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Cracking the Tech Career: Insider Advice on Landing a Job at Google, Microsoft, Apple, or any Top Tech Company by Gayle Laakmann McDowell

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11Problem Solving

“You know how I interview electrical contractors?” Colin Jaques of Canzam Electric told me. “I give them a pipe and I tell them to bend it.” Suddenly I pictured a Hulk Hogan–type man heaving as he bends a pipe with his bare hands. He can't be serious?

“No, no. It's not about strength.” Colin reassured me. “It's about how they answer. Do they ask where you want it bent and at what angle, or do they just bend it? You see, we can't have contractors running around bending things at random with no idea what you or the client wants.”

He had a point. In fact, this attribute of make sure you know what problem you're solving is common to many types of interview questions.

It had another thing in common with typical tech interviews, too: it's not what it seems. Too many candidates stress getting the right answer, as though there's always one single correct answer. Not so.

Rather, interview questions are about the process you take. Do you check your assumptions? Do you think through all possible cases? How do you break down the problem? Are you sure you're even solving the right problem?

You could debate at length the value of asking such questions, but these are things the interviewer is trying to ask.

Types of Problem-Solving Questions

Problem-solving questions can come in a variety of categories. Some of the most common are:

  • Estimation questions. Also called Fermi problems, these questions are of the form, “How many nickels would it take to cover the Golden Gate ...

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