Saturday, October 10 2020

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Line Dancing for a Job

Interviewing for a junior engineering position at a company, there's not much they can actually grill you about. The whole premise of a junior engineer is that they don't know anything. Despite all this, I still found plenty of ways to embarrass myself at my first interview out of college.

Wearing my only collared shirt and tie, I made the long, early morning flight to Rockford. Nerves got the best of me, and to deal with an imminently dangerous bowel situation that developed on the long car ride, I pulled over at a small diner just down the street from the office building. But I rallied, washing the flop-sweat off my hands and face in the bathroom before giving the elderly owner a brief and suspicious wave while darting out the door.

I made my way into the formless beige building, gripping my single sheet resume between my thumb and forefinger. The lady at the reception desk ushered me into a back room where all the engineers sat - the bullpen. They led me to a smaller room in the back, and slowly about three engineers trudged in, slumping into chairs beside me. The took turns carelessly glancing at my resume. One engineer, James, brought it closer to his face.

"It says here... you have experience remotely managing a Java-based game server by VNC and SSH protocol.," said James without cracking a smile.

"So that's just Minecraft, right?" said the other. I nodded nervously. They began to chuckle. Sensing they saw right through my resume jargon, I started to feel self-conscious.

"We liked how you did your best to be as general as possible," he laughed. "It's OK - you have to start somewhere."

I was just grateful they didn't see the first draft of my resume. At one point my resume had a tag line, like it was a memoir or a movie poster. The top of the page read An Organic Chemistry Student Bitten by the IT Bug.

Steve, the manager, led me around the building for a quick tour, taking me around the broad grey walls and sea of identical cubicles. Suddenly, music began to blare.

"So around here, we do these things called fire drills, just a silly group activity to keep us motivated in the afternoon."

As the deep bass shook the walls, workers filed out of their cubicles, lining the giant room. A sharply dressed man turned the corner to join us. I recognized him as the CEO of the company I was interviewing for. He leaned into our conversation intensely.

"Are you going to do the fire drill with us?" asked the CEO.

"You don't have to if you don't want to," said Steve. "It's totally OK."

"No, no, it's OK," I stammered. "It sounds fun." I lined up beside some of the other workers, limping my way through an awkward line dance. The song ended and every one clapped. Steve led me to the door.

"So you definitely didn't have to do that," said Steve. "But I think he really liked it. Positive energy is a big deal here, and I commend you for going with the flow."

Although I would work there for two years, I never line danced again. Like the rest of the engineers, I would just hide until the music stopped.

"Sorry I woke your wife"

While we were still in Rockford, I scored an interview at a place up in Madison. Since Marissa and I shared one car, she had to tag along for the day. We made the long drive from Rockford to Madison in the morning, and after the interview, we planned on hanging out in the afternoon, grabbing some lunch, and maybe even some beers if things went well.

But we didn't know how long the interview would be. And just in case it was longer or shorter than we expected, Marissa just decided to play it safe and wait in the car. Additionally, she had closed at her bar the night before and was feeling really tired.

"It'll be fine," she said. "I just close my eyes and sleep for a little bit. I could use some more sleep."

We parked the car in a stealthy, inconspicuous space all the way in the back, then I trotted into the building. After waiting for a few minutes in the lobby, Chris the HR Manager greeted me at the door.

"So I had a chance to meet your wife," he said as I followed him into the back offices. "I feel kinda bad, actually, I think I woke her up."

I blushed with embarrassment. Marissa filled me in later. Chris had knocked on the window and asked if she was OK, mistaking her for some kind of homeless drifter. He said "we don't usually have people sleeping in the parking lot."

"She doesn't have to wait in the car, you know," he said. "She can absolutely wait in the lobby."

"I think she's fine," I said blankly, wanting to move past the awkward encounter. "She works nights as a bartender, she could probably use the extra sleep."

