My Job Interviews

One can find articles, on internet or in various magazines, which advise job seekers how to behave during an interview. There are of course good behaviors, making a job offer more probable, and bad behaviors, which would rapidly disqualify a candidate. The articles offering advise often concentrate on fine points, with the assumption that there are some secret and esoteric methods to make you successful.

I remember giving only one advice to my children or friends when they went for an interview. It was based on what mayor Ed Koch of New York once said when asked what if he loses incoming elections. He said, “If they do not choose me, I will find a better job, but they will not find a better candidate.”

I will tell here the story of some of my job interviews. They may be instructive, but mostly entertaining. You take what you think is good and reject what you think is bad. I will jump ahead with one conclusion: it is a chaotic process. Perhaps a better way to say it is that it is in God’s hands.

Here we go:

Interview #1: Chase Manhattan, 1981, Succeeded

I arrived in the United States on December 9 and in January I started to look for a job. After many months of search, I was almost entering a state of depression and losing hope. During those months I continued to lower may expectations, to the point where I would have accepted anything at any level of compensation.

Finally, a lady from a placement agency sent me to an interview for a programmer position with a big New York bank. She had a way of encouraging me:

“Do not worry about your strong accent. It sounds European, and most people think that Europeans are smart and educated. Rather than a disadvantage, it gives you and advantage.” Well, not Europeans are smart and educated, but if this is what Americans think, so much the better for me.

I was interviewed by two people. The first was a young and beautiful lady, maybe just a few years older than me. I do not remember the details, but looking back at the results, I believe I did well. The second was a man around thirty-five, an East European Jew, himself an immigrant. Here I had a small problem.

I was inflating my resume with some experience which I never had. While I was having some moral doubts, I finally looked at it as a white lie which would not hurt anybody. Imagine this: you sold somebody a piece of metal you pretend that it weighs 11 ounces. You lie, because in reality it weighs only 10 ounces. However, the buyer believe he buys silver, when in fact the metal is gold. Are you hurting the buyer? No. He gets more than he expected for his money. Thus, although you lied, you are not hurting the buyer. I was thinking in the same way. I was sure I will be doing better than 90% of the programmers, so what does it matter if I lie about my experience? I had a second moral argument: I was desperate, so why hesitate to lie when it comes to feeding my family?

When this second person interviewed me, all went well until he asked an unexpected question: “You claim here that you have worked with PDP-11 computers. How come? As far as I know, they do not have them in Eastern Europe.” He new something about Easter Europe, as he was a Jewish immigrant from Soviet Union. I had to be consistent, so I insisted that we had PDP-11s in Bucharest, Romania. I am sure he did not believe me.

I believe at that point we both had a moment of clarity. He knew I was lying, and I knew he knew I was lying. It was transparent for both of us. I was however saved. I imagine my interviewer might have had these thoughts:

“He is obviously lying about his experience. On the other side, he is young, and bright. He is desperate to get a job, which is understandable. If I hire him, he will work harder than others and will produce more. I was once in his position, so why not?”

A few days later I got an offer for $18,500 per year. It was not bad in 1981, but not high either. I was incredibly happy, thinking that now I can do what only very rich people can do, go once a month and have a hamburger at McDonalds’.

Interview #2: Some bank in New York, 1983, Failed

I knew that Chase was only a steppingstone for me, so in 1983 I applied for a job at another New York bank. I hoped to get a better salary and a position of more responsibility. The interview went well, and they told me that as a last step I must take a polygraph test. No problem, there was no inflated resume and no intention to lie this time.

It was the only time in my life when I took a lie detector test, and I found it interesting and relaxing. However, when the results came, I was told that they caught me lying about my residence status in the United States. The truth, which could be proved with documents, was that I had a political refugee status, with the right to work. I protested and went to show them the documents. I do not know if they believe me or not, but I was rejected. I will never trust lie detectors.

Interview #3: Some other bank in New York, 1983, Failed

I did not give up and applied at another bank. I met a team of brilliant software developers, and I got all the signals that they like me. Their boss even asked me if I can start earlier than usual (I agreed). I was told that the last step, purely formal, was an interview with a guy from Human Resources.

When I stepped in his office, he told me that it was all a big mistake. The description of the position specified the requirement for a person with two years’ experience in a certain technology, while my resume clearly indicated that I had only one year experience, therefore I could not occupy the position. I do not remember how I reacted, only that I left not so much disappointed, but marveling at the stupidity of a so-called human resource specialist. What does it matter if one has one- or two-years’ experience in a particular field? I knew cases of developers with no experience in a certain technology, only to become experts in one or two weeks, simply because they were highly intelligent. I also knew people with ten years’ experience who had poor results.

Interview #4, Large marketing company in New York, 1984, Succeeded

I really do not remember the interview itself, only that they made me an offer, which I accepted. I was now making more than 50% more than in my first job, so it was not bad, and in addition the work was interesting. Unfortunately, I soon run into trouble.

