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How Would You Move Mount Fuji?

timothy posted more than 11 years ago | from the very-very-slowly dept.

Microsoft 1247

adamba writes: "Why are manhole covers round?" "How many gas stations are there in the United States?" "How would you design a remote control for venetian blinds?" "What company is famous for interview questions like those?" You might not know the answer to the first three questions, but you probably know the last one. The notion of asking "Microsoft interview questions," quick logic puzzles and brainteasers, has become accepted wisdom for many technology companies. In comparison, the questions asked during traditional interviews, such as "Describe your typical day" and "What is your greatest weakness?" seem too simplistic, too easy to handle with a prepared answer, too prone to allowing weak candidates to slip through: they simply don't reveal enough about the person. While the Microsoft questions appear to be a better way to evaluate people, the issue has never really been seriously examined. Microsoft's success would seem to make the argument pointless: Can $250 billion in market capitalization be wrong?" Read on for an interesting look at the details and justifications for this kind of interview.

Now comes a new book, How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle - How the World's Smartest Company Selects the Most Creative Thinkers by science writer William Poundstone. Poundstone talked to various people who have been involved in Microsoft hiring, including those who were interviewed, and those who gave interviews (full disclosure: I worked at Microsoft for ten years and was one of the people he talked to). He includes a lengthy list of questions, and most interestingly for many people, he also includes answers.

In the book, Poundstone traces the origins of this type of question, providing some fascinating information on the history of intelligence testing. He then chronicles how a certain type of puzzle interview caught on in the high-tech industry. Microsoft was not the first company to ask such questions, but it certainly popularized it.

Poundstone explains that responding to a problem you can't solve could be thought of as the fundamental problem in Artificial Intelligence (AI), and then continues,

"The problems used in AI research have often been puzzles or games. These are simpler and more clearly defined than the complex problems of the real world. They too involve the elements of logic, insight, and intuition that pertain to real problems. Many of the people at Microsoft follow AI work closely, of course, and this may help to explain what must strike some readers as peculiar--their supreme confidence that silly little puzzles have a bearing on the real world."

It could be--or maybe Microsoft employees assume that since they were hired that way, it's a great way to hire (and complaints from those who were not hired are just sour grapes). Most developers I knew thought of AI as a pretty academic discipline, and were more concerned with putting a dialog box up at the right location on the screen than trying to pass the Turing Test.

Nevertheless, as companies seek to emulate Microsoft, the questions have caught on elsewhere. And as Poundstone put it, such questions have now "metastasized" to other industries, such as finance.

This makes the effectiveness of these questions an important issue. Poundstone first presents evidence that "Where do you see yourself in five years" and "What are you most proud of" are fairly pointless questions. In one experiment he describes, two trained interviewers conducted interviews with a group of volunteers. Their evaluations were compared to those of another group who saw a fifteen second video of the interview: the candidate entering the room, shaking hands, and sitting down. The opinions correlated strongly; in other words, when you are sitting in an interview telling the interviewer what you do on your day off and what the last book you read was, the interviewer has already made up his or her mind, based on who knows what subjective criteria. As Poundstone laments, "This would be funny if it weren't tragic."

Puzzle interviews could hardly be worse than that, but it turns out the evidence that they are better is doubtful. Poundstone shows how intelligence tests are on very dubious scientific standing, and points out that Microsoft's interviews are a form of IQ test, even though Microsoft does not admit that publicly. In his 1972 book of puzzles Games for the Superintelligent, Mensa member James Fixx wrote, "If you don't particularly enjoy the kinds of puzzles and problems we're talking about here, that fact alone says nothing about your intelligence in general". Yet virtually every Microsoft employee accepts the "obvious" rationale, that only people who do well in logic puzzles will do well at Microsoft.

There is another important point about puzzle-based interviews: although you would think that they were naturally more objective than traditional interviews--more black or white, right or wrong, and therefore less subject to interpretation by the interviewer--in fact, interviewers' evaluation of answers can be extremely subjective. Once you have formed your impression of a candidate from the enter/handshake/sit-down routine at the start of the interview, it is easy to rationalize a candidate's performance in an interview, either positively or negatively. They needed a bunch of hints to get the answer? Sure, but they were just small hints and it's a tough problem. They got the correct answer right away? No fair, they must have seen it before.

Given the ease with which the answers to logic puzzles can be spun, it is highly probable that Microsoft interviewers are also making fifteen-second judgements of candidates, without even realizing it.

Three years ago Malcolm Gladwell wrote a New Yorker article about job interviews called The New-Boy Network. Gladwell quotes much of the same research as Poundstone, and relates the story of Nolan Myers, a Harvard senior who is being recruited by Tellme and Microsoft. He has done a one-hour interview with Hadi Partovi of Tellme, and spoken to Gladwell, the author, in a coffee shop for about ninety minutes. His initial interaction with Microsoft was much briefer: he asked Steve Ballmer a question during an on-campus event, which led to an exchange of emails.

As Gladwell writes, "What convinced Ballmer he wanted Myers? A glimpse! He caught a little slice of Nolan Myers in action and--just like that--the C.E.O. of a four-hundred-billion-dollar company was calling a college senior in his dorm room. Ballmer somehow knew he liked Myers, the same way Hadi Partovi knew, and the same way I knew after our little chat at Au Bon Pain."

So Steve Ballmer, who obviously does not feel that he is choosing people based on traditional interviewing techniques, and in fact was one of the originators of the "Microsoft questions," is more prone to making fifteen-second judgements than he would probably admit.

The flaw, if any, may simply be in ascribing too much value to the puzzles themselves. The actual questions may be secondary: the company might do as well asking geek-centric trivia questions, like "What was the name of Lord Byron's niece?" That does not mean Microsoft is hiring the same people that an investment bank is going to hire. The cues they look for may be different: instead of a firm handshake and the right tie, they may be looking for intelligent eyes and fast speech, or whatever non-verbal cues ubergeeks throw off.

