Before I talk about this book, I have to talk about “The Microsoft Interview Question”. There was definitely a time (and maybe there still is?) when the Microsoft-style puzzle / brainteaser interview was en vogue. Basically, the interviewer asks you some to solve some bizarre problem which sometimes has a non-obvious (and perhaps elegant) answer. They then observe you as you flail work through the problem, trying to determine if you were Microsoft material. In theory, this can be a useful way to get a sense of how a candidate approaches and deals with tricky problems. In practice, there are too many unsophisticated interviewers who treat these as “gotcha!” questions; they put the candidate on the spot and only look for the “right” answer versus using it as an opportunity to get a feel for the person’s interpersonal style or other, more intangible attributes. This practice was in place prior to my joining Microsoft in 2001 and was certainly in the popular culture in the early and mid-2000’s (see 2004’s popular title “How Would You Move Mount Fuji” for an example). However, I was happy to see that this style of interview question actively discouraged during my time there as a manager.
Anyway, when I first noticed “Do You Think You’re Clever” on the shelf of my local, independent bookstore, I flipped to the table of contents and immediately (and sarcastically) thought “Great, another compendium of Microsoft-puzzle-style interview questions”. And to a certain degree, I was right! Some of the questions had, in fact, made appearances in Microsoft interviews. However, it turns out that this book more broadly covers “The Oxford and Cambridge Questions”. These are questions that have been asked of candidates applying for entry to Oxford or Cambridge and a few things stood out for me. They seemed to be asked in the true spirit of this kind of question; in an attempt to get a feel for how a candidate approached and dealt with the question, not whether they got the “right” answer. Also, the types of questions went beyond the mathematical or logic-based you might see in a tech company interview and delved into other interesting, more humanities-based areas. For example, some of the questions that seemed intriguing enough for me to end up buying the book were:
- Do you think you’re clever?
- Are you cool?
- Should someone sell their kidney?
- Can history stop the next war?
- Where does honesty fit into law?
- What books are bad for you?
- Why isn’t there a global government?
- If you’re not in California, how do you know it exists?
- Chekhov’s great, isn’t he?
- Why do so few Americans believe in evolution?
- Would you say greed is good or bad?
- Is there such a thing as ‘race’?
- What makes you think I’m having thoughts?
Of course, this book isn’t just a list of questions – the author takes a stab at answering the questions himself. I particularly like Farndon’s approach of pointing out that there aren’t necessarily right answers in many cases, but he puts forth what his answer would be and why. Many times the most interesting reading was the supporting background information he gives for his opinions. Overall, I found his style to be thoughtful and engaging, which made for good reading even in the cases where I found myself disagreeing with him.