Brainteasers: A Tool For Interviewers To Measure Candidate’s Intelligence

Posted in Human Resources Articles, Total Reads: 6399 , Published on 24 June 2012

Why do employers subject already nervous job candidates to brainteasers, puzzles, business cases, and other mind-benders? Do such puzzles really help employers build teams of highly logical, curious, successful, hard-working, motivated contributors who can be expected to hit the ground running?

Hardly anyone believes that. There are no studies that give scientific support to the notion that success at brainteasers and logic puzzles predicts success at the job. So if employers know that, why do interviewers persist in using valuable job interview time for this peculiar style of interviewing? Interviewers look to brainteasers to do one thing: to start a safe conversation that reveals how smart candidates are. Intelligence is seen as a critical predictor of success on the job, and brainteasers allow interviewers to get a measure of a candidate’s intelligence.

Experts in selection procedures from IT industry say that “There is a strong correlation between basic intelligence and success in software engineering but unfortunately the forces of political correctness have taken away a key tool—employers can’t give intelligence tests to candidates”. In the meantime, puzzles are a decent proxy.

By giving candidates good puzzles you get a fair estimate of how smart they are, and the discussion gives you some interaction with the candidate too. With the downturn in the tech sectors, more and more people are chasing fewer jobs. Interviewers are often faced with hundreds of résumés for one position. When all these candidates seem exceptionally qualified for the job, how is the interviewer to select?

Using brainteasers and puzzles makes sense at companies that focus recruitment efforts more on what candidates might do in the future than on what they have done in the past. These companies understand that in today’s fast-paced global businessworld, specific skills are of limited use because technology changes so quickly. What is really needed, interviewers believe, are curious, observant, quick-witted candidates who welcome new challenges, demonstrate mental agility under stressful conditions, learn quickly, defend their thinking, and demonstrate enthusiasm for impossible tasks.

It also doesn’t hurt that Microsoft, the most successful company of all time, is known to add brainteasers to the mix of interview questions itasks the thousands of super-bright candidates who come knocking at its gates. No human resources director has ever been fired for aligning his or her company’s hiring practices with Microsoft’s.


An expert from a Gurgaon –based software firm understands that brainteasers or other challenges are a critical part of the interview process because they help narrow the large number of “maybes” that crowd any job search. “There are three types of people in the software industry,” notes expert, who got his first job at Microsoft. “At one end of the scale, there are the grubby heaps, lacking even the most basic requirement for the job.” They are easy to hunt down and eliminate, often just by reviewing a resume and asking two or three quick questions.

At the other end are the superstars who code for fun. “And in the center, you have a large number of ‘maybes’ who might just be able to contribute something, at least they seem like ones,” Expert adds. “At my firm, brainteasers/puzzles are used to identify candidates who not only are smart, but who get things done. Our goal is to hire people with aptitude, not a particular skill set,” expert says. “Smart is important, but hard to define; gets things done is crucial.

In order to be able to tell, you’re going to have to ask the right questions.”The brainteaser challenge comes after the expert establishes rapport with the candidate, asks about skills and projects, and poses some behavioural questions (“Tell me about a time when you faced a deadline crunch . . .”). The first thing the expert looks for in a candidate is passion. After that, he gives the candidate an impossible gross-order estimation question. The question would be gross to the extent that if even a billionaire businessman starts solving it, he will die penniless solving it.

“The idea is to ask a question that they have no possible way of answering, just to see how they handle it,” he says. How many doctors are there in Delhi? How many tons does the Qutab Minar weigh? How many petrol pumps are in Gurgaon? “What an applicant knows gets him or her through the first interview”, says industry expert, Head of Marketing and Program Development at a leading dot com firm. By the time the applicant gets to Bangalore office, aptitude and experience are not in question. The main office checks that applicant can handle stressful situation before making an offer. The applicant might face such conditions that often describe life at such companies that assists clients with make-or-break strategic design programs.

Many other firms, has often found that starting an interview with a brainteaser is effective. Logic brainteasers have a long convention in ever changing software firms where being quick on your feet is an asset. As the rest of the world has embraced the qualities of the quick moving, very typical start-up mentality of the hi-fi tech computer firms, many others are inheriting the in-your-face style of interviewing associated with technology-intensive start-ups.

Some other recruiters earnestly believe that brainteasers/puzzles are valid tools to measure the creativity, intelligence, passion, resourcefulness, etc., of candidates. Others are enthusiastic to accept that puzzles are more than interview aerobatics that may or may not disclose aspects of the candidate’s personality and may actually isolate some candidates. In any case, brainteasers are here to stay.

A reasonable question you may ask is, “Given that many books have now being published with many brainteasers and their solutions, why would any interviewer ever use those brainteasers again?”Let me give two answers. First, interviewers love candidates who have prepared for interviews. They want you to prepare. The fact is, there are literally hundreds of Web sites that discuss these puzzles, sometimes with solutions, sometimes not.

Besides, many of such brainteasers don’t have solutions. And of the puzzles that do, interviewers understand, as you should, that reading the solutions to these puzzles is no substitute for understanding them and being able to carry on an intelligent conversation. And intelligent conversation—what these brainteasers are designed to catalyze—can’t be faked. Second, there are dozens of interviewing books that prep candidates on such staples of the job interview as “Where do you want to be in five years?” and “What’s your greatest weakness?” but interviewers still ask those questions. You can buy books and appear with confidence.

But the great irony of brainteasers is that, the one which is going to be there in interview, you will not find it published anywhere. I will leave you with this thought and a brainteaser to work with.

“A businessman devises a business plan for buying and selling coconuts. He calculates that by buying coconuts for $5 a dozen and selling them for $3 a dozen, that in less than a year he will be a millionaire. His business plan and calculations are accurate. How is this possible?”*

*Answer is in the article itself

This article has been authored by Vikash Kumar from IMI Delhi.



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