Saturday, May 24, 2008

2008 - How I Didn't Get A Job At

It is fitting, I think, to begin a memoir with an event that represents a major change of direction in one's life. For me, it came this year when I interviewed for a job at and did not get it. I am pretty sure it was only the second time in my life I interviewed for a position that I didn't get. The first time was when I was a lieutenant in the Army and was interviewed by a brigadier general to be his aide-de-camp. He asked me what I did during my off hours and I told him I was taking classes at the local college. I found out later that that answer caused me to be eliminated because the general needed an aide who was “available all the time.”

I believe, after eight hours of interviewing, that also wants people who are available all the time. In addition, they want people who are highly technical in the specific areas that are of interest to the company. In my postmortem assessment I am afraid I have fallen short on both counts. I already know that I am not a highly available person because that's always been a sticking point with me: I have too many hobbies that get in the way of work. Or maybe it's work that gets in the way of my hobbies. In any case, it was the second point, the point about technical competence, that was the real wake-up call for me and the thing that prompted me to start writing this memoir series.

In this piece I will describe the interview process that I went through. Those of you who are trying to get a job at Amazon may find this useful. I have heard that Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, MySpace and Facebook all employ similar interviewing strategies.

First, a tiny bit of background about me. I have been developing software professionally since 1992. For most of those years I was a programmer, but, over time, I have found myself in roles such as architect, team leader, project lead, and so on. In this business it's easy to do less and less programming the longer you hang around. I am finally facing the reality that I am probably not a programmer anymore. That's a major shift in identity for me, and a source of worry about job security and my overall value to the marketplace. If I'm not a programmer, then what am I? As you will see, that became a key question during my interview.

Why was I job hunting in the first place? That's a good question. I have a good job with Boeing that pays well, has good benefits and, best of all, has flexible and predictable hours. I work about 45 hours per week, which is amazing for a technology worker these days. The only problem I face is that the work can be, well, kind of slow at times. Let's just say there are days when you find yourself yawning and watching the clock a lot. Amazon, on the other hand, I perceived to be a glamorous Web 2.0 ecommerce job with lots of challenges and excitement. But do I really want challenge and excitement in my professional life right now? Good question. Like I said, I have lots of hobbies, and I have a family. On the other hand, downtown Seattle is closer to where I live than my current work site near Boeing Field. So, I thought, why not go for glamour and a shorter commute? I can be quite good at rationalizing when I really want something.

Here are the key events in this little saga. Note: in order to protect the privacy of the people involved , I will only use first initials to represent the Amazon employees who interviewed me.

Saturday, Apr 5: Sent my resume to a friend who works at Amazon. Let me say, generally, that these days the best way, in some cases the only way, to get your foot in the door in almost any company is to have a contact there. With company web sites being inundated with resumes on a daily basis, it’s almost impossible to get noticed if all you do is respond to a web ad and upload your resume.

Tuesday, Apr 8: My friend submitted my resume into the employee referral database.

Monday, Apr 14: Got the first of many voice mails from L, an Amazon recruiter, wanting to set up a phone interview. She also sent an email, which contained a job description.

I looked up the job announcement on the Amazon jobs page and found this: “Senior Technical Program Manager- Catalog Quality – 030484.”

And here’s a partial description from the same page: “Can you run large cross-team projects? Are you equally comfortable developing business requirements and drilling into architecture with development teams? Are you passionate about leveraging technology to make huge improvements in Amazon's customer experience? Amazon's massive high-quality product selection is one of its greatest business assets and the Catalog Quality team is tasked with improving it. To this end, multiple software and operations teams continually innovate to improve the catalog in the areas which are most important to customers. Key areas include: classifying products in the right sections of our virtual store, discovering and merging items which look identical to customers, and ensuring that the most important descriptive product attributes are complete and accurate…”

I read the description and felt some enthusiasm for the job. Yeah, that sounded like me, I thought. I responded to L with a suggestion of having the interview Thursday or Friday. She wrote back and said Thursday.

Thursday, Apr 17, 4 pm (pacific): One-hour interview with T, manager of the Catalog Quality Team. We talked about things I've done, and he asked me a few technical questions, like ‘what's the advantage of a hash map?’ (answer: search time does not vary with the size of the database; it is constant).

