Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google?

Book Reviews

Find out if you've got what it takes to be a Googler and learn about Britain's largely forgotten rocket programme.


Are You Smart Enough To Work At Google?

By William Poundstone 

£12.99 ISBN 978-1-85168-917-0

According to author William Poundstone, ten times more people apply to work at Google than for an undergraduate academic career at Harvard. With one in 14 applicants making it into America's great university, it takes only the most elementary of deductive thinking to calculate that if you want to work at one of the country's most eligible employers, your chances of getting past the interview stage are very slim indeed. The world's top companies are looking for a new breed of elite candidate. If you want to know if you fit their profile, you could do worse that read Poundstone's latest 'Are You Smart Enough to Work at Google?'.

The employment market now belongs to the buyer. And what the buyer wants is people who know how to solve problems, rather than have a wall papered with certificates demonstrating an ability to reproduce data in exam conditions. The premise is pretty much that anyone can learn, but not everyone can think.

For the prospective employee's point of view the job interview is a single-hit opportunity. But we all know that interviews give off noisy signals. There are false positives, where someone who will not be successful in the position gets hired because they interview well. Then there are false negatives, where a suitable candidate, who may have excelled in post fails, is rejected due to a botched answer. The net result is that the company often gets stuck with the wrong person while the big fish got away. Traditional interviewing techniques, ranging from behavioural questions – 'what would you do faced with xyz problem?' – and work sampling ('what code have you written before?') simply don't cut it anymore. As technology and work change, the person you hire for one job may be doing something entirely different for you in a few years' time.

Google is not alone in preferring to use open-ended mental challenges in their hiring procedures. According to Poundstone, success – and you can't really argue with a company that's worth $86bn – breeds imitators. Where Google leads, others follow, and so it's worth getting to grips with the new interview paradigm.

The open-ended mental challenge has its roots in old school logic puzzle-solving. Many of the 100-plus 'impossible interview questions' of the book's subtitle produce answers that go beyond decoding a question and reaching for the right thought model. This is one of the reasons why the answers section is longer than the part of the book that contains the analysis of the corporations that ask the questions.

Interestingly, many of the problems posed appear to be logic questions, but are lateral thinking in disguise, and vice versa. And so for those picking up Poundstone's entertaining and highly original book, the real surprise might be that the interview you never had, and that you assumed would have been a breeze, might be harder than you think. Even if you do end up discovering that you really are smart enough to work for Google, you might want to ask if you really ever wanted to. Great stuff.

Nick Smith

Imperial College Press 

A Vertical Empire: History Of The British Rocket Programme 

By CN Hill 

PB £29.00/HB £57.00 ISBN 978-1-84816-796-4/795-7

The subtitle of this book might induce incredulity among young engineers: "Britain had a rocket programme?" It did, but it's a bit like the embarrassing relative who was quite the catch in his day, but let himself go.

The author likens Britain's rocket programme to its empire, which it is said to have acquired "in a fit of absent-mindedness", and discarded equally readily. "The UK space programme," he says, "has always been so low-key that the public perception is that the UK has never even had a space programme." Engineers with an interest in the history of British technology should read this book to help them put the record straight: Britain most definitely had a rocket programme, and still has a thriving space programme.

Following an overview of the politics of the 1950s and 1960s, the author provides a useful primer on "rocket motors" (though he misses the fact that those using liquid rather than solid propellants are known as 'rocket engines'). Later chapters provide details of the UK's major rockets, such as Blue Streak, Black Knight and Black Arrow. In October 1971, Black Arrow became the only UK-built rocket to orbit a British satellite, X-3/Prospero.

However, it is Blue Streak to which the author devotes more of his efforts, because this rocket began life as the carrier of Britain's nuclear deterrent and ended it as the first stage of Europa, a European satellite launcher that predated Ariane by a decade. As with much of UK technological investment of the time, it's a sad story of project cancellation: "A consequence of lack of funding, political vacillation and a perceived lack of need either for satellites or other forms of space research, whether military or commercial."

The generation that experienced the period will enjoy muttering 'told you so' as they lament the wasted talent and potential for greatness, but the book should also act as a warning to the younger generation, who can learn from the political mistakes of the past.

Mark Williamson


Polity Press 

Wikileaks: News In The Networked Era 

By Charlie Beckett And James Ball

£12.99 ISBN 978-0745659763

With the release of its 'Collateral Murder' video in April 2010 website Wikileaks set in motion a chain of events that would see it rise from being a little-known publisher of last resort to the most talked about whistle-blower since Deep Throat sent the Nixon administration into freefall.

Showing graphic footage of 12 people, including two Reuters journalists, being shot dead by a US Apache helicopter gunman during an airstrike on Baghdad, the video sent shockwaves around the globe and proved to be a brash, provocative announcement of Wikileaks' future intentions.

In the months that followed, the site would team up with some of the world's most respected news organisations to release 91,000 military records from the war in Afghanistan, 391,000 from the Iraq war and more than 250,000 confidential diplomatic cables from the US embassy.

Here, James Ball, a data journalist currently on staff for the Guardian and Charlie Beckett, director of LSE-based journalism and society think-tank POLIS, investigate the site's impact on the shifting landscape of journalism as it moves into the digital era.

Ball briefly worked at Wikileaks while its mercurial figurehead Julian Assange was under house arrest at Frontline Club founder Vaughn Smith's Suffolk manor. Despite this the book is less the seedy fly-on-the-wall exposé it could have been and more a cool-headed, astute analysis of the social, political and technological context in which the now infamous website was formed.

