I was happily working at Coverity in the winter before Coverity laid me off. I got a call from a recruiter.
“Hello. I am a recruiter with Bridgewater Associates. We are a hedge fund, and we use technology to help us with our trading. We are looking to hire a senior QA engineer, or a QA manager. Your resume came up in my search.”
“That’s interesting. Where are you located?”
“We are in Stamford, Connecticut, outside of New York City”
Huh. That’s a big move!
He proceeded to describe the culture of Bridgewater, about how they prided themselves on debates, and challenging each other to ferret out hidden assumptions. He seemed really proud of that. I told him that I was open to talking.
He then asked, “OK. So how much are you making right now?”
I responded with, “Why don’t we wait until the interview process is complete, and we are negotiating the offer? I don’t know what the difference in cost-of-living is between Austin and Stamford, and I really need to do some research.”
When he pushed back with needing to know for the hiring manager to be able to decide whether or not to talk to me, I said,
“That’s a trap question. If I say something that’s too high, you could stop the process. If I say something too low, you could either not pay me enough, or decide that I must not know what I am doing or I would have asked more.”
I also asked him if this is the kind of debate that Bridgewater encouraged. He did not seem to find that funny somehow.
However, he went away and called back the next day, and said that they would like to fly me out to talk to me.
Huh. New York in January. I don’t have any real winter clothes, but I did my best. I would fly out Thursday night, talk to them on Friday, and fly back Saturday morning. I had to rent a car to get from Newark to Stamford.
I got to Newark at 8:00 PM. It was snowing lightly. Took me almost 2 hours going through New York in the dark snow to get to hotel in Stamford. First interview was Friday morning at 9:00, so I did not get to see much of the neighborhood before going in to talk.
When I got to the office, I was informed that all of the interview sessions were done by pairs of engineers, and that they were recorded. If I did not agree to being recorded, they would call off the interview, no questions asked. I thought to myself, “Well, you could have told me before I got on the airplane yesterday…”
In the first session, they asked me about what was the hardest problem I had solved at Apple. I basically explained it like this:
I was in compiler/developer tools QA. I was in charge of building all of Mac OS X with a new version of our compiler. Doing this exposed problems like:
- The compiler has new warnings, so projects within Apple need to change their source code to get rid of those warnings.
- The compiler failed to parse good code (this was very rare).
- The compiler generated bad code.
Simply compiling all 1200 of the projects exposed the first two kinds of issues relatively quickly. To catch the third case, we had to run as much of the code as possible. A small amount of the lowest level code was run during the build itself, but the rest of the testing had to be done by running the build OS installer, installing the OS, and running a bunch of apps.
Normally, building everything took about 10 hours. The first time I tried to build Mac OS X 10.3 with gcc4, the build ran for about 35 minutes. The first five or so projects built, but the rest of the 1200 all failed to build almost instantaneously.
I asked for help from the compiler team, the build team, and the OS team, but nobody had the time. So rolled up my sleeves, and I figured it out. It took about three weeks, but I found a place in the lowest level of the OS where something was compiled incorrectly, and causing the tools used during the build to all fail. I filed the ticket, gave it to the compiler team, and they fixed it.
OK, so complex problem. Hard to solve. Nobody else had time to help. My charter was clear. I solved the problem. Rather proud of that one, actually.
When I told this story to the interviewers, they asked: “Why you? Why were you the one to have to track this down?”
I tried and tried to explain that it was not clear who was supposed to track it down, and that I got no help, and I was able to do it, and I needed to do it to achieve my goals, so I did it.
They probed me with many different questions, all basically some form of “Well, why didn’t you find somebody whose job it was to track this down?”
They did not like the answer that it was my job in the absence of anything else. They got real pushy with this, and I got a little flustered, feeling pestered.
There was only one person in the second interview. He said, “Under what circumstances should the USA go to war with China?” OK, then. We had a lively discussion there!
The third interview was a rehash of the first interview. They harped on why I debugged the allocator generated by the new compiler for another 45 minutes.
The hiring manager and another fella were in the 4th interview. They walked in, and before anybody sat down, the manager said, “So I talked to everybody, and they said that you were acting very defensively. Would you care to comment?”
I said, without batting an eye, “Well, if I wasn’t before, that’s a good way to get me to start!”
We all laughed. I explained that I spent two interviews answering the same question over and over again about why I debugged something at Apple despite not being on any of the teams directly responsible for any of the code or tools. (Oh, yeah, the original developer of the miscompiled code was now a senior VP at Apple reporting to Steve Jobs. He wrote the code 15 years earlier when he was still at NeXT. I doubt he would have helped me much…)
The manager told me it was part of the debate process that they used there, and they deliberately did this kind of thing to access how the candidate handles it.
I said, “Well, you seem to think that I failed at this with your confrontational comment at the beginning of this session. Perhaps we had better just stop here and not waste anybody else’s time.”
He said, “You are right. Let’s stop.”
He leaned on the table, and clasped his hands out in front of himself.
“Thanks for coming all of this way and talking to us, though. As for logistics, please feel free to spend the night in New York and go to a show or something. Just file an expense report.”
“With all due respect, it’s still before noon, and I would rather change my flight to go home this afternoon, if y’all will pay for the change fee.”
“That would be fine.”
He then completely changed demeanor, and started talking to me, geek-to-geek, about Apple, San Jose, and Silicon Valley. We talked for another half an hour!
I then left, changed my flight, and checked out. Flight was out of LaGuardia, so I had a much shorter drive.
One of the strangest interviews.
The next Monday, the recruiter called back, and the first thing he said, was “What did you do!? I have never heard of them cutting an interview short like that!”
He was bent out of shape. I am sure he thought I was a shoe-in, and he would get a large commission.
I told him the story, and he just sat silent on the phone for about 20 seconds.
“Well, I guess it wasn’t a good cultural fit. Thanks for your time.” and hung up almost before I said goodbye.
What a jerk. Unlike the hiring manager, who was just doing his job.