last 15 years.  I am passionate about it, but I'll be the first to admit it isn't just about solving fun puzzles. Following best practises, following agreed processes, keeping up to speed with technology, documenting solutions so others can see what's going on are all very important things to make a good software engineer.  And it's not always sexy work.  Sometimes it requires patience  debugging ugly code while sticking to a tight project deadline. Ascertaining how good someone is at all this in an interview setting can be difficult - especially when it's very easy for a good candidate to freeze from nerves or get an unexpected mental block.  It's very difficult to objectify what makes a good software engineer. Sometimes someone very intelligent can get hung up on abstractions or theoritical patterns and forget they have deadlines or just not be a good team player.  Sometimes, there's just inescapable subjectivity.

Joel Spolksy
So how do brain teasers help out? Acclaimed tech guru, Joel Spolsky advises to avoid asking them in interviews because they are usually just a case of either the candidate knows it or he doesn't - and not much else.  In my opinion, it can take months to understand someone's technical strengths and weaknesses.  Puzzles can be useful for demostrating how someone approaches problem solving, how they think on their feet and how they communicate ideas.  So yes they do serve a purpose.  But even if they serve no purpose whatsoever other than a bit of fun, that's fine for me.  I love a good puzzle so I really enjoyed this book and for that reason I'd recommend it to anyone who likes to dabble in some cryptic challenges.

References:
1.  Are you smart enough to work at Google

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