The Laboratorium
November 1998

Notes on an Interview


Thursday: Confirm time and place for interview. Still haven't been able to pin down exactly what it is they -- and by extension, their employees -- do. It has something to do with "data warehousing," which summons up strange mental images of burly laborers hauling around gigantic crates of magnetic tapes and of bored night watchmen staring intently at the lights on disk arrays. They're also very proud of their "Relational OLAP (ROLAP) for enterprise DSS." I have no clue what this means, even after fifteen minutes poking around their web site. The "Data Warehousing Glossary" promises to explain all, but the best I can do for DSS is "Software that supports exception reporting, stop light reporting, standard repository, data analysis and rule-based analysis. A database created for end-user ad-hoc query processing." This continues to mean nothing to me. I am led to the suspicion that their business plan has been cribbed from that of the tailor in "The Emperor's New Clothes."

Friday, 3:00 PM: Left brain says, "Time to go to your interivew." Right brain says, "Time for ice cream."

3:15 PM: Finish eating ice cream.

3:30 PM: Downtown Crossing is a very confusing T stop. One would think that a big sign over a portal saying "Orange Line, all stations" would be an indication that this is the way to the Orange Line. And in this, one would be wrong. That arrow pointing to the side is just not big enough compared to the rest of the sign, says I.

3:35 PM: Downtown Crossing is also a very crowded T stop. This has to be the largest crowd of people I've ever seen waiting for a train. Also the largest number of drunks -- it would appear that people have been getting a jump start on the weekend. This guy near me in a blue coat isn't looking very good. He keeps on dabbing at his eyes and nose with a Dunkin Donuts napkin. He keeps on missing. I keep a safe distance between the two of us even after we board the train -- I don't particularly want to arrive for my interview smelling of swag, even if it's secondhand swag.

3:40 PM: Note to self: do not take Orange Line for return trip. State Street is like ten seconds of actual train ride from Downtown Crossing, but that's ten seconds that would make a sardine count itself a king of infinite space.

3:45: Receptionist invites me to take a seat until my interview. Hmmm. Fifteen minutes to kill. I pull out some reading for a class and settle in.

4:00: No interview yet. The book is getting boring, so I switch to a problem set. The receptionist appears to be working for about a dozen different companies -- every time she answers the phone, it's with a different corporate name. Either I'm dealing with some sort of crime syndicate operating a variety of front companies, or this is some sort of low-rent branch-office deal, in which a bunch of different outfits collaborate to maintain the illusion that they maintain real offices in Boston.

4:05 Another candidate shows up. He is wearing a suit. I wonder how this idea came to him. Nothing I can recall from any stage of the email exchanges leading up to my being here ever used the word "suit." I'm not exactly looking like a slob, but I definitely stopped well short of a tie.

4:10 E., a senior I know from school, emerges from the interior corridor. He is wearing a suit. He comes over to greet me, and asks if I don't feel underdressed. Nobody told me anything about dressing up, I say. E. shifts into delivering-the-wisdom-of-the-ages posture. A lot of tech companies are like that, he says: they pretend like they're not suit places, but they really are. The unsaid implication being, it would appear, that I, not having grasped this secret, am already a leg down on finding myself gainful employment.

Well, actually, I reply, that's okay. You're willing to dress up in a suit for a job, and I'm not. So I figure that if I show up looking like this for my interviews, places that want their employees to wear suits won't hire me, which is kind of the point, from my perspective. So if I show up looking like this, then, well, then, the system is going to wind up sorting us into the jobs where we'll each feel comfortable.

Note to self: this probably means E. and I won't be working for the same company. As my grandfather would say, "See? The system works."

4:15: Interviewer emerges from within and greets the other candidate, leaving me still sitting in the lobby. I can think of two plausible explanations. One: there are two interviewers, and mine is running more behind schedule than the other one. Two: they're waiting for Security to arrive to escort me from the building. I'm not entirely sure which explanation I would prefer to be true.

4:25: Another candidate arrives for a 4:30 interview. He is wearing a suit. I briefly consider the best course of action if they attempt to interview him before me. I am becoming reconciled to the fact that, yet again, I will be indoors, in a windowless room, when it shifts from being day to being night. The end of Daylight Savings this year has really thrown me: I'm finding that I really need to be able to see the sun go down and watch the sky change color, or otherwise I get kind of down and mopey at the discovery that it has suddenly become dark.

4:30: Candidate emerges from interior hallway. He is wearing a suit. He takes a heaping handful of candy from the bowl on the table, does a little pantomime of relief and relaxation at the end of an ordeal (for the benefit of the other fellow waiting, apparently his buddy), and departs. Lucky bastard. First he consumes my entire alloted interview timeslice, and now he gets actual sunset. My momentary resentment of him is cut short by the arrival of my interviewer in the lobby. IT has begun.

4:35: My interviewer does not have my resume, so he apologizes if the part of the interview where he asks me about things on my resume requires a bit more time and questioning than usual. He asks for the correct spelling of my last name, my concentration, my GPA, and my SAT scores, followed by one question about my coursework. Suddenly, I feel cheap.

