24 July 2005

Clueless in Seattle

OK … so I’m sure the title of this article has been used before. Anyway …

This month I was interviewed for a job at a “major online retailer” in Seattle. Washington state wasn’t really on my radar, I must admit. I’m from Boston originally and spent the first 30 years of my life battling the elements there. Moving to a place even closer to the North Pole (albeit without the severe temperature drops) wasn’t necessarily what I wanted. But the recruiter made the company sound great and I desperately want to move away from Los Angeles. So I go through The Process.

For starters, this place has me go through three phone screen interviews. Which I guess in today’s economy isn’t that big a deal. Except that half the questions they’re asking me don’t fit with the senior technical management positions I’m being considered for. They’re asking me basic implementation questions about things I hadn’t touched since college days, or before then in some cases.

But OK, I put up with it. I need the job. I get through this part of the process and they decide to fly me up for an on-site interview. By this time I’m thinking they’re pretty serious to spend money to fly me 1000 miles to Seattle, so I’d need to do something pretty harsh to screw things up.

Before my flight I do some research on Seattle. It’s about the same size as Boston which is nice since LA is just too overcrowded. It’s also one of the best educated and safest cities. Also good - and also things LA is not. But from looking at news from the city it also appeared to be somewhat on the provincial side - though Vancouver is only a two hour drive away and looked to be a more happening place. I get up there and am impressed immediately by (a) that you can actually drive from the airport to downtown at rush hour at normal highway speeds, (b) how clean the city is, (c) that the air smells like … well … air, and (d) how generally pleasant everyone seems to be.

So I go there the next day for my big interview. I have six meetings scheduled, one being a double-team with two people working me over. Again they dive into the CS 101 questions. They say it’s because they want to be sure that candidates are up on the fundamentals, but I’m starting to get suspicious. For openers, what’s “fundamental” to their problem space is not so for other businesses - in some cases their fundamentals would be useless for projects I worked on over the years.

And they mix in weird “puzzle” kinds of questions too - the same kind of gimcrack crapola college recruiters used to pull. On top of which, a couple of the people I talk to have that annoying academic habit of asking questions in a way that you can’t tell if they want an answer or an approach to an answer. One person I spoke to wasn’t familiar with what the Bourne shell was, another didn’t know who Gosling was. I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, Toto.

There’s a lot of emphasis on “how do you handle when another group doesn’t meet their commitment to yours?” … also a red flag. Three times I’m asked how I handle when a project is behind - in one case the question is posed so that I have inherited a project which has been mismanaged into the dirt. These are also red flags - on multiple levels. One is that they’re telling me a lot about their real organizational and operational problems.

The other is that they either don’t realize or don’t care that they’re painting a bad picture of their organization. Coupled with the line of questioning and interviewing technique I think they have the myopic hubris that was so prevalent in successful dot-coms in the 90’s. That belief that their company is so great that anyone is privileged to be allowed to work there. That attitude works in a recession. But eventually it drives away real talent.

Further evidence of this comes from the fact that no one made the slightest attempt to sell me on the company. I was told the very basic facts about the compensation and benefits, but that was it. I had to drag information out of my interviewers about how they liked working at this company, and I never spoke with anyone from HR - whose job it usually is to extoll the virtues of working at the company. This place seems to have forgotten that the interview process really is a 2-way street.

Anyway, I left feeling pretty good about how things went, but bothered by the tone of the proceedings. I would never interview a management candidate the way they had interviewed me, and there were huge clues that I would be walking into a buzz-saw of a workplace. Seattle seemed like a nice enough place, but I was warned that in winter the days are short and perpetually overcast - gloomy, even.

So I was both shocked and a little relieved when they called me a day later to tell me they decided to pass on hiring me. I asked for feedback but got none from the HR person in charge of my interview - which is also not the way to treat management candidates. Very bad form.

And the weird bit - there was a 3.1 earthquake in the Seattle area the day they told me they weren’t going to hire me. So I take that as a sign that it just wasn’t meant to be - and they will be swallowed up into the fiery pits of hell for their decision.

OK. Maybe not.

But the kind of arrogance they displayed will catch up eventually. It always does. I’ve seen it over and over in high tech for over twenty years. The economy will sooner or later right itself, and their key technical leaders will move on to new start-ups, or move up to executive positions elsewhere. And then they will suddenly find that they can’t hire the same calibre people to replace these positions - because the people they need will have no problem finding good jobs at companies that interview them in accordance with their backgrounds and accomplishments, instead of as if they were college fresh-outs.

Life is on the wheel, what goes around comes around.