Sunday, September 09, 2007

Reviewing the Interviews

I've made some passing comments on job search progress in some of the more recent posts, but it's been a long time since I did a comprehensive run through the complete field.

The job search lead count spreadsheet has accumulated 129 entries since 7/15/2007. New recruiter contacts have slowed substantially, as anticipated and desired, since I took my resume down from the big four boards three weeks ago.

Hedge Funds and Investment Banks: Last week, I finally told the recruiter who had been setting me up with hedge fund and investment bank interviews that I didn't want to do any more interviews. He had set me up with three hedge funds and two investment banks, and he was wanting me to talk to one more hedge fund and one finance software vendor. For all the time I put into it -- four hours of online programming tests and maybe six hours of phone interviews -- I hadn't gotten much from it other than a sense that I didn't quite measure up to their standards. He said that the feedback he had gotten from his clients seemed to suggest that, and he said he understood why I was ceasing my search in this direction.

Letdowns I Sorta Foresaw: Over the past two weeks, I learned that two of my leads had gone dead. They weren't exactly jobs I had my heart set on, but it was a bruise on the ol' ego nonetheless.

On Aug. 27, six days after the interview with Steel City Trading Software Company, I got a voice mail from the Obsessive Girlfriend Recruiter, who was representing them. In the message, she asked me how I felt the interview went. She said she had been out of town and that neither she nor her manager had received any word from me.

I returned her message, leaving a voice mail of my own. I said that I thought the in-person discussions went well, but the phone conversation I had with the guy in NYC was awkward. She sent me an e-mail the next morning, once again asking me how the interview went. I responded to the e-mail asking her whether she had checked her voice mail from the night before. She then responded with another e-mail saying that she hadn't checked it yet, ostensibly because the e-mail notification for voice mail on her system wasn't working.

She verified my suspicion, that there were doubts about my skills. However, they were still interviewing others and I wasn't eliminated from consideration yet. I wrote back a lengthier explanation of the basis for my impression.
I suspect that (interviewer in NYC) has some strong reservations, based on his comments during my phone discussion with him while in (a north suburb of the Steel City).

First of all, our conversation got off to an incoherent start because he wanted to jump right into discussing the logic problem that I submitted back on July 17. I had not looked at that problem since then, and I didn't have any hard copy of either the problem statement or my solution to it, so I was at a distinct disadvantage in terms of mental preparation. To give you an analogy, suppose you got a phone call sometime around 4 p.m. after a long day at work, being told it was someone who wanted to talk to you about something, and it turns out that it's someone from the IRS wanting to have an audit of your tax return you filed maybe a month ago, and you're expected to discuss the items on that return without access to a copy of your return or any of your receipts. That's sort of how I felt.

Second, because I am self taught within the area of software development (my original background is in Chemical Engineering and Applied Mathematics), there are some aspects of computer science where my knowledge is incomplete. I have written parsers, and usually that involves using some form of finite state machine because the grammars are usually pretty complicated. Given a parsing problem with a one-hour time constraint, I'm probably going to approach the problem using the tools I know to work rather than coming up with more clever optimized solution. Even with compiler software, there is a time penalty to be paid when a high degree of optimization is desired.

All other things being equal, a time constrained problem with high optimization being the criterion of success can serve to identify two classes of candidates: those with a very high level of natural intelligence and those who have seen that kind of problem so many times, they already know what the solution looks like before the question is posed. I've been around enough really bright people in my life to know that while I can analyze and solve difficult problems, I don't quite fit in that "very high level" range. I suspect that (guy in NYC) is looking for someone of this caliber, and he has some reservations that I don't quite make that cut. I understand and respect that. Trading software is a pretty demanding area, and they need to deliver a reliable product on a tight schedule.

Later that day, I got an e-mail from the recruiter informing that they were going to pass on me.

The other let-down was So You Think You Can Search. I tried in vain to reach the recruiter representing them just before Labor Day weekend. It has almost two weeks since the second in-person interview, and I had heard nothing from them. On Sep. 5, I tried reaching the recruiter again, getting his voice mail. He responded with a terse rejection.
I spoke to the hiring manager and although your experience was relevant, you are not exactly what they were looking for. Thank you for all your for all of your efforts and I will keep your resume on file for future job openings.