I had two problems there. The first was that the management chose some technical solution which was very poor but made great profits for a particular vendor. I demonstrated that it was not a good solution, at which time I incurred the wrath of my boss who might have had some private interests to recommend it. The second problem appeared a year later, when I got a poor work review. I argued with my boss, showing that I performed above expectations and at the highest level of quality, while working in harmonious relationships with the team. After a long discussion she told me the truth.

“Look,” she said, “women were oppressed for a hundred years in this country. The only way to help them move ahead is to ensure that they get better reviews, so they can be promoted.”

Nice, I sympathized with all those oppressed women, but I was not amused to be the victim of somebody’s social agenda. I decided that I had no future there, and I resigned, which was a mistake, because I did not have another job.

Some headhunter promised me a 100% sure position as a contract developer, which soon became 0%.

Interview #5, Investment bank, New York, 1986, Succeeded

Perhaps this was my most amazing interview of my career.

I was in dire straits, I run out of money, and I had a wife and two children to feed at home. I was working with a headhunter who promised to find something good for me.

One Sunday afternoon I got a call, and he told me he had an interview set up for me in three days. What position? I asked. He told me it was a large investment bank which desperately wanted developers with Natural/Adabas experience. My resume indicated that I had just that.

“Forget about it,” I said, “while it is true that I worked with Natural/Adabas, I only did it for one week, therefore I cannot claim I have any serious experience.”

“Do not worry,” he responded in a confident voice, “your experience is good enough and they are really desperate to find people.”

I knew this will be a technical interview, and my only chance was to somehow refresh my knowledge. Monday morning, I went back to one of my previous employers, where in the past I had the brief encounter with Natural/Adabas, with the hope that they would lend me a manual for a few days. I was thrown out in the street (not literally!). An old boss told me that since I decided to leave them, I am on my own and they will not move a finger to help me.

My next step was to contact Software AG, the company which created and sold Natural/Adabas. Surely, they had the manuals and were willing to sell them. I called and I was told that in order to buy the manuals, they had to first send me a non-disclosure agreement, I have to sign and send it back, then I had to pay around $100 (which I did not have) and in other two weeks I would receive the manuals. That was not good: my interview was coming in two days.

At the last moment I had an idea. What about if I go to their office in Manhattan and beg them to lend me the manuals for a day or two? Who knows, maybe I will be lucky and find a good soul who would have mercy on me. So I went, and I talked with a manager, who seemed very willing to help, but told me he is not allowed to let the manuals out of the building. “Not a problem,” I told him, “I will stay in the lobby and study the manuals here. He agreed, and I spent 3-4 hours reading through the manuals. That was however some poor preparation. Once cannot learn from a technical manual in hours something that normally requires weeks or months of hands-on experience.

At the investment bank I was interviewed by two ladies and had an unexpected luck. The first lady asked me a series of technical questions, and I was able to answer only about half of them. That was not promising. However, I had the inspiration to always ask what the correct answer was, and I tried to remember it.

To my surprise, the second lady asked me exactly the same technical questions, and this time I answered all of them correctly. I imagine that the two ladies met afterwards and compared notes. I was mediocre for one but perfect for the second one. As they averaged their impressions, they decided to make me an offer.

I was not only saved from hunger, but the offer was for double what I was making in my previous job. God was good with me.

Interview #6, Software Company, Reston, VA, 1987, Successful

I really wanted to work for a software company, where I was thinking I would be involved in more creative and challenging work. To my good fortune, I was called by the Vice President of a software company to come for an interview. It was not my initiative, but his, so I was in a good position from the very beginning. I do not remember the interview, perhaps it was a pure formality. This happened in December 1987. I immediately received an offer, which I accepted, soon to be confronted with a strange situation.

A few days before the end of December, a secretary sent me the forms I had to fill in order to become an employee. I did it, but there was a point in which I did not know what to write: the starting date. I was not sure when I would be able to leave my current job. I called the secretary and asked her what to write. She told me that it was absolutely irrelevant, I can write anything, so naturally I wrote “January 1st.” As it happened, I was only able to leave the current job and start the new one at the end of January.

On January 15, surprise: I got my first payroll check from the new company. I immediately called the VP who hired me (he was really in charge of all US operations) and told him about the mistake, that I was not yet working for them, therefore I should have not received the check. “No problem,” he told me, “We’ll correct this when you come here. Just keep the check.”

On January 30th, another surprise: I received the second payroll check. I did not expect it as I though that my previous call had corrected the problem.

I finally showed up in Reston in the first days of February and went straight to the Vice President’s office to return the undeserved checks.

“Mike,” he told me in a conspiratorial voice, “do you want to get me in trouble? How would I explain the mistake? If I return the checks or if they are not cashed, somebody will find out and blame me. However, if you cash them, everybody will be happy. Just keep the money!”

No more interviews

After that I changed jobs a number of times, but without real interviews. In all cases, somebody who knew me from a previous job called and invited me to come. If there was an interview, it was only a formality. I suppose this was the normal evolution of a software developer career.

My conclusion

Many times I failed where I thought I would succeed, and succeeded where I thought I would fail.

My advice: Relax and do your best. The rest is in God’s hands.

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