The Interview: My Technical Interview That's Almost as Funny as a Seth Rogan Movie

I’ve been mulling over whether it would be productive to write this experience down or not. I ultimately came to the conclusion that it would not be productive. However, I am currently cramming for finals and cannot make myself study any more. So I figure writing this would be more productive than just refreshing my email over and over for the next two hours. Full disclosure: I don’t really have any valuable tips to give someone in a technical interview. Hopefully at least I can be an example of what not to do.

It was Feb. 2013. I had just returned home from a two-year mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormon). The only reason this is important is because I basically hadn’t touched a computer in two years. At least not in a programming/technical way. Not that I was very technical before that.

My uncle is a very successful and smart engineer/developer. He has a long list of valid credentials. He phoned me telling me a company he worked for was looking for a Linux server admin and he had remembered that I had played with Linux in the past. Since he was going to be doing the hiring and training, he figured I should apply and he would get me up to speed. Well, that was mistake number one: he overestimated my learning ability. Not only that, but in hindsight I have basically no interest in sysadmin stuff. I don’t now and I probably didn’t then either. But I didn’t really have anything going on, so I figured why not? It would pay well, and give me at least some experience to keep going into the CS field, to some extent.

The first thing we did was get together and prepare my resume. This consisted essentially of us changing the name on his resume and changing the names of the places he’d worked to places I’d worked. I can see now that this was just a formality, since he would really be doing the hiring and training. I didn’t realize that at the time. Then we went through a list of technologies and skills on his resume and cut out the ones I didn’t know. I say didn’t know, but really it was more like things I’d never heard of. Bash? Sure, heard of that. SSH? Yeah I think I had to do that once. A bunch of that kind of thing. Do I really know anything about bash? Absolutely not! At the time I doubt I could have even told you what it was!

Anyways fast forward down the line, I had a job offer. I was supposed to move out to where the job was located (not anywhere close to a place I’d ever lived or been). One day, I told my brother “I really don’t want to move out there and do this job.” He told me: “Then don’t.” So that’s what I did, I bailed. It just didn’t feel right, and rightly so, I can’t even comprehend what it would have been like to get out there and realize how deep I was in over my head, but at the same time feeling like there was no way out. That would have sucked.

The important part here is that I now had a) a job offer and b) a resume that I thought had got me the job offer. The most important part about a job is getting it, right? I have no clue if I had even considered what would happen when I show up day one and have absolutely no idea what’s going on. I never thought that far ahead.

My sort of long term goal was to end up out in Utah, and I would be visiting there soon so I decided to look for Linux server admin jobs in Utah on monster. And what luck! I found one! So I fired them off “my” resume and we set up an interview while I would be out there.

I should mention here something that I comfort myself with at night when I think about this experience and want to crawl out of my skin. I have to find some way to shift some of the guilt of this off of me, and this is what I tell myself. I did not lie about my education on my resume. I put exactly what I had: a high school diploma. Now who in their right mind would ever believe that someone who graduated high school less than 5 years ago, and had been on an LDS mission for two of those, was some kind of Linux guru master? They must have thought I was a prodigy. Sure, they exist . High school kids doing incredible things. I was never one of those kids though. So it was their fault I was even let into the building! Right? Right? Well…that’s what I tell myself.

After getting some feedback on this story, I feel like there is something I should reinforce here. As inexplicable as it may be, I was not aware at this time that I had lied on a resume or that I was even underqualified for this job. Again, someone that I trusted both personally and professionally was okay with what I claimed on my resume. Think about giving your 5 year old the keys to your car. Your child trusts you completely. You’re in the passenger seat, your child is driving. You’re driving down the road, banging into every car along the way. The whole time you’re cheering your kid on “You’re doing great! Great job! You’re an excellent driver!”. At this point, what kind of driver do you think your child thinks they are? They probably believed you when you told them they were an excellent driver, right? If someone else were to ask them what kind of driver they are, your kid would probably just repeat what you had told them, right? That may be a bad example, but that’s the best way I can explain how oblivious I was. I was 22. I should have known better. As hard as it may be to believe, I just didn’t. I don’t know what else I can say. Moving on.

As you can clearly see, I had totally set myself up for failure. Again, I really had no idea what to expect. I hear the term “unknown unknowns” often, to describe something you’re not even aware that you don’t know. I would say that was exactly my experience here. I had no idea what to expect.

The day comes for the interview. I put on my best suit and showed up. “Woah, this is big”, was the first thought when I arrived. I mean, I expected some shop in the corner of an industrial park to be interviewed by maybe some owner/manager that also had no clue about devops. Nope. It was a real, legitimate company, with a huge nice building. The reception area was kind of like an airport terminal, so there was a long desk on the end where multiple receptionists were seated. I walked up to one that wasn’t busy and told him who I was and what I was there for. He said something like “Great, I’ll let them know you’re here.” I happened to spot that he had a Nexus 4 on his desk, and I had just bought one myself and was super stoked about it. That was the first Nexus 4 I had seen in the wild. So I showed him mine and said “Woah, Nexus 4! Nice dude! How do you like it?” He responded with some kind of disinterested “Yeah, it’s great, whatever, you can sit over there while you’re waiting.” Well that guy came across as kind of a dick, but whatever, maybe he was just having a rough day. What he was actually probably thinking was “Who the freak is this kid, interviewing for a job making 80k plus a year?”.

So the guy that’s running the interview shows up and we do the formalities. Then he takes me up to what was basically a server room. I say up, I can’t remember exactly how many stories because we rode in the elevator. I would guess we went up two stories to maybe the third floor? And this whole building was just this company. So again, it’s a huge, real, professional company.

Once we get to the server room, two other guys walk into the room. One is kind of a network guy, and the other is a Linux guy (he was literally wearing a Slackware t-shirt). The guy that took me up there was some kind of project manager from what I could tell. I can’t remember what exactly went on. I think we went over my resume because one question in particular sticks out that makes me want to crawl under a rock and never come out.

“Oh, you know bash?”, the Linux guy asks. “Yeah!” I respond cheerfully. “What have you written in bash then?” This is significant, because it was the first time I had even considered this question. What had I written in bash? I do know what bash is, right? The best response I can come up with was “I don’t remember.” I DON’T REMEMBER!?!?! Are you kidding me? Again, this is something that I comfort myself with. At that point, the interview should have ended. 5 minutes in. I should have been scolded briefly for wasting their time and for falsifying my resume. But nope, they kept on going. Maybe they were enjoying it? The looks on their faces said otherwise.

After going over the fake resume, we transitioned into kind of a question-answer quiz thing. First up was the network guy. I estimate that we spent maybe 5 mintues going back and forth with questions and answers. I have no idea what he was asking me, I didn’t at the time either. TCP something, UDP bla bla bla. HTTP FTP something something. I have no idea what my answers could have been. Maybe I’ve subconsciously blocked them out as a survival tactic. I do remember answering “I don’t know” to some of them, which I have to give myself credit for. I’ve heard of technical interview tactics where they try to get to a point where the candidate doesn’t know the answer to their questions, as a way to test if they’re capable of admitting that they don’t know something. I’m huge on that- the first step in learning something is recognizing you don’t know it right? Never be afraid to admit you don’t know something.

Going on now, we transition to the Linux guy. He does the same question-answer thing, for about the same amount of time. I think I might have done a little better on this one. What that actually means is that I answered a lot less of his questions “I don’t know”. I would bet that I was able to answer about the same amount of questions correctly though, there were just more that I could at least fathom a guess and answer. This guy in particular sticks out to me because his face grew more and more distressed as we went on. By the end he was frowning and pretty much just barking his questions out. It was as if I was killing him. I guess maybe that’s humorous in hind sight. Maybe not.

By the end of these two QA sessions, one thing was explicitly clear to me: I had NO idea what I was doing there. I should have run out of that building right then and there! But I didn’t, because I was and am, an idiot.

