Thursday, May 03, 2007

A (Job Interview) Date With an Online Dating Service

I've been sitting by the fireside
Wondering where my strength is going
Looking through the mirror of life
Trying to find out which way the wind is blowing

But my heart keeps pushing me backwards
As I jump aboard that 747
Ridin' high I got a tear in my eye
You got to go through hell
Before you get to heaven

-- Paul Pena, "Jet Airliner", New Train[1]

The song above, with its references to air travel, midlife blues, and the coasts served as a self-soothing mental track as I made a trip out to an East Coast-based Online Dating Service on Tuesday. As my outbound flight neared its destination, it hit me that I had been to two bays on two coasts in a little over two weeks, and both areas are alluded to in the song.

Like most of the job leads that have gone far for me, I didn't come looking for this one. A recruiter called me up a couple months ago pitching the position. The perks sounded attractive... high end hardware, Linux, nice salary.

I did the first phone interview soon thereafter. The guy's phone presence was cartoon character nerdy. I remember thinking, after I finished with the phone call, that I would loathe working under someone with that kind of personality if it was as bad in real life.

Soon thereafter, the recruiter called me back, and he said they were impressed and wanted a code sample. I didn't have anything to offer that wasn't covered by some intellectual property restriction, so I asked if they could give me a some time to come up with an original work. They agreed.

I spent a couple weeks in late March using spare moments to put something together, using some input that I had solicited from them via the recruiter (how's that for a spec?). At the time I really wasn't interested in delivering a something specifically for this employer. Rather, it was to have something that I could show to other prospective employers as well.

By the end of March, they started to get antsy, wanting to see the code. I sent them what I had done (about 5/6 of the way to completion). I also provided an explanatory e-mail describing the design of the code and where there could be room for future enhancement.

Surprisingly enough, they came back a week or so later and said that they wanted me to do another phone interview. This interview took place a couple weeks ago, and it was much more laid back. I got a veiled description of the project, and it sounded intriguing because it would require some non trivial-engineering work.

A few days later, they notified the recruiter that they wanted me to come in to town for an in person interview. Flight arrangements were made last week, and so there I was.

The day started really early. I had to get up at 4 a.m. to catch a 6 a.m. nonstop flight. I was at their offices just before 9 a.m. The first part of the interview was with the two guys with whom I had phone interviewed. To my relief, they guy with the nerdy phone presence wasn't nearly as bad in person, although he was wearing a T-shirt that suggested a penchant for role playing games. The other interviewer was stuck in traffic, so I had to wait for about 15 - 20 minutes.

Once the second guy got in, they took me into an unused office and described a network software problem and asked me how I would go about designing the solution. We spent over two hours in discussion, as I brought up questions to narrow down specifics and constraints.

As I got more information, I talked about some of the things that one could do to create a solution. Near the end, they acknowledged that the problem was actually a disguised version of the project they had in mind for me. It was something that had the potential to bring in lots of revenue for them, and I would be at the ground floor.

We broke for lunch, and they corralled some of the other developers to head out to a nearby restaurant. This is the point where I began to see some cause for concern.

I was riding with three other employees, and en route, we passed a Catholic church, which apparently had a grade school as well. A procession was taking place, with some students, a few of whom were carrying a statue of the Virgin Mary. They started to make crude remarks about the scene, and as we idled in traffic, one of them says to another, "I'll give you a $100 if you run out there, grab the statue, and bring it back." Uproarious laughter ensued.

The exchange left me with a bad impression. I'm all for tolerance of different viewpoints. They have a right to harbor disdain for a particular religious belief system.

What bothered me is that they would choose to express that disdain in such a juvenile manner in the presence of a guest who may or may not be of that faith. It smacked of bad discretion, the kind that puts a company under the scrutiny of the EEOC.

There were some other conversational topics here and there during the lunch hour that reinforced the notion that some of these guys haven't progressed emotionally beyond the level of high school sophomore at best. If I had to guess, some of these guys look to Johnny Knoxville as a role model or cultural icon.

After lunch, there was a big group interview with the other developers who quizzed me on my skills and work experiences. Nothing too difficult, although I started to feel a little anxiety over not having had experience with developing software designed to work under very heavy traffic loads.

That worry would carry over into the next portion of the interview, which was with the founder and CEO of the company. He talked about his vision for the company, which was to grow well beyond the bounds of their current focus.

He also talked about wanting the best people for the job. He said his experiences in building a technology based business taught him that it was very important to have people he could trust. It was also important for him to have people who could do things, not just think about them.

He also talked about his philosophy of the workplace. He believed in giving his developers The Best items to get their work done. And he wanted to have the infrastructure in place to allow his employees to do their work regardless of geographic location. To that end, he said he had an agreement with big office rental company so that he could get office space wherever his talent wanted to work.

He asked me how I felt about the project that they were pitching. I expressed interest but was concerned about the lack of experience with high volume traffic. I told him that I would not try to oversell my skill set. On the other hand, I brought to the table a track record of learning new things well beyond my formal education, and I found the prospect of learning new things to be very enjoyable.

I wrapped up my interview right around 5 p.m. It had been a long day.

The takeaways from the experience... The company has interesting work to do, and I saw first hand that they guys get very nice stuff to do it with. The office arrangement would allow me to work without relocating. I would just need to travel out East every once in a while. Moreover, their infrastructure for collaborating will be quite impressive, including huge LCD TVs for use as electronic whiteboards.

The downside is that some of the people I would be working with can be annoyingly immature. With the exception of another developer who is consulting for them remotely, I would be a domesticated old codger among a pack of hyenas.

[1] -- If they lyrics look somewhat familiar, you're not mistaken. This song was recorded using a different musical arrangement and some different lyrics by the Steve Miller Band. Pena wrote the song and recorded the original back in 1973. His version is a bold bluesy groove that makes Miller's rendition scrawny by comparison.
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