Thursday, May 13, 2010

My Worst Job Interview

For some reason, recently, I've been thinking about the worst job interview I've ever been on. I've been on a number of them in my day for programming positions, and the experience is usually about the same. There's usually a general portion that's similar to a garden-variety interview anywhere, and then often a part that seeks to test your technical knowledge by asking how you'd solve various technical problems. For example, you might be asked how you detect if there's a loop in a linked list of items. This stuff is usually more analytical than skills-based, and it's meant to tell if you can think like a programmer. Some companies switch this up, but most software shops do something along these lines. But few experiences in my life compare quite so negatively with an experience I had as a grad student checking up on a job prospect in San Diego, for a startup whose name I don't particularly want to mention.

Basically, the moral of this story is that I was young and stupid (and desperate to find a job after graduation). There's no other real explanation for why I endured such shabby treatment and didn't see so many obvious red flags. I'm not bitter about this experience only because it's quite obvious that these people had no idea what they were doing. Their recruitment process was amateurish to the extreme, and I generally attribute that to the ramshackle nature of the company. Most of the people I met there were nice, and the project, which was for a web-based OS, interested me. The leader seemed like a smart guy with some good ideas. I checked the interwebs and they're still around despite the economy, which doesn't bother me. In fact, I wish them luck. I'm just glad I didn't work for them.

Okay, the interview. The first sign of trouble was the itinerary. I was called out of the blue by someone from Company X (not its real name). The recruiting guy and I talked for a bit, and he asked some basic questions about projects I'd been on, languages I'd used, and so on. Evidently it went well enough for him to invite me to a proper interview over at the company's headquarters in San Diego. I thought this was really cool. In fact, my excitement was somehow not moved by the little fact that the plane left from SLO Airport at 5:15 AM. Now, that's early. But it meant I had to get up at around 3:00 AM, since I was living about 20 miles away from SLO at the time, in Atascadero. I'm not a morning person under the best of circumstances, but waking up at 3:00? Before an all-day job interview? I should have made an issue of it. I didn't know better then, I guess. I figured that this new company was cash-strapped and wanted to avoid having to pay for a hotel room for me, but I was really being set up to fail from the start.

But I went ahead with the plan. Got ready, drove really fast to SLO Airport. I actually rather enjoyed driving there at 4:00 AM, despite the tiredness. I encountered literally not one car on the 45-or-so minute drive, and I got to pretty much set my own speed limit. Quite a bit like Montana in many ways. I got there with not too much time to spare, paid for my parking for the day in advance (SLO has a weird system), and got on my plane to Los Angeles Airport. Yes, little SLO Airport doesn't do direct to San Diego. It felt a little silly to connect through LA to San Diego, but it wasn't that big a deal. I arrived at San Diego at around 8:00 or so. Needless to say there wasn't a car waiting for me. Needless to say the recruiting guy didn't even bother to tell me how I was to get there. I had an address, at least. Took a cab to the place. I was there an hour early, so instead of going in I just walked around San Diego for a while. I really liked what I saw. Every city has certain rhythms that are just embedded in its DNA, as well as its own look and feel. I really liked what I saw of San Diego, which put me in a good mood for the day. In retrospect, it would have been better if it had been a terrible, rainy, ugly day to put me in a skeptical mood, but it's San Diego! They never get those. I liked San Diego more than any city I'd been to since New Orleans. I was actually easily able to visualize myself there fairly easily, despite my non-partying ways. My impression was that it's a city full of outsiders, which is something I can definitely relate to.

I arrived at Company X's headquarters at the specified time. Met the recruiting guy. The first hour or two involved a tour of the facilities and meeting some people there. Not too much interesting here, though the tour guide had a tendency of talking up things as being more impressive than they were. It wasn't like she was talking about how awesome it was that they finally got flatscreen monitors or anything, but sort of in that vein. It just looked like a typical software shop to me. After all that, I listened to the bossman talk about their project. As I stated before, this was fairly interesting. He talked numbers and it certainly seemed like the business was growing fast. Considering how much stuff is done online now, the guy seems pretty prescient with his web-based OS (this was 2008 or so). Before lunch I did a paper exam sort of thing that was like the standard technical interview material I've described before.

