Beating the Interview Puzzle Game


Quick! You have a 5 gallon bucket, a three gallon bucket, and a water hose. How do you exactly measure 4 gallons of water using only these three things? This is a question that was asked of me at an interview, and even though I’m pretty sure I have seen this in Die Hard: With a Vengeance, I couldn’t answer it. It really isn’t that difficult to figure out, but when you are under pressure in an interview, being asked to solve a puzzle can throw you off your game and turn you into an idiot in 10 seconds flat.

Companies like Google are notorious for asking candidates to solve ridiculously hard puzzles that force you to think outside the box, and allegedly, companies use these puzzles to judge how you go about solving problems and how well you perform under pressure.

Does being able to solve a puzzle really determine how good you will be at a job? No. Most of the middle managers that are asking you to solve these puzzles are likely idiots in their own right, and they  probably spent all of 2 minutes on Google finding one.

Let’s say you have two applicants for a position, one who solved the puzzle and another who didn’t.  Maybe the applicant who solve it studied the most commonly asked interview puzzles and then some, but otherwise is a complete tool and also has an awesome collection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer trading cards. Maybe the one who didn’t solve it just plain sucks at puzzles, but has experience solving real world business problems. Is an abstract puzzle and a real world problem the same thing? When was the last time somebody handed you two buckets, but only needed exactly 4 gallons of water…

So how do you beat the puzzle game? You really only have two options:

  1. Learn as many puzzles as you can.
  2. Say eff the puzzles, refusing to play their game while focusing on killing the rest of the interview.

Option 1: If you are die hard (no pun intended) about learning every single puzzle, you are a better man/woman than I, and good for you. But you aren’t out of the woods yet. You need to make sure that you play it off, and act like you have never heard the puzzle before. After being asked the brain twister:

  • Stroke your beard and look like you are thinking hard. If you don’t have a beard then you might as well just go home and cry (ladies get a pass, but just this once).
  • Don’t just blurt out the answer you poser! Walk through the necessary steps that would need to happen to solve the puzzle, throwing in a few scenarios that would occur when solving the puzzle for the first time.
  • Arrive at the correct (read: memorized) solution, appearing to have put some thought into, but also making it seem effortless.
  • If you really have some balls, challenge that hobbit to a duel: saying “I will answer your puzzle, but if I get it right I am going to ask you a puzzle, and if you can’t answer it, I get the job.” Proceed to ask the nastiest,  puzzle you know: “you have a Rubick’s cube made of other Rubick’s cubes…”

Option 2: Deny them their puzzle, and force them to judge you on the rest of the interview. Know beforehand that if you are asked a puzzle, you will NOT be solving it. This method may seem a bit crazy, but trust me, it’s better than drawing on a whiteboard for 15 minutes attempting to figure out their puzzle, failing miserably, and making a complete ass of yourself in the process. When presented the puzzle:

  • Yup… Lean back in your chair, stroke your beard and look like you are thinking hard, and this time you don’t get a pass ladies!
  • Do NOT get up and write on that whiteboard, even if they are trying to hand you the marker (I actually did this).
  • Smile and say “I’m horrible at these things, I give up. Whats the answer?” without even attempting the puzzle.
  • At the end of the interview crack a joke about the puzzle.

Congratulations. Although you technically failed the puzzle, you also did not make a fool out of yourself. When they think back on the interview, the puzzle portion only lasted about 30 seconds, and most of the time was actually spent… interviewing. If you spent 15 minutes drawing lines on a whiteboard only to end up at the same conclusion (you suck at puzzles), well that’s more memorable isn’t it? And in a very bad way. It’s far better to tell them that you suck at puzzles  than to demonstrate that you suck at puzzles.

By the way, I took option #2 and got the job.

rubick (Photo credit: lbalaguero// visca el 50mm)