A Microsoft interview candidate will typically talk to four or five employees, and in general must get a "hire" recommendation from all of them. Even if the employees are actually basing their recommendations not on puzzle-solving ability but on a subconscious evaluation, it is unlikely that all of them will be subconsciously using the same criteria. Emitting the proper signals to satisfy four different Microsoft employees may be as good a judge of a candidate as any, and Microsoft may be good at interviewing simply because it tends to hire people that are similar in some unknown way to the current group of employees. If another company adopts puzzle interviews, they may discover that they are not hiring the smartest people, just the people most like themselves.

In the end, the best thing that can be said about puzzle interviews is that as a screening technique, they are no worse than traditional interviews. And there are some side effects: some candidates may be more prone to accept a job with Microsoft because of the interview style, and imparted wisdom about the technique may function as a useful pre-screening of prospective applicants. And of course, employees may get a kick out of showing a candidate how smart they are, although this can have a downside: How Would You Move Mount Fuji? has several examples of interviewers who seemed more concerned with proving their intelligence than in gauging that of the candidate. One former Microsoftie admits they asked candidates a question they did not know the answer to, just to see what they would do.

Two chapters of the book, entitled "Embracing Cluelessness" and "How to Outsmart the Puzzle Interview," attempt to help interview candidates who are confronted with such puzzle questions. The official advice is scarce: Microsoft's Interview Tips page advises candidates "Be prepared to think," which isn't much help, since presumably nobody is advising the opposite. Some of the recruiters who go to college campuses have their own little tips; for example, one recruiter named Colleen offers a quote from Yoda: "Do or do not, there is no try." Other recruiter tips include "Stay awake" and "Always leave room for dessert." Luckily, Poundstone gives advice that is a bit more concrete than that.

Microsoft puzzles can be divided into two types: those where the methodology is more important than the answer, and those where only the answer matters.

The "methodology" puzzles break into two classes, "design" puzzles ("How would you design a particular product or service?") and "estimation" puzzles ("How much of a certain object occupies a certain space?"--for example, "How much does the ice in a hockey rink weigh?")

Design questions exist because at Microsoft, responsibility for product development is split between two groups, the developers and the program managers. Developers write code: program managers design the user interface, trying to balance the needs of users with the technical constraints from developers. As Poundstone points out, while estimation questions and general logic puzzles are universal, the design questions are reserved for program managers.

The reason is that program management does not require the specific skills of development. Designing software is something any reasonably intelligent person can attempt, so the design questions are aimed at finding people who are really good at design. In fact one program manager I worked with told me that the best way to distinguish a potential program manager from a potential developer was to ask them to design a house: a developer would jump right in, while a program manager would step back and ask questions about the constraints on the house.

(Developers, meanwhile, are usually asked to write code on the whiteboard, an experience that program management candidates are spared. Books exist that discuss coding problems in more detail, such as Programming Interviews Exposed: Secrets to Landing Your Next Job by John Mongan and Noah Suojanen, which covers many standard programming questions and even includes answers to a few of the logic puzzles that Poundstone addresses).

Poundstone does include some of these design questions and provides sample answers. But the "answer" to these questions is really the process involved: ask questions, state assumptions, propose design. That's all you need to know about them. If you are wondering why Microsoft did not use this logical procedure when confronted with the question "Design a response to the open source movement," but instead seems to have spouted off the first five things that popped into its collective head--that's just more proof that performance in interviews is not necessarily a great indicator of future job performance.

Another recruiter, Stacey, gives the following interview tip: "The best interview tips I can give you are to relax and think for yourself. For a Microsoft interview, be prepared to answer both technical and problem solving questions. Ask clarifying questions and remember to think out loud. We are more interested in the way your are thinking through a problem then we are in your final answer!"

That approach works for the "methodology" questions: design and estimation. What about the other kinds--the more traditional brainteasers? For those questions, forget your methodology. What Microsoft interviewers want is the right answer.

James Fixx, writing three years before Microsoft was founded, offers some advice that may hearten potential Microsoft recruits: "One way to improve one's ability to use one's mind is simply to see how very bright people use theirs." With that in mind, we can follow along with Poundstone as he explains the solutions to the puzzles that the very bright people at Microsoft ask during interviews. He certainly delivers the goods: 100 pages of answers. Unfortunately, it's not clear whether seeing those answers help you tune up your brain to answer problems that do not appear in the book.

In his book, Fixx spends some time trying to explain what, as he so delicately puts it, "the superintelligent do that's different from what ordinary people do." For example, trying to describe how a superintelligent person figures out the next letter in the sequence "O T T F F S S", he advises people to think hard: "Persistence alone will now bring its reward, and eventually a thought occurs to him." Talking about how to arrange four pennies so there are two straight lines with three pennies in each line, he writes "The true puzzler...gropes for some loophole, and, with luck, quickly finds it in the third dimension." Further hints abound: "The intelligent person tries... not to impose unnecessary restrictions on his mind. The bright person has succeeded because he does not assume the problem cannot be solved simply because it cannot be solved in one way or even two ways he has tried." This advice sounds great in theory, but how do you apply it in practice? How do you make your mind think that way? As Poundstone quotes Louis Armstrong, "Man, if you have to ask 'What is it?' you ain't never goin' to know."

Poundstone recognizes that the flashes of insight that Fixx describes, and that Microsoft interviewers expect, are more of a hit-or-miss thing than the inevitable result of hard thinking by an intelligent person: "What is particularly troubling is how little 'logic' seems to be involved in some phases of problem solving. Difficult problems are often solved via a sudden, intuitive insight. One moment you're stuck; the next moment this insight has popped into your head, though not by any step-by-step logic that can be recounted."