Up until this point, I didn't really have much to complain about. Lunch was okay. There were, by the way, a whole batch of people interviewing with me. I seemed to be the only one from the West Coast, which was bizarre to me for some reason. Lots of people from the East Coast and the Midwest, but not really from the top schools in those regions. Lots of University of Iowa, stuff like that. I'm not being a snob here or anything, it was just curious what pool they were pulling from. And then there was me, geographically isolated. I could tell that the company people were really trying to push this thing about how work for them was a fun place to hang out, and they were really pushing that vibe, but frankly the whole thing was incredibly tedious. It's a job interview! Everybody was on edge, and the attempts to make everyone relax just put me more on edge. There were big stakes here, after all. It would have been better if they'd had an efficient, orderly process to get this done, instead of having me wait for two hours before I went on to the next phase of the interview.

And that next phase is where things started to go south. Keep in mind this was about 2:00 PM. I was already tired. I'd been up for eleven hours, with not a terribly great amount of sleep that past night. My brain was starting to shut down. My temper was starting to get a little more pronounced. I wasn't in a bad mood yet, but I was getting there. So now we were doing one-on-one interviews with their software people. Interminable waiting, as I said. They sent some people home after the written test, so I figured I was doing pretty well. I figured I'd have a quick sit-down with somebody and do a riff on the general questions about work experience, languages I know, and so forth. Most companies would do something like that. Instead, and I'm not making this up, it was an hour of lateral thinking puzzles.


Admittedly, this is a real bete noire of mine. I hate these puzzles because they usually have about fifteen different correct answers, only the "right" answer is the one the person happens to be thinking of, so ultimately it's a matter of whether you can guess what the person is thinking. This is worthless as any sort of measure of intelligence or creativity because it is not fundamentally testing my intellect. It is testing my guessing ability. This stuff might be fun as a game for junior highers but as a test of who you're going to hire? Better to know how quickly a person can learn a new programming language, or how easily they can explain what they've done on a project, or any manner of other things. Instead, we got asked questions like, "If you have two sticks that take 30 minutes to burn, but don't burn at a constant rate, how can you tell when fifteen minutes have passed?" I should have asked this dude if they write a lot of code about burning sticks, but I mostly just sat there for what felt like ten minutes (it was probably about ten minutes) stumbling, trying to get my tired brain to figure out how to burn sticks. It pissed me off quite a bit.

And the fun train didn't stop there. I got another interview after that (evidently we were supposed to have three sit-downs), and it was with this younger guy who thankfully left his Mindwarp book at home, but he asked me some questions that were so cliched and obvious that I wasn't even prepared for them. He literally asked me about overcoming an obstacle. What am I, applying for college admission*? I'm trying to get into UC San Diego or something? Who cares! He literally asked me for an instance when I thought outside the box. Outside the box! The "Where's the beef?" of tech talk. This was clearly a guy who took cliches seriously. What does that expression even mean? Does it just mean being creative? Because yes, I have been creative before. Does it mean taking an unusual approach to a problem? I'm doubtful that that's something to be celebrated in and of itself. As Michael Jackson (the software guy, not the late King of Pop) taught me, the problem with software is very often that it's needlessly messy and complicated. The virtue is finding the simplest, easiest, and best approach to a problem, not the most off-the-wall different one that nobody can even understand, not even the dude whose job it is to write it. Not only was this guy using cliches from 1998 or so in 2008, he didn't even seem to know what these questions were to mean. I froze up on the out-of-the-box one a bit because I was so tired, to my continuing shame. I wish I'd busted out something like this speech back then, but I would have been happier if I'd just left. Which I did shortly after that. Recruiting guy escorted me out, didn't say that I hadn't passed the test, but the fact that hardly anyone else was leaving was kind of a clue.

