So many times I’ve made strong resolutions to break them within days, hell even hours sometimes. I can’t imagine how many times I’ve promised myself a month of clean eating after an ice cream binge, only to order a pizza that evening. The best outcome I’ve realized is to make positive progress in the direction I want to go. This past week was one of those good ones.
I wrote fiction every week day last week, and this week as well. I finished a short story for the first time in way, way too long. I learned about cryptocurrencies without letting it consume my full days, and mentally automated my investing strategies. I also meditated almost every day, did some fitness, and ate reasonable most days (I did indulge in a pizza and ice cream binge on the weekend).
One week from today I embark back on the nomadic life. I have a one-way ticket to Puerto Rico, and am looking forward to updating you on all of that. For my last weekend in Northern California some friends organized a trip to Carmel for my girlfriend and I which was incredibly nice.
Now for the first time ever I’m going to post a short story that I wrote. It’s certainly not my best as I had to shake off over a year of ring rust, as well as only being mildly edited. I tried writing almost completely in the dark; I had the idea for a tech interview in an unusual place, and just started typing without planning. I want to document this for myself though, and put something into the world as I’m sure I’ll never “feel ready”.
This is loosely inspired by a recent string of tech interviews that I did. I went through several rounds at some of the big companies, including Google and Twitter. No offense if you brush past this one, but if you liked/hated/could-care-less about something feel free to let me know!
Teddy sat upright as possible in the cracked pleather chair, doing his best to exude confidence. This office was quite a change from his past few interviews. Cigarette smoke seeped from the carpet, likely from years of this room being a hot-box. A stack of television monitors showed the activities of the business in the corner, while his interviewer Sai, ran his eyes down Teddy’s resume. Even though the door to the office was massive and appeared to be sound-concealing, Teddy could still faintly hear the DJ through it.
“Let’s give it up for Cashmere,” the DJ said on the microphone. “The next 10 minutes we have a two-for-one special, so break out your wallets. That’s right, $20 gets you two songs gentlemen, so if you need to go to the little boys room make it fast.”
Sai had finally finished Teddy’s resume and made eye contact. “So it says on here you have experience with Machine Learning in addition to knowing front-end web development. You listed Python and Sci-Kit Learn on your resume, how high would you rate your Python skills?”
Teddy squirms for a moment as he ponders how confident to reply. “I would say medium I guess. I’ve done a bunch of tutorials online, and did a Kaggle machine learning competition that I placed in the top 50%. Whatever you need here I can brush up on and learn quickly though.”
Sai squints as he stares Teddy down. “Lets just do a few basic questions then, we won’t get into any hard ML topics. What’s the cost function for logistic regression?” Sai motions to a white-board and hands Teddy a marker.
Teddy’s legs are shaky as he takes the marker walking over to the board, no idea how he plans to get through this question. He writes up Cost Function and Logistic Regression on the board, as if this will somehow will himself the knowledge. “I’ve seen it before, I just don’t have it memorized. I use the Sci-Kit learn library, it already has it implemented.” He looks back hoping Sai will let him off the hook.
Sai shrugs, “it’s ok, just try figuring it out. Go from first principles if you have to. We’re looking to hire computer scientists here, not someone who just copies and pastes code from libraries that do everything for them.”
With a deep inhalation Teddy starts scribbling things on the board. He knows the function has to do with minimizing errors, and finally something from his subconscious comes to him as he quickly writes it before he loses it. “Ah yes I remember now we are trying to minimize the log-loss right? Something about y-hat and y-predicted values?” Teddy looks at Sai after writing some of this down.
“You’re right we are minimizing the log-loss, but what is that in terms of the real and predicted values?”
Teddy turns back to the board, looks and stares rubbing his chin for divine intuition. It does not come.
“Ok forget that. Let’s just do some basic algorithm questions, sound good?”
Some relief hits Teddy to escape this question, even if he knows algorithms are likely to be just as difficult.
“Let’s start with something simple. Write out an algorithm for me that maximizes profit in the stock market. You are given a list of numbers corresponding to the closing price each day sequentially. You can only buy and sell once, so it should generate the maximum profit. You have to buy first before you sell, so if the price never goes lower than a previous point the maximum profit is 0.”
This sounded more doable to Teddy. He turned back to the whiteboard, and writes an example for himself. $60, $80, $100, $50. “With this sequence the maximum profit is $40 right? I should buy the first day, and sell on the third day?”.
Sai nods affirmatively. “Ok how would you translate that into code for N examples?”
Teddy knows he should start with something like profit=0 , have some things in the middle that change profit if there is a profitable trade, and return profit at the end. He decides to write these with a feeling of satisfaction that he’s making progress. In the middle though, the real meat of it, he pauses for a while to consider the if statements that will make it all work.
The door of the room swings open jarring Teddy with rap lyrics about Molly and Percocet. A strawberry blonde with jiggling saggy breasts featuring a tattoo of someone’s name in cursive stomps into the room.
