By Stephen D. Fantone

President and CEO

A typical job interview at Optikos will include questions that range from highly technical (sometimes bordering on obscure) to those that reveal the curiosity of an individual and his or her ability to solve what seem to be simple puzzles. For engineering candidates, most of the time the questions fall well within the range of a person educated in his or her respective field of engineering.

From time to time, we’ll share examples of the best and worst answers that we’ve been given. As a first example, we have three questions that are fair game for any engineer or physical scientist:

- What is the value of pi? (We learned this in middle school, if not elementary school…)
- What is the value of e? (Taught in high school algebra II…)
- What is the value of e
^{-i(pi/4)}? (College calculus…)

Why these? Most (but surprisingly not all) students and engineers know these values. The usual answer we get for the value of pi is “approximately 3.14,” and that is acceptable. We have been given vague answers such as “about three,” but without any additional details. One person answered “approximately the square root of ten” (a good estimate to better than 1%). The most unexpected answer I have heard was given by a Hertz Fellow Candidate who answered, “How many decimals do you want it to?”

I asked in return, “How many do you know it to?” and he replied, “about 500.”

I asked him to list the first twenty and then twenty more, taking care to write down the 20th and 40th terms which I later confirmed were correct. This skill obviously invited the question of why he knew this. He explained that his parents were diplomats and as a child he attended boarding school that required long round-the-world holiday trips home. One year he decided he would see how many terms he could memorize during his long flights, and found that he was able to remember over 500. Of course, what this actually revealed to me was an ability at an early age to focus on a task and achieve it. Besides knowing pi to 500 places, he also demonstrated excellent problem-solving skills during his interview. He has since gone on to significant achievement in his professional life.

During our interviews we want to gain insight into how individuals handle technical problems and establish a context for their problem-solving abilities. Retention of information learned in school is important, and being able to quickly apply that information to the problem at hand can be a key part of quickly resolving a technical issue. If you find yourself at a future Optikos job interview and are asked about pi, we’ll know if you’ve had a chance to read our blog!