Chris led me into a back room with three engineers. By now, I had already become familiar with the usual format. In almost every technical interview, there are three peoplle: an assertive manager that does most of the talking, a laid back engineer that just cracks jokes, and a scary looking senior architect says nothing.

They had a brief coding test for me. Using a shared JavaScript console on the projector, I had to write a function that would check a password parameter against some silly validation rules.

"The password has to be at least 10 characters long, it can't have the string SANDWICH in it, and it cannot be a palindrome," explained the manager.

Hearing the easy question aloud, I felt a wave of relief wash over me. I took a deep breath to keep my hands from shaking, then I approached the keyboard. Over the next ten minutes, I hammered out a function, running the final result.

I felt pretty good about my solution. I tested it as I went, I used descriptive names, and the last line of my function was a single, concise statement that coalesced all the conditions we checked for. In computer English, it would have read return password is-long-enough AND is-not-sandwhich AND is-not-palindrome.

The manager leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin. "Is this the best way to do this, though?" he asked. "Are there any places we could make it faster."

My eyes scanned my code on the bright projector screen. I had the sense that he was trying to lead me somewhere, but I wasn't sure what he noticed.

"Well," he continued. "Say if one of those checks was a little longer, like it had to query a database, or fetch something from a URL. Maybe it failed the first condition already and you wouldn't need to have done that?"

His question hung in the air like a fart. All at once, I realized what he thought he saw, and why he was wrong. But I was at a loss for words, trying to find a tactful way of saying it.

"I think I know what you mean," I stuttered. "But the conditions get resolved from left to right, the browser won't run the others if it knows it's already false."

Trying to balance humility with confidence, grace with precision. My contribution to the discussion only made things feel weirder. The conversation felt like things were about to get defensive.

A voice rang in the back of the room. It was the senior architect, who had been silent until just then. "This is a bad example," he said gruffly. "Let's move on."

"You think we're NASA?"

I interviewed at the space science center here in Madison. They were looking for a python programmer to join their team, which was responsible for maintaining the code that ingested data collected from satellites and weather balloons. They provided weather science data to governments, research groups, and most impressively, NASA.

Before the actual interview, I had to solve and submit a take home assignment. As part of the test, I had to write a program that would clone a file tree to another root, replacing all duplicate files with hard links along the way. There was no "trick" to it, as far as I could tell. It was just a hard problem, and I used all 90 minutes of my submission window down to the last second to get something working. But I got a call back, and that gave me a boost of confidence.

Marissa dropped me off outside the tall brown building. It had a giant angled radar dish on the roof. I was escorted to the back of a public library, where I met with two shabby, regular looking guys that made up the python team. We chatted, joked, and hit it off well, until their manager joined the discussion. He was much more polite, well dressed, and his British accent was so refined, it sounded like he was reciting a sonnet when he talked.

"So tell us, in short, why you want to work with the space science research center," he asked, folding his legs.

For as basic of a question that was, it remained a gaping blind spot in my interview preparation. Truthfully, I didn't even understand what they did.

"Science excites me," I opened. "I have a science background myself, and I would love a job that lets me return to some of that." The manager shifted uncomfortably.

"Well, I'll stop you there," he said, holding out his hand politely. "We have enough scientists. We're mainly interested in programmers."

"Oh, I know," I stammered. "I mean I like science, but I'm really here to program... to be a programmer."

Their smiles faded to bleak, blank stares. I tried to save my answer.

"And NASA - I mean... c'mon," I chuckled. "That's so cool - working with NASA has always been a dream of mine."

One of the programmers smiled. "Do you think we're NASA?" he asked.

"Oh, we just work with NASA," said the manager. "They help fund our department, and we let them use our data."

I would receive a polite rejection email the next Monday. I'd imagine the manager was tempted to add, "and next time, you should figure out exactly who you're applying to work for."

"Just Guess."

I interviewed with a remote company based in Michigan that made medical software. Sitting in our bedroom, I logged onto Skype for the remote technical screen. There were about twelve other people listed in the chat room, and nobody had their webcams turned on. So I turned my camera off.

