Cocktail Umbrellas and Invisible Pens

June 27, 2011
Posted by Jay Livingston

How many gas stations are there in Mexico City?

At an ASA long, long ago, I went to a session on jobs outside of academia. One speaker – I can’t remember his name – spoke about getting a job as a consultant. The job interview, he said, was not going to be like what we expected. “You’re not going to be asked much about your vita or your research. Instead, they might throw a question at you like: How many gas stations are there in Mexico City?” And unlike students that aren’t paying attention in class, you probably shouldn’t say, “Could you repeat the question?”

No, they didn’t have a client who was going to be motoring around Mexico City and was worried about running on empty. Instead, they wanted to see both your general knowledge and your strategies for getting an answer. Maybe you have some idea of the population of Mexico City. Then you have to estimate how many of those people have cars. But what is a reasonable ratio of gas stations to cars? Or is there another strategy?

In any case, some companies are still at it.
  • Argus Information: How many traffic lights in Manhattan?
  • Gryphon Scientific: How many cocktail umbrellas are there in a given time in the United States?
  • Towers Watson: Estimate how many planes are there in the sky.
  • Google: How many basketballs can you fit in this room?
These were reported by based on information passed along by job seekers. These questions, and others, have been reported at HuffPo , Shine (Yahoo) , and elsewhere.

Some of the questions are looking not for imaginative calculation but imaginative problem-solving
  • Goldman Sachs: If you were shrunk to the size of a pencil and put in a blender, how would you get out?
  • Procter & Gamble: Sell me an invisible pen.
  • Diageo North America: If you walk into a liquor store to count the unsold bottles, but the clerk is screaming at you to leave, what do you do?
  • VWR International: How would you market a telescope in 1750 when no one knows about orbits, moons etc.?
Some are just math or logic puzzles with only one correct answer.
  • Jane Street Capital: What is the smallest number divisible by 225 that consists of all 1’s and 0’s?
  • Goldman Sachs: Suppose you had eight identical balls. One of them is slightly heavier and you are given a balance scale. What’s the fewest number of times you have to use the scale to find the heavier ball?
  • Google: You are climbing a staircase. Each time you can either take one step or two. The staircase has n steps. In how many distinct ways can you climb the staircase?
And some are personal, even (from an academic perspective) to the point of being nosy.
  • Pottery Barn: If I was a genie and could give you your dream job, what and where would it be?
  • Merrill Lynch: Tell me about your life from kindergarten onwards.
  • Kiewit Corp.: What did you play with as a child?
(The Pottery Barn question stands out as different from all the others. It seems much nicer. If I were choosing a place to work based on these questions, I'd have to go with Pottery Barn, unless it’s a trick question. Besides, I have a good idea of what the company actually sells.)

Which eminent (or even not-so-eminent) sociologists would have done well in an interview like this? Which would have had a hard time?

1 comment:

maxliving said...

This seemed interesting and tangentially relevant: