I had my first interview with a serious tech company - the kind that isn't Google but actually has some name recognition amongst people deeply into the tech space. It starts normal and promising, and then fucking derails in spectacular fashion. Strap yourselves in, this is a long one.
I. Details On The Company
For reasons of anonymity and politeness, I won't identify them outright in public.
A few weeks ago, a friend who earns The Big Bucks (TM) linked me to this article on the trimodal nature of salaries in tech.
Lifted straight from the article:
For those reading over email, the article posits there are three types of company with regards to salaries. Tier 1 competes with local companies in the same domain, Tier 2 competes with all local companies, and Tier 3 competes with all companies at the regional or global level.
I earn enough money that salary is boring, and I'm not even particularly good... and am 29, immigrated here with no network, and am non-white. This is the upside to a dysfunctional industry.
But no, what I am interested in is working at places where I'm happy and no one is going to make me miserable. I've worked at Tier 1 companies my whole life, and this was my first time interviewing with a Tier 2 place. And from an engineering perspective, they were way better than anywhere I'd ever worked. Maybe it wouldn't be stupid? How high up the competence ladder do you have to go before you're not dealing with the stupid stuff I outline in my other writing?
II. How I Got An Interview
Everyone, we need to talk.
Sending your CV out looking for a job is only a good idea if you've recently immigrated or have a CV that fucks so hard that I'm not convinced such a thing exists.
There are people better at this than I am, but I'm pretty good at this, so this is going to be a process upgrade for most readers, even the short version.
You call and email every goddamn person that thinks well of you. Then you sit back and get a job. It's really easy. If another person comes up to me, sadly bemoaning that their CV keeps getting rejected, I am going to fling them out of a window in the desperate hope that they might network with one of the paramedics on the way to the hospital.
The company I'm talking about gets hundreds of applicants for every opening, pays well above the local market rate... and I got an interview without ever seeing the position description. How? I played video games with someone that worked there.
My CV also gets bounced every time I send it out. So I don't send it out. All the time spent sending it out? Just stop and touch grass with other people, the job will sort itself out.
III. Interview 1 - All Good So Far
Four stage interview process, baby, let's go! I don't know how trustworthy the sources I'm using are, but I'm apparently in the 93rd percentile of salaries in my country. The toughest interview question in my current role was "Do you know Python?" asked by a man that didn't have enough knowledge to verify my answer. If that sounds stupid, remember that we're also big enough that we use Snowflake, and badly at that.
The first call was some sort of screening situation with HR. They were pleasant enough. I told them that I play the piano, and stubbed the little toes on both my feet that morning. This was enough humanity to be moved along. However, they refused to progress things until I disclosed my salary expectations, despite the normal playbook of "I think that can wait until it's good fit, bla bla bla, what the role requires."
By the way, if you have a good playbook for this, hit me up at email@example.com.
IV. Interview 2 - Confidence Going Up
Next they give me a take-home technical interview. This is what I was worried about. I know that I'm not stupid, and I work with many smart individuals (we only become stupid as a collective), but 1/4th of my career was spent with a team that used network drives with folders named after dates for version control. So I am understandably nervous that real engineers are going to be operating on a dimension so far removed from my sad mortal plane that I am going to get the Raiders of the Lost Ark treatment the moment I even glimpse their questions.
Nope. Nope. Nope. It is super easy. It was one of the easiest Python questions I've solved in my life, and SQL that shouldn't challenge anyone who has used it for more than a year and read about some advanced features for two hours. The only requirement was enough brainpower to test both input and output to a function sensibly, do some window functions, and write some appropriate logging.
I know this, because I wrote bad SQL for about two years of my career, then read about advanced features for two hours this year before the interview. I spent more time setting up the database to test my answers than on the actual questions, because this library was bugged at the time I was trying the exam.
Feeling good, but still a little bit nervous. I've developed all my ideas around programming from thinking, discussions with a colleague that graduated at the same time as me, and a handful of tech talks. For example, they requested test coverage for the Python, a thing that I've only ever used in hobby projects because my employers are circuses and I am merely the lead clown. Did I write good ones?
