Tale of the Interview Gunfight. A cautionary tale for interviewers and… | by Matt Schellhas | Jul, 2022

A cautionary tale for interviewers and interviewees alike.

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Elegant weapons for a more elegant duel by Chris de Lima on Unsplash

One late afternoon, a figure walks through an anonymous doorway. Inside, a tiny bar like you find in every city. It’s dark and dreary, but the figure moves with familiarity. A regular. That out of work engineer. The bartender knows that look. Unemployment taking its toll.

The usual?

The engineer nods.

Job hunt again?

The engineer takes their drink and needs little prompting. Yeah. I had the worst interview today. Just complete incompetence. I’m not sure how they’re still in business.

First they had me do a coding test. Twenty five years in the industry, but apparently I might not be able to write code! Whatever. Normal leetcode shit. Take some data, juggle it around. Used a heap and pounded out an optimal log-n solution. The bartender nodded with professionally feigned understanding.

Then it was some systems design. The usual whiteboard diagrams. But they wanted a grocery list app? The engineer shook their head and remembered their drink, finishing a third of it in one go. I mean, I designed up a nice scalable solution. It’d handle a few million customers no problem. Then the interviewer asks me about bread and dates? I don’t like dates. Who eats dates?!?

But then it got worse! More behavioral nonsense. “Tell me about a time when you were awesome?” mockingly. So I did! You remember that LSI Holdings project last year? The bartender did not. Six months to salvage that dumpster fire. Hell, I wrote half of the code myself. Made them millions. “Tell me about a time when you had a conflict with a coworker?” so inventive! The drink was nearly gone by now.

They said no. The dunderhead manager said I “wasn’t a good culture fit”. The engineer spit out the last few words and finished the drink. “Wasn’t at the expected level technically”?!? I’ve been a senior engineer for a decade! I could do that job in my sleep.

The bartender nodded sympathetically, producing another drink as they finally spoke up. Rough. With an interview process like that, what would it be like working there? It sounds like you really dodged a bullet.

Around the same time, a few miles down the road another dark and dreary bar welcomes a different patron. An engineering manager. They scowl their way to the familiar bar, and are greeted by another bartender with a cold drink and a warm smile.

Bad day?

The manager eagerly takes the drink.

Not sure we’re ever going to hire anyone. Today was the worst candidate yet.

Oh? The bartender grabbed a mostly clean glass to clean further while the manager talked. Old habit. Folks get nervous when you listen too intently.

Yeah. Tons of experience, but lots of red flags.

Basic stuff even. Like their coding challenge didn’t have any tests. The code looked good, but it didn’t actually work! Just dumb mistakes. Maybe that stuff would get caught with real work, but it’s sloppy and just makes the lack of tests more apparent. It’s hard enough to get new grads to write good tests without seniors that skimp on them. The bartender nodded. That makes sense. Even at the bar, they had to set a good example.

And then the design round was a disaster! We do inventory tracking, like with your beer and burgers and stuff. The app will alert you when things are about to go bad or run out. A well-practiced pitch of their product it seemed. Anyways, we have candidates do a simple version to see how they approach problems. Apparently, this one approaches problems by over-engineering the hell out of them! That one came with a sad chuckle for the sad joke. Two separate databases, queues, and events everywhere, and it still didn’t handle expiration dates… The interviewer tried to help them, but they were new to it and the candidate didn’t get the hint.

The manager looked disappointed as they reached for their drink. I could maybe deal with that stuff, but then we asked about leadership. How they influenced a large organization. Glasses moved quietly from the “mostly clean” pile to the “done” pile as the bartender nodded along. I asked a few questions and the answers were all about the tech. “I rewrote the CI pipeline!” and “I designed this multimillion dollar architecture”. We need folks to shape our culture and grow the company, not some hero coder. The one time they didn’t talk about tech was the time that they got a team to work overtime for three months to hit a deadline they made up! As if that’s something to be proud of…

That elicited a chuckle from the bartender, who finally spoke up. Heh, yeah. The sort that burns the boats keep the crew motivated. It sounds like you really dodged a bullet.

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