“Where is Mark,” she says in Sai’s direction who shakes his head. Looking at Teddy and the whiteboard now she squints her eyes. “What are you doing up there? I love math even though I suck at it.”
“It’s a computer algorithm question. I’m interviewing here for the web development team.” Teddy looks at Sai confused whether to focus on solving this question or to engage with the exotic dancer.
The dancer laughs at Teddy “This is a strip club, you think you’ve seen everything— Only in the Bay Area I swear.” She twirls her finger at Teddy, “ok wonder boy show us the answer.”
“Well… we can have an if statement that checks if there is a day with a higher price after the first day. If not then we can just return $0 profit.”
“No don’t do that,” Sai says shaking his head. “I like my code lean, you’re already going to cycle through things, no need to write extra lines. It’s a good thing I didn’t ask you any Dynamic Programming questions.”
The dancer turns her head to the side and rolls her eyes. “Give him a break. I mean seriously why are you grilling the kid so hard? I know you’re some IBM genius or whatever, and I obviously have no clue how to do any of this, but if the kid checks out why not just give him a chance?”
Teddy rummages through his brain for a better way to solve the problem, but is taken aback by the IBM comment. How does someone go from IBM to Cheetahs in Silicon Valley? He can’t help himself from asking. “You used to work at IBM as a software developer?”
Sai’s face cringes. “IBM? God no, I was a senior software engineer at Google. I graduated from the Indian Institute of Technology, it’s the MIT of India.” Sai stands now continuing and getting his hands involved. “Do you know how hard it is to compete in that school? I crushed everyone, they don’t just hand you jobs in Silicon Valley when you’re from India. I was the best dev in my class, and got offers from every major tech company, finally accepting Google.”
“Oh…” Teddy says even more confused. “I don’t mean any offense but why did you leave Google?”
“Yeah I’m curious now too,” the dancer says as she stuffs a wad of gum into her mouth.
Sai waves the question off with his hand. “We’ve run out of time now for the technical portion of this interview. I’m not really big on behavioral questions so we’ll let you know in a week or so ok?”
Teddy stands motionless for a few seconds, unsure of how he just blew an interview as a strip club programmer. He thought he had gotten close with a few startup jobs, but it was past crunch time with no way to make rent this month.
“Listen I know I didn’t do so hot on those questions, but if you look at my Github you can see that I have a diverse portfolio of projects. I don’t have a Computer Science degree, but I was one of the best students at my programming bootcamp. You can—”
“We can’t lower the bar here,” Sai says cutting Teddy off. “A players want to work with A players. You seem like a nice guy, but just because we’re not a tech-first company doesn’t mean we can’t have the same standards.”
Teddy, who has never gave any rebuttal before in his previous letdowns, couldn’t let this go. He starts to mumble a bit, but then is interrupted as the door opened again flooding the room with 80’s rock as a man enters the room. His skin is wrinkled and weathered like a lizard living out in the desert too long. He has shades on even though the club and this room were dim, and his hobbling stride confirms that he is either hungover, or currently drunk.
“Hey Ginger, hey Sai, hey Fucking New Guy,” the man said.
Sai immediately stands up vacating the chair behind the desk. “Hello Mr. G, good to see you.”
“At ease Private,” Mr. G says to Sai as he plops down on the chair behind the desk that Sai was formerly occupying. “Ginger I give you every shift you ask for, what do you want now, my second-born child? You can have that too if you want by the way.”
“Nevermind, you’re fucked up, I’ll ask you some other time,” she says. She shakes off the annoyance that is clear on her face, adjusts her breasts, and heads out to the door back into the strip club.
Mr. G pulls a bullet necklace concealed under his shirt, unscrews a cap, and puts some cocaine on the table. He snorts it up, but there is some residual residue. “New Guy you want a bump?”
“No thanks, I don’t think that would look good when I’m interviewing.” Teddy gives a nervous chuckle, but is despondent that he pretty much already got a no answer from Sai.
“Misery loves company pal. I like your vibe. Tell you what, you do a line with me, you got the job.” Mr. G breaks out another line of blow on the table.
Sai’s eyes bug out for a moment. “Whoa Mr. G I’m the tech person here, I think it’s important that we interview a wide variety of candidates before we select someone. Certainly we can’t take a person because he’ll do drugs.”
“I sign the pay-checks, and I don’t see anything wrong with this guy,” Mr. G says rubbing his gums now and shaking his head as the coke is kicking in. “I hired your ass after a five minute talk, and look how good you worked out?”
Teddy had never even seen cocaine before, let alone been in a position to take it. He didn’t know if Mr. G was serious, and if he was would he really do it? He was stranded by the whiteboard pondering this as they discussed his fate.
“Mr. G I agree that you did hire me quickly, but with my resume I think it was pretty obvious—”
Mr. G starts laughing, “You got shit-canned from Google, and no one else would hire you otherwise obviously you wouldn’t come to me. But that’s alright with me, my gain.” He looks at Teddy, but after a hesitation snorts up the new line that he built. “Anyways I understand sexual harassment, believe me. I’m just more into the physical kind, not sending 50 creepy emails in a week to random girls in the office asking if they want to have sex with me.”
