Why Google Got Over Brainteasers

Photo of author

By Charlotte Dillon

You’ve probably heard stories about Google’s interview process. The web is littered with examples of brainteasers interviewers have posed, including “How many golf balls can fit in a school bus?” and “How many piano tuners are there in the world?”

Brainteasers were another one of Google’s trailblazing company culture quirks essential to its “Googlieness,” like casual dress or napping pods. These head-scratching puzzles were touted as a meritocratic way to hire. The logic was, no matter where you went to college or what your SAT score were, if you could solve one of these questions, you deserve to work at Google.

But Google’s brainteasers are a thing of the past.

“We found that brainteasers are a complete waste of time,” Laszlo Bock, senior VP of Google’s people operations stated. “They don’t predict anything. They serve primarily to make the interviewer feel smart.” In fact, the people who succeeded at brainteasers were often the opposite kind of employee Bock wanted to hire.

While buzz-worthy, brainteasers have been abandoned for straight-edge processes and questions. Interviewers ask boring questions that you might hear from any other company. And they get better results.

Bock overhauled the quirky interview process in favor of hiring policies that yielded employees who would work hard and work smart. Here’s what he did.

Setting the Right Filters

Google receives 2 million applicants per year, and only accepts a couple thousand. Its huge applicant pool makes it 25 times more selective than Harvard.

In order to make sure they accept the right people, they needed to set the right filters.

Brainteasers, Bock found, were setting the wrong filter. He recognized that the brainteaser process represented a kind of macho one-upmanship. It asked interviewees to overcome intimidation and immense pressure, which often prevented creative thinking and embarrassed people.

Candidates who could talk their way out of an intimidating puzzle, then, were often over-confident in their abilities—the exact opposite of what Bock wanted in Google employees.

Bock values intellectual humility. “Successful bright people rarely experience failure,” he says, “and so they don’t learn how to learn from that failure,” Bock says. He’s found that ego matters a lot in the workplace. To filter for people who with both intellectual chops and humility, Bock places a high premium on candidates’ ability to work in a team.

Here are some of the questions Bock asks now:

  • Tell me about a time when you effectively achieved a goal. What did your approach look like?
  • What were your targets and how did you meet them as an individual and as a team?
  • How did you adapt your leadership approach to different individuals?
  • What was the key takeaway from this specific situation?

Questions about teamwork help Bock find employees who are humble and can work autonomously.

Set specific goals for hiring:

Of course, companies value different traits. Zappos, for example, only hires candidates who are passionate about working there. To ensure that they’re getting the right people, they offer new hires $2,000 to quit. If they take the money and run, good riddance. If they’d rather be at the company, it’s a good fit.

It’s important to think about the qualities that differentiate your company and your team. By doing so, you can tailor your interview process to your brand.

Thinking Beyond the Resume

Bock also found that candidates’ college GPA had no correlation to job performance. “After two or three years, your ability to perform at Google is completely unrelated to how you performed when you were in school,” he said, “because the skills you required in college are very different.”

More importantly, he notes, the skills a candidate needs now might look a different from the skills they’ll need a couple years down the road.

This is because Google is constantly evolving. And Bock looks for dynamic candidates who can evolve with it. To do so, he formulates questions that evaluate a candidate’s adaptability. This doesn’t mean asking them to design an escape plan for the city of San Francisco. It means talking to them about how they behave in numerous situations, and confirming this with references.

The big picture

Chances are, your company is also evolving. You’re growing, adapting, or scaling. And you need to make sure your employees are too. What do you want your team to look like in three years? Where do you see this candidate in that picture?

Considering long-term outcomes of a hire allows you to ease your company’s growing pains.

Auditions Trump Resumes

Another trick Bock uses is the active interview, or giving the candidate real work in addition to a sit-down interview. A lot of hiring managers are turning to a process of auditioning for a job rather than simply submitting a resume. They find it invaluable to have candidates try their hand at the job they’d be performing.

As Uber CEO Travis Kalanick says, “Simulating what it’s like to work together is the best way to determine whether somebody has the raw talent to not just do the job but to grow into something bigger.”

Automattic, which made the open source software WordPress, swears by the audition. They give applicants real work to do, and pay them for it at a rate of $25/hour. CEO Matt Mullenweg said, “There’s nothing like being in the trenches with someone, working with them day by day. It tells you something you can’t learn from resumes, interviews, or reference checks.”

It also gives everyone a sense of what it would be like if they joined: both employer and employee. Mullenweg continues, “It’s a mutual tryout. Some people decide we’re not the right fit for them.”

It’s similar to the advice Jeff Bezos famously gave in 1998: “I’d rather interview 50 people and not hire anyone than hire the wrong person.”

Tailor the Interview to Your Company

There isn’t a one-size-fits all approach to finding the right employees. It will take extra time out of your day to review candidates’ work, or to develop an interview process that accurately predicts employee output. But as Bock’s example shows, it’s well worth the effort. Even if it’s boring.

And those pesky brainteasers? Use them to test yourself, or take a peek at the answers.

P.S. If you liked this article, you should subscribe to our newsletter. We’ll email you a daily blog post with actionable and unconventional advice on how to work better.


Boost Your Productivity In 5 Minutes

Get daily tactics, insights, and tools to get more done.