During interview training I participated in when I worked there, Microsoft would emphasize four attributes that it was looking for when hiring: intelligence, hard work, ability to get things done, and vision. Intelligence was always #1, yet despite this, Poundstone says that the official Microsoft people he talked to would shy away from the word "intelligence", preferring to use terms like "bandwidth" and "inventiveness". Indeed Microsoft's Interview Tips web page says "We look for original, creative thinkers, and our interview process is designed to find those people." No mention of the word intelligence or any notion that interviews are some sort of intelligence test.

In fact, although I think that most Microsoft people would consider the puzzle tests to be mainly a test of intelligence, they may do better at testing some of the other desired attributes. Psychologist and personnel researcher Harry Hepner once said, "Creative thinkers make many false starts, and continually waver between unmanageable fantasies and systematic attack." Poundstone explains that you have to figure out when your fantasies have become too unmanageable: "To deal effectively with puzzles (and with the bigger problems for which they may be a model), you must operate on two or more levels simultaneously. One thread of consciousness tackles the problem while another, higher-level thread monitors the progress. You need to keep asking yourself 'Is this approach working? How much time have I spent on this approach, and how likely is it to produce an answer soon? Is there something else I should be trying?'"

This is great advice, not just for a puzzle, but for a job, and life in general. So watching someone think through a puzzle might be a great way to see how they would tackle a tough problem at work--the "hard work" and "get things done" abilities that Microsoft is also looking for. As James Fixx writes in the sequel More Games for the Superintelligent, "While the less intelligent person, unsure of ever being able to solve a problem at all, is easily discouraged, the intelligent person is fairly sure of succeeding and therefore presses on, discouragements be damned."

Unfortunately, the typical Microsoft interviewer is not looking at the approach to puzzle questions as a test of perseverence. Someone who tries five different attempts might demonstrate more resourcefulness than someone who just "gets it"--but they would get turned down. Interviewers who ask puzzle questions are probing the "intelligence" category, and they want the right answer.

The last chapter of the book is titled "How Innovative Companies Ought to Interview" and deals with a soon-to-be-problem: How will the industry be affected by the publication of this book? Will interviews still work if everyone knows the secrets?

Knowledge of Microsoft-style questions is already out there on the Internet. Since the candidates who participate in the interviews do not sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement, they are free to tell others the questions they were asked, and from these reports databases of questions have been built up. Poundstone includes the URLs of several sites, including Kiran Bondalapati's "Interview Question Bank", Michael Pryor's "Techinterview", Chris Sells' "Interviewing at Microsoft", and William Wu's "Riddles". These sites generally don't include answers, but certainly knowing the types of questions to expect can be an advantage.

Microsoft employees are aware of such sites. Once, when I sent email describing the questions I had asked a Microsoft candidate, I got a nasty reply from someone else at the company: Didn't I know that the question I had asked was posted on a website of known Microsoft interview questions? On the other hand, with no official internal Microsoft list of questions, some employees are undoubtedly using these sites to come up with material. Even within Microsoft there is debate about which questions are reasonable. In an unscientific survey I took of former Microsoft program managers, opinion was divided on the validity of some of the questions. A question described by one person as a good test of a candidate's ability was dismissed by another as foolish.

Poundstone does point out that some questions are silly and should not be asked ("Define the color green"), but he gives serious answers to others which I don't think are worthwhile either, including "If you could remove any of the fifty U.S. states, which would it be?" and "How do they make M&Ms?" Furthermore, I would argue that if an entire class of questions can be "tainted" by How Would You Move Mount Fuji?, they don't deserve to be asked in the first place. Estimation questions might be invalidated by the revelation that the way to solve them was to multiply together a bunch of wild guesses. The strategy of using a design question to to differentiate program management candidates from developer candidates might also go the way of the dodo. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

How Would You Move Mount Fuji? is worth reading even if you don't plan on interviewing at Microsoft. It has some interesting history, a few good Microsoft tidbits, and puzzles that are entertaining on their own. For those considering a job at Microsoft, the book may ratchet up the "arms race" of questions. Microsoft employees may assume that people interviewing have read the book--so if you are going to interview there, or anywhere else that imitates their style, you should probably read it too.

You can purchase How Would You Move Mount Fuji? Microsoft's Cult of the Puzzle from bn.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.

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IN SOVIET RUSSIA (621411) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790214)

Mount Fuji Moves You!

Re:IN SOVIET RUSSIA (-1, Offtopic)

josephgrossberg (67732) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790275)

Mod parent up!

You can "offtopic" it all you want, but this guy has invented a new form of humor and it's damn funny.

Microsoft not the only one (0, Insightful)

AutumnLeaf (50333) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790220)

Lots of companies do this. I think Microsoft, again, gets too much credit here.

Re:Microsoft not the only one (0, Flamebait)

jmccay (70985) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790397)

Given Microsoft's track record with security problems, buggy code--such as infinite registration, and the famous blue screen of death, it's probbably not a good idea to ask Microsoft type questions with Software Engineering candidates because something isn't working.

Re:Microsoft not the only one (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790478)

Lots of trolls do this. I think they, again, get too much credit here.

How Would I Move Mount Fuji? (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790223)

In true Zen fashion... it is not the mountain that must move, but you.

Or was it one spoonfull at a time?

Re:How Would I Move Mount Fuji? (0, Insightful)

AutumnLeaf (50333) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790298)

But the spoon is not really there. :)

Re:How Would I Move Mount Fuji? (2, Funny)

2sleep2type (652900) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790399)

I would have a huge marketing push and go for an big event launch. That should shift anything.

Manhole Covers (3, Informative)

DavidpFitz (136265) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790227)

Manhole Covers are round so they can't fall down the manhole. Simple.

Standard lateral thinking interview question :)

Re:Manhole Covers (4, Funny)

athakur999 (44340) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790300)

All this talk of manholes has all the trolls itching to post up goatse.cx links.

Re:Manhole Covers (1, Interesting)

MagPulse (316) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790401)

This makes sense when comparing a circular cover to, say, a square one. You can lift the square one up, rotate it diagonally, and drop it down. But I have two other shapes that won't fall.

