Answering odd interview questions

Almost exactly a year ago (10/17/13) I wrote a post for this blog about “Answering tough questions” in a job interview. I mentioned briefly that you might occasionally get asked odd questions such as “How tall do you think this building is?,” but my advice had more to do with answering the serious questions and less to do with figuring out what to say when you’re asked something that is off the wall. Today I’m going to discuss an article on this topic by Daniel Levitin published in Wired online.

What Levitin tells us is that these questions aren’t intended to produce an accurate or even correct response—in fact, he says that most of them don’t even have a “correct” response. He’s talking about questions such as “How much does the Empire State Building weigh?” or “How many piano tuners are there in Chicago?” But he says that these questions do merit your consideration, and your answer can be important to the interviewer. What you’re really being asked in these questions is how do you approach a problem? What is your process for working out an answer? What assumptions do you make as you think about the question?

If you get asked an odd question like the ones above, take a deep breath and start thinking aloud about the problem. Levitin goes through a detailed process for how you might answer both of them, but the important thing here is not the specifics of the responses to those particular questions, but how you deal with being asked an impossible question.

To develop a response, start by laying out some parameters and making some estimates. For example, if you’re asked, “How many golf balls would fit inside a school bus?” (which is one of the many supposedly genuine Google interview questions that you can easily find on the Internet), you could start out by estimating the length, width, and height of the inside of a school bus. Then you could use those estimates to calculate the available volume of the inside of the bus. But wait—don’t forget to deduct for the seats: yet another calculation. Then you would have to calculate the volume of a golf ball, divide the volume of the bus by the volume of a golf ball, and—Voila!—you have an answer. Is it correct? Who knows? But your response was logical, and, if you exhibited poise in presenting it, your interviewer probably received it favorably.

The most important thing is to try not to let odd questions rattle you. It’s okay to laugh or ask questions, but the last thing you want to do is say something like, “That’s not possible!” or “What has that got to do with the job?” Everything you do and say in an interview counts, so make sure you are prepared and both willing and able to address the twists and turns that the process presents.(You can get more advice about how to prepare for interviews by reading Tips 42 through 46 and Appendices A, K, and L in my book!)