Tales from the Interview

Job interview stories.
"Chinese buffet2". Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Assembler. C. C++. C#. PHP. Javascript. Bash. Perl. Ruby. Java. These were just some of the technologies featured on the resume of a candidate Christian recently interviewed for a senior Linux sysadmin position. The impressive list of programming languages (and related data-interchange acronyms like XSLT and JSON) made the candidate, let's call him Rob, seem more qualified for a developer position, but he went on to list common web server databases like MySQL and Postgres (plus a couple flavours of NoSQL), and, finally, the qualifications Christian was actually interested in: Tomcat, JBOSS, the Hotspot JVM, and every major Linux distro. While the resume reeked of keyword-baiting, Christian didn't want to risk missing out on an excellent sysadmin who just happened to spend a lot of time hacking, and brought Rob in.
Computers do... funny things to people. With alarming frequency, capable, adult professionals of all stripes just can't seem to overcome the most basic obstacles involved in the everyday practice of computing. When your grandmother struggles to understand that sending email doesn't require postage stamps, it's kind of endearing; when it's your co-workers, who grew up with computers just like you did and use them every day to do every aspect of their jobs, it's... less so. That so many people still fail so frequently leads one to wonder: can everyone really be this feckless, or are we, the creators of the software they struggle to master, just incapable of creating something usable?
After the latest round of managerial Three Card Monte, Chris found himself reporting to Judith, on a newly formed team. That team was short-handed, which meant Judith needed to interview a lot of candidates. She sent Chris a steady stream of resumes, and he gave his feedback: “Bring this person in,” or “Don’t bother with this one.”
A large bank is one of those places where bureaucracy tends to rule supreme. While that makes it easy to goof off while waiting for other people to make decisions, it can also leave you exposed in the middle of a storm of bad decision-making. That's just what happened to Paul when his team had to hire a new Windows sysadmin. One of the recruitment firms they partnered with - Human Solutioneering - put them in touch with Bob. Bob was very strong in administration and Active Directory, and he already lived in Iowa, where the bank was headquartered.
Leighton started his career as an apprentice ICT technician for a Secondary school. The job was roughly what you would expect, but the interview went down as one of the most surreal moments of Leighton's life. With his first interview scheduled to begin at 9:15 AM, Leighton arrived forty-five minutes early in his new suit and tie. At T-minus two minutes he remained the only candidate in the reception area, and his confidence was growing. But at 9:13, in walked Dave.
A few years back, RJ was hiring developers. Besieged by pretenders, he had devised an online coding test and hired a recruitment firm to subject candidates to it in hopes of weeding out the lower-quality developers. Since RJ and a teammate had to assess each candidate by themselves, the test was an important time-saver: if the candidate's code wouldn't even compile, refused to run, or obviously didn't work, that was an easy write-off. But this story wouldn't be much of a WTF if it were merely about some feckless applicant.

Affidavit Deficit

Dave D. and his wife counted themselves lucky: they'd been in the right place at the right time more than once. When a family member's health began to fail, they were able to sell their software business and retire to help him manage. In their forties, their good fortune and low-key lifestyle meant they wouldn't have to return to work unless they wanted to.

The Seven Year Itch

Say what you will about the life of a contractor, it's full of surprises. A seasoned veteran of the work-for-hire world, Don knew every gig came with a new environment and new people. So even though Inverness is no Edinburgh or Glasgow (it's more like the Scottish equivalent of Boise, Idaho), Don put his CV in for an IT manager role out there anyway. He was ready for anything... except his first phone call with Gordon, the company's hiring manager.
You Wore a T-Shirt?! (from John)

The Prime Candidate

Some years ago, Phil B. invited a promising looking candidate for a developer role to come in for an in-person interview. The candidate in question, Boris, had a very impressive resume showing plenty of C and embedded systems experience; however, upon his arrival, it was clear that his communication and interpersonal skills left a little to be desired.

