Interview ping pong: why asking stupid questions at interview might not be such a bad idea

Posted on 04/05/2012

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ping pong artwork

Interviews in the creative industry have always been a bit weird (e.g. “What is your idea of a perfect night out?”, “Tell me a joke”, see the IPA website), but now it seems the business world is trying it too. Google’s approach to interviewing was leaked a few months back and it the business world is set to follow. Afraid that they’re missing a trick, captains of industry have decided to copy it, asking ridiculous, out-there questions to test candidates’ mental agility.

I’m not a big fan the standard interview questions. They’re dull, repetitive and easy to fake (once you’ve done one situation, task, action, result answer, you’ve! done them all). While it’s important to be able to compare candidates, Q&A shouldn’t dominate proceedings. Personally, I’d rather work with someone can hold a conversation, and not just answer questions.

This new style of questioning seems to have two benefits: entertaining the interviewer and putting the candidate under pressure. But does it really work?

Let’s take a look at the questions Google are rumored to be asking:

You’re in a car with a helium balloon on a string that is tied to the floor. The windows are closed. When you step on the gas pedal, what happens to the balloon—does it move forward, move backward, or stay put?

Or:

A book has N pages, numbered the usual way, from 1 to N. The total number of digits in the page numbers is 1,095. How many pages does the book have?

(Answers can be found in this Wall Street Journal article)

Why ask these brainteasers? Some of the jobs at Google are relatively unique. 10 years ago, there weren’t any “digital community managers”, and there certainly weren’t any Google Doodlers. Why not make up unique challenges for unique roles?

You can’t rehearse questions like this; you either sink or swim. Then again, how relevant is it to what you’ll actually be doing? Is there any point in asking stupid questions?

There are two good reasons, I think. One, they’re a way to inject spontaneity into an interview. With thousands of candidates applying for a couple of positions, you’ve got to find a way to get past template answers and rehearsed anecdotes.

Secondly, I believe the interview should be fun- it can be tedious (interviewer)/ nerve-racking (candidate) enough as it is, so why not liven up the process a little? These questions keep both the interviewer and the candidate engaged. If anything they’ll start a bit of discussion about how the candidate came to their answer.

If you’re asking these questions, then you need to be looking for someone who enjoys answering them. Never having been asked these at interview, I thought I’d try one out and spent a happy half hour coming up with ideas:

How would you market ping pong balls if ping pong became obsolete?

  • Vintage, one of a kind heirlooms (won’t make any more)
  • Jewelry (pendants, rings etc)
  • Padding for packaging – like those foam shapes you used to get in TV boxes
  • Ball-park balls for kids
  • Sell with set of felt tip pens and you’ve got a customizable “racing ball” kit for kids
  • Bouncey balls
  • Floatation tool (sold in bulk)
  • Part of a craft kit
  • Create your own “bobble head” character- you’re given a body and you get to design it’s head
  • Half the ping pong ball and use as shot glasses
  • Half and use as novelty eyes
  • Projectiles for a toy gun
  • Golfing tee practice (cheaper and doesn’t fly as far)
  • Security device (causes robbers to trip up home alone style)
  • Safety for umbrella spines
  • Cut a slit out of and it’s an iPhone stand
  • Like rubber ducks for the bath
  • Half but not separate – earing box.
  • Sweet container
  • Sculpture material
  • Weave together into a pillow
  • Padding for boats when moored (a sheet)
  • Table football ball
  • Mini keeps-uppy ball
  • Squash practice ball
  • Subuteo ball
  • World sports day association- a ritualistic activity that ppl would do every year.
  • Integrate into a sign- one half red one half green. Would rotate showing when a room was clear or occupied.
  • Mini stop cock for a toilet cistern
  • Solution to wobbly tables- squash to the right size and put under table leg.
  • A pet for children- tie to a string
  • Safety conkers
  • Pet-sized football (probably the right size for a rabbit)
  • Part of a motorway safety barrier (this would require lots of them…)
  • A wheel for a wheely case
  • Furniture pads to stop chairs scratching floors. Just make the right sized hole and attach.
  • Travel soap container for a very small bar of soap
  • Christmas decoration – a snowball you hang from your tree
  • Transformer toy (unfold the net of the sphere to uncover your action figure)

Anything to add to the list? Drop me a comment below.

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