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Brain-twisting interview questions
April 19, 2003 10:19 AM   Subscribe

Here's a collection of mind-bending job interview questions from Microsoft, along with other tidbits about the MS interview process. Possible answers to some of these questions (as well as some of the Car Talk Puzzlers) can be found here.
posted by arco (28 comments total)

 
You have been assigned to design Bill Gates bathroom. Naturally, cost is not a consideration. You may not speak to Bill.

Sandpaper. Lots and lots of sandpaper.
posted by pyramid termite at 10:41 AM on April 19, 2003


They forgot one question:
How fast can you create a buggy, overpriced, code bloated piece of software? Naturally cost is not a consideration.
posted by sharksandwich at 10:51 AM on April 19, 2003


I. Hate. This. Company. Yeaaaaaah!
posted by Pretty_Generic at 11:26 AM on April 19, 2003


You've got someone working for you for seven days and a gold bar to pay them. The gold bar is segmented into seven connected pieces. You must give them a piece of gold at the end of every day. If you are only allowed to make two breaks in the gold bar, how do you pay your worker?

Easy. Issue gold bar "options" that never actually vest.
posted by nyxxxx at 11:29 AM on April 19, 2003


I. Love. This. Company. Yeaaaaaah!

I have held several contract positions at Microsoft and have been through this interview process many times. The interviews are almost always fun and their policies of not hiring morons and of treating employees with respect makes it a great place to work.

Say what you want about the product, but it's one of the best places in the world to work.
posted by ukamikanasi at 11:36 AM on April 19, 2003


Some of those are incredibly hard. Some of those are very easy. I wouldn't know what to do with the number of manholes in the US, etc.
posted by riffola at 11:53 AM on April 19, 2003


In one of my university interviews years ago a smug lecturer sat back in his chair and asked "So.. what is electricity?". I said something about electrical charge and electromagnetic fields before he grinned and interrupted with "Ah, but we don't really know what electricity is, that's what makes it so amazing". I scowled and said "Well no, but then I don't really know if you're sitting there asking me that question."
I didn't get an offer of a place.

(do lots of companies actually ask people stupid cryptic questions? I think I'd just laugh, but then I doubt I'd want to work at Microsoft, it's pretty much the ultimate helplessly-tiny-cog-in-vast-machine scenario)
posted by malevolent at 12:00 PM on April 19, 2003


Um - my weaknesses are that I work to hard???
posted by mildred-pitt at 12:04 PM on April 19, 2003


Yeah...I tend to be a perfectionist. Heh.

Me? I love MS. I'm not a techie, just your basic user, both at home & at the office - Outlook, Excel, Word, Powerpoint, etc. Sure, they can be frustrating on occasion, but it sure is nice to have that "interoperability" and standardization. How they interview their prospective employees is fine by me, wacky questions and all.
posted by davidmsc at 12:08 PM on April 19, 2003


I doubt I'd want to work at Microsoft, it's pretty much the ultimate helplessly-tiny-cog-in-vast-machine scenario

But it isn't. Bill is only six or seven levels above even the lowliest contractors. In my first position at MS, I did some important work on a report for MS Legal that was used for the big anti-trust lawsuit. In my second position, I represented my team at the weekly product meeting while we were in ship mode (this was for Exchange 2000-- a very large product) and I also had access to the entire Exchange code base-- something not even Exchange devs have. And I was only a mere contractor. Those were the first jobs I held after college.

As an aside: on Halloween, they have trick-or-treating and haunted houses and stuff in the buildings. Steve Ballmer brought his kids by my office one year. This was when I had my hair dyed green and I wore a skin-tight skeleton costume to work that day. SteveB didn't even react. That's just the culture at MS-- be who you are.
posted by ukamikanasi at 12:27 PM on April 19, 2003


At least that dumb "If you could be any kind of animal what would you be" question isn't here. I've got 2 answers to that one.

A) A Lioness. She works hard, she plays hard, she raises her cubs, she knows when to take a rest, she can count on her fellow lionesses to do their fair share, and she gets to eat anyone who asks what kind of animal she'd like to be.

B) Do you want someone who can answer hypothetical questions correctly, or do you want the person who will do the job best?
posted by ilsa at 12:31 PM on April 19, 2003


I also had access to the entire Exchange code base-- something not even Exchange devs have. And I was only a mere contractor.

This comment explains so much.
posted by majcher at 12:35 PM on April 19, 2003


# Why is a manhole cover round?

I dont know. Presumably they are easier to manufacture than Realeaux Triangles or any other of an infinite number of shapes of constant width.

# How many cars are there in the USA? (A popular variant is "How many gas stations are there in the USA?")
# How many manhole covers are there in the USA?


These are known as Fermi problems

The canonical example (and an example of how to solve these types of problems) is the piano tuners
posted by vacapinta at 1:25 PM on April 19, 2003


Supposedly, a manhole cover is round because a round cover can't fall through a round hole of equal size, and because you can move it easily by rolling it - a consideration due to the sheer weight of the thing.
posted by iconomy at 1:32 PM on April 19, 2003



Manhole cover are round so they will NOT fall down the hole.

Try it the lip makes the hole smaller then the cover.

Remember pi are round not square.

