Are There Enough Smart Developers for Google?

Monday Jan 18th 2010 by Eric Spiegel
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Maybe, maybe not, but either way, there is more than one for a software developer to be smart.

A deer in the headlights.

That’s what most developers would feel like during an interview with Google.

I have determined this from the recently published questions that Google typically asks in an interview. Anyone who interviews at Google can easily find these Google interview questions and answers. (Just Google it!)

So I’m sure a seasoned Google interviewer will start with the first question “Did you research the questions you can expect?” If you answer no, you are either a liar or incompetent – either way disqualified.

If you answer yes, then you show you have done your research and guarantee you will get questions from left field. Such as these interview questions that Google keep in its arsenal to totally flummox the majority of candidates who think they are smart enough to work for the tech giant.

You can’t memorize all the answers, can you? Oh wait, you aren’t supposed to be memorizing answers, you are supposed to be showing off how smart you are and figuring them out on your own.

But maybe you are one of the lucky ducks to have a photographic memory. How will the interviewer know if you are reciting the answers or running through innovative calculations in your head? And isn’t memorizing cheating? Or is it simply good preparation?

I have been pondering my own tough question: Are there enough smart techies who can actually answer these questions?

If you consider that Microsoft and other tech giants have been famous for tough interviews for years, you must wonder if the techie population will support the demand. Where will they find all these geniuses?

Well, Mensa claims it has over 100k members and they only accept people that score in the 98th percentile on the standard IQ test. That's the top two percent of the population who are really, really smart.

Of course these Mensans should be smart enough to pass the Google interview gauntlet – but how many of them actually work in software? Sure there are plenty of other smart people who aren’t in Mensa because they want to keep their super powers secret, so let’s look at computer science majors in relation so Mensa and world population.

Stay with me -- I’m getting to my point through very intelligent mathematical computations.

According to the Computing Research Association, there are about 8,000 computer science majors in the US. If only 2% of them would qualify for Mensa, then only about 160 would be shoo-ins for Google. Even if Google does a crazy amount of international interviewing, I doubt the numbers will add up.

Okay, my math isn’t perfect and I’d probably never even get an interview with Google. But even if they could find enough people to pass their tests, is Google doing itself a disservice by pursuing only the smartest of the smart?

You may argue that they are looking for diamonds in the rough by asking questions like, How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle? You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to answer about X dollars per window. It’s probably also amusing to watch the intellectual show-offs actually try to exhibit their brilliance by figuring out how many windows there are in a large city.

The problem with this argument is that they seem to be mostly interested in Ivy League schools. And they care about your GPA even when you are years removed from graduation.

Everywhere I have worked there have been at least a couple really smart developers. I mean scary smart. But these people typically aren’t the best at other things such as common sense and interpersonal skills.

Next Page: The 'real' questions to ask developers

Not saying all brilliant developers can’t communicate, but if you focus on how smart someone is, you may miss the opportunity to hire a really valuable person who develops your next great product. Or who ends up being a great team builder or business liaison.

Here are some alternatives to consider instead of relying on a set of “stump the developer” questions.

1) For most tech companies you can find common interview questions out on the Web. Even before the Web, I remember developers finding ways to share intelligence on preparing for interviews. Now it’s too easy to find this information and cram beforehand.

It’s okay to use this approach as part of the evaluation, but as a weeding out tool, I don’t think it’s the best route. That’s exactly what happened to this candidate. In her “nightmare” Google interview – even though her writing skills seem to show she has something to offer that Google is missing out on.

2) I’m a big fan of situational interviews. I’d much rather know if a person can handle the intensity and unique circumstances that are prevalent in a turbo-charged development environment. Instead of focusing on logic questions, ask the candidate what they would do in a realistic difficult situation. After all, writing code isn’t just about math and logic. Creativity is something that can be less tangible and only surfaces when a developer is in a pickle.

3) How about communications skills? I know there will be some eyes rolling from techies who are just looking to be left alone to be brilliant. At most companies, interpersonal skills really do matter because you aren’t coding in a vacuum. You have to find a balance of people who can code like a banshee and those who can code very well, but who really know how to bring teams together, successfully promote ideas and interface with business users.

4) Whenever building a team, you can’t just focus on individuals. You need to holistically look at the team and how they will mesh. Therefore, personality comes into play. You could have a candidate take a Myers-Briggs type of test or you could just ask them “what were you like in high school?” It’s amazing how people let down their guard when they start talking about their formative teenage years, and – ta-dah – their true personality surfaces.

I just believe that the more complete person you hire, the better off you are in the long run. Granted, you need a couple geniuses for technical breakthroughs that us average Joe’s might never invent. (Apologies to my very smart college roommate Joe!)

But be careful, because that deer caught in your headlights might be the young buck who brings more than an amazing intellect to help your company build a world-class software development team.

ALSO SEE: Are You a Blue Collar or White Collar Developer?

AND: Do Nice Engineers Finish Last in Tough Times?

AND: Why Developers Get Fired

Eric Spiegel is CEO and co-founder of XTS, which provides software for planning, managing and auditing Citrix and other virtualization platforms.

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