July 12th, 2006


it came from planet poverty: a case study in failure

Today was one of the worst interviews I've ever done. It was a Web 2.0 startup in Palo Alto, a three-hour commute by bus and train. Seems like a nice enough place, and the interview part went rather well, but they surprised me with a pop quiz. Half the stuff I barely knew--I've just gotten to the point where I can piece together a MySQL statement with the help of two or three online tutorials, and they wanted me to solve complex problems with merges and function calls--and the other half I should know, and dealt with concepts I have learned, like picking the maximum five values from an array and reading the total cost of five different car orders in a table in a plain ASCII file--but I was nervous and overly impulsive, and thought of wild and inefficient solutions to simple problems, and overly naive solutions to complicated ones.

For example, one of the questions was, "How do you check that a file exists in a Linux shell script?" Such a simple, basic scripting question, and yet it just happened to cover one of the few things I never managed to learn that well. After much floundering I answered, "Well, you could pipe ls into a file, and then grep the file, and then delete the file..." and the guy looked at me blankly and said, "That would work...but you could just use 'ls -e'." It felt like a CS280 pop quiz--it covers the exact two or three things you overlooked in a subject you're certain you know rather well, and makes you look like an idiot. But it wasn't the test's fault. I did demonstrate that I have some familiarity with data structures and algorithms, but the ways I used them were so convoluted, poorly designed, and flat-out retarded that every few minutes I caught my interviewers trying to hide a smirk. They were outwardly encouraging, but their feint praise was damning. Some of them looked like they'd expect better problem solving skills in a mental institution. "Where'd you learn to code," one of them seemed to say with his eyes, "a cookbook?"

That's just the thing. It's not that I don't know the concepts. It's not that I haven't received solid training (I can imagine Greg or Alex blowing through these questions and not blinking an eye.) It's that I'm a C- computer science student, and I don't mean the programming language. I don't have the drive or the ego to be a guru. I don't have the raw analytical power to be a problem-solving whiz. I'm just me. And in this field, just-mes slow projects and push back deadlines. Programming is something that requires passion, something that requires you to give 150%--and 100% of me is already split between writing, God, and life. Where am I going to get that other 50%?

I tried to sing hymns on the way back--it helps me reaffirm my faith, remind God that I still believe in His goodness even when He brings me hard times--but all that came out was Radiohead's "Exit Music (For a Film)." I guess my subconscious has a flair for the melodramatic.

Waiting for buses and wallowing in self-pity had made me famished, so I swung by Jack in the Box for a burger and shake on my way back. (Nothing like cheap greasy food to lift one's spirits.) And who should I see in the outdoor dining area but Nick and Keith? I said hello, bought them a chicken sandwich, and apologized for not being able to stay and eat with them tonight. Nick looked up at me and said, "You aren't one of those Christian guys, are you?"

"No," I said, laughing nervously, "I mean, I'm a Christian, but I'm not one of 'those Christian guys.'"

"Oh," said Nick. "Thrrmight be one of those Christian guys who came by before. I believe in Jesus, too. I believe He's our Lord and Savior." He flashed a grin.

"Jesus loves you," said Keith, also flashing a grin.

"I know," I said. I had heard of homeless people feigning rapture in attempts to provoke generosity, but this was suspicious. Why were they doing this? I had already given them something. "Without Him, none of us would be here right now."

Nick was not smiling anymore. "Jesus loves you," he said gently. "Don't you forget it. He died for all of us. All of us. Jesus loves you."

And it struck me, then, that they were acting this way because I had come to them wearing a face that every homeless person knows--the face of defeat, the face of someone who has lost his place in the world. And those three words--repeated to the point where they have become a mere platitude--have power for the people who need Him most.

"He's a really swell guy," said Nick, beaming.

Unrelatedly, I happened to pass by the offices of Six Apart (owners of LiveJournal) on my way back today. I rang their doorbell, half-hoping for a miraculous and poetically neat interview opportunity, but no one answered. I guess it's too early to say it's funny how everything works out.

I need to write. I need to stop making excuses and write.