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The Interview Brainteaser and its Discontents

Almost everyone who has interviewed for technical jobs has been through the experience: the interviewer says something like, "Now this is just to see how you think. There's a man who has to get a fox, a chicken, and a bushel of grain across a river, and he has only a small boat that will take only one of these at a time. He can't leave the fox unattended with the chicken or the chicken unattended with the grain. What should he do?" (In this case, there is clearly right answer, but in a real interview, it's seldom this easy.)

There may sometimes be good reasons to ask questions like this in an interview. However, speaking as someone who -- in a twenty-plus-year career as a hands-on software developer, as a consultant, and as a manager -- has been on both sides of the interviewing process literally hundreds of times, I contend that it is usually a bad idea. There is simply too much that can go badly and too little that can go well.

In this article, I will discuss the biggest problems with using brain teasers in interviews, provide three examples of how the brainteaser interview can go badly (all drawn from actual interviews), and discuss whether brainteasers are ever a good idea in a job interview (I give this a very qualified "yes"), and provide my thoughts on how to handle it when you are the candidate and someone asks you this sort of question.

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Originally written: June 26, 2002
Last modified: June 26, 2002

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