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Interviews in Geekland

David Nunez
David Nunez
3 min read

Today I sat on an interviewing panel for a position with an NSF-funded project that I do a lot of work with through my CATF-IT Cluster. There were three candidates, all very good.

In the software and technical world, there is a Seven-levels-of-Hell interview gauntlet for programmers and engineers. I always found the typical programmers’ interviews to be downright abusive and tantamount to torture…Usually it’s a long series of interviews (preceeded by a phone screen and followed by an all-day, beat-you-into-submission, clusterfuck). The day is always filled with crappy stuff like "Reverse a String in C using recursion" or "Why is a manhole cover round?" The programmer has to stand in front of a panel of stone-faced, grizzled engineers, bored out of their overworked and cynical minds; the interviewers have one singular mission: they are dead set to knock the candidate down a rung or two (even if that candidate is a better programmer than the entire company put together).

There’s nothing about seeing if this person would provide value for the company or even if this person is smart. It’s a firing squad from the start.

God help you if you apply for a tech position and include words like "expert" when describing your skills.

I distinctly remember an incident at a former job where all the programmers in my office got an email from the techie doing the phone screen that said he, "had a live one" for an afternoon’s interview. The poor sap’s only transgression was saying he was a 10 out of 10 in Java skills. We then spent all morning digging up the most obscure and impossible trivia. We devised evil questions about various Java packages that nobody uses, deprecated methods, garbage collection, and even biographies of the key people in the Java world. ("Could you please tell me the birthdate of Bill Joy’s aunt’s ex-husband?") Then we impishly popped popcorn and sat around a muted speaker phone while the phone interviewer, in another room (so as not to be interrupted with high-pitched squeels and giggles of delight from a room full of geeks), proceeded to punch this poor candidate in the stomach repeatedly with these "interview questions." You could just hear the snear through the phone as the interviewer said, "You did very well. You’ll hear from us soon if there are going to be next steps."

I had difficulty sleeping that night.

During these interviews, they always say things like, "Well. I’m not as interested in the right answer as I am in the process you use to get the right answer. I want to see how you think."

Oh, Please. So on top of your CS degree you have a Ph.D. in Psychology? Yeah, right.

I’ve visited with plenty of HR people from industry to know that only in EXTREMELY RARE occasions do the programmers administering these firing squads get any instruction on how to conduct an interview without opening up the company to discrimination lawsuits, much less training on how to evaluate how "someone thinks." Don’t be fooled. A geek gets no greater satisfaction than trumping another geek (even if it’s not a fair fight). It’s that bizarre gorilla-chest-thumping that computer geeks revel in.

Is it any wonder that young people are running from software engineering at an alarming rate or that it’s difficult to get girls interested in computer science?

(factoid: in 2001, over 19,000 boys took the Advanced Placement Computer Science test compared to only 2400 girls.)

I wonder if other engineers (i.e. civil, mechanical, etc) have to go through the same machismo hazing that software people go through. I think I’ll ask the EWeek folks about that.

Today’s interviews were for a project management position in the non-profit sector. Needless to say, they were tamer and more formal (we asked the same 11, pre-selected questions to all the candidates… and even printed out a list for them to refer to as they were being interviewed). Bordering on insulting, in my opinion, we even asked for a writing sample…

Link to Joel Spolsky’s Guerilla Interviewing. He definitely favors a beat ’em up style of interviewing that makes me cringe.


David Nunez Twitter

Dir of Technology at the MIT Museum • Writing about emerging tech's impact on your life • Speculative insights on the intersection of humanity and technology 🤖


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