Every year before Christmas I spend an hour or so in the Stanford University bookstore. I buy gifts and I always end up with at least one “impulse buy.” This year my impulse buy is titled, “Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?” by William Poundstone. The book reviews many of the trick questions, zen-like riddles, insanely difficult puzzles, and other devious interviewing techniques you need to know to get a job anywhere in the new economy.
A typical question goes like this: There are three boxes, and one contains a valuable prize; the other two are empty. You’re given your choice of a box, but you aren’t told whether it contains the prize. Instead, one of the boxes you didn’t pick is opened and is shown to be empty. You’re allowed to keep the box you originally picked (“stay”) or swap it for the other unopened box (“switch”). Which would you rather do, stay or switch? (The book has answers to all the questions.)
The book is a fascinating read, especially for anyone involved in the interview process. I was particularly interested in the chapter on what are called Fermi questions. They are named after the famous physicist who built the first fission reactor. Enrico Fermi supposedly tormented his students with riddles like, “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” Variations of Fermi questions are a part of many interview processes. For example,
How many garbage collectors are there in California? (Apple)
Estimate the number of taxis in New York City. (KPMG)
How many vacuum cleaners are made a year? (Google)
These questions are about charting a course between facts you know and some weird statistic. To do well on these questions you need to know some facts and draw some connections. This is an important skill for decision coaches.
Experienced decision coaches have a good sound set of relevant facts for the industry they work in. Decision coaches also able to connect the facts to decision making. Early in the political debates on the US budget I looked up the annual GDP of the US. It’s $14.5 trillion. This and a handful of other statistics has helped me put the political “discussions” into perspective. I can make simple mental models and do quick calculations of impacts.
Skill in answering Fermi type questions can be developed. It just takes practice and a few statistics. Practice and you will be ready next time your boss or a VC asks, “How many language translators are sold in North America?” (It helps to know the population of the US — about 300 million.)
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