One is a near-circle but not quite. It has a lot of edges, maybe 20 or more. Not enough to let slip down the hole, because the lip just below the surface hole is wide enough to compensate for any turning. This behaves differently than a circlular manhole in that it won't turn. Is this an advantage? Probably not, given the question.

Another is a equilateral triangular cover. There is no diagonal like there is in the square; no orientation that exploits a larger width than the triangle's sides.

Re:Manhole Covers (2, Insightful)

arestivo (459117) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790454)

In fact:

The Teeming Millions have pointed out at exasperating length that it's not an equilateral triangle that won't fall into the manhole but a Rouleaux triangle--the kind in which each side consists of an arc centered on the opposite vertex (or at least that's one way to do it). A puffy triangle, if you will. An equilateral triangle can be dropped into the manhole by positioning it so that one of the altitudes is parallel and close to one side of the hole (you geometry lovers know what I mean). A Rouleaux triangle, however, is a constant-diameter shape, and can't be. As usual, blame Little Ed. I'm not saying it's his fault, just that you should blame him.

From http://www.straightdope.com/classics/a1_247a.html

Re:Manhole Covers (2, Informative)

tomhudson (43916) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790461)

If you've ever done sewer work, you know the answer:
  • Not all manhole covers are round. Duh!
Pundits used to say that it was to make it easier to roll the cover into place, but, since they're not all round, that's obviously baloney. Besides, the proper way to move a manhole cover is to hook your pickaxe into a hole, then drag it into position. Trying to roll or flip it into place risks broken footbones - even with steel toes. Those suckers are HEAVY .

Re:Manhole Covers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790414)

You are answering the question "why are manholes round", when the question is "why are manhole *covers* round".

The answer is, of course, obvious. Manhole covers are round for the simple fact that the thing they are covering -- the manholes -- are round. Round holes. Round covers.

Re:Manhole Covers (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790423)


Round manhole covers have the minimal lip to keep the cover from falling in. Plus they're earier to move via rolling.

You could make a square manhole cover but there would have to be a large lip to keep the lid from falling in the hole - that is, the lid needs to be bigger than the hole. The hole needs to have a maximum cross-section smaller than the minimum cross section of the lid.

Also, assuming they're made of iron, the issue of rolling the lid is non-trivial. They're essentially impossible to lift off the ground.

It's actually a semi-good question as a lot of dumb people like you seem to think they know they answer when in fact you've never thought about it at all.

Re:Manhole Covers (5, Insightful)

phsolide (584661) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790445)

Manhole Covers are round so they can't fall down the manhole.

This particular answer always bothers me. Sure, it's simplistically true, but a whole family of shapes exists [psc.edu] that has the same property but does not have the unfortunate property of spinning in place. For example, assume a vehicle stops on a manhole cover with a (powered) tire off-center on the cover. When the driver presses the throttle, the tire exerts a force on the manhole cover that gives it a tendency to rotate. Instant loss of traction.

Also, other shaped covers could posses a flange - the manhole would have a smaller maximum dimension than the flange, preventing the cover from falling down the hole. Squares or triangles would require unreasonably large flanges, but octagons wouldn't.

My guess is that a variety of factors (shape of manholes, ease of manufature, ability to roll the covers) lead to round manhole covers.

Re:Manhole Covers (5, Insightful)

Glonoinha (587375) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790459)

Manhole covers are round because manholes are round.

Brainteasers (2, Insightful)

The Terrorists (619137) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790234)

A bad idea, especially weighted against non-Western applicants for the same reason tests with cultural content are deemed discriminatory in the American classroom. You open yourself up to piles of lawsuits. Perhaps ETS should write PC vetted interview questions too?

Re:Brainteasers (1)

AssFace (118098) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790381)

The ones given here as examples are really bad ones - so if one were to go by these, it wouldn't make sense to use them.

But the real ones used are soley based on logic and reasoning - so where in the world you are from makes no difference at all.

Management consulting companies hire people from all over the world and they are the most famous for using these intense interview questions (again, not "these" in the case of the retardedly easy ones in this thread).

Re:Brainteasers (1)

Malcontent (40834) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790411)

Interesting. I wonder if it is some kind of a veiled racist policy. This way they can exclude people without seeming to do so.

Manhole covers (1, Insightful)

Overt Coward (19347) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790243)

Manhole covers are round so that they don't fall in -- the round shape prevents them from slipping down the whole if someone sets it down at an incorrect angle.

Re:Manhole covers (1)

neurostar (578917) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790290)

Interestingly enough, any shape with rounded sides would suffice for a manhole cover. For example, if you took a triangular shape and bowed out the sides, it would also work, because it wouldn't be able to fall through. I think it works for most shapes. However the circular shape is the simplest...



Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790386)

That is simply not true, and therefore YOU FAIL IT! No job for you!

The reason the round cover does not fall down the round hole is because the diameter of both the hole and cover is always exactly the same. There is no opurtunity for the cover to fall through a section of the hole E.g. by being rotated 90 degrees. This is not true of any other shape; a square hole is wider across the diagonal, and therefore the cover can pass through the hole edge to the diagonal.

Not that these types of questions arn't stupid. How do you move Mt. Fuji? Change the name of another mountain to Fuji. I hate these sorts of puzzles.

Re:Manhole covers (1)

stratjakt (596332) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790405)

No, not any shape with a rounded sides. Picture an oval, it has a long and short cross section. The short crossection can fit in through longways, obviously.

There is a whole class of shapes by which the distance from one point, perpendicular to the tangent at that point to the other side is the same all around.

I cant remember the name of them, but I first learned all about them on Mr Wizard way back when. They look like bowed out triangles, squares, octagons, etc etc.. They all "roll" like wheels, but have no "center", ie, they cant roll around an axis. All would make fine manhole covers (so far as not slipping through).

