Why Google and ITA Are Meant for Each Other: Hiring Puzzles

Consider, if you would, a theoretical lonely hearts ad. Peripatetic puzzle fanatic seeks similar. Must be rolling in Benjamins, like primary colors, travel, the eternal quest for knowledge, and free food, including the stuff in trays found on airplanes. Is this perhaps the secret message that ITA, the company that creates the software underlying almost every online travel transaction, sent out as it looked for a buyer for its $1 billion business?

There are myriad reasons why Google and ITA would be a tight fit in the travel world, but forget about flights. When it comes to hiring talent, both Google and ITA seem to have the same thing on their minds: the ability of their future employees to solve puzzles that would cause the brains of most people bestowed with a higher-than-average IQ to start emitting smoke and a funny smell.

Here's one example of the kind of riddle that Google asks job-seekers to solve, taken from the blog of one candidate some years back.

Every man in a village of 100 married couples has cheated on his wife. Every wife in the village instantly knows when a man other than her husband has cheated, but does not know when her own husband has. The village has a law that does not allow for adultery. Any wife who can prove that her husband is unfaithful must kill him that very day. The women of the village would never disobey this law. One day, the queen of the village visits and announces that at least one husband has been unfaithful. What happens?*

One of my colleagues came up with the idea of a lesbian commune--neat, but wrong. Google presents all kinds of arcane problems to potential employees of just about every sector it hires in, and expects its workers to be able to provide clever, original and bang-on-the-nose solutions to the questions. Potential software engineers are directed to the Topcoder website, where there are a bunch of competitions for the uber-gray mattered programmers to get their synapses round.

And it turns out that ITA is no different. As well as the "Current Hiring Puzzles" on the company's website which, if I didn't have a day job, I'd be more than happy to spend the afternoon doing, there's one about strawberries. Yum, I thought. Summer's here, it's almost lunchtime in the UK, why not? And then I noticed the words "computer," and "scientist," followed by the phrase, "write a program."

ITA job puzzle

Any dense cloud you see hovering over West London this afternoon probably won't be anything to do with Eyjafjallajokull.

*You can find the answer here.

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