Sept. 25, 2012 -- How much toilet paper would you need to cover Texas? How many vacuum cleaners are made a year? Can you swim faster in water or in syrup? How would you weigh your head?
If your answer to these was, "who cares?" your chances of ever working at Google, Microsoft, Wal-Mart, most of the Fortune 500, or, increasingly, the corner shoe store, are slim. Offbeat, brain-teasing questions are all the rage right now with interviewers.
So says science writer William Poundstone, author of the new book, "Are you Smart Enough To Work At Google?" Its daunting subtitle: "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."
Anywhere? Yes, pretty much, Poundstone tells ABC News. The reasons, he says, are several. First, there are more people than there are jobs. A potential employer can set the bar to entry high and still be assured of a waiting room full of desperate souls. Second, "HR departments are running scared, asking themselves 'How can we make sure our questions have predictive power for how well someone will do on the job?'"
There's not absolute proof the new questions work, Poundstone says, but there's abundant evidence (including a Harvard study) the old ones don't: most hiring decisions, researchers have shown, have more to do with an applicant's appearance or manner of speech than they do with his or her intellect.
Many of Google's questions, says Poundstone, are intentionally open-ended. Example: 'How would you devise an evacuation plan for San Francisco?' In most instances, there is no single correct answer. The interviewer's goal is to see how the thinking process of the applicant works, and to gauge his or her creativity in problem-solving.
Google, asked for comment by ABC News, declined.
The book's most useful features include A Field Guide to Devious Interview Questions, which divides questions into categories (e.g., classic logic puzzles, lateral thinking puzzles, insight questions, tests of divergent thinking, etc.), then offers strategies and tips for answering each type.
Another feature is useful whether you ever interview with Google or any other employer: Salving a Doomed Interview offers advice for how to buy yourself time to think and how to make a good impression on your interviewer, whether you know the answer or not. You should, for example, restate the question in your own words. Doing so earns you time and confirms you understand what you're being asked.
Ask questions, Poundstone advises. "No matter what the question is, you can ask for clarification," he writes, for example: "When you say I'm swimming in syrup, do you mean a specific kind, like maple syrup, or any liquid that's thicker than water?" Or: "Must the weight of my head include my neck?"
The second half of the book gives answers to the teasers cited in the first—although which of these you ever might be asked is tough to say: Questions, Poundstone explains, have a shelf life of their own. Some ("Why are man hole covers round?") escape the shops of their creators and become part of company or industry folklore, such that more and more applicants come prepared to answer.
Interviewers at Google, for this reason, invest effort coming up with ever-newer and more-devious questions. It's more valuable for the applicant to understand the strategy for answering a given type of question than to have a canned answer ready.
An historical aside:
In 1929, Thomas Edison got worried that America was not producing enough smart young people for careers in science and engineering. So, he undertook a nationwide hunt to find "The Smartest Boy in America" (yes, it was limited to boys). He and Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh drew up a list of questions that, according to the New York Times, included goodies like: 'When do you consider a lie permissible?' The winner was to get a full scholarship at MIT. Boys from every state competed; and, in the end, The Edison Prize Boy was found.
The headline in newspapers the next day said: "Edison Prize Boy Calls Test Dumb."