The Most Peculiar Interview

Recently I had the oddest experience, although on the surface of it you wouldn’t expect to be so: it was simply an interview at a company. What was disturbing was the company and their interview process, the likes of which I’ve heard about, the faintest whisper of a rumor, but like Big Foot or Atlantis, there’s only sketchy, unsubstantiated evidence of existence. Yet I’m here to tell you I was there.

The whole thing started off as something of a long shot: the work is in a domain in which I have no experience (medical devices); the job is one I did only briefly and long ago (technical writing); and a lot of the daily work is in a language that I was never really very good in, and at best am very rusty (German). Yet somehow, after the company reviewed my resume (or cv over here), then looked through my limited portfolio of engineering writing, and after I made it past a few Skype interviews, they then invited me to come visit their corporate headquarters for more meetings. 

All this weirdness started back in late June and early July: as noted, after the Skype interviews and the company invitations, I told them that, unfortunately, I was going to southeast Asia for six weeks, and get this – they didn’t mind a bit. They said just to call them when we were back in France, and we’d schedule a visit then. They also wished us a good time on vacation. Clearly something’s suspect about this place. I wondered if the company’s human resources department had made a clerical error, and had me confused with another, more qualified candidate.

After our return to France in late August, I contacted the company to make arrangements for a visit. I had to ask the very nice HR lady to repeat twice their offer to pay for travel and lodging, not only for me, but also Annie, and they would have paid for the kids to come, too (they all stayed behind in Montpellier). Just to be clear: this company was paying the bill not for some C-level, executive suite gaseous MBA type, but rather a staff grunt position in what’s usually an obscure department. 

On a recent Sunday Annie and I left Montpellier, arrived at our destination, and over the course of the next two days I went through a series of meetings that from the outside look like any other interview, but in fact are a far cry from what I’ve experienced in Silicon Valley. 

When I arrived at the company headquarters for my first meeting, I was not asked to sign an NDA. In fact, the entire time, even though I met engineers and product managers, and sat in on two technology demonstrations, the matter was never brought up.
For those blissfully ignorant, a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) is a one-sided agreement such that you will never, ever, ever disclose anything, at all about the company in question. Just to prove my point: what kind of toilet paper does Google use? What oh what will Apple name its next phone? How many sexists does Uber employ? None of this can be revealed because of NDAs. That’s how important all that shit is. For some of the super duper new companies you cannot even learn their name until you sign an NDA – yes, really. Worse , I’ve been to places where if you go into the lobby of a company, because you’re meeting your friend for lunch, you have to sign an NDA; in these cases I just meet said friends at an agreed upon restaurant.

Truly, I was already traveling to another dimension. In my mind I heard the voice over of Rod Serling. “Witness Blake Elder. His high school summer job was a raft guide, and in college he majored in medieval history, yet somehow he managed to get work in software engineer departments. Imposter? Fraud? Who can say? Part of the flotsam and jetsam of Silicon Valley, now he finds himself in a place he’s only heard about, and believed had disappeared long ago.” Queue the organ chord music. “The sign post up ahead. Enter, Blake Elder, into the dimension of Time. You are in the Twilight Zone.”

No NDA. They must have somehow assumed that if by chance I did learn of some genuinely confidential or proprietary information, that I would conduct myself in a reasonable and ethical fashion, and I would keep it to myself. And I do to keep it to myself. I always have. Always will. 

Another oddity was the nature of their questions. In particular, I did not have to answer or solve any of the following questions during my interview: 

How many manhole covers are there in the United States?1This question is usually ‘Why is ...continue

You’re the captain of a pirate ship, and your crew gets to vote on how the gold is divided up. If fewer than half of the pirates agree with you, you die. How do you recommend apportioning the gold in such a way that you get a good share of the booty, but still survive?

One train leaves Los Angeles at 15mph heading for New York. Another train leaves from New York at 20mph heading for Los Angeles on the same track. If a bird, flying at 25mph, leaves from Los Angeles at the same time as the train and flies back and forth between the two trains until they collide, how far will the bird have traveled?

I have been asked the first two of these questions in interviews. The third I found and chose because it reminded me of a question from particular Monty Python movie.2Maria Konnikova writes well about the ...continue

Rather, the company had a peculiar interest in my ability to do the actual work. Instead of being asked to write pseudo code to solve for the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin, I was a given a sort of test, a task that took several hours, relevant to the job at hand.3What I went through was what DeMarco ...continue This was similar to asking a developer to come up with a solution to a real world programming problem. Overall the process was challenging, but it was of limited duration, and a far better gauge of my ability, than any sort of pathetic nerd macho questionnaire. As it happened, the test was useful to me in that it gave me a better sense of the work and the position. The company seemed to know what it was doing.

No one asked what work related things I did outside of work. In case that’s not clear, here’s one example: in interview in San Francisco’s Digital Gulch area, I was once asked by a really nice, really bright one dimensional type what selenium projects (selenium is a website testing and scripting tool) I worked on in my spare time – as in after work when I was at home. I didn’t. In Silicon Valley the office hours are long enough to do enough work at work, no need to continue that at home. 

I was not asked to play ping pong.

Of course there was the obligatory meeting with the very nice, not uptight HR lady. In the course of our conversation, none of the following were offered as a benefit:

beer bash
foosball table
indoor slide
candy wall
unlimited vacation
play room/nap room
video games

I was tempted to ask if they had a “no jerks” policy (all the rage at some companies), but I forgot the German word for jerk.

I might be wrong, but I think they valued experience. I say this because at the company I noticed a range of ages: late teens to mid- 60’s. Leadership positions were generally staffed by those who looked to be over thirty.

I never heard any of the following words: amazing, unique, insane, unreal, extraordinary, revolutionary, disruptive, ninja, guru, rock star, all star, super star, stealth, empower, enable, thrive, hottest, top 1%, mindfulness, happiness, humanity, transparency, love, best of the best of the best (okay, I couldn’t resist. This last is a favorite line from Men in Black). 

There was no mission statement about changing the world.

I didn’t see anyone wearing clothing with the company name on it.

There were no bean bag chairs to be seen.

The second day ended in the late afternoon. As I left the building to catch the train back to the hotel, wondering if Annie was okay (she had gone mountain boarding or something like that), I didn’t have that feeling of having been dragged through the dirt as often happens after interviews. Of course I was tired, but not fatigued. This company is different, at least in my recent experience: it’s privately held and has no intention of ever going public, it’s very profitable, it makes something very useful, and reportedly has a low turn over rate. I’m also sure it’s not perfect and has its share of problems.

I’d like to get the job, but as mentioned it’s always been a bit of a stretch. Still, I’m glad a threw my hat in the ring – just to have gone through this experience is enough to give me hope, knowing that there are places like that out there.

References   [ + ]

1. This question is usually ‘Why is a manhole cover round?’, but I like my absurb variation.
2. Maria Konnikova writes well about the futility of brain teasers as an interview tool. See
3. What I went through was what DeMarco and Lister call an audition, which they describe in their chapter on hiring, chapter 16 of Peopleware. I highly recommend this book – it’s not just about software teams.

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