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Google Interview Question: “How Many Basketball[s] Can You Fit in This Room?”

In the only question you need to ask in an interview we talked about asking questions. Now I’m encouraging you to think about how you answer questions and talk with your interviewer.  And I do mean talking with them.

In 25 Oddball Interview Questions, the author lists interesting interview questions from companies like Google, Goldman Sachs, AT&T, Facebook and Amazon.  These interviewers learned a lot from the responses to these off the wall queries.

You might think, no one is ever going to ask me, “How many traffic lights are in Manhattan?”, but if you get asked an oddball question; will you be prepared with a creative answer? More than ever, organizations need people who can be flexible and think differently about problems.

If you’re hiring manager and had, say,  3 candidates all of whom were equally qualified – how would you figure out which one to hire? You might try asking one of these questions to see how creative and spontaneous the interviewee can be.

So, how would you answer: “How many basketballs can you fit in this room?” Here are a few answers:

  • Probably the same number of soccer balls
  • One. You didn’t ask what is the maximum number of basketballs you can fit in the room
  • Measure the room in basketballs. The room is 16 basketballs (length) by 12 basketballs (width) by 9 basketballs (height). Then it’s just a simple volume multiplication.

My answer would have been, “Why do we want to bring basketballs into this room? Hmmm, what does that tell you about me?

Photo credit (Solid Fun)

4 Responses
  • Dan Ruchman
    February 1, 2014

    Just saw this blog post on how many basketballs can fit into a room, and had to chuckle — and write a response. Not being in the interview game, I tend to miss most of the articles that come out on how to respond to interview questions that are tough, troublesome, creative or otherwise thought-provoking. But I enjoy them if I see and get the chance to read them, especially these “creative questions to see how you respond” — the questions are usually clever, and the suggested responses are often clever as well, so that’s almost always a recipe for a smile!

    For this piece, my reactions were two-fold: (a) first of all, GREAT picture of the elephant playing basketball (now THERE’s an interview question-in-the-making: “Who holds the record for most consecutive basketball free throws by an elephant, and what country is s/he from? And how was s/he trained?”); and (b) interesting suggested responses to the original question.

    Those suggested responses, however, also highlight the need for caring and caution on the part of the interviewee, lest you blow the entire interview by giving too flip of an answer to that one question, in an interview where the company considers that question and your response to be an important one.

    Some thoughts regarding the three bulleted responses:

    First one, saying it’s “the same number of soccer balls” — interesting response, but risky, because it’s wrong: there are several different standard size basketballs, for different purposes (e.g., men’s professional, women’s, etc.), but they are ALL larger than soccer balls. So giving this response ONLY would make sense if you’ve already determined that either (a) the interviewer is ignorant about sports, and is unlikely to realize the that basketballs are larger than soccer balls; or (b) the interviewer may know something about sports, but is really poor with math.

    Second one, giving the answer of “One”. Somewhat safe, though risky for a different reason: if your assessment of the interviewer is that s/he will be temporarily stunned by the shock value of your response, enabling you to then respond to their assumed followup question (“Hmm, how could it possibly be just one?”) with that “But you didn’t ask the maximum…”, with the interviewer then smiling, nodding and moving on, then you’re OK. But if, OTOH, your assessment is that the interviewer has a modicum of intelligence, and will respond by clarifying their question and again sitting back and waiting for your response, then you’d better be prepared with a more substantive answer.

    Third one, about measuring the room in basketballs, and doing the “simple volume multiplication” — best of the three responses, and once again, as long as your interviewer is not too thoughtful or mathematically inclined, this might get you an “A” on that question. But if this were Google, or if you were interviewing for anything remotely scientific or engineering-oriented, the answer won’t cut it, because it’s mathematically wrong. Think about it: when you are trying to pack a bunch of ball bearings in a box, you don’t balance each ball on top of one directly below it; rather, you let the bearings nestle into the “valley” formed by the ones below it, thereby maximizing the number that will fit in the box. It would take some real math to figure out how to translate that fact into an answer to the question, but that’s where you can share your thought process with the interviewer, and tell them how you’d come up with that real answer, impressing them with your resourcefulness.