From the wider issues of government and corporate transparency to the potential impact of the leaks on the future possibility of an open Internet, the two co-authors pack a great deal into the book's 164 pages. Throughout it remains eminently readable, thought-provoking and insightful.

Whether Wikileaks represents the next step in the evolution of news media or was simply the one-off beneficiary of a disenchanted intelligence officer's frustrations remains to be seen. But, if Ball and Beckett are right, and to paraphrase the late Gil Scott-Heron, the revolution will not be televised but it may well take place online.

Jason Goodyer



Losing The Head Of Philip K Dick: A Bizarre But True Tale Of Androids, Kill Switches And Left Luggage 

By David Dufty


To say that some great writers continue to exist in some form or another even after their death sounds like a terrible time-beaten cliché. Yet, in the case of the legendary American science fiction writer Philip K Dick, this statement would have had only a slight metaphorical touch to it.

They say that the title of a book should not give away too much about its contents. In this respect, the reviewed work by David Dufty is a failure, for the reader is told of what's going to happen even before he opens the book, and by the time he closes it (assuming he makes his way through all 250-odd pages), he doesn't actually learn anything new.

The unfortunate title and the overstretched and highly pretentious sub-title are duly matched by the slow-moving and at times repetitive narrative, often sounding like a dry statistician's account (no wonder: the author is an Australian statistician!) and by the belatedly literary and, alas, a no- less-pretentious ending: "With that, he carried the android out of the door, into the night."

There's no need to recount the book's plot in this review and not just because it has been summed up in the title already. The head of the unfortunate author, or rather that of his robotic copy, the so-called android, was indeed left behind by roboticist David Hanson in an overhead compartment of a plane and lost forever – a somewhat bizarre happening, which could have itself come straight from an unpublished novel by Philip Dick, who liked to write about robots, albeit remained somewhat wary of them.

The most intriguing part of this book, to my mind, is technological rather than literary: E&T has written about androids and geminoids (the robots created in the image of their inventor), and only last year reported on a new generation of the latter made by Danish Scholar Prof Henrik Scharfe and his Japanese colleague Hiroshi Ishiguro. This means that in the realm of technology, there's no real novelty to 'Losing the Head of Philip K Dick'. The story of leaving behind the head of an android on a plane is weird and intriguing indeed, but it ultimately fails to grab the reader either as a scientific account or as a work of art, let alone literature.

David Dufty is undoubtedly a talented scholar and a good statistician, yet his writer's self, sadly, remains just an android.

Vitali Vitaliev


Also out now…

The latest addition to Oxford University Press’s ‘Very Short Introduction’ series of pocket-sized guides to essential subjects looks at something that is part of almost everything we do - from the water we drink and the food we eat, to the buildings we live in and the roads and railways we travel on. In ‘Engineering: A Very Short Introduction’ (OUP, £7.99, ISBN 978-0199578696), David Blockley explores the nature and practice of engineering, its history, its scope, and its relationship with art, craft, science, and technology. He considers the role of engineering in the modern world, demonstrating its need to provide both practical and socially acceptable solutions, and explores how engineers use natural phenomena to embrace human needs. From its early roots starting with Archimedes to some of the great figures of engineering such as Brunel and Marconi, right up to the modern day, he also looks at some of its challenges - when things go wrong - such as at Chernobyl. Ultimately, he shows how engineering is intimately part of who and what we are.

Another new OUP title to deal with something that touches all our lives is the paperback edition of ‘Bridges: The Science and Art of the World's Most Inspiring Structures’ by David Blockley (OUP, £10.99, ISBN 978-0199645725). Every day, most people are likely to cross a bridge or go under one, but how many of us stop to consider how it stands up and what sort of people designed and built something so strong? As well as being a magnificent example of the practical and every day use of science, the story of bridges goes beyond science and technology to issues relating to artistic and cultural development. As well as explaining how to ‘read’ a bridge in all its different forms - design, and construction, the way the forces flow through arches and beams - Blockley combines the engineering of how bridges stand up with the cultural, aesthetic, and historical importance they hold. Drawing on examples from around the world, he also looks in detail at the risk engineers take when building bridges, and examines why things sometimes go wrong.

Jon Agar is senior lecturer in science and technology studies at University College London and editor of the British Journal for the History of Science. His previous books include histories of the mobile phone and the computer, but for ‘Science in the 20th Century and Beyond’ (Polity Press, £30, ISBN 978-0745634692) he looks at how all areas of science developed during a century of unprecedented change, conflict and uncertainty. Science was at the heart of twentieth century history – from Einstein′s new physics to the Manhattan Project, from eugenics to the Human Genome Project, or from the wonders of penicillin to the promises of biotechnology. Agar draws on a wave of recent scholarship that explores these issues from interdisciplinary perspectives to create a history aimed at anyone curious about the profound place of science in the modern world.

Looking further back in time, the thousand year period that began in the fifth century  and is commonly known as the Dark Ages in the Western World was anything but dark in Islamic soceities. From the seventh century on, the international language of science was Arabic, and a host of social, scientific and technological achievements were spawned by men and women of different faiths and cultures who lived in Muslim societies. ‘1001 Inventions: Muslim Heritage in Our World’ by Salim TS Al-Hassani (chief editor) (National Geographic, £17.99, ISBN 978-1426209345) is companion to a record-breaking exhibition exploring scientific and technological history in Islamic culture from health care to astronomy to reveal the innovations of Muslim society that have shaped our modern world. Complete with a foldout timeline and map, remarkable photographs and colourful illustrations, it not only reveals 1001 Muslim inventions, but provides insight into the everyday life of the historic Muslim society and related Western growth.

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