V. Interview 3 - Everyone Is Impressed With Each Other
The third interview is a discussion of my answers with two awesome engineers. I was blown away by how savvy and personable they were. Lots of cool stories too.
They ask a lot of hard questions about my Python, namely around why I decided to do things in particular ways. Why did you write your tests this way instead of using an awesome library I'd never heard about? Did you know you could do this particular thing with pytest? Why did you do your SQL this way? Why two functions here instead of one?
Two things quickly became apparent. One was that they had years of experience on me doing things the right way, and have socialized that knowledge with each other in a way that would be hard for me to compete with in my little incompetence bubble.
And secondly... it didn't really matter. I mean, they were better and I showed them a fair bit of deference, but they clearly had an actual appreciation for my skills, which was great for my confidence. And a lot of things I could answer from first principles by just asking for time to think. So they were good, but so was I! Without needing to learn at the feet of masters for years! My brain hadn't rotted completely!
A concrete example - they ask me how I would write tests for SQL. Nowhere I've worked has ever done this, we just let it be wrong because we have fake jobs. I had to think - dbt supports tests for uniqueness in columns, but that isn't the same as a test for business logic. The only way I can think of to do this, after taking about twenty seconds to reflect, is write views that check for correctness. I posited that solution, then said "I'm sure that there's a better way, because it seems ugly to have to maintain that many database objects."
Turns out that's exactly what they do, and you just deal with it by being competent engineers and not letting all your tests lie down in the forest and allowing the moss to reclaim them.
I am genuinely getting emotional right now thinking about these people out there actually doing their jobs correctly, without being shitty to each other and talking about Agile all day. May they live long and prosper.
VI. Interview 4 - Let's Derail This Train, Baby
The next interview is literally right after this one. Those two engineers drop out of the call, and two extremely senior people jump in for some behavioral interviewing.
Within one minute, I immediately infer that the more senior of the two, a real important person at the company, is one of us, the wearied masses that sit around sadly repeating "But why don't we just solve the problem?" as hundreds of people insist that we are while frantically scheduling Teams meeting with no agendas.
I don't know how to describe this, but I think the readers that email me will understand - we perform the weird spidermen-sense-each-other move, the strange secret mental handshake that everyone who emails me has already performed, where we can both immediately tell that we could work together without making each other fucking miserable. I'm pretty sure that the job is mine within the first twenty minutes. I think the exact secret handshake moment was roughly as follows:
CTO: "So how do you approach problems?"
Me: "This will sound strange, but I sometimes tell junior engineers to 'Do right thing instead of wrong thing. I know that sounds like absolute nonsense, but please, for the love of God, just do right thing, not wrong thing.'"
Me and CTO soul-meld for three seconds and emerge shaken.
Two things stood out as weird though. One, the CTO was basically begging for someone that would, quote, say they were going to solve a problem, and then actually try to solve it and let them know if they get stuck, instead of just stopping at the first block. That was weird, because the two people I just spoke to were awesome. What's going on here?
VII. Sound Of Train Crashing
It's all downhill from here, woooo!
Me: "I've worked at $BAD_COMPANIES for a while, which simply don't operate on the same level. How do you handle employee stress and burnout?
CTO: <INSERT GREAT ANSWER>
Me: "Has anyone left due to burnout in the past year?"
CTO: "We've had people leave for competitors at higher pay, but not due to burnout. We take that very seriously."
And then the other person comes out of the gate fucking swinging:
Other Person: "We don't pressure anyone, but I personally woke up at 3AM to start working because I love this product so much."
AAAAAA. RED ALERT. RED ALERT.
I watch as the CTO listens to this in dismay. I know this company doesn't make people work at 3 AM because I have a friend there, so I'm not that upset, but I am loving their horror. I node sagely.
I mean, Jesus Christ, just fucking imagine saying that in front of someone - an executive - after a new hire, that everyone clearly wants to bring aboard, asks about stress at the literal final stage of the process. That is up there, along with "We work hard and play hard" and "We work hard because we're family". I'd be so ashamed that I'd never be able to look my manager in the eye again.