Also D.O.S really stands for Dirty Operating System.
posted by davidrosss at 1:37 PM on April 19, 2003


Perhaps i wasnt clear:

Amazingly, the circle isn't the only shape that would work safely as a manhole cover.
posted by vacapinta at 1:45 PM on April 19, 2003


Question: You've got someone working for you for seven days and a gold bar to pay them. The gold bar is segmented into seven connected pieces. You must give them a piece of gold at the end of every day. If you are only allowed to make two breaks in the gold bar, how do you pay your worker?

Answer (from an analogous problem with a gold chain): Can we get change back from the laborer?
If so, we cut one link to make a chain of 4 links, a chain of 2 links and the cut link itself.
Day 1, we give him the cut link
Day 2, we take back the cut link, give him the 2 link chain
Day 3, we give him the cut link
Day 4, we take back both the cut link and the 2 link chain, give him the 4 link chain
Day 5, we give him the cut link
Day 6, we take back the cut link, give him the 2 link chain
Day 7, we give him the cut link


Ugh, I hate this sort of thing! That's not a solution to the problem because you're not paying him at the end of the day, you're just letting him hold some money that he's not allowed to spend. If he uses his pay to buy his dinner then you're out of luck. As a result I would have never thought of that "answer".

Sorry, my girlfriend is out of town and I had to vent about this somewhere. I'll switch to decaf someday.
posted by boredomjockey at 2:06 PM on April 19, 2003


Silly rabbits.

Manhole covers are round because manholes are round.

Duh.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 2:28 PM on April 19, 2003


they're not "cryptic" questions, these are not open ended meaningless philosophical questions, these are awesome problem solving smart pants questions - rock on MS!!

ultimate cog in a machine.. where did you get that idea?

IBM is a much better example - Microsoft is of the younger breed and of an entirely different culture.

Still not as cool as Apple, but definitely wrong comparing to cogs in machines.
posted by firestorm at 3:10 PM on April 19, 2003


boredomjockey, the answer to the segmented gold is probably seeing out the interviewee's programming ability - although a clever and elegant solution it does seem slightly odd if happened IRL w/o further explanation.

In other news,
See Richard Feynman's imaginary response to the manhole question ^^
posted by firestorm at 3:15 PM on April 19, 2003


Question: You've got someone working for you for seven days and a gold bar to pay them. The gold bar is segmented into seven connected pieces. You must give them a piece of gold at the end of every day. If you are only allowed to make two breaks in the gold bar, how do you pay your worker?

Simple. Let him break off the chunk every day. Sheesss!
posted by effer27 at 4:03 PM on April 19, 2003


Some of these used to be known as McKinsey questions long before MS came into the picture. The manhole question certainly was. I was asked the "how many gas stations are there" question during an interview with McKinsey. I guess the thing about these questions is that they pretend to test for innovative, thinking outside of the box type thinking. But, to a certain extent, you can learn about and practice solving problems of this sort in the same way that you can learn about solving most other sorts of problems. I think being able to answer questions like this (in an interview setting) gives too much weight to quick thinking as opposed to deep thinking. I'm a mathematician, and I hate this stuff. It's fun, but I wonder how effective these questions are in interviews.
posted by noether at 5:10 PM on April 19, 2003


I would have said that manhole covers are round so that they could be dragged into place without expending the effort of rotating. Do I get a gold bar?
posted by PrinceValium at 6:26 PM on April 19, 2003


What's the difference between an orange?
posted by squirrel at 6:30 PM on April 19, 2003


I like the bird flying between the two trains question because you can feel smart for getting the shortcut (calculate the time between trains leaving and hitting each other * the speed at wihch the bird flies) instead of going through the process of figuring out the Taylor series. Even though I probably wouldn't be able do the series on the spot in an interview, I still get the warm feeling of feeling smart :)
posted by Space Coyote at 7:47 PM on April 19, 2003


So basically it's not what you think, it's the weird angles you think at?

squirrel: a bicycle seat and a tire?
posted by tragedy_and_comedy at 7:58 PM on April 19, 2003


I've enjoyed my time at MS. Believe it or not, those "questions" don't exactly play a huge role in an MS interview; they're a great way to check out a candidate's problem-solving and conceptualization skills, but there's a lot more to the interview than that.

As for the "ultimate helplessly-tiny-cog-in-vast-machine scenario" bit, that's simple crap. I work on Analysis Services as a programmer/writer; I've had a significant impact on the product, and I've discussed both design and implementation issues with some fairly influential people - and I'm a UE (User Experience) guy. In the three+ years I've worked there both as a consultant and as an employee, I've not felt like a helplessly tiny cog. I have, however, been encouraged to speak up when I see issues, argue (and win, on occasion) with devs and PUMs, and push both technology and ideals forward when necessary. It's been and continues to be fun.

However, I used to work for East Coast insurance companies during the 80s and 90s - you want the cog in the machine scenario, start there.
posted by FormlessOne at 7:23 AM on April 21, 2003


they're a great way to check out a candidate's problem-solving and conceptualization skills

I don't agree, at least for the ones in the "Riddles" section. I can answer every one of these--not because I'm a supergenius, but because I've seen every one of them before. I don't recall how many of them I was able to answer on my own the first time I saw them, but it certainly wasn't all of them. What does it prove if a person can answer those correctly?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:25 AM on April 21, 2003


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