    And then there’s the fourth answer. The blog piece suggests one good one, asking “why”, and what info that gives the interviewer about you, the interviewee. Others could include such attempts at cleverness as the observation that since the question has to do with THIS room, you’d obviously have to account for the fact that you and the interviewer and the furniture are already taking up a good bit of the room volume. Or you could come back to the interviewer with a comment along the lines of, “Well, the answer depends on whether you’re talking about NBA-standard balls or high school girls’ basketballs — which is it?”…or other issues, such as are they asking about inflated basketballs or deflated ones, since those would have two widely divergent answers; or are they talking basketballs packed in boxes, or loose ones?… or how accurate an answer is needed, which gets back to “why are you asking this question” or “for what reason would someone want to know this?”

    Which, of course, all gets back to the point made very well by this blog piece, when it said, “More than ever, organizations need people who can be flexible and think differently about problems.”

    This is illustrated brilliantly by a classic example of an authority figure — in this case a teacher — posing a scientific question to a student, and the student coming back with a host of creative answers, not a single one of which was the response desired by the teacher — but also, not a single one of which was wrong… forcing the teacher to think about the purpose of the question and why it was being asked. I remember first reading about this when I was around 14, and being fascinated by the cleverness of the student in the story. I just looked it up and found a great piece about it in Wikipedia: Great story.

    So put on those thinking caps. Be creative, but be relevant. And knock ’em dead in your next interview!

  • Deborah
    February 2, 2014

    Dan, delightfully encouraging and informative response. I looked up the ‘barometer question’ you cite (Wikipedia and found this fascinating and energizing. As a ‘mingler/observer/guider/learner’ of graduate students, I am energized by this thinking. In a diverse world (yes, we live in a wildly diverse world despite the wishful thinking by some) and we will all only become more aware of this as broadband/mobile devices reach into more corners of the world (of course, we need to solve the ‘device charging- need for electricity’ issue- Solutions to our shared problems will come from those who think about using the barometer in all the “wrong” ways. If only our financial and legal systems would catch up with the need for flexibility in ownership/taxes/etc.

    Do you have a blog?

  • Dan Ruchman
    February 3, 2014

    Deb, just saw your note back to me from early this morn, late today, and realized a couple of things: (a) I wasn’t signed up as a subscriber to your blog, so if curiosity hadn’t gotten the better of me, I’d not have seen your blog note back to me til hell froze over (though, in checking your weather back there in Roch, it looks like that eventuality may be imminent…); and (b) the post I wrote yesterday was long… I mean, REALLY long. This one will be shorter.

    It was a delight getting your note back, and I’m really glad you liked The Barometer Story. Since I first read that in my teens, I’ve had occasion to come across it again every 10 or 15 years, either by physically finding the original article which I saved (honest, though God knows where it is now) or, more recently, just finding it online when I want the inspiration or want to inspire someone else.

    And I loved that Wikipedia piece on energy harvesting. ¿Powering a pacemaker by power generated from an implanted biofuel cell getting energy from the oxidation of blood sugar? Wow… that’s up there in the realm of “Holy Shit”! Living in San Diego, a hotbed of biotech innovation, I suppose I shouldn’t be so surprised, but wow — cool stuff.

    And yes, we’re in violent agreement on solutions to our shared problems coming from those who think about using the barometer in all those “wrong” ways. That’s right up there with the long-observed social paradox that we need rules in order for a civil society to survive, but in so many ways, our social, scientific and entrepreneurial progress is driven by the people who ignore or flout those rules — e.g., Martin Luther King, Albert Einstein, Steve Jobs. So it has always been, and, I suppose, so will it ever be thus.

    Having just gone into your archives to read a few of your recent past blogpieces, and liked them, I’ll subscribe myself to get the ongoing flow of your continuing wisdom. You asked if I have a blog. Alas, no. Have been advised to do so; have danced around it but, for a few reasons, none particularly good, have never done it.

    And I also just made the amusing observation that your original blog post above, to which I sent my long reply yesterday after having just discovered it, was not from January of 2014 but in fact from January of 2011 — OMG, LOL!

    I said this note would be shorter, and so it is. I’ll pick up this thread off line. A distinct pleasure conversing.

  • Chansey
    January 3, 2015

    If it was asked by google, you could simply say “i dont know, why dont we google it?”

    What do you think?

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