They backpedal as fast as possible, with Other Person realizing how thoroughly they've screwed up, with lots of sentences like "Of course, there's no expectation you pull hours like that! I may have started at 3 AM, but I finished at 2 PM!"
Holy fuck, my buddy over here just panicked and accidentally said they only worked 11 hours starting at 3 AM so they're fine. They probably didn't, but I am here for the chaos.
The CTO thanks me for my time and ends the call exactly at the end of the scheduled slot in a desperate bid to stop the bleeding. I immediately break down laughing.
I tell my current employer that I am not actively looking for work, but am probably about to receive a 40% raise. They say they absolutely can't swing the money, and promise to address my other concerns around workflow if I stay (spoiler: I knew they wouldn't, which is why I ask for money).
IX. HR Tries Their Bullshit
You know it's a long story when I had to Google how to do the Roman numeral for 9.
I am informed by my friend that not only did I get the job, I annihilated the competition. The phrases used were "nuked from orbit" and "parked my fleet in orbit and turned the planet into glass". Turns out that not stupid is not stupid everywhere, and even higher-tier companies still hire mortals.
HR calls me the same day to offer me the job... and inform me they've identified me as being at the start of their senior scale. This is called lying. I say I want more money, they start bringing up my earlier salary expectations, etc.
I believe the technical term for the move I then perform is "putting your dick on the table", because I say that it doesn't really make sense to talk about the value I'd add with a non-specialist, so I'd appreciate a call from the CTO. They are upset, but I thank them for their patience in dealing with such an uncomfortable topic, then go back to playing board games with my friends.
HR is not your friend. Always remember that. I don't remember anyone at university that was deeply passionate about getting HR, and that probably tells you everything you need to know about the kind of person that typically bumbles into it. I can't even imagine lying, straight-faced, to a professional lawyer about their interview performance and then trying to argue with them despite knowing jack shit about the field, but HR always tries this.
Yes, I am tarring and feathering a massive industry filled with real humans with rich inner lives. Just don't get to know them, like I have successfully avoided doing, and you never have to feel guilty.
The CTO does call me and a few things happen.
- The company can probably meet the money I want, which is more than the super good engineers I mentioned earlier earn because I am a new hire. I wonder why most companies can't retain good staff? This isn't this person's fault though
- However, they won't let me work part-time, which is how I stay sane
- They privately share intel on their inner operations that reveal to me that it's still fucked enough to drive me to despair if I was there full-time
- We have a huge laugh over the "I work Saturdays thing" and are going to get drinks together - the Saturday Person is apparently reasonably cool incidentally, just not one of us
HR comes back to me with the money, and I say I don't want it. They want to find a workaround, and I don't because I only want to work part-time. That's right, dickheads, I don't negotiate with terrorists, especially if they opened by lying to me. I turned down like a 50% raise because anyone that tries to open negotiations that way and was willing to pay a new hire more than the existing staff ("there's no budget!") can go fuck themselves. My soul does have a price and it's a 300% raise, you motherfuckers.
I suspect that it reflects poorly on people internally to lose the best candidate this late in the game, and the inconvenience I'm causing the penny-pinchers feels like a modicum of justice for those poor, underpaid, disrespected people that interviewed me. Apparently they've been begging for years. Godspeed, you glorious sons of bitches, and don't let the bastards grind you down.
X. The Aftermath
I'm in touch with some of the people I interviewed with, and they're awesome. One of the engineers is taking a break from the company to work on something more meaningful, and I like to think that I was at least a small factor in that decision, if only by fueling their rage with the higher offer. Another one is joining me in trying to get a business off the ground. That's right, I interviewed at an A-tier company and then their staff joined me.
Apparently no one has passed the super easy technical interview I described above, even out of the candidates that get through the first-pass filtering, and most hires are now done with words to the effect of "They're no Ludic, but I guess they're okay."
Needless to say, if people thought I was arrogant before, my ego is through the roof now. And again, I'm not even that good, I'm just constantly being reminded that the bar is below the floor. Please, go get paid and demand some respect from these absolute losers.
And my current employer... remember how they decided there was no budget to give me that raise? Literally a month later, after I would have left if this new place offered me part-time work, that's when I saved them half a million dollars.