I kind of gathered that when I was brought in for a C++ follow up interview that turned out to be mostly a Java coding test. In essence, I lost the job because I had not memorized enough of the Java class library to the satisfaction of their new director of systems engineering.

Missing, Presumed Dead: Some of my leads have disappeared into the job search Bermuda triangle.

Contrary to information supplied by the recruiter and the interviewer, I never received a follow up from Do-No-Evil. After a week, I sent an e-mail to the recruiter. Since then I've left three friendly voice mails with the recruiter just checking on whether she had received feedback from the interviewer. If I don't hear anything back by Wednesday, which will be the four-week mark, I'll write this one off as dead.

This coming Wednesday will also mark the three-week mark since my two phone interviews with PrizonFone. They said that they were in the process of interviewing several candidates and would proceed to the next round when they had finished the phone interviews and created a short list. They didn't give me a time frame, but I suspect that after three weeks, it wouldn't be too much of a leap to write this one off, too. I might give the recruiter a buzz just to see if he's heard anything.

This Tuesday marks two weeks since my phone interview with Everybody Wants You. I called the recruiter last week to see if he'd heard anything, and he didn't return my call. The position is still being pimped by several headhunters both on and Monster. Methinks they're looking for someone who's as desperate as they are.

I also haven't heard anything back from the HR contact at Large Indigo software, so I suspect that local lead might be dead and gone.

Last Minute Bookings: I have two leads that popped up over the past two weeks. One is local, and the other is down in the Sunshine State.

The local lead was the result of meeting with a recruiter one early morning about a week and a half ago. It was a guy I had talked to during the January round of job searches, but he had not really followed up on initial contacts.

The meeting was a get-to-know-you-better/what-are-you-looking-for thing. He said he had some ideas where I might fit in. Unfortunately, two of the leads were for companies with whom I had already interviewed. The third one was one I hadn't heard of. He vetted me with their hiring manager, and I was notified that they wanted to interview me. I agreed to interview on the day before I left for the Pack-the-Pipe interview.

The local lead, which will be known as The Cable Guys, make diagnostic equipment used by cable television providers to ensure that their infrastructure is compliant with government regulations.

The software development deals largely with instrument administration, data acquisition, and reporting. The code base is Win32, with an effort to migrate to Microsoft's NET framework.

One of the bright sides is that it is located on the east side of town, which means much less congestion than someplace like up on the far north side. Another bright side was that one of the technical interviewers was someone I knew from my days back at my undergraduate school. I recognized him first, asking him if he went to my school.

The technical interview involved two problem sets. The first asked me to look at a the hardcopy of piece of C# code and comment on efficiency issues. The second part was an exercise where I discussed how I would design the object model and implement some of the methods for a hierarchical file system.

I'm supposed to know their decision by the end of the coming week.

The other position, which is located in a major Spring Break destination, and is known primarily for their remote access computing products. We'll call them GoTo Software for this reason.

I was contacted by a recruiter about two weeks ago, and he was really laying it on thick about the pay and benefits. He also said that they were on an aggressive hiring schedule, which would be tough for me to pull off because I had basically filled up the next week with interviews. What's worse, their initial screen interviews required 90 minutes of time and an internet connection, meaning I'd have to do the interview from home during business hours.

I wound up talking them into letting me do the interview on the Wednesday after Labor Day, meaning that every business day of the first full week of September would have an interview of some sort. The interview actually had two 45-minute segments, phone interviews with different people. The first quizzed me on my C++ and Windows system programming. The second part had me implement some methods for deleting elements from a linked list based on some criterion.

I did well enough on the interview for them to ask me for an on-site interview. I stonewalled on this one, telling them that I was out of the office all week this week, and I couldn't commit to anything until I actually had a chance to feel out my bosses for another day off. I agreed with the recruiter to touch base with him on Monday afternoon. I'm probably going to tell him that I'm no longer interested in this lead.

The West Coast Interviews: I did two interviews with companies on the West Coast.