Manager guy pipes up, telling me that there was a 3rd phase of the technical interview. I was to configure a CentOS server. He phrased his question something like “Do you think you feel comfortable trying the server part?” but what he was really trying to give me the hint to take his mercy and get the heck out of there. I did not. Again, I comfort myself by questioning why he wouldn’t have just ended the interview there. Why did he even give me a shot? His fault, not mine. Right?

They put me in front of a screen and a keyboard. Note that a mouse was not involved. It was literally just a command line for a CentOS machine. Maybe you’re laughing at this. I had definitely used the command line before, at least enough to know about vim. This part of the interview I have the hardest time remembering. I think at this point I was surviving on pure instinct, like a bug running away from a shoe. I think the Linux guy handed me a sheet of instructions, on a piece of paper. There were maybe 10 steps I was supposed to do? I can’t remember what any of those steps were however.

Oh, and now that I’m thinking about it, I had access to another computer that was a full GUI system and I was allowed to use Google on that.

So I spend waste another 20 minutes of their time googling step by step each one of their instructions. They just sat silently in awe behind me. It was horrible, I can’t imagine the looks they were shooting each other. The only thing I remember about this part was I had to edit a file, so I fired up vim. The only problem was that I had no idea how to use vim. I think I literally googled “how to use vim” and figured out how to at least get into insert mode. I couldn’t figure out how to exit insert mode and save/quit though. I started typing “how to exit vim” into Google but the Linux guy shouted “escape, colon, w, q!”. And yes, I had to google that to even write this post.

I think I might have actually finished the server part? I can’t remember, but I’m pretty sure I didn’t just give up. I swiveled around in my chair and tried my best to smile. I said something like “that’s what I love, just figuring stuff out and learning” as a way to maybe justify how bad I sucked? I mean, what else was I supposed to say?

And then just like that, the interview was over. They did ask me one last question though: “Are you okay to travel?” I can’t believe they didn’t just burst out with laughter at that. Even the suggestion that I was a viable candidate was laughable by then, I’m even chuckling to myself now thinking about it. Just really, the icing on the cake.

I said goodbye to networking and Linux guys and manager guy escorted my back to the lobby. I remember talking to him about how cool I thought Chrome OS was (it was still kinda new at that point). Why I brought up Chrome OS is beyond me. I’m pretty sure I also showed him my Nexus 4. To give him credit, he was nice. Nicer than networking guy and a lot nicer than Linux guy. My theory is that he’s the reason the interview went on. He must have been superior in hierarchy to networking and Linux guys, and he was probably too nice to end the interview.

We got back down to the lobby where it all began, he told me he’d let me know on Monday what they had decided, and it was over.

Needless to say, I did not hear back from them on Monday. Not a decline, not an offer, just nothing. Usually that pisses me off because clearly there’s a reason you didn’t get the job and how can you improve if you don’t know what you did wrong, but this was more like a “go get a degree in IT and come back in four years” thing. It wasn’t in the realm of “you kept picking your nose in the interview” or “another candidate has foreign language experience.” No amount of feedback could have helped me.

I’ve thought about that interview a lot over the past 2-3 years, however long it’s been. I’ve gotten jobs with a real resume. I’ve worked at a car wash, in retail sales, web development. I got all those jobs with a real resume. I don’t have a ton of regrets about the interview itself. It may sound crazy, but given my level of skill and capability, I think I actually interviewed pretty well. Obviously I regret faking a resume, but in my defense I didn’t really know I was faking it. Again, that sounds insane, but if someone who does know something tells you you know it too, you believe them. At least I did. And I can’t throw my Uncle under the bus too much, he didn’t intend for me to actually use this resume in real life.

And that’s really all there is to say. Don’t fake your resume, kids. I remember when I was a kid my friends brother told me he could jump over my house. I believed him at first, but when I asked to see a demonstration it was clear that he could not. You have nothing to gain by lying. It’s okay if you don’t know everything. I can promise you this: if you lie on your resume and get the job, you’ll be miserable. And if you’re not, lying on a resume isn’t the extent of your problems.