Friday, Apr 18: Received voice mail and email from L saying the first interview went well and the team would like to do a second phone interview.

Tuesday, Apr 22, 8:30 am: One-hour phone interview with W, who is a development manager on the Catalog Quality Team. He grilled me on my technical background. I described the work I've done in military simulations, which are often implemented as service oriented architectures. Then he asked me to explain how would I implement the mapping feature on I gave an answer but I couldn’t tell if my answer was what he wanted to hear.

Thursday, Apr 24: Received voice mail and email from L saying the interviews have gone well and the team would like to do a third phone interview. I was a bit disappointed; I thought I would be invited for the in-person interview at this point.

Friday, Apr 25, 10:30 am: One-hour phone interview with M, who talked to me about project management stuff and software development processes. He wanted a detailed description of what I am doing on my current job. I described our Agile / Scrum environment. Then he asked general questions, like what would I do in such-and-such situation? But then he hit me with a specific question that I couldn’t answer: what is TDD? I was stumped. (answer: Test Driven Development, or Test Driven Design). In fact, I have used a TDD approach in many of my jobs but we didn't call it that.

Thursday, May 1: Received voice mail and email from a different Amazon recruiter, S, who said the team would like to schedule an in-person interview. Hooray! I was in. I thought it was a sure thing at this point and I was all set to give notice at Boeing. Thank goodness I waited. The email from S contained several questions, such as current and expected salary, availability to work in the U.S., soonest start date if hired. I wrote back with the answers to the questions and suggested some dates for the in-person interview. I gave my current salary at Boeing and said that I was hoping to match it. Later, L, my original recruiter, wrote to confirm that May 6 would be the day of the interview.

Monday, May 5: L sent an additional email with detailed instructions for the interview. Her note advised me to dress comfortably, suit not required, and that lunch would be provided. She attached expense forms so I could claim expenses associated with the interview. Since my only expense would be the ferry ride from Bainbridge Island, I did not claim anything. There was also a non-disclosure agreement, candidate information form (employers, education, etc.), and a release form so they could do a background check (which would only be done if they wanted to make an offer). Lastly, the note said that I would be interviewing with 4 to 7 people and that it would take about six hours.

Tuesday, May 6: In-person interview was scheduled to begin 12:00 noon at 705 5th Ave South, downtown Seattle. This location is in a cluster of buildings occupied mostly by Amazon. It took about fifteen minutes to walk there from the ferry. I was thinking it would be a great commute. I arrived around 11:15 and went to a nearby coffee shop to kill time. I read my pocket version of the Tao Te Ching, hoping it would relax me. It helped.

At 11:45 I reported to the receptionist and then took a seat in the lobby. At a few minutes after 12, V from Amazon recruiting came and escorted me to the third floor for my first interview, which was with her. She gave me her business card with her contact information and asked me to let her know immediately if I received any other job offers and needed a quick decision from Amazon. Otherwise, she said, I would hear something from her by end of week or the following week. She asked me questions like 'why are you leaving your current job?' and then she focused on my salary requirements. She wanted to clarify my current base and other financial incentives, such as bonuses, etc. I gave her an exact description of my current compensation.

After V, there were six interviewers:

#1 - He noticed in my resume that I developed an auction site in 1999 and he asked me to describe the technologies I used, and then asked me to explain how I would do that same auction site today. Later he asked me to describe an algorithm for finding duplicates in a file of one million phone numbers. The algorithm, when running, would only have two megabytes of memory available to it, which meant I could not load all phone numbers into memory at once. I got through a solution, but it was not impressive.

#2 - Lunch with the team manager, the same person who did the first phone interview. It was a very casual conversation about my current job and background.

#3 - We discussed approaches to using statistical methods and testing to improve data quality in a large database. He asked me to explain how to determine the amount of testing needed for a given level of desired quality. I thought I gave a good answer.

#4 - He asked questions like, ‘if a project were going to be canceled due to lack of resources, what would I say in the email to the team announcing the cancellation?’ I was happy with my answers.

#5 - His main question was, ‘suppose I am given a one-page description of a project to organize and execute, and it involved a lot of teams that are all very busy, how would I get the project started?’ I gave reasonable answers.