The Angry MD

After a few weeks of searching, Steven M's job prospects were looking pretty grim.
Trouble with Founders (from Ben C.) A few of my friends (all CS people) were attending a startup mixer hosted at a little airport near our university. At one point, we all got kind of bored of talking with everyone, so we stepped outside to look at the planes. Soon enough, some business people in suits noticed the nerds talking outside so slowly started approaching.
The Beacon of Hope (from Pete) My phone interview for a senior developer position in the banking industry started off pretty well. The jovial and affable development manager told me that my CV stood out "like a beacon of hope compared to the vast oceans of crap applicants" he had been sent by HR and various recruitment consultants. "I just have one question," he said with a smile in his voice, "how soon could can you start?"
A Most Wonderful Opportunity (from Ben) I made the mistake of giving my real email address to a headhunter I met at a local dev event. So now I get emails like this...
The Storage Warehouse (from Grig) The first recession I remember was in the early 1990’s, and I remember it so well because I was looking for a job. The want ads listed an opening for a UNIX admin – something which was right up my alley – so I gave the company a ring.
More Limitin' (from Andrew Warren-Love) Even though his resume wasn't beaming as much as some of the others we received, we invited a man down to interview for either of two positions. One in the IT Department and one in the Software Group of the Engineering Department. Once he arrived, he was given a tour of the important parts of the company to encourage interest related to our company or our products just like everyone else we interview. By this point, 90% of candidates will ask questions on their own, and the rest will ask questions when prompted.
The PHP Candidate (from Tony) Before bringing people in for an interview, we give them a simple questionnaire about PHP. While this might turn off some folks like Big Picture Thinker, we've found that it tends to weed out those certain developers.
The Programmiss (from Willem B) We were hiring and it was our lucky day: a female candidate had applied for the job! As a team of three male programmers who would likely get alarming results on the autism test, we knew that she would be a very welcome addition to our team.
Three for Three (from Randall C) My boss, Harry, needed to hire some experienced software engineers, so he placed a job ad and did some kind of sort on the fifty or so replies that came in. Later, many of us assumed that he must have done a stair sort (throw them from the top of a stair and pick the ones that traveled farthest). He then said to me "I need to hire two engineers and I've selected three candidates. Would you like to interview them?" Not actually stated in this, but his attitude clearly indicated that he planned to hire two engineers from that pool of three.
The Big Picture Thinker (from James S) After an in-person technical interview, we decided to advance a candidate to the next step in our hiring process, which is a brief, one-page written test with some relatively easy (or, easy to look-up) technical questions. It's designed mostly to gauge written communication, since our developers often interface directly with clients.
The Company Pond (from Adam) Our company had one of those decorative ponds located in front of the building where people can gaze out their cubicles and dream of being outside. It looked nice enough, but it was disgustingly dirty with runoff and probably about half full of goose droppings.

Dirty Laundry

"Your one o'clock is here," the receptionist said.
Stored Procedures (from Liz) There was an article posted a little while back (Does Not Compute) that featured confusion of fairly-common tech-isms like Cookies or the Recycle Bin. It was fun, but not terribly surprising considering that everyone is not technically inclined.
The Interesting Résumé (from John) Back in 2002, we needed an integration specialist for my team. This was after the dot-com bubble burst and previous ad placements online had resulted in getting flooded with résumés from desperate souls whose only qualifications for the job were that they could legally work in the US without Visa sponsorship.
The Best (from Chris) A while back, I helped interview for a programmer position on the web team. After talking to a number of candidates, we finally settled on an older gentlemen, probably in his late 50s. It wasn't an easy decision. Not only were his salary requirements above what we planned to pay, he had a few personality quirks. For example, a large part of his interview entailed him describing how he was a master composer of music, and had published songs in nearly every genre, including country, rap, pop, etc. But no matter, his experience and technical skills were top-notch.
The Command Center Administrator (from Joshua Knarr) A job listing email for a "Command Center Administrator" recently found its way to my inbox. The message was from ACME COMMERCE, which was apparently an UP AND COMING company that would be HUGE AND SUCCESSFUL if they could keep their INTERNET STORE FRONT FOR SPORTING GOODS going. The position was offered to me in fits of caps lock, and it was tough to understand if they were merely excited, or if someone was playing Mad Libs with Job Listing Generator 3.0. I decided they were simply excited to be expanding, so I dutifully sent along my résumé and asked if they had a job description for the Command Center Administrator position.
All three of today's Tales from the Interview are from R Huckster.
Got tales from your own interview? Then share them, why don'tcha!
All Over the Map (from Peter Banner) On paper, the candidate looked like a perfect fit. He had a very impressive résumé and seven years of experience in C#, C++, VB .NET, SQL, Oracle, and pretty much every other technology under the sun. Obviously, I had high expectations, as did my co-interviewer.
The Missing Interview (from Charles Ross) I went for an interview to work as a junior IT support Engineer at a certain Royal bank here in Scotland. It was a late interview, around 4:45 in the afternoon, and I turned up at 4:30, sharply dressed, and with all the documents I'd been requested to bring. Since this was a bank and security was a must, I had a full five year history sitting in front of me.
I Guess So (by Stuart Whelan) The company I worked for was hiring a C++ developer, and I was assigned the job of hiring the candidates. When the scheduled start time of 1:30PM came and went, I went to the lobby to see if there was a scheduling mix up. At around 1:50, while I was chatting with the receptionist, a disheveled fellow walked in the door. "Is this Omni-tech?" he asked.
The Denny's Interview (from Bruce W) Not too long ago, "TaxQuik" announced major layoffs at the company, and I found myself to be one of the unfortunate few to be without a job. Nervous about being out of work, I found myself responding to just about every job posting that was remotely related to technology. Including a Monster job ad for a "Web site developer".

