Book review: ‘How Do You Fight A Horse-Sized Duck?’ by William Poundstone

The unorthodox interview questions that come out of left-field and how to respond to them.

Imagine for a moment you’ve gone for an interview at one of those giant technology companies and the person on the other side of the desk asks you the following question: would you rather fight a horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses? Once you’d got over the surprise of being confronted by such an unorthodox interviewing technique, your instinct might lead to you suspect that the interviewer was having fun at your expense.

These are the sort of questions currently being used to see if you’ve got what it takes to make it big in A-list tech giants such as Apple, Netflix and Amazon. It’s no longer enough to be well-qualified and highly accomplished in your field. After all, most of the competing applicants will be at least that good. And so, to use a couple of ultra-modern business management terms, today the recruiters are seeking disruptors and differentiators. The way they look for this, says William Poundstone in his literally thought-provoking ‘How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck?: Secrets to Succeeding at Interview Mind Games and Getting the Job You Want’ (OneWorld, £16.99, ISBN 9780861540075), is to serve up curve balls to see how you react under pressure.

According to Poundstone, these days interviewers at leading tech companies routinely have to sift through a mass of short-listed applicants that will outnumber the available positions by a factor of 25 or more. With such a superabundance of talent to pick from, you could argue that a reasonable course of action might be to pick one at random, but that wouldn’t be half so much fun as putting your prospective employee on the spot with a question such as that invited by the title of the book.

Of course neither this question, nor the 70 or so others like it in Poundstone’s book, has a literal or correct answer. Which can only mean that the interviewers are testing the way you think. If you think that this is all a waste of time, you can check out the video on YouTube of none other than Bruce Springsteen weighing in on the topic. Working on the assumption that the other 24 applicants are equally qualified for the job, the differentiator becomes how you handle wildcard challenges. Take another one: why are tennis balls fuzzy? Don’t know? Thanks for popping in, goodbye. Or you could, say: I don’t know, but what I do know is that golf balls, footballs, cricket balls and squash balls aren’t fuzzy, so something important is going on. Now you’re a step closer to your first Google pay cheque.

As superficially silly as these questions may be, there is serious point behind asking a candidate how much the Empire State Building weighs, which is to examine their problem-solving instincts and methodologies. Clearly, Poundstone isn’t talking about fighting ducks at all, although you’ll have plenty of fun deconstructing the analogy with logical analysis.

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