#6 - This was with an Amazon vice president, who wanted to know why I was leaving my current job and emphasized that Amazon is an 'intense place,' and then drew a brain teaser on the board. It was a tiling problem in which he drew an 8 x 8 grid of squares and then took away a square from the upper right and lower left corners, leaving 62 squares. The question was, given a tile that was the size of two squares, how many tiles, if there is a solution, would exactly cover the 62 squares without going outside of the boundaries of the grid? Answer: none, but I didn't figure that out during the interview. If you think of the original grid as a checkerboard, it would have exactly half black and half white spaces. If you take a square from the upper right and lower left, or upper left and lower right, then you are taking away two of the same color, leaving unequal numbers of black and white squares. Thus there is no solution for fitting a number of two-square tiles without going outside of the boundaries of the grid.

Although I was disappointed that I didn't get the tiling problem, the real zinger came when #6 asked me the following: "Suppose you are working for Amazon and we are at the company holiday party and I introduce you to Jeff Bezos, the founder and head guy at Amazon, and Jeff says 'Who are you?' What would you say?" This immediately reminded me of the movie, Anger Management, when Jack Nicholson's character was grilling another character with the very same question. As I sat there during the interview I wanted to say, "I'm a writer," or "I'm a jazz musician," or "I'm a human, how about you?" I got the feeling a flippant answer would not win me any points. I decided the correct answer would be to explain why I think I'm valuable to Jeff Bezos. So I said, "I really like providing tools that help people do their jobs." This is true. Helping people has always been the most rewarding aspect of software development for me, and I have a good track record of delivering useful, working software. I don't know if that was the right answer or not.

Finished interviewing around 5:15. Walked back to the ferry, went to Ivar's and had a beer and a fish taco.

Thursday, May 8, afternoon: Received a voice mail from V saying that the team would be “moving forward with other candidates” and thanking me from my interest in Amazon.

Friday, May 9: I wrote an email to V (since I had her business card) asking for feedback, and in particular, whether my salary requirement was out of range for the position. I never did get a response to that email.

Conclusion: I don't know exactly why I didn't get the job at Amazon. Looking back, I think my interview with #6, the VP, was the weakest. In addition to tripping me up with the brain teaser and then the 'who are you?' question, he also zeroed in on the fact that I am in a union-represented software engineering position at Boeing, and how different that was from Amazon. He said, "I can't even fathom software engineers being in a union."

Another possible explanation was my salary requirement. I got the feeling they were looking for a lower-salaried person. My current salary is right around the average in Seattle for a software development manager. I had assumed that a senior technical program manager would be equivalent to a software development manager, but that’s probably not true since, at Amazon, a software development manager is a people manager as well as a technical contributor. It was emphasized to me more than once that the TPM job was not a people managing job. I would be an individual contributor. That could mean a significantly lower salary than what I was seeking.

But the most likely reason I was not selected was that I may not have been as technically competent as the other candidates being interviewed. (I don't know who they were or how many.) The fact is, a big strike against me in the current tech world is that my skills are dated. I developed a lot of software in the 90s and early 2000s, and was at the top of my game as a Java programmer and relational database expert, but times have moved on. The hot skills today are in Web Services and extremely large datasets modeled as massive numbers of key-value pairs. In the Web 2.0 world there are a lot of low level technical issues that have a huge impact on site performance. The big sites all want to crunch a lot of data, and they want to do it fast and accurately. It's mind boggling when you compare it to the modest Web efforts that you saw in, say, 1999. I understand many of today's issues, and I know how to address them on small sites, but my knowledge doesn’t scale to large sites with lots of traffic. Also, when it comes to Web stuff in general, I am very handy with PHP, MySQL, HTML, Javascript, AJAX and CSS, but I am not up to speed on Twitter, Facebook apps, MySpace apps, or any of the social networking infrastructure tools and techniques that are so popular right now.

I guess the main lesson from this experience was the 'who are you?' question presented to me during the interview. I suppose we all reinvent ourselves all the time. I am famous among my friends for coming up with new "five-year plans." But sooner or later I think we run into a reinvention phase that goes far beyond what we expected. For me, suddenly discovering that I am not a marketable programmer is a huge loss of identity. Should it be? I don't think so. I think the right course is to say "Here's what I do today" and go from there, and not let my identity be influenced by what I've done in the past or what I hope to do in the future. My identity is what I do now.