The hiring manager on the call gave his opening spiel, but I could barely hear him over the sound of eleven other swarthy engineers breathing directly into my headphones.

"So we have some technical questions we'd like to ask you," he said, beginning to read. "First question: if you were making a word processor, how would you implement an undo feature?"

I stared at my keyboard. "Let's see," I said, my voice trailing off. I really had no idea, but I just wanted to let them know I was thinking about it. "I don't know," I said. "Sounds like a tricky problem that I've never had to solve before."

"Just guess," said the manager stubbornly.

"I'm sorry, guys. I'm drawing a blank here," I said. "We can just go onto the next question."

I heard ruffling papers on the other end, along with the same anonymous symphony of nasal breathing.

"OK, I have a scenario for you, Alex," said the manager. "You are leading a team that has to make a product kind of like photo shop. Only the computer your writing it for has no disk storage, and very little RAM. Given these constraints, what strategy of memory management would still allow you to implement gaussian blur."

"What is gaussian blur?" I asked. I heard fidgeting on the other end.

"You don't know what gaussian blur is?" said a new voice. He sounded eager to explain it, so I humored him, but the engineer's cheap microphone kept cutting in and out."

"I don't know that one either, guys," I said.

"Can you just guess?" said the manager. "Just guess how you would implement gaussian blur."

"I don't know how I would even guess. I don't know what gaussian blur is," I said, feeling irritated.

"Should I read the definition again?" asked the engineer from before.

I took a long paused, rubbing my eyes. The breathing grew louder in my headphones, and I was suddenly overcome with an awful sensation of claustrophobia. Without thinking, I reached for my laptop lid and shut it closed, ending the call. No warning. No farewell. I just shut it off.

"You what?!" exclaimed Marissa in the kitchen.

"I just shut my laptop," I said, still laughing hysterically. "They're questions we're just so ridiculous. And... you know... enough was enough."

My favorite part about this story was that they still took the time to write me a formal rejection email, and they even made it sound like it was a close decision.

"Is there someone with you?"

At Zendesk, I discovered my deep appreciation and respect for the interview process, and I happily volunteered to conduct technical screens and code challenges. I pride myself on asking good questions, being friendly, and ensuring that every candidate we interview feels respected, even if we pass on them.

Usually I start with a short answer quiz, just to find out where most of their experience is. I was interviewing a guy over Zoom, and based on the long pauses and robotic responses, I could tell he was just punching in my questions into google and reading the search first result, as if it were his own. I acted like I didn't notice and proceeded to my coding question.

I read the problem statement, pasting in my question into our shared coding window. I explained the constraints, the rules, and the expectations. But while I was in the middle of giving my spiel, he interrupted me.

"Ope - sorry, did you say something?" I interjected. Just silence.

"OK then, so off you go," I said, giving the candidate time to work. As he fumbled around the screen pasting random snippets from StackOverflow, I could hear him muttering to himself.

"Did you say something?" I asked again.

"Oh... no, nothing, don't worry about it ," he said dismissively. I heard more chatter through his headphones. I realized there was someone in the room with him. The candidate was covering his microphone, discussing the problem with someone else.

I took a deep breath and leaned in. "Sorry - I hate to ask", but... is there someone working on this with you?"

"Yes," he sighed.

I went on to explain that he was instructed to take the test alone and that since he tried to sneak help from a buddy, I'd have to disqualify him. None of this surprised him. Even though the candidate had his video turned off, I could hear that he was embarrassed at how I caught him cheating.

"I'll tell you what though, why don't the three of us just work on it together," I suggested.

I introduced myself to his friend, who turned out to be a classmate at his technical college. He explained that they work on all their homework assignments together, and it felt so natural that the fact it was against the rules in a job interview just slipped his mind.

"Well, even if the interview didn't go so well, I still had fun," I said, trying to end on a good note.

"We had fun too," said the candidate. "Thanks for being understanding, and sorry again."