Sai’s mouth opens for a moment to speak but then closes as his head tilts down. Although his complexion is dark, Teddy can see a red glow of embarrassment radiating from him now.
Mr. G breaks out another line of coke. “So what do you say FNG?”
Teddy looks at Mr. G hopeful that he has an opening. “I would really like to work here, I am willing to brush up on computer science fundamentals and do whatever I need to do for the job.”
“It’s pretty simple what you need to do,” Mr. G says motioning to the cocaine. “Sai wouldn’t have brought you in here if you didn’t have enough skills to do the job. I consider myself a good judge of character, believe it or not.”
He opens up a drawer behind the desk, and pulls out a bottle of bottom-shelf whiskey along with a coffee mug. He pours liberally, takes a gulp, and sets it back down. “It takes a person who has done bad things to recognize other people who are capable of them. You’re definitely not in that category. This tech society out here has gone too far in the quantitative measuring of people. We aren’t machines — not yet at least. Media wants us to believe that we are evolved, we shouldn’t be harassing women, we should be racially tolerant, we should be able to use numerical analysis to measure what job you should be doing. It’s bullshit right?”
Teddy nods in agreement even though he doesn’t know how he feels about all of that.
Another gulp of whiskey before Mr. G continues his impassioned speech, “Look how long it took us to evolve from apes to Homo sapiens. Now in the last 25 years we are supposed to have evolved from our modern Neanderthal state to enlightened, de-humanized robots? These Silicon Valley guys might be geniuses on an IQ test,” , he motions to Sai, “Neanderthals have power though.” He taps the side of his skull. “The algorithms don’t have intuition or human understanding. Math and science can’t explain how our brain works yet, and there are some super-powers up in here that no aptitude test can measure.”
Mr. G stands up now more animated, “I trust my intuition. Everything in this place is because of my gut instincts. The girls, the security, even our tech guy Sai. I’m a risk taker, and I like other people willing to show a little faith. Do you want a job with leadership like this, or do you want to be another lemming at Facebook?”
“Yes I would like this job very much,” Teddy says. Mr. G radiates the energy of a cult leader, and Teddy suddenly finds himself wanting this job for more than just the paycheck. “Give me a month trial or whatever makes you feel comfortable, I promise I won’t let you down.”
“Alright I believe you,” Mr. G says. He opens up his drug bullet, and pours the finale of the contents onto his desk, and shapes it into a thick line of snow. He pulls out a filthy $20 bill from deep inside his pants, rolls it into a straw shape, and holds it out extended. “Bottoms up buddy.”
Teddy sees that he looks serious, takes an audible gulp, and steps on weak legs towards Mr. G. When he gets to the desk he takes the $20 and hesitates unsure of how to actually do this.
“You’ve never done coke before have you?” Mr. G asks with a smirk.
“No— this would be a first.” Teddy looks at him for guidance on what to do now, but gets none.
Teddy takes a deep breathe as he puts the bill near his nose and bends down. The bill reeks of ball-sweat and grime. There isn’t much time to think though as he re-enacts what he’s seen on TV, closes his eyes, runs the bill by the table taking a quick sniff, and bolts upright blinking his eyes after. His heart is pounding more from the act than anything.
“Well that’s a first,” Mr. G says in between bits of laughter, “I think you struck out there FNG.”
Looking down Teddy sees that the cocaine is still there. He must have grazed the side of it, and rubs his nose to confirm that it’s not inflamed.
“Tell you what FNG, this shit isn’t any good for you. Better to leave it for guys like me.” Mr. G motions for the bill back which Teddy gladly gives him.
“It’s one thing to have difficulty with the algorithms questions, but I must admit failing on doing a line of coke is quite shocking,” Sai says finally coming back into the realm of the conversation.
Mr. G waves him off, “It’s ok, we might be able to place him in the kitchen. It’s been hell trying to hire a dishwasher these past few weeks.”
Teddy’s face is laser red, and his eyes are getting a little wet. There wouldn’t be any more interviews after this, he couldn’t take it. He didn’t know what to say, and just turned his back walking to the door.
“Hey FNG I’m just messing with you!” Mr. G shouts. “When can you start?”
Teddy stops at the door, pausing collecting himself, turns back around. “I can start tomorrow,” he says, his voice cracking a little.
“Alright well you’re hired, congratulations. Sorry for the fun, I like to have fun here though,” Mr. G says. Sai nods his head in agreement. “You saw the posting had compensation which is both fair and non-negotiable. Take it easy tonight, and look forward to you making me more rich.”
Teddy nods as he waves bye. Wow I’m going to be a Silicon Valley Engineer he thought. Perhaps he wouldn’t change his LinkedIn just yet, but he couldn’t help but crack a smile.