Thing is, circles are the easiest to machine and transport, so I doubt they'd ever catch on just because of some neat geometry.

I wouldn't (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790252)

I would just paint the mountain pink and set up a low power SEP field generator.

Manhole Covers are round... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790257)

So that they don't fall back into the hole onto the dumbasses that set it too close to the edge.

Probably umount... (5, Funny)

tha_mink (518151) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790258)

I suppose something like...

umount /dev/fuji

Re:Probably umount... (1)

Telastyn (206146) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790340)

actually it's more likely mv /mnt/fuji ~

Because I want to live on /mnt/fuji of course...

Re:Probably umount... (4, Funny)

Quixote (154172) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790419)

That would be the answer to "how do you flatten Mt Fuji?".

I recommend
mv /mnt/fuji /mnt/barji

Manhole Covers... (4, Insightful)

mattyohe (517995) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790259)

That one is simple.. because any other shape would allow the cover to fall in.. But what about the others??

What kindof answer do you think you would say? What are you supposed to reference for the gas station question?

Does microsoft want me to say that I would assemble my blinds with the latest bluetooth spec and then controll it from my computer?

Re:Manhole Covers... (2, Insightful)

Lord_Slepnir (585350) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790326)

Actually, it's because when it's round, you can move it easier around construction zones...you can just roll it.

Re:Manhole Covers... (1)

91degrees (207121) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790406)

Surely they're both valid answers. The interviewer just wants a sensible answer backed up by logic.

Re:Manhole Covers... (1)

finkployd (12902) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790462)

The first answer sounds like a better reason. Granted yours is valid, but does not strike me as important as the "manhole cover falling into the manhole" problem.


Re:Manhole Covers... (2, Informative)

AssFace (118098) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790355)

I know these only vaguely as Microsoft questions (and these questions are retardedly easy compared to the real ones) - but more as Management Consulting questions. When Monitor, Mercer, Parthenon, etc interview - they use these b/c it is the type of reasoning that they use all of the time.

For the gas station one - you need to know the vague population of the US if you want to give them a number answer - but they are really happy if you just explain the correct solution aloud with variables.
You need to be able to give a working estimate of how many people in what sort of area one gas station can service, and then figure out how many people over what area (useable area) of the states is then available - then you can determine the need that is there and then what portion of that is filled.

Management consultants hardly ever have real numbers in front of them when they are working on projects - they have theoretical scenerios and they need to be able to quickly estimate figures to see what paths would lead to higher profit figures... well, usually they are hired for increased profit nominally - but whatever they suggest is ignored and then layoffs happen and are blamed on the management consultants - allowing the higher ups to look as if it weren't their decision, but an outside decision to better the company (although frequently the case IS that layoffs would help the company).

Re:Manhole Covers... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790460)

Management consultants hardly ever have real numbers in front of them when they are working on projects - they have theoretical scenerios

Ah, thats explains the reality disconnection then.

Re:Manhole Covers... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790364)

You don't need a reference, at least if you are the news media. Just make up a number like 25,563,813 (what? You don't beleive that number is correct, prove me wrong).

Re:Manhole Covers... (1, Insightful)

acm (107375) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790396)

That one is simple.. because any other shape would allow the cover to fall in.. But what about the others??

What about an equilateral triangle?

In addition to that answer:

  • the worker can roll a round manhole cover down the street (easier than picking it up).
  • it doesn't matter which way you position the cover over the hole.

Re:Manhole Covers... (1)

SlashdotLemming (640272) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790474)

What about an equilateral triangle?

An equilateral triangle can fall through its own hole. Think in 3 dimensions with rotating objects.

You are so wrong (5, Funny)

been42 (160065) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790428)

Manhole covers are round to fit the holes.

Re:Manhole Covers... (2, Funny)

Hypno (133311) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790429)

I thought that it was because manholes are round....

Re:Manhole Covers... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790430)

Except that there are manhole covers that aren't round.

Re:Manhole Covers... (2, Funny)

Mr. Sketch (111112) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790465)

Does microsoft want me to say that I would assemble my blinds with the latest bluetooth spec and then controll it from my computer?

No, I'm sure they want you to say that you will take the latest bluetooth spec, and extented it to add more innovation to satisfy the needs of a wider audience while making it more userfriendly. The new innovative spec based on bluetooth may not be compatible with the original spec, but oh well, that's the price of innovation.

i'm thinking.... (3, Funny)

erikdotla (609033) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790262)

$ mv mtfuji /there

Somehow I think that isn't going to get me a job at Microsoft.

Re:i'm thinking.... (correction) (1)

Meech (166762) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790315)

mv /mnt/fuji /there

Not necessarily (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790356)

Somehow I think that isn't going to get me a job at Microsoft.

You'll probrably work on this [microsoft.com]

so....... (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790270)

How do you move Mount Fuji?

Re:so....... (1)

stratjakt (596332) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790489)

I'd say if you tried to actually move mount fuji, you'd ruin it. So the answer would be to move Japan around Mt. Fuji. Anything else would turn Fuji into a big pile of dirt, and not the really cool perfectly symmetrical mountain it is.

Ie; if you want to move Fuji north, haul out the land from the northern shore, and add it to the south.

Thats my answer. Am I hired, Mr Ballmer? Under qualifications on my resume it say Developer 50 times, each with more exclamation points than the last!

Sounds like Hit or Miss in Biotech... (-1, Offtopic)

mcworksbio (571932) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790276)

"What is particularly troubling is how little 'logic' seems to be involved in some phases of problem solving."

This may be off-topic a bit, but all of tech/sci seems to fit this pattern. Having worked in the discovery end of the biotech industry for 4 years now it has become clear that this sort of 'informed luck', if you will, is how things are discovered. In my company alone our current research line is a derivative of a timely observation made from 3 years of failed efforts.

This struggle would, of course, be made a little easier to swallow if my company was worth what M$ is, and I had stock in it...