I was at Broadshoulder Broadsides up in the Pacific Northwest on Tuesday, flying out on Labor Day evening. The flight plan put me through O'Hell, resulting in lost time. I was flying the friendly skies, which provides some XM channels to listen to, so I drifted off into a musical cocoon on Audio Visions (XM-77). I really needed that, too.

I arrived in the Emerald City about half an hour behind schedule. It also took a while for my shuttle van to become available, so I didn't get into bed until around 1 a.m. Pacific Time. My interview was at 8:30 a.m. that morning.

The interview had four stages. The first was a half hour backgrounder with the hiring manager, with whom I also had interviewed over the phone back in July.

Then I was placed on a pair programming exercise, to see how I functioned with programming in pairs and test driven development. They said they were okay with people who hadn't done this kind of thing, as long as they were willing to adapt. The task was to develop a class for scoring bowling games.

It took me a bit to get an idea for how the process worked, but I think it could be a fun thing to do, provided that you're pair programming with a person who has good people skills.

The third stage was a modeling exercise where we discussed the design of an elevator control system. Once again, the model was to be developed using a more agile mindset, where you don't worry about everything upfront. As someone who can overanalyze things, I had to throttle back at times.

The fourth stage was a lunch interview with two staff developers, asking me questions about how I function in the workplace.

By the time all of these interviews were done, it was nearing 1:30 p.m., a little under two hours before my flight left, so they headed me downstairs to take the shuttle van to the airport. Later on, I would find out that they were supposed to take me by the recruiter so that she could talk about benefits and relocation policies, but there was some miscommunication on their end.

On Wednesday evening, I got a call from the recruiter to go over the wrap up stuff. She said that they found me to be very good at adapting to their development style, but they noted that I was still very much a "waterfall" style thinker when it came to software development. I was then told that they were going to extend me an offer, not quite as much as I would have imagined, but still a good amount, and the benefits package was quite nice.

I told the recruiter I would need the information in writing. She said she would get that out to me the next day. I then gave her a heads-up that I was going to be flying out to the West Coast again on Thursday afternoon (the next morning by their clock) to do another interview. She agreed to extend the usual and customary 48-hour decision deadline to 5 p.m. Pacific Time on Monday.

I had an interview with Pack-the-Pipe on Friday, flying out early Thursday afternoon. Given that I had a 10 a.m. interview on the east side of town, I was cutting things close. I managed to get home shortly before noon, just enough time to scarf down a sandwich and some chips for lunch before barrelling out to the airport on the southwest side.

My flight to O'Hell was running really late. Indeed, the plane wasn't even at the gate by the time boarding should have started. I barely made my connection, which was in a different concourse and was in the final stages of boarding.

I spent the night before the interview at the Drunken-Sober residence, which was a really nice stress reliever. I've chronicled that on a guest post.

The interview at Pack-the-Pipe started at 10 a.m. Pacific Time and ran all the way to 5 p.m., with about an hour break for lunch. They treated me right, though. We picked up some gourmet sandwiches at a local deli and then headed town to the Embarcadero, eating lunch in the view of the Bay Bridge. Temps were in the 70s, and the weather was beautiful.

The interview questions were a mixture of coding and design. I liked most of the guys I talked with, and the confirmed something that both Drunken Housewife and Sober Husband have been telling me for some time now. All of the guys wound up there because they had been clued in by a friend with whom they worked at a prior job. The networking is extremely rich out there.

Their development style isn't quite as progressive as the folks at Broadshoulder, but then again, the Broadshoulder folks by far have been the deepest devotees to agile software development methodologies that I've dealt with.

The product that I would probably be working on is so secret that they couldn't tell me anything about it, which adds to the sexiness of the job. They are growing like crazy, and they've been doing well on sales. It's also in one of the most beautiful places in the world, so what's not to love?

I'm not sure whether I'll get the offer from them, but given that the interview lasted so long, I'm hoping that's a good sign. According to the team lead, they were supposed to meet on Monday for a debriefing on the interview and come to some decision.

Stay tuned to see how all of this unfolds...
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