Bottom line: maybe Amazon did me a favor by not hiring me. Because now I have time to write this blog!

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

What Was I Thinking?

I've been thinking a lot about what to do with this blog. It was originally a place where I serialized a couple of fiction pieces. That was fun, but after a while I was ready to move on, to "re-purpose" this space, as they say in modern lingo. This change of heart about serializing stories could be related to Stephen King's advice to "write the first draft in private" (see his memoir, On Writing). The way I was doing serialized fiction was to basically publish short sections of a long story as I was writing it for the first time. It's kind of like inviting everyone in the world to read your first draft. Now I'm writing the first draft of my new novel in private and, frankly, it's a lot less stressful.

Meanwhile, what do I do with this blog? Answer: memoirs. This was motivated, in part, by a recent unpleasant experience in the job market here in Seattle. By that I mean that I interviewed for a job and didn't get it. I was seriously bummed by this. I was telling my wife that I should write about it, and while I was at it maybe I should document some of my other spectacular failures over the years. I've pulled some boners, but they didn't seem so bad at the time. They still don't. They seemed like re-direction, or re-purposing. There I go with that word again. Then my wife said, "Why don't you write an essay about each year of your life?" At first I thought she was implying that I had at least one spectacular failure per year to write about. It's probably true but that's besides the point. Important note to husbands: your wife can freely address your, ahem, less successful moments. As it turns out she was really suggesting that I write about the most important thing that happened to me in each year of my life. I thought that was a pretty cool idea.

Here's my general plan for documenting the last 52 years or so:

2008 - How I Didn't Get A Job At

2007 - Leaving the Catholic Church

2006 - My Great Publishing Adventure - Part 1 of 3

2006 - My Great Publishing Adventure - Part 2 of 3

2006 - My Great Publishing Adventure - Part 3 of 3

2005 - Hurricane Katrina, or How My Mother's Funeral Got Rescheduled

2004 - Go West, and Learn to Play Jazz

2003 - Ten Weeks At A Hellhole In Kentucky

2002 - Death On The Back Roads Of Georgia

2001 - A Clear Blue Morning in Washington, D.C.

2000 - A Mother's Day I'll Never Forget

1999 - Big Time Internet Tycoon

1998 - Claire

1997 - Learning the Piano by Starting Over

1996 - Philadelphia Story

1995 - Alex

1994 - Family Reunion, or Chaos in Pensacola

1993 - Sluglines: a D.C. Tradition

1992 - One Day at the Carmel Mission

1991 - Backpacking in the Sierra Nevadas

1990 - Paradise Found on Monterey Bay

1989 - Company Commander

1988 - On the DMZ

1987 - OK in Oklahoma

1986 - Stung by a Southern Belle

1985 - Germany

1984 - Lieutenants, Clue Optional

1983 - Benning School for Boys (and Girls)

1982 - A Detailed Study of Pentagon Happy Hours

1981 - Murillo Manor Daze

1980 - A Roommate Too Far

1979 - Hay Street

1978 - Airborne Journalist

1977 - Reporting for Duty

1976 - Basic Training

1975 - The Only Trophy I Ever Won

1974 - Music School

1973 - High School Graduation

1972 - Philmont

1971 - St Charles Streetcar

1970 - Uptown Living

1969 - Jimi Hendrix

1968 - Man on the Moon, Me on Celeste Ave

1967 - Life at St Matthew's

1966 - Altar Boy

1965 - Spanked by a Nun

1964 - Poughkeepsie, New York

1963 - A Big Birthday Party

1962 - First Communion

1961 - Waiting for the Mailman

1960 - No Doughnuts for Billy

1959 - My Life As An Orator

1958 - Boutte, La.

1957 - Resor Street

1956 - Lots of Diapers (the kind you wash)

1955 - Hotel Dieux

I hope to post these essays about every other week.

While I'm on the subject of memoirs, I'm reading two now that I really like. The Desert Remembers My Name, by Kathleen Alcala; and The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion.

In both of these I am inspired by the quality of the writing and the way the subject matter is handled.

Bill Branley

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