Manhole Covers (1, Redundant)

osiris (30004) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790278)

Obvious, Manhole covers are round, because manholes are round! duh.


book review? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790279)

Is this a book review or the entire book?

in 500 words or less (5, Funny)

pyros (61399) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790281)

What is Linux, and how would you kill it?

this sounds like..... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790284)

something right out of a Scientology book/training manual.....

The answers are: (0)

burgburgburg (574866) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790289)

1) Because manholes are round, and the covers wouldn't fit otherwise.
2) Approximately 11.
3) I wouldn't. I'm not that lazy.

Am I hired?

42 (1)

brakk (93385) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790295)

42 Gas stations in the US

Re:42 (1)

mattyohe (517995) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790320)

Thanks Douglas Adams.

manholes (2, Funny)

erikdotla (609033) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790297)

Oh, and manhole covers are round because Hollywood lobbied the sewage industry to make them that way, so that they could have movie characters like Hulk or Superman throw them at people. Somehow a spinning square piece of metal isn't as cool as a round one.

So how many gas stations are there? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790301)

I know why manhole covers are round and I don't want a remote for venetion blinds, but how many gas stations are there in the US?

Dumbest question ever (4, Insightful)

Ars-Fartsica (166957) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790303)

"What is your greatest weakness?"

My answer - I have no tolerance for idiotic canned interview questions and the morons who use them.

Really, this has got to be the worst, most moronic question that can be asked. It really is a red flag that the interviewer doesn't have anything intelligent to discuss - you should head for the door. What's even worse are the moronic answers people give in a hackneyed attempt to make a weakness look like a strength - "I'm a perfectionist!!" or "I work TOO hard!!".

Then again, ask a moronic question and expect a moronic answer.

Re:Dumbest question ever (1)

brakk (93385) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790415)

After I got dropped kicked from my last big corporate job, they sent us to interview training as part of the severance package and they told us to answer it by stating a genuine weakness, but also add what you've done to fix it.

IE: I'm always late to work, so I bought 75 alarm clocks and hid them in various places around my house.

Or: I have trouble keeping track of all my tasks, so I started tattooing them on my skin so I see them in the mirror when I get up.

Re:Dumbest question ever (5, Insightful)

ergo98 (9391) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790472)

I wouldn't call it a "moronic question" whatsoever: Certainly no worse than pulling a "brainteaser for dummies" out of the net archives, which is what the majority of "clever" Microsoft-like questions are. It's like being the Jeopardy host and smirking in self-satisfaction because you know all the answers...because you have them in front of you.

Questions like "What is your greatest weakness" can show a tremendous amount about the applicant, and is more of a discussion starter than a literal questions. As far as how the applicant answers, I can see definite downsides to "I'm a perfectionist" (meaning: I never finish projects because I'm always working on "just one last issue") or "I work too hard" (meaning: I'm a martyr and will likely have a serious case of burn-out several months down the road, not to mention upsetting the work apple-cart).

Any question at an interview, asked and interpreted by someone with intelligence, is a powerful question. Do you eat lunch? What are your career goals? What is an optimal work day? All of these questions can give great insight into the honesty and character of the interviewee. Personally I think the "Microsoft questions" are grossly overstated, and asking brainteasers most certainly didn't make Microsoft the success that it is (especially true to those that believe that Microsoft is more of a marketing success than a technical success. Personally I believe that they're a great technical success as well, but just pointing out the paradox).

typical question (5, Funny)

tjw (27390) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790304)

Which of the following would you most prefer?
A: a puppy,
B: a pretty flower from your sweety, or
C: a large properly formatted data file?

Re:typical question (1)

brakk (93385) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790329)

C is correct....

We would have also accepted "a puppy"

Re:typical question (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790421)

If your answer is C then you don't get the job. Microsoft don't do properly formatted data!

My Interview (3, Funny)

UCRowerG (523510) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790305)

Yes, at graduation time I was interviewed by a Microsoft guy, from their gaming department.

In one of his interview questions he asked me how many "weighings" I would need on a scale to find the one marble that was differently weighed from the other ones. I think the idea was for me to come up with some log-base-2 of n weighings. Since he didn't specify that the unique marble was specifically heavier (or lighter), he couldn't figure out why I needed an extra weighing for my result, until I explained my methodology to him.

Then he realized that he had presented the problem somewhat incorrectly and grudgingly said, "Well I guess you get that right, since I didn't explain the problem completely."

...Needless to say I was not called back for a second interview.

In Prison (aka webchat.org) (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790317)

If you can't lift Mt. Fuji, they will confiscate your channel registration credentials and hold them ransom until such time as you can lift Mt. Fuji.

More reads (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790325)

some [berkeley.edu] more [techinterview.org] questions [tk421.net] .

Jesus. (1)

Wakko Warner (324) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790327)

Longest. Slashdot article. Evar.

Anyway, since Microsoft was basically handed the PC operating systems market and has been running with it ever since, I think it's silly to say that $250B in market capitalization can't be wrong any more often than any other company can. They're atypical of the software industry and business in general.

- A.P.

Intuition vs. Logic (1)

KiahZero (610862) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790331)

Poundstone recognizes that the flashes of insight that Fixx describes, and that Microsoft interviewers expect, are more of a hit-or-miss thing than the inevitable result of hard thinking by an intelligent person: "What is particularly troubling is how little 'logic' seems to be involved in some phases of problem solving. Difficult problems are often solved via a sudden, intuitive insight. One moment you're stuck; the next moment this insight has popped into your head, though not by any step-by-step logic that can be recounted."

That's the problem with these sort of questions used exclusively. Logic is important in CS. Sure, being able to think logically 'outside the box' is good, but you also need skilled implementers; people who can take an idea for a program and program it well.

Then again, maybe I just missed the point.

Not all manhole covers are round (1)

Viol8 (599362) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790337)

Here in the UK you can find oblong ones all over the place though generally they're for utilities
not entry to the sewage system.

