Issue #07: Work

Tales Of The Interview

What follows are all true job interview anecdotes I have accumulated since I started working as a software engineer in 1997. They are all different; some are sad, some are just plain stupid, but one in particular, the one at the end, is simply fantastic and will provide hope to all of you looking for a job.

Excellence

After a three hour trip throughout Switzerland, I arrived on time for a meeting at a wide, dimly lit office, of around 150 square meters, in which there was a single desk at the far end of it. Closer to the entrance there was a small round table with two chairs.

The person sitting on that desk was on the phone, and waved her hand asking me to sit down at the table.

After around thirty minutes of waiting there, the lady comes to me with some papers on her hand, and sits down. Then without even greeting me or introducing herself, she starts telling me about their excellent company and how they are committed to excellence and how hard it is for them to find excellent candidates because of the excellence of their interview process required to provide excellent services to their excellent customers who expected nothing less but excellence.

For a while it seemed to me like she was not even breathing.

Her speech lasted about forty minutes, during which she barely looked at me or even asked me to say something about my own experience. At the end she looks at me, smiles, thanks me for coming to the meeting and gets up, saying something about contacting me soon. I clumsily get up, shake her hand and leave the room. I find myself outside, facing another three hours of trip back.

I have never heard of them ever since.

Those Gaps On Your Resume

The man in front of me took my resume on his hands and sit back on the chair. For about an hour he went through each one its temporal gaps.

What did you do from December 2001 to July 2002? And why did you not work from August 2003 to January 2004? What about from August 2007 to January 2008?

He made no questions about my actual work. No questions about best practices, or about the programming languages I knew, or the teams I have been with, or about the IDEs I had used, or the challenges I met in my previous jobs.

I made the huge mistake of falling in the trap of actually answering the questions. I should have not, and rather, just asked him to actually review my experience instead.

Actually, I should have left that meeting right away.

Reversing A Linked List

I was interviewing for a mobile app developer job at a very large company in front of two senior developers. As expected, at some point they asked me one of those typical interview questions. If I remember well, it was the question that appears in the SICP book, about finding an algorithm to provide change with the minimum amount of coins.

To be clear, I had read the book and I probably could have winged the question. But instead, out of exasperation of the whole concept of whiteboard interviews, I declined answering to it, much to the bewilderment of my interviewers. A long silence followed, and I answered their unspoken question directly. I told them that by answering like this, they could learn many things from me:

First, that I did not fill my brain with elements of information that I can find in a book. A much better question would be to ask me how to deal with typical problems in large software projects. And, besides, I was pretty sure that their own app did not need or used such an algorithm to minimize coins.

Second, that I had strong opinions about this industry, which they could like or not, but never ignore. Among those, I stressed the fact that I strongly opposed (the proper word would be abhored) the whiteboarding interview concept.

And third, that I was not bullshitting them by repeating by heart an answer out of those books that prepare developers for interview questions. And that I was worried that the team they had hired would have done that.

An awkward silence followed, while they both looked at each other.

They made me a job offer. I declined it.

Weird Academic Paths Need Not Apply

During a phone screening, the recruiter asked me what diplomas I had. I told this person that I had dropped out of university early, but that I had been accepted in a Master Degree program later, thanks to my professional experience, and that, as such, I had a Master degree, but no Bachelor degree.

There was a long silence. “Wait, how can you have a Master degree without a Bachelor first?” I re-explained the situation calmly, thinking that this situation was more common than it sounded at first.

“But, but… sorry.” And she hung up.

And that is how I learnt that no, my situation is not that common.

The Truth Is In The PDF

I sent once an application for a senior role at a major Swiss company. A few weeks later, I received an e-mail from the HR manager with the following words:

“Please open the attached PDF.”

I duly opened the PDF, and inside it was a letter of the same HR manager (apparently it is company policy to send PDFs inside e-mails) where they declined my application using the following words:

We regret to inform you that we cannot consider your application this time, because of the following reason: <xyz>.

I guessed that the company had a series of templates for letters, templates into which one could add some information before sending them. And maybe the person in question just had forgotten to fill in the blanks. No worries. I sent a quick e-mail to the HR manager asking for the missing reason.

A few minutes later, the same HR manager replies back with another terse e-mail (no PDF inside this time) stating the following:

According to company policy, we do not provide reasons for rejections.

I answered back, suggesting this person to modify the PDF template for the next rejection.

I have never heard back from them again.

Unanswered Homework

I applied to a mobile developer job a few years ago, and they asked me to complete a small homework assignment after the first phone screening. They said in their e-mail that the assignment, which consisted of the creation of a small mobile app, should not take more than 5 hours to complete.

I did so, and I sent it. It must have taken me about 4 hours of work to do, and I was quite happy with the result. I even provided tests and some documentation with it, all in a nice Git repository somewhere.

A week later I sent an e-mail to ask about the status of my submission. I asked again a few days later.

I never received an answer from them, not even an acknowledgement of receipt.

The Other Side Of The Medal

Thankfully, things are changing. I am soon going to start a new job in a company that, thankfully, wants to do things in a different way.

First, they invited me over to have coffee with them, and we talked about their current business needs, and how we could help each other.

Then they invited me to spend a whole day in their offices; I met many of the people working there, and even collaborated in a small task with one of them. I could see how they worked, how they collaborated with each other, and how they treated each other. They invited me for lunch, and I got to meet a lot of very nice people.

I want to stress that this is exactly the kind of interview I want to have with companies, every time: it is called a dialog. Its objective is to find out if we can work together, and if so, how we can help each other.

This is the way how work should be defined. Nothing more and nothing less than a collaboration.

Companies pay salaries, very well; but we, the workforce, provide our own “CPU time” to these organizations, and we must choose carefully where to spend that CPU time. Only companies who understand the meaning of the word “collaboration” can evolve into this new way of dealing with job interviews.

One must never work “for” a company: one must work “with” it, and it must work “with” oneself.

To make a short story even shorter, this last company made me an offer, and I wholeheartedly accepted it. I will start there next month.

And this is how I found out, 22 years after I started in this industry, that things really are changing; there is better way to do job interviews, and the change is happening right here, right now.

Cover photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash.

Adrian Kosmaczewski is a software consultant and evangelist. He is a published writer, trainer and speaker. He holds a Master's degree from the University of Liverpool.