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Interviews considered as gang sadism

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First they battered me, then they high-fived

interview_suit_and_tie

Gulp...

I’ve seen people virtually high-five each other after blowing some hapless candidate out of the water with this approach, an exercise that accomplished ... what? Whether out of insecurity, nastiness, or some other unhealthy impulse, this doesn’t seem like the most productive approach to finding a qualified candidate. Some years back a friend told me about a brilliant colleague of his with genius-level technical skills and many years of experience who was given the thumbs-down by far less talented interviewers after he’d muffed some of the impossible-to-answer questions that had been hurled at him. Well done, team!

I’ve experienced a kind of combination of these last two approaches: an interviewer who relentlessly battered me with difficult questions in an area that (as became clear pretty quickly) I had little knowledge of at the time. These questions were of the reference-manual variety, and after an hour or so I crawled away with my self-esteem in tatters and the feeling that the guy who’d just interviewed me was one of the most knowledgeable Wall St techies I’d meet in my lifetime.

As it happens, he was looking for people to work on a new project he was leading, a risk-management system for the options desk that his team was building from scratch. About five years later I got a call from an old colleague of mine, who had just been hired as a managing director at this same firm and was trying to lure me away from the company I was then working for. When I asked him what the position he had in mind for me entailed, he told me — and I swear this is true — that he needed people to rewrite an utterly useless risk-management system that had been built for the options desk just a few years earlier. Yes, that’s right: the very system that was being planned when I was blown out of the water by far superior tech guns in the earlier interview.

I’ve personally persuaded someone who worked for me to reconsider his vote when he’d rejected an obviously talented candidate because she didn’t now how to create a certain kind of event in the C# language — a silly and narrow-minded decision. My instincts turned out to be right. She did fantastic, creative work, and she’s one of the people I’m proudest to have hired in my career. But in my experience, stories like this tend to be the rare exception.

I’ve been in the technology business long enough to remember when it wasn’t necessary to have a computer science degree to get a programming job on Wall Street, in part because even many of the best universities didn’t yet offer a major in computer science.

Dramatic? Do you know the CEO?

I happen to have a Computer Science degree, but in my first job (at a consulting firm rather than a bank, but with financial systems as a significant part of our work), my colleagues were people who had majored in linguistics, drama, mathematics, and fine art, among other things. My manager, an incredibly sharp guy, had never finished college. Decades later, I still consider this very multi-faceted group to have been some of the best programmers, and smartest people in general, that I’ve worked with. My former manager (the college dropout) retired years ago, probably in his early forties, after amassing a fortune with his own home-grown program-trading software.

Today, if I saw the resume of someone with a degree in drama make it past the tech recruiters at any Wall St firm, I could only assume it was a relative of the CEO.

The notoriously tough tech interviewers of Wall Street have been somewhat overshadowed in recent years by a company firmly outside the financial industry: namely, Google.

With the first dot-com boom, a new set of super-geniuses was crowned, and Google’s “engineers” were at the top of the list. There’s no doubt that the technologists at Google are very good, and very highly regarded, but the community of people who hold them in the highest esteem seems to be themselves. Naturally, this is reflected in their approach to screening and interviewing candidates, which falls pretty solidly in the “sadism” category.

You don’t need to have interviewed at Google to know about the infamous “Google tests,” spoken of by the general population with a mix of reverence and terror, or the self-importance bordering on contempt exhibited by many of the company’s interviewers (who generally put candidates through many levels of phone-screens and interviews to determine whether they’re “Google material”). A simple web search will turn up a dozen “My Nightmare Interview with Google” articles, and there are no doubt thousands more yet to be written.

So, by what process does such a select group of ultra-geniuses go about assessing whether you’re fit to join them, while scaring the pants off everyone who isn’t?

In a way, the approach to screening that Google is known for is the exact opposite of the reference-manual style described above. Of course, if you interview at Google you’ll be grilled with advanced technical and mathematical questions that, to put it mildly, are not for the junior programmers of the world. But that’s just the start.

What’s unique about Google’s non-tech-centric tests is that they’re dominated by questions ranging from the seemingly meaningless to almost Zen-like puzzles: “How much should you charge to wash all the windows in Seattle?” “How many piano tuners are there in the entire world?”

I suspect that a common reaction to such questions is the thought that even doubting their relevance proves you’re not in Google’s league: Surely if these people are such geniuses (a given) they must know something that you (evidently not a genius) don’t. How much of this process is pure intimidation? Do the people who create these bizarre tests genuinely believe that they’re the best way to identify people of superior intelligence? And if they do, are they right, or is this just sham science covered in a thick coat of pretentiousness? We may never know the answer.

Whatever the validity of their science may be, a company of über-techies like Google surely isn’t going to administer the same kinds of babyish tests that lowly investment banks employ. (Incidentally, I’ve personally heard of brilliant people who didn’t get past the first level of Google’s screening process, and mediocre people who made it all the way and scored a job there. I’ve never interviewed at Google myself.)

The question is, will this disease ultimately infect Wall Street, that other world of self-proclaimed geniuses and genius-spotters? Will the investment banks, out of insecurity, gradually move to Google-style tests to show that they too are using the latest and most advanced techniques to identify the world’s greatest tech minds?

Let’s hope not, because it will make interviewing on Wall Street even more painful than it is now. And that’s saying something. ®

Dave Mandl has worked on Wall St. for more than twenty years as a developer of large-scale derivatives trading and risk-management systems, and as a manager of teams building them, for many global financial firms. His writing has appeared in the Wire, the Believer, the Rumpus, the Brooklyn Rail, Mute, and many other publications.

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