Guess I won't get a job at MS for being a smartass. Oh well. Guess it'll be using slackware for
a while longer...

Covers are round so... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790338)

unionionized workers don't waste time trying to recover a fallen cover.

Actually saw two guys cleaning a street gutter waste an hour trying to pull out a rectanular cover with a mechanical arm mounted on their truck. One of the funniest things I have ever seen.

Microsoft's Hiring Myth (1)

f1f2f3 (66764) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790344)

Microsoft only hires the best & brightest engineers, putting canidates through rigiourous testing and many rounds of interviews before hiring them.

Micorsoft releases horribly bloated software riddled with bugs and security problems.


The answers are: (1)

burgburgburg (574866) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790420)


What's to discuss?

It had to be said: (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790346)

..And more importantly (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790350)

Why do toilet bowl dropin cleaners always come in blue or green? Why never red and yellow??? I don't get it.

Some of my interview questions (3, Interesting)

ColonelPanic (138077) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790373)

I occasionally get a crack at candidates for experienced systems programming positions, and I like to see whether they know what they don't know. So I like to ask simple programming questions like:
  • How does struct member layout differ between little-endian and big-endian architectures?
  • Can integer division ever overflow?
  • The Cray X1 has an instruction that atomically ANDs a word in memory with one register value and then XQRs the result with another. How would you use this to implement an atomic "set bit" or "clear bit" primitive?
  • Tell me about a compiler bug that's bitten you and how you worked around it (or better, fixed it)

Market capitalization != proof (1)

tmark (230091) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790377)

Microsoft's success would seem to make the argument pointless: Can $250 billion in market capitalization be wrong?

There are LOTS of reasons why MS might have the market cap it does, reasons which don't have anything to do with MS' interviewing techniques. To start, here are a few possible reasons: MS has been able to effectively leverage a monopoly; MS has been successful in engaging in anti-competitive behavior; MS makes great products; MS has just been lucky; hiring Harvard dropouts from Seattle with well-connected mothers...

After all, while MS may (or may not) have been the first to start using these types of questions in interviews, there certainly are plenty of companies nowadays that are using these techniques ... and yet none of *them* are 250B companies.

Indeed, it is very likely that people who are good at these types of questions might not do very well at other types of companies.

the answer (5, Funny)

DrWhizBang (5333) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790379)

Mount Fuji should obviously be moved by shovelling it through remote controlled venetian blinds using a round manhole cover purchased at the local gas station.

Perhaps these questions do measure one thing . . (4, Insightful)

Badgerman (19207) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790390)

. . . how much your interviewee is willing to put up with dumb questions. If they put up with them long enough, they'll probably put up with anything.

This is a statement made sarcastically, but now I'm not sure if I'm that far off base.

Not pointless questions... (3, Insightful)

pubjames (468013) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790391)

Poundstone first presents evidence that "Where do you see yourself in five years" and "What are you most proud of" are fairly pointless questions.

Having been an interviewer myself, I think I can say that these are not pointless questions. They show that the interviewee has prepared for the interview, and thought about the job. You'd be amazed how many people stumble when asked "Why do you want this job?" It's a good eliminator of unsuitable candidates, as good I should imagine as "Why are manholes round"...

Of course, not all companies can afford the multiple days of selection that Microsoft can put job candidates through.

Was that a Book Review?.... (1)

whazzy (620752) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790393)

....Or the author's own thought process chugging up ssooo much space? Anywayz,here'z my take on the issue. 1.I don't subscribe to the 'ask puzzles-judge programming skills-will hire' approach.Sure,it might have worked for microsoft,but microsoft is anywayz hiring from the top schools(If Ballmer is interested in a kid from Ivy league schools,he need'nt think for 15 seconds before hiring him!The fact that he is in the Ivy school is proof enough that he must have 'somthing'in that brain of his!.True..not ALL Ivy leaguers are brainy,but the reputation is good enuff) 2.What might work for Microsoft may not at all work for any other company/profession. 3.Has anyone correlated how other big tech companies base their hiring process?Now,that would be an interesting read and would give a lot more information. 4.I will skip reading this book precisely for the above reasons

MS, Do I get the job? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790395)

"How would you design a remote control for venetian blinds?"

I would buy a company that had already designed a remote control for venetian blinds. If they refuse to accept my offer to purchase, I will steal their design and give it away for free until they are crushed.

How to move Mount Fuji (1)

r4lv3k (638084) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790398)

Detonate a large explosive on the sea floor offshore from Mount Fuji. When Godzilla wakes up, deploy large inflatable monster of choice in front of Mount Fuji. Fuji moved (though not intact).

manhole covers (4, Interesting)

dizco (20340) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790408)

manhole covers, when they are round, are round because the manhole is round. manholes are often round because its an easy shape to make, is structurally sound, and is a nice shape for a person to crawl down.

There are other shapes [google.com] that won't fit down the hole they're covering.

And there are pleanty of non-round manholes [google.com] , which means that manholes aren't by definition round. So the question is akin to 'why are cars red?'. ... They're not red. Some of them are red, and the reason those ones are red is because they're red. Round manholes are round because they are round.


Quite the contrary (1)

jkabbe (631234) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790409)

Microsoft seems to be the case-study in showing that actual employee skill is almost irrelevant to success. Sure, they've got some bright people, but what have they done with it?

Who cares (1)

eadint (156250) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790418)

Q: Mount fujii
a) directed nuclear explosion?
q) manhole covers.
a) best mass to shape for strenght ration
q) venitian blinds.
a) stepping motor, radio plc and controller stupid.

i guess i wouldnt get a job at microsoft.

Why do I keep going round in circles? (0)

Rik Sweeney (471717) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790433)

Shut up or I'll nail your other foot to the floor.

