Four dumb-cringe tech interview stories
In my previous write-up about NodeTiles, I said that I had dumb interview stories to share. They are also cringe. Here they are.
“Oh yeah, me too.”
I failed my very first professional job interview.
I was 21 and it was 2004. It was my last year at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I was graduating early, in three years, with a BS in Math Sciences, with Honors, and I was looking at Summer internships as something to do because the last credit course I needed was only offered at the tail-end of Summer quarter, right before my AmeriCorps*VISTA service began in Boston. I had never done a college internship before, mainly out of ignorance of their importance; this would be my first (and only) attempt at landing one.
UCSB is gorgeous, it’s on the beach; it is a bare-shouldered, sunny, surfy beach town. I was boring. Yes, I surfed and swam and sailed and hiked and ballroom danced and tended a community garden and worked on my 1973 Porsche 914 through Santa Barbara High School’s vocational auto-shop. But I wore a lot of cargo shorts, I didn’t drink or party, and I mainly loaded up on math and writing courses and worked in the campus library’s Map and Imagery Lab pulling and shelving topos and ortho photos. Santa Barbara!
My internship interview was with a local military contractor that was creating sensor fusion software. I thought it was pretty cool because it was maps and spatial and lined up with my honors research project, using statistical sensing methods to probe physical topologies, albeit of knotted proteins, not the Middle East. Also, I had not yet untangled for myself the distinctions between patriotic service and imperial militarism. I was 21 and it was 2004.
I don’t remember a lot of the details of the interview. There was a primary interviewer who was maybe a year or two graduated from UCSB himself. He walked me around between cubicles I was given the chance to briefly chat with various people, including the CEO. At the end, we sat down for more formal chatting, and he said something like:
“You know, we don’t like to work very hard around here. Do you?”
And me, just trying to fit in, was like “Oh yeah, me too. I try to take it easy.”
Ded. I was declined. I’ll never know if that was a trick question, or like they knew I was not actually a good fit. But it was fine. I took another writing class.
“Code is our craft”
It was 2012, and my Code for America Fellowship was coming to an end. Having moved the previous year from Boston to the Bay Area for the fellowship, I now retooled my resume to downplay my decade-ish career of “community media and technology leadership” and instead highlight my “web applications and freelance software development” experience. I was trying to land my first official Software Engineering job.
There were a number of companies in Code for America’s orbit, so multiple fellows were interviewing at the same place. Us fellows were more collegial than competitive, so there was lots of helpful backchanneling and suggestions and level-setting that some of the jobs were faintly ridiculous, but sure, why not. It was the Bay Area in 2012.
- I was introduced to the lead engineer and we chatted for a minute. I asked them something like “How do you see the business growing? I mean, where do you think the value lies in the product?” This was the wrong question for them. The lead engineer explained that “Code is our craft” and that well, who knows what the future will bring, but they want people who really are interested in the software.
- One portion of the interview was reviewing my tech screener project. There was one part of the screener where I was unsure of the situationally best way to accomplish it, so I did the most direct unoptimized way and left some comments about different optimizations and their pros/cons. I was asked about why I hadn’t just picked one, and I explained that I wanted to treat this like real life and talk through it with a more experienced colleague who could represent the actual business needs and not prematurely optimize at the expense of readability and openness to change. That was the wrong answer for them. They explained that “Code is our craft” and they’d expect me to make the best call on my own.
Sidenote: Huge props and respect that the company successfully socialized and operationalized a core company value. Even if I think it’s dumb.
“Focused on the code”
This was 2016, my professional circumstances were different, and I want to assert that I had become a real catch of an engineer. I was leading a fullstack web UI and CLI team at a B2B platform-infrastructure startup, and also moonlight solopreneuring a successful consumer web and cross-platform mobile native app too. Professionally, maybe, kind of, a big deal 💅
I was courted. I was reached out to over LinkedIn by someone I had only known of to that point. We got coffee and walked around San Francisco and they shared their vision. They invited me, and several other engineers, some of who I also knew of to a fancy private dinner. It was nice.
And then there was a question, like “Ben, I know that you’ve been a manager in the past, and you’re currently leading a team. Is that something you really want to do in your next job?”
I replied saying something like “I’m happy being an IC. And I think a strength is my flexibility to help where it’s needed. If that’s what you and the business and the team eventually need, I’d feel confident and comfortable stepping into that role again.”
That was the wrong answer for them. I was declined. I received a reply later saying they wanted someone “focused on the code.” This is one time when I do wonder if I should have like, followed up and clarified my message, but interviewing is like bizarro-world dating so who knows.
Sidenote: If you’re reading this as flat advice, you should follow-up, because the worst that will happen is they’ll say “still a no”.
“Should we go back in there?”
In this story I was one of two technical interviewers, along with a hiring manager and the director of engineering.
We were debriefing after a week of interviewing candidates. There were two finalists. None of this may have actually mattered, or everything mattered, but I want to paint the picture. Both engineering candidates were women; we were all men along with the entire engineering team of 15 or so; not great!
- Candidate 1 was very outgoing, had a ton of analogous Bay Area tech experience, lots in common to talk about… and did not pass our technical interviews.
- Candidate 2 was a kinda awkward, their experience was weakly adjacent sorta kinda… and they totally aced the technical interviews, like finished in half the time then schooled us. Which made it even more awkward because we’re all awkward engineers truly and now we had like 30 minutes of dead time to fill trying to chitchat. I heard something similar happened in the manager interviews: the candidate answered too succinctly.
Ok, so the debrief. We went around the table, shared our experiences. And Management wanted to hire Candidate 1, the candidate that didn’t pass our technical interviews. For real! But this is business, and we have to be collegial, and they’re the managers, so my other engineering colleague and I disagreed and committed and rolled our eyes but left the meeting like yep, this is business, we’re all business here.
And we were walking down the hallway back to our desks and we both said to each other at the same time “What the fuck was that?”
“Should we go back in there?”
“That wasn’t right.”
So we kind of treaded water out in the hall for a minute, and worked up the courage to… gently go back and knock on the conference room door and politely ask if we could say one more thing.
“We should hire Candidate 2.” Seriously.
To management’s credit, they listened and I think correctly read that we were distressed and this wasn’t just our standard grumpy-engineer bikeshedding bit. Management agreed to make an offer to Candidate 2. Mission accomplished.
Ok, so I want to say there are two possible futures here:
- We hire Candidate 2, and they are a solid if unremarkable engineer. They do good work, meet and occassionally exceed expectations, and are an incremental contributor like everyone else in pushing out our startup’s runway toward some brighter future and shared equity event.
- We hire Candidate 2, and they are an absolute-based 100x engineer. They frankly save the company in my mind, bulldozing through any problem you throw their way with a nonchalant “alrighty then”. They exhaust the backlog leading them to entirely rewrite the product twice over better/faster/more-maintainably as a distraction while the backlog is rebuilt then they plow through it again.
It does not matter which future actually happened (though one of them definitely did!), because they were qualified, capable, and if we removed the fucking bias of our otherwise reasonably designed interview loop, the best candidate in our pool.
In the previous story when I played the role as befuddled candidate I was like “I dunno, bizarro dating”; but if you are ever in the position as an interviewer and there are some bogus soft-no’s or bogus soft-yes’s, speak the fuck up and use your power to the extent you safely can. Seriously, you can do this, even in business.