4:40: The fun-and-games portion of the interview begins. First, I am to estimate the number of barbers in the United States. I find it strange that consulting companies -- and those that like to dress up in old grown-up clothes from the attic and pretend to be consulting companies -- consider the ability to answer these questions based upon guestimates to be a key characteristic of their prospective employees. Perhaps they are afraid that the entire United States will be afflicted with massive amnesia, and that they will be called upon to reestablish its economy by assigning the correct number of people to each profession. In any event, Fermi problems are always more fun if you keep the units explicit, which leads me to such interesting dimensions as haircuts per barber-year. My answer of 300,000 is a factor of three too large, but apparently any answer within a factor of 10 counts as success. I feel sorry for the 200,000 people with no interest in hair who will be forced to work as barbers in the post-Forgetting world order.

Next, I am to slice into two pieces of identical area -- using a single, straight-line cut -- a rectangular children's birthday cake from which a rectangular slice has been removed. A quick argument using degrees of freedom and the Intermediate Value Theorem convinces me that such a cut must exist; upon further prompting from my interviewer I produce the desired cut. Geometrically valid as the reasoning may be, I fear that few six-year-olds would find the argument convincing. His explanation that an ill-behaved partygoer removed a perfectly rectangular slice from the cake's interior also strikes me as as questionable: I have yet to meet a representative of that age group capable of such precision in cake surgery.

Finally, I am to describe the division of a hundred bars of gold among five game-theoretically learned pirates. This question poses an issue of interview ethics for me, as I have heard it before. As one obsessed with puzzle books in my youth, I have an advantage in these interview situations that has very little to do with any actual qualifications and much to do with the freak-boy I was in an earlier stage of my life. However, because I cannot remember the exact solution -- only that the problem should be tackled with backwards induction and that the answer is legitimately funny -- I put on my best innocent expression, produce a fraudulent transcript of my thought procesess, and deliver over the solution.

4:50: Now, it is officially my turn to to ask him any questions I may have. So, ah, what exactly is it that you do, I ask. He launches into a rhapsodic explanation about the value of distributing information and making it available, about getting customized traffic reports every day through email, about being able to find stores nearby that sell particular items through a simple internet query. Making these things happen seems to be their purpose, but how? Something called their "core engine," apparently. He's very proud of the core engine. They have eight other applications built on top of it, eight applications designed to work together which they sell as a package. There are sixty other companies out there, he claims, which exist solely to repackage the core engine and these eight applications inside their own fancy wrappers and resell them. The core engine is what the PhDs work on, it's the closely guarded secret that built the company, that makes it all work -- if someone stole the the secret of how it works, they might as well just close up shop. I am reminded of the Process from The Spanish Prisoner. I am also finding it increasingly hard to listen to his explanations, as there is a tray of M&M brownies on a table behind him, and they are looking very tasty indeed.

5:00: Three closely-spaced revelations from my interviewer -- I have not had to speak in a long time now, just nod and grunt every now and again -- ruin any remaining interest I possess in working at this company. First, the much-hyped core engine turns out to be just something that can build database queries from some language ever-so-slightly closer to spoken English, and the outer circle of supporting applications turns out to be principally a layer of user-interface gloss.

Second, he out-and-out says that his firm is not exactly the best place for software developers. You need to care about our big mission, he says, in order to enjoy working on our software. Applying the appropriate recruiterspeak-to-reality conversion yields the conclusion that Dante probably discusses some circle in Hell where programmers who sin in their stays on Earth are forced to work at this company for all eternity.

And third, he proceeds to explicitly compare his firm with Trilogy, maintaining that they are actually very similar companies with very similar corporate cultures, just with different client bases. About Trilogy, the less said the better, except that among my friends it became something of a moral imperative to attend as many Trilogy recruiting events as possible and to participate as fully as possible without ever agreeing to anything they asked of us, the idea being that every dollar we forced them to spend on us was a dollar less they could spend on their other evil schemes.

5:05: The interview ends. I am not offered a brownie. Back in the lobby, I see J., another senior, waiting for his interview. He is wearing a suit. We chat briefly, and I take some candy from the dish to make up for the brownie. Under ordinary circumstances, I don't buy Gummy Savers -- as gummy candies go, they're about the most exorbitantly priced, second only to Gummi Caviar -- but I won't pass up a pack when it's waved in front of me.

Down at street level, I remember my earlier vow, and strike off in a vaugely westerly direction, looking for a Red Line stop so I don't need to put up with the Orange Line. The street I am on ends after three blocks, so I hang a right, take another 45-degree right turn as the street bends, then cut left sharply on a pure hunch. A block later I am staring at the entrance to the Downtown Crossing station -- Red and Orange Lines. Jackpot! I put my token in the turnstile, head down the stairs, and arrive on the platform not five seconds before the train pulls in. Score.

It's funny how one thing like that can make your day, can make you feel good about yourself, can return your sense of being a person rather than a trained walrus, but it can. And in this case, it did.

So if you're looking to hire someone who read puzzle books in years long ago, who likes to preserve the magic and the mystery of wearing nice clothes by not doing it all that often, who can pretend that he knows the stuff he doesn't and that he doesn't know the stuff he does, and who can be bribed with brownies and candy, well, that's what I dressed up as for Halloween. But if you're looking for someone who knows what he's looking for, who knows where he's headed in this world -- come find me on the Red Line, 'cause I can get there all by myself.