The Shoe-In

Once word hit that certain departments within South England Financial were going to be outsourced, employees naturally started to get a bit nervious. Being a contractor — and therefore exempt from any kind of nice severance package — Jon Kipper was determined to find a new job before the axe fell.
The Designer's Cover Letter (from Josh Perry) One of the great things about the graphic design profession is that your first impression to employers — your résumé — is often your strongest. Unlike programmers, who generally have wait until the technical interview to show off their chops, designers get the chance to show off their background and skills in one little sheet of paper.
Got Tales from your interviews? Then send 'em on in!

The Ace in the Hole

After spending his first three years out of college in an entry-level position with Ask.com, Erhen was ready to move on to something with more responsibility. One day, he received a phone call from a company that wanted him to come in for an immediate interview.
The Winds of Recession (from Juan Seul) Among other things, my job description at a certain Austrian software company includes interviewing candidates for project manager, developer, and other IT positions. In all my years conducting interviews, I’ve never had one that was all too crazy, and to this day, I still haven’t. But I think I was pretty close.
Have your own Tale From an Interview? Don't hesitate to send it to me.
Kevin Saff is not what many would consider “the ideal candidate.” He started his career as a C++ coder for a major manufacturer, but then quit to pursue a mathematics degree in Canada. That didn’t quite do it for him either, as he then dropped out to pursue something far more interesting: canoe from Calgary to New Orleans. But after 1,200+ miles of rowing, his journey ended in Minneapolis with a cracked boat and a frozen river. Temporarily, of course, as he plans to pick up and continue south someday soon.
It's All About C Now (from Dan M) Last year, I saw that a certain founded-and-headquartered-in-the-Netherlands electronics company was hiring web developers in my town, so sent in my résumé. Like most résumés, mine contained the standard skills & buzzword section: Languages and technical writing: PHP, MySQL, AJAX, JavaScript, PRADO Framework, MSSQL Server, C#, .Net Framework, Perl, C/C++, Visual Basic, ASP, HTML, DHTML, XML, SOAP, CSS, Java, UML
The Mandatory Three (from Jim) After the dot com bust, I spent a lot of time interviewing. It was mostly dead ends or companies that were only willing to hire one person to do the job of four (specifically, the four that they had just laid off). A friend of mine who worked at a school, told me about an IT position there. Being out of work for so long, I was very eager to get in for an interview, and figured I might have an "in" since he was working there already.
Persistence is Key After two years, Thomas B. had become somewhat bored with his job. He was the first developer the small TV station had ever hired, and while he enjoyed building a PHP-based CMS that they'd use internally, over time his job had essentially been reduced to babysitting the web site. He accepted another offer and told his boss about his plans to leave.
"When you work in computing services for a university, you spend about as much time on high-minded development as you do un-jamming printers and resetting passwords for faculty," Ed G. writes. "It's not ideal, but it's a living." It was time to get some new staff, and after being burned by some previous employees that could talk the talk, but not walk the walk, they devised a new litmus test for potential hires, called "The Receptionist Test."
CommQuack hires like crazy. They hire in good times, they hire in bad times. They hire before, during, and after periods of massive layouts. Only one department was sheltered from the endless churn of hirings and layoffs — HR. For a company of ten thousand people, the fact that one thousand of them worked in HR should tell you something.
A Problem at the Personal Level From Shari
It Depends (from David)
Hot, Hot, Hot! (from Rob Sutherland) In the mid 80s, a headhunter found me a good lead for a coding position at a (now-defunct) auto manufacturer. When I showed up to the headhunter's office, a very large and very scary looking woman took me out to the cafeteria so she could smoke during the interview. Different times, the 80s.