Windows 2003 serves warning to competitors (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790436)

Steve Ballmer, Microsoft's ebullient chief executive, tomorrow unveils the latest server operating system, Windows Server 2003, in San Francisco, home territory to his company's Silicon Valley-based rivals.

The product throws down the gauntlet to competitors such as Sun Microsystems, which markets technology based on Unix, a rival software, and Oracle, which is promoting Linux, a free operating system.

The market for operating software for servers was worth about $6bn in 2002, according to IDC, the analyst group. Microsoft's server division is its third-largest, generating sales last quarter of $1.8bn, about 23 per cent of group revenues.

While other businesses decelerate, the server side is growing fast: sales of Windows Server 2000 jumped 21 per cent year on year during the quarter.

"Steve says this is the most important release for the company this year," claims Bill Veghte, corporate vice-president of the Windows server group.

The launch will be accompanied by a huge advertising campaign, including the first television spots that the server group has used.

One goal is to expand the addressable market by targeting users of more powerful computers. The previous generation software could process only 32-bits of information but Windows 2003 will support 64-bit computing - being promoted by Intel, the chip company, and Hewlett-Packard, the computer maker.

The prices for the 64-bit product are the same as the 32-bit offering. Microsoft hopes its new software will prove attractive to small and medium-sized businesses.

"The aim is to become the premier provider of servers to small and medium-sized companies," says Mr Veghte.

John Connors, chief financial officer, said this month that the group would be investing heavily in attracting such customers.

Bob Kelly, senior director for the Windows Server product information group, believes Windows 2003 is the highest quality release ever. The launch has been delayed three times, partly to improve security features.

"Sometimes the schedule slips in the drive to build a better product," says Mr Kelly.

The company claims the software will be more secure, more reliable and easier to deploy and manage. For example, 187 of the most common tasks on the server can be conducted remotely, a big improvement on Windows 2000, says Mr Veghte. Automatic updating will allow security patches to be installed and there will be added functionality, such as collaboration tools when used in combination with Office 11, the next generation of the productivity suite, scheduled for launch this summer.

In addition, third-party applications to run with Windows 2003 will be easier to write, thanks to a new suite of tools.

"Windows Server 2003 is very cost-effective against Unix, because it uses standard industry hardware rather than expensive proprietary systems. It is a much better value proposition," says Mr Veghte.

Mr Veghte also says the functionality of Windows 2003 is far beyond Linux, designed as a clone of Windows NT 4.0, a seven-year-old product. He also claims the total cost of ownership of Windows 2003 is less than Linux. But the release will only be truly successful if it cannibalises Microsoft's own product: Windows NT 4.0.

"NT 4.0 is the primary target of this release," says Mr Kelly. "It's old and there is still a huge installed base." IDC estimates 4m servers use the earlier software.

Microsoft hopes uptake will be faster than for previous generations. It argues that there is no need to wait until the first significant update - traditionally called service pack one - before IT departments consider deploying the technology.

A series of functions will be added in the next two years. "The strategy is to release Windows Server 2003 with core functionality, and then add further solutions," says Mr Kelly.

Mount Fuji (1)

gbrandt (113294) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790441)

The first thing to realize...is that there is no Mount Fuji


Why.... (1)

Russ Nelson (33911) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790446)

Why, I would move it with a teaspoon, naturally. How much more Zen can you get than that?

Moving Mt. Fuji? (4, Funny)

grub (11606) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790448)

Pffff... I'll sit back on a lawn chair with some beer and let plate tectonics do all the work.

Moving Mt. Fuji (2, Funny)

teslatug (543527) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790468)

Make everyone that sees it sign an EUSA (End User Seeing Agreement) that prevents anyone from disclosing the current location of Mt. Fuji. Put out statement with new location.

How would you reprogram Windows so it won't crash? (1)

MrGibbage (303753) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790470)

Download a copy of Linux and rename it Windows?

I would like to know (-1, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790473)

...who actually read that entire fucking thing?

For those who care (1)

SplendidIsolatn (468434) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790476)

GAMES magazine detailed this book and had 10 sample problems in their last issue. Very interesting read.

It's changing... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790481)

When Microsoft train people to do interviews, they now encourage them [i]not[/i] to ask these brainteasers.

They now encourage asking questions about actual experience, and seeing how people behaved in the past.. using that as a predictor for how they'll behave in the future.

Still, that won't stop people asking the brainteasers, because it is a part of the culture, but this is an important, and deliberate, change.

Kinda like Admiral Rickover (5, Interesting)

bravehamster (44836) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790482)

Admiral Rickover, who was placed in charge of creating the Navy's nuclear program was pretty much given a free hand in picking who he wanted to have working for him. His job interview tended to be a bit extreme, like hiding in the closet and jumping out at candidates to see how they would react, throwing things, insulting them. The one I remember hearing about the most was of a young midshipman who was about to graduate from the Academy and wanted to go into the nuclear submarine program. After sitting down for the interview, Adm. Rickover looked him straight in the eye, and said "Son, you have 30 seconds to piss me off." The midshipman sat there for a little bit, then noticed a glass model of the U.S.S. Nautilus sitting on the Admirals desk. He picked it up and smashed it to the floor. The Admiral stood up and yelled out "Dammit, that *pissed* me off! You've got the job."

Basically the whole point was to see how people would react under stress. Kinda important when dealing with a nuclear reactor 300 meters beneath the sea.

If I was an interviewer I'd ask the following... (4, Funny)

JaredOfEuropa (526365) | more than 11 years ago | (#5790483)

Interview Question:

1. Collect underpants.
2. ???
3. Profit!

What is step 2?

Brainteasers in interviews are actually old hat (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 11 years ago | (#5790486)

Management consulting interviews used to be full of them (how many tennis balls are aloft in New Zealand right now?). However, most of the top ones have moved towards so-called "case" interviews where interviewees are given business scenarios and have to solve them. In their view, the ability to solve abstract puzzles often doesn't translate into the ability to take real-world information and use it to identify and solve practical problems.
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