So you want a job at Applied Minds. Who doesn’t? Every month about 20 of the nation’s most creative engineers and designers, including top graduates from Stanford University and MIT, apply for positions at this Glendale, California, design and invention firm. The client list ranges from trendy furniture-maker Herman Miller to General Motors, Northrop Grumman, and NASA. Story Musgrave, a six-shuttle-mission astronaut, works there. The cochairmen are Bran Ferren, former executive vice president for Walt Disney Imagineering, and Danny Hillis, whose insights underlie the operation of most supercomputers. The company vibe is geeky fun—there are cool robots, a secret doorway disguised as a phone booth, even free espresso.
But between you and the gig sits the box.
“I came up with the box because I found that there is almost no correlation between what people say in an interview and their ability to actually do stuff,” Ferren says. A résumé full of advanced degrees doesn’t help much, either. Ferren himself dropped out of MIT after one year to start a successful design and engineering firm, and he has found that many capable engineers are similarly unschooled. “The best folks are the ones who grow up with military surplus, who have been fiddling with things since they could walk.”
From the outside, the box doesn’t impress. It’s just a bright yellow waterproof plastic case. But inside sits an array of parts, gadgets, and whatsits representing the vast panoply of modern design and engineering. Cheap and expensive, homely and beautiful, accessible and abstruse, they gleam temptingly under the lights.
Ferren and Hillis have used the box to test job applicants hundreds of times, gradually honing it into a sophisticated tool. The applicant may not know it, but the moment the lid swings open, the examination has begun.
“I have actually had people who are afraid to touch things. They might be very smart, but they clearly have no experience handling objects,” says Hillis. Such abstract, ethereal types don’t flourish at Applied Minds. “We are a rapid prototyping shop. You think it up, then you go build it and make it work,” says Ferren.
So Applied Minds wants people who compulsively grab, manipulate, and even fondle the hardware. Sure enough, when I asked Russell Howe, a staff mathematician who had taken the test years ago, to try it again with a new batch of objects, he radiated something akin to joy as he plucked out one item after another, describing their functions in loving detail as he pulled, twisted, bent, and manipulated. “Russell grew up on a farm,” says Ferren, a qualification he deems as significant as Howe’s applied mathematics degree from Caltech.
Hillis emphasizes that the best applicant isn’t necessarily one who can name the most objects. “I like to hear how people think about things they can’t name, that they have never seen before,” he says. “How do they examine it? How do they imagine what such a thing might be used for? People can always acquire more knowledge, but we can’t give them a new thinking process.”
On the other hand, knowledge does count, says Ferren. “A serious engineer could pick up any object in the box and give you information about it for hours.” When I took the test, my explanations were literate, witty, even scintillating, but also generally wrong. Ferren did not offer me a job.
The contents of the box continually shift as Ferren, Hillis, and their friends add and discard objects that drift into their lives. Now there are about 50 items inside. Presented here are 11 of them, a representative sample. To compensate for the fact that you cannot handle the items, we’ve added size and weight information and a few hints.
So take your best shot. “We are always looking for engineers,” says Hillis. “Our aim is simply to hire the best people in the world.” If you knock this one out of the park and enjoy the process, contact the company, as you are almost sure to like working there. “In a sense,” says Hillis, “the company is like a giant version of this box.”