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  Friday, December 27, 2002

Thank you Matt for sending me the best link ever: Proudly Serving My Corporate Masters is a book about Microsoft written by an (ex?) employee and the very first chapter is about my pet obsession, the Microsoft Interview. The author has perspective on the subject as both a rejected candidate, and later (once he tried again and got hired) as the tentative interviewer, skeptical of the fairness of the process. Most of the things I've read about the MS-style interview happily tow the party line. I'm talking about Joel's Guerrilla Guide to Interviewing. But in Chapter 1, Adam Barr is openly critical of this style:
I have been to several Microsoft interviewer-training sessions. What you get is good information about the mechanics of an interview -- what it is legal to ask, what can't be revealed, and what should be in feedback -- but not a lot of rules about how to decide whether a candidate is a "hire." It always comes down to a feeling you are supposed to get. I kept waiting for this feeling during interviews, but it rarely arrived. At the end of the interview, if you are lucky, you can make an educated guess. More typically, you are making a disturbingly uneducated guess.

He even (gasp!) mocks the sacred "Why are manhole covers round?" question! And (heavens!) the holy “How many gas stations are there in the US?” is called into question. Finally, he critically addresses the dreaded “design” question.

Consider the impact of the success or failure at a job interview on a person's life. I think it's the perfect example of pop-chaos, you know, the butterfly flapping in Japan -- tornado in Kansas concept. Getting or not getting a particular job determines where in the world you'll live, probably who your friends will be, what you'll accomplish with 40 of your 112 weekly waking hours. Such an enormous effect determined by a process that, no matter what interview style is used, just seems so damn random!

Interview feedback … can seem quite arbitrary … When I saw some of the feedback, in particular the “no hire” feedback, it seemed the bar for “hire” was set improbably high – that interviewers would not hire themselves if they came in the door. At times like this it occurred to me, “Would I get hired again if I interviewed here?”

I don’t blame any company for having hire standards when choosing software developers – it is better to turn away many good candidates than hire one bad one that will tax the resources of the rest of the team – but I just want to observe the funny effects that this process has on the candidates themselves. You don’t know whether you’re a bad apple that got weeded out, or a good candidate that just got a raw deal.

Thinking about the arbitrariness of the job interview makes me feel very existentialist. I think: Life doesn't seem to give us what we deserve; instead things seem to just happen to us at random. When I recall my MS interview, I think about how easily I could have solved that rectangle problem and walked out of there with a great job and feeling like I was king of the world. Positive outcomes like that certainly have happened to me in the past. For example, when I'm writing an exam and the answer to a hard problem just comes together in my head with 5 minutes to go and I scramble to write out the details, do so just in time, and end up with a great mark. Of course that wonderful phenomenon didn't happen that day in Needle's Hall, and so I also think about how equally easy it was for the opposite to happen. Just as easily I just sat there and failed to mentally perform at the critical moment.

Now, it's easy to apply this theory only when convenient to my ego. It'd be nice to attribute only our failures to the random whims of the uncaring universe while at the same time taking full credit for our surely well earned and well deserved successes. I probably do this a lot, but I'd like to point out that I'm writing down these observations not to justify or excuse these shortcomings. After all I no longer feel like the rejected Microsoft candidate or (before that) the rejected RIM candidate. In fact, the opposite is true: I'm just coming off a work term with a great employer, in a great city, and where I guess I really accomplished something. And my boss thought so too -- I got an "outstanding" evaluation. In other words, it was a success. So since I'm hardly in the depths of despair right now, I think this is a pretty good time to be objective about this kind of thing.

Here's another example of what I'm talking about. This happened in the bad-old-days at Mobile Airwaves, a former co-op employer, in the winter of 2001. They hired four Waterloo students and flew us down to San Francisco for the term to work on shipping the first version of their server product, which was written by the co-ops who preceded us. Of course I was one of them. Unlike the other three guys, I got the job only one month earlier by scanning through the Access postings using a friend's password, picking out the companies that sounded interesting, and cold-calling them. Mobile Airwaves' posting was one of the ones I picked so I found their (415) number on their website and called them up. Twenty minutes of chatting about my e-mailed resume later, I heard the words "We like your stuff" and I was in. The whole thing happened so fast and was so impossibly easy that I didn't really believe I had a job until the plane ticket came in the mail from Expedia only days before I was to leave.

Things went well at our SOMA office for the first while. It felt like me and the other guys were just kind of out there working on our own, reporting only to the two co-ops from the previous term who decided to stay on with the company and work full time for the coming year. My life down there felt new and good and different but more than a bit strange. It was like that feeling of getting off the plane at SFO and immediately noticing how the pleasant and cool night air of the Bay Area differed from the crisp cold of Canadian winter. That strange and new but good feeling seemed to take a long time to wear off.

After a while on our own, they hired us a manager who wanted us to work at least 10 hours a day and who knew just enough about the technical side of our stuff to be annoying. So this introduced a bit of stress and tension in to the workplace, but I don't remember things being as bad as the other guys do. Things became not great but certainly not unbearable.

At about the middle of the term, on an otherwise ordinary day, me and my coworkers Tan, Ryan, Louis (that's 4 out of the six of us Waterloo kids) were abruptly called out of the office for lunch with the consultant who was now leading our project. We all walked to the restaurant at the corner of 8th and Folsom where we were told that the two coworkers not present were being fired as we spoke.

Suddenly it all just didn't seem real. This was the kind of random thing I'm talking about. Those two guys were just like me. They hadn't been doing a better or worse job. They hadn't stirred up any more trouble with the pointy haired boss than I had. I had been reprimanded a bunch of times for miscellaneous things like coming in late the same as everybody else. But they were the ones who were being escorted out of the building back at the office while we were out there eating lunch. And they kept telling me and Tan over and over after this happened was that everyone is happy with our work, and we're doing a good job, and don't worry about getting fired because you won’t. As if we deserved our jobs and the other guys didn't. In fact, we were all the same in my mind and it was just the whim of the boss, or the direction of the wind that day, or the way that our desks were arranged that caused two of us to be sent home while two of us went to work the next day as usual.

So to wrap things up, here's my version of the "Jerry Springer Final Thought" It seems like many events in life are very delicately balanced. We can't always see it at the time, but things could easily go either way. Moreover, the cause of going one way or the other are disproportionately small compared to the sometimes enormous effects. People say things like "things happen for a reason" and that "you're in control of our own destiny" but I don't think that's true. If you blow an interview, or lose your job, I don't think anyone should be quick to say "You got what you deserve." And, on the flip side, we shouldn't take too much credit for our successes. You don't necessarily earn or deserve the good things that happen to you. Now, take care of yourselves - and each other. :)

P.S. The funniest part of the book so far is where the author complains that University of Waterloo students have an unfair advantage in Microsoft interviews because of their experience with job interviews through the co-op program. Boo hoo! Can you hear me crying for those poor deprived Ivy League CS graduates?

P.P.S. When I returned to Mobile Airwaves for a second term the next winter, things had really improved a lot. I was working under a totally different group of people and it was a much more positive experience.
8:46:22 AM     comment []

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