A California city banned new gas stations earlier this month, since eventually, we’re told, we’ll all be moving to electric cars anyway.
I don’t have a strong opinion on whether this is a good idea. But, it reminded me of the question Jeff Bezos used to ask in every single job interview, and an ironic 20-year-old interview in which he explained it.
Bezos was 36 at the time, and Amazon was six years old, as he sat for what turned into a 5,700-word interview in The Washington Post. (Ironic, since he now owns the Post.)
He was already famous and already a multibillionaire. But Amazon’s "get big now, get profit later" strategy had Wall Street nervous, and some employees worried their stock options might be worthless after the dot-com bubble burst.
In fact, a Lehman Brothers analyst had recently made a name for himself before the interview by predicting that Amazon was toast: "The party is over." (Lehman went bankrupt in 2008; Amazon now has a market cap of about $1.5 trillion.)
Yet Bezos was still spending lots of time “recruiting and screening executives," the Post story reported, and he always asked the same question:
"How many gas stations are there in the United States?"
I'm sure you've seen these kinds of questions; perhaps you've asked or answered them in interviews yourself. The answer doesn't really matter; it's all about probing the candidate's thought processes.
"I realize it's a little weird to ask things like this to people who have 800 people reporting to them somewhere," Bezos said at the time, but it was a means to an end: hiring only the smartest people he could find.
Besides his gas station question, he’d also ask applicants for their SAT scores, and once asked a CFO candidate who had ranked No. 2 on the CPA exam why she didn’t come in first.
"There's nothing wrong with asking for SAT scores," Bezos said. He also often conducted hourlong reference checks on potential hires himself, asking 23 standard questions including: Can you think of a problem that everyone thought was unsolvable that this person solved?
"If this person were really brilliant, you can remember these things. If they can't think of anything, it doesn't mean they're not brilliant. But it's certainly a negative indicator," Bezos said.
Parts of this two-decade-old interview are a reminder of just how much has changed since then.
For one thing, there’s Bezos's daily dress code ("blue dress shirts and khakis"). More seriously, the company is portrayed as making zero effort even to pretend to care about racial or cultural diversity.
"Sources within the organization say it is simply not a priority in recruiting," the Post reported, and describing the company as "predominantly male and white."
And, of course, there’s the gas station question. Here’s how Bezos said he’d answer it: As a kid, he spent summers in the tiny town of Cotulla, Texas, population 3,000, and he recalled there were two gas stations there.
So, he said he'd assume that 1 gas station for every 1,500 people ratio held true for the entire country, and just do the math.
Based on a U.S. population of 280 million at the time (it's 328 million now), that would work out to about 186,666 gas stations. The actual number: 175,000. His calculation was within about 6.7 percent of the right answer.
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Thanks for reading. Photo credit: James Loesch/Flickr. I’ve wrote about this interview a few years ago at Inc.com. If you’re not a subscriber, please sign up for the daily Understandably.com email newsletter—with thousands and thousands of 5-star ratings from happy readers.
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