The insightful Megan McArdle links to google’s decision to change its interview process, having found out that most of its employees are really bad at determining whether someone will be a good worker or not. As the NYT article says,
On the hiring side, we found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time. How many golf balls can you fit into an airplane? How many gas stations in Manhattan? A complete waste of time. They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.
Ah, making the interviewer feel smart: the golden goal of any interview. Years ago, I wrote about my disastrous Northwestern Law School interview. I flew out to Chicago after getting waitlisted by the school and interviewed with an alumnus from admissions. The upshot was that the guy couldn’t understand why an engineer would want to go to law school, and when I mentioned the legal implications of some of my engineering projects (namely, space law), he flipped out. “Space law? I’m a lawyer and I’ve never heard of it.” I ended up explaining the basics to him – then promptly got a rejection letter from the school. Obviously, of the two ways to look at the situation of a 0L correctly explaining the law to a ten-year attorney, he preferred the “She’s weird, let’s reject her” way.
Which is the fundamental problem with a lot of these situations: it’s more about the subjective reaction of the interviewer than anything that has to do with the interviewee’s merits. There is the problem of tailoring the interview to the interviewee: the SAT writing test may be a fine way to distinguish decent high school student writers from those who can’t form a coherent sentence, but would be a terrible way to measure Victor Hugo’s writing ability. The other problem with “Do you make me feel smart?” hiring is that it’s a great way to end up with a team full of people with the same background, the same types of thought processes, and a propensity to make the same types of decisions. That might work for a synchronised swimming team, but not so much for one facing a diversity of challenges.