Here's the problem, though: I finished at about 2:45 or so. My plane left at 6:30. I was quite upset at what had happened and decided I just wanted to get to the airport to go home. Unfortunately, San Diego seems to be the worst place in the world to get a cab. The airport was only a fifteen minute drive from where I was, but the cab companies were not very responsive to my calls. I called one up and they said they'd have a cab over in fifteen minutes. A half hour later I called back. They said a few minutes. This happened a few times until I finally flagged one down myself. I didn't even call the jerky cab company. My mood was so bad by that point I wanted the cabbie to have wasted his time like he wasted mine. I went to the airport and thereby began the final, "adding insult to injury" phase of my journey.

Company X's goal with me was to interview me without paying for a hotel room. After all, I was sorta local. But the return flight to SLO was not as simple as the flight in. I had two connections, which essentially meant I had to catch three flights: San Diego to Phoenix, Phoenix to Vegas, and then finally Vegas to SLO, for five separate flights on the day. Estimated Time to Arrival: about six hours. So, basically, I was spending an equivalent amount of time on the plane as if I were going to New York. I didn't go into this thing very enthusiastically, knowing I'd botched the interview, angry at the inane questions. The whole thing felt like a waste of my time. But I was frankly pissed off at having to set foot in three states because the company was too damn cheap to spring for a hotel room (despite the fact that they were interviewing 30+ people from across the country and they sure as hell wasn't making them get on a plane at five in the morning). There was simply no choice at that point, though. I took the plane to Phoenix, which was fine. I have a very strong reaction to air travel--I wouldn't quite call it fear, because I'm not really that afraid that we'll randomly lose a wing or have a midair collision or something. I do have a fear of crashing, particularly into the ocean, but this is not relevant to the case at hand. I just hate air travel. I hate the police state that is the airport/airplane. I hate the cramped confines, the recycled air, the uncomfortable seats, and the rest of it. If it were a realistic option I'd absolutely take trains everywhere. I absolutely love public transportation.

As I indicated, though, leg one of The Long Journey Home was fine. It was leg two where I really began to feel it, though. For one thing, the Phoenix plane was delayed 30 minutes because we were waiting for other people to board--presumably people whose connecting flight had come in late. I wondered whether my plane in Vegas would behave similarly if I didn't make it there in the fifteen minutes I'd have once the plane landed. But even if that was at the forefront of my mind, I was frequently unable to concentrate, thanks to the baby who cried for every one of the 53 minutes of our flight. I felt myself getting sick (and I did indeed get sick shortly after the trip). Finally, we touched down in Vegas, and I literally ran across the entire airport in ten minutes to make my flight back to SLO. To borrow from Kelly McGillis, by this point my body was writing checks that it just couldn't cash. I made it to the SLO plane feeling like absolute garbage. Of course, the 30 minute wait until our turn to take off made me concerned about whether we would arrive before my car was towed away. I had prepaid the parking for just that day, you might recall. I tried to sleep but I was feeling a bit feverish. My brain wouldn't turn off. I tried to concentrate on the clouds to take my mind off of that day. At least when I arrived my car was still there. I don't remember anything about the drive back. I slept until late afternoon that day, which was lucky, since I only had a 5:00 class on Wednesday. Ah, the life of a grad student. How I do miss it.

And that's pretty much it. I got a call in a few days saying that I wouldn't be getting a job offer. I was less than broken up about it. And my anger subsided when I got a pretty good offer from the company I'm working for now. But this was such an epically bad experience--really, one for the ages--that I no longer felt like keeping it to myself. Hope you enjoyed it.

* For the record, I have never written an honest answer to any of the following questions for college applications: How did I overcome an obstacle? How did I rise above adversity? What was a difficult experience and how did I deal with it? Partly because the truth would be blunt and uncomfortable (i.e. for the first one, "I'm a straight white boy from the suburbs. I have been faced with zero obstacles. Please pick me for your school and help me dodge another one."), but also because I simply don't like this idea of using essays like this as shorthand for character. Having a stable upbringing isn't really a handicap, and while overcoming obstacles is admirable and definitely shows character, it's not the only way to acquire it. Of course, I wound up going to Cal Poly, the one school I applied to that seemingly had no interest in biography, so it was all beside the point.