My Tales

After sharing so many of your interview stories, I thought it was finally time that I’d share a couple of my own… Finally!
The Starting Salary (from Steve) After a massive layoff during the dot com crash years, I had gotten used to my employers closing their doors after just two years. At the same time, I had no trouble finding employment in other web design companies.
Hypothetical Question from Simon
Are You Cool, Man? (from Scott) The interview I was conducting was going great — the candidate answered technical questions well and was honest when he didn't know the answer. I'd decided that he would make the short list for an offer and began wrapping up the interview.
IBM Survivor (from Reid Maynard) In the middle of the dot-com bust, I interviewed at IBM for a contract position. I can't remember exactly what the position was, but I'll never forget the interview.
Today's tale comes from Evan Wade...

Thinking Machines

Through the much of the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Cambridge-based Thinking Machines was ahead of its time. As innovators in parallel computing, they developed a massive, 65,536 processor supercomputer known the Connection Machine. Visually, it made Cray’s distinctive look seem like a piece of outdated furniture, and was even stunning enough to star as the “impressive blinky-light server” in Jurassic Park.
Let's All Reinvent the Wheel... Again (from K.D.)
How Can You Expect This?! (from K.D.)

Design Me A House

Design me a House (by David J)
Avoiding MUMPS from Joe

We Need a Body

Although Brice hadn't been on the job for very long, he'd gotten pretty comfortable with leading technical interviews. He'd quickly compiled a stock set of questions that could weed out the hacks. Questions that immediately disqualify you for the position if you get them wrong: What is your first name? Name a .NET language. Questions that almost certainly disqualify you if you get them wrong: What datatype would you use to store a string of characters? Is it C sharp or C pound?
Not Too Particular from Ichabod After reading through a stack of dull resumes, this one was a welcome change.
If you’ve ever had the opportunity to review a handful of resumes, you’ve probably seen a few bad ones in the bunch. And if you’ve reviewed a whole lot of resumes, you’ve definitely seen some really bad ones. And if you’ve reviewed a whole crap ton of resumes, then chances are, some of ‘em definitely belong here.
Today's Tale from the Interview comes from Scott McNair. Don't forget to submit your own interview story, from either side of the table. 

The Re-Interview

It was the best job opportunity Kirk had ever seen.
Today’s Tale from the Interview comes from Shanna...
Jay was excited: he finally landed a job interview for a developer position. While for many of us such an event registers pretty high on the “big deal, that happens to me all the time” scale, it was pretty rare for Jay. Like many of his young peers, Jay lacked experience in the industry. But unlike his peers, Jay did not have a college degree. And he lived in Mississippi, a state not exactly known as a hub for things high-tech. Or really even tech.
It's Like a Double Yellow Line:
Peter B. was an out-of-work PHP developer looking for contract work in early 2005. A recruiter he'd worked with in the past emailed him some information regarding a possible position. Reading the job description, Peter thought he'd be a good fit, so he submitted his resume and got a response via email a few days later.
You're special, reader. You're probably a developer and since you read this site you probably care about writing code that won't ultimately wind up being featured here. And you're hard for employers to find because you're probably employed and not looking for a job.
Nothing screams “easy money” like headhunting. Twenty-five to thirty percent of your recruit’s first annual salary? Twenty dollars off the top of each hour worked by your contractor? With that kind of bling, who wouldn’tsign up as a headhunter?
“So, let me guess, ahhhhxxxCCxxshheeecczzzahhhhem,” started Mr. Thompson, Ed B’s prospective boss, pausing to make the most vile power-snorting, throat-clearing, wet-cough noise ever heard. “You’re Edward – cxxxxshxxx cxxxxcaaaheem – and you’re here for a job interview? A harr harr harr!”

You, Jeepies?

“You know,” Rich Z thought to himself as he cruised down Highway 23, “I think this job might be the one!” he was on his way to interview for a “PHP Programmer” position at a trucking/logistics company. They were apparently impressed with by resume, and he was impressed by the small company and obvious open-source philosophy. But what had him exited at the time was the forty-five minute commute through a beautiful, traffic-free rural landscape.
5 years C-pound experience was originally published on November 01, 2004.

Umm, Steve Got Lost

Unadmirable Honesty (submitted anonymously)

Interview by Proxy

I Do Models From Sam F...
Here's a link to the previous episode in case you missed it: Tales from the Interview. Don't forget to send in some of your own for next time.
It's been a long, long time since I've run interview stories. Too long. Here's a few of my favorites; feel free to send in some of your own for next time.
I like posting interview stories. They give me a sense of security that some of us are actually out there, stopping some of them from getting in. Of course, we all know they will eventually find a job ... but try not to think about that. No, just consider this nice collection of interview stories submitted anonymously by a forums member named CPound. Ironically, that's the same name as one of my favorite interview stories.