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Book review: ‘How do you fight a duck the size of a horse?’ by William Poundstone

The unorthodox interview questions that come from left field and how to respond to them.

Imagine you went for an interview at one of those giant technology companies and the person on the other side of the desk asks you the following question:

would you rather fight a duck the size of a horse or a hundred horses the size of a horse? a duck ? Once you got over the surprise of being confronted with such an unorthodox interview technique, your instincts might lead you to suspect that the interviewer was having fun at your expense.

These are the kinds of questions currently used to see if you have what it takes to make it big in A-list tech giants like Apple, Netflix and Amazon. It is no longer enough to be well qualified and highly skilled in your field.

After all, most competing candidates will be at least as good. And so, to use some cutting edge business management terms, the recruiters today are looking for disruptors and differentiators.

The way they seek this, says William Poundstone in his literally thought-provoking ‘How Do You Fight a Horse-Sized Duck?: Secrets to Succeeding at Interview Mind Games and Getting the Job You Want’ (OneWorld, £16.99, ISBN 9780861540075 ), is to serve curve balls to see how you react under pressure.

According to Poundstone, interviewers at leading tech companies today routinely have to sift through a multitude of shortlisted candidates who will outnumber available positions by a factor of 25 or more.

With such an abundance of talent to choose from, you could argue that a reasonable course of action might be to pick one at random, but that wouldn’t be half the fun of putting your potential employee on the spot with a question like the one invited by the title of the book.

Of course, neither this question nor the 70 or so others who like it in Poundstone’s book have a literal or correct answer. Which can only mean that the interviewers are testing the way you think.

If you think this is all a waste of time, you can watch the video on YouTube of none other than Bruce Springsteen making an effort on the subject. Assuming the other 24 applicants are equally qualified for the job, the differentiator will be how you handle wildcard challenges.

Take Another: Why Are Tennis Balls Blurred? Do not know? Thanks for stopping by, see you soon. Or you could say, I don’t know, but what I do know is that golf balls, soccer balls, cricket balls, and squash balls aren’t blurry, so there’s something important going on.

You are now one step closer to your first Google Paycheck. As superficial as these questions may be, there is a serious point in asking a candidate how much the Empire State Building weighs, namely to examine their problem-solving instincts and methodologies.

Obviously Poundstone isn’t talking about fighting ducks at all, though you’ll have a lot of fun deconstructing the analogy with logical analysis.