Scene 9 of A Winter in Waterloo in The Unusual Candidate
By Amin Ariana — November 2015
“Thanks for making it this far. We haven’t had a technical candidate make it to the seventh round in over six months. When my partner said you answered his Dynamic Programming question on the spot during the phone-screen, I ordered your flight from Waterloo right away” said the executive getting up from his chair behind the mahogany desk. I remained standing at the door, hiding my agony behind a smile. My entire right forearm showed second degree burns, but we didn’t talk about it. “I completed your questionnaire,” I said, offering the pad to him, “and looks like you have my resume.” “Indeed,” he said, sinking in thought for a long moment, “Indeed.” The red marker in his hand made me take a nervous in-breath.
“How do you enjoy Evanston, Illinois?” he asked. “I like it. The Winter lends a cozy atmosphere to the many churches I saw last night along the way” I said. “You must wonder why a Management Consulting company operates in such a small town?” he said. I smiled. He handed my resume back to me and said “Read that line”. I looked at my words inside his red circle. “Built a MIPS-based Operating System for a Virtual Machine” I read. “Did you build it all by yourself in college?” he asked. “Yes!” I said.
Him: You built an OS, with process execution, disk IO, memory virtualization, and networking capability all by yourself?
Me: Yes, with help from a professor.
Him: How did you code it?
Me: In C++
Him: How did you compile it?
Me: From the command prompt.
Him: In which Operating System?
Him: So you needed an OS to create an OS?
Me, getting nervous: Yes
Him: What if you didn't have an OS to start with? What if you were building the first OS?
I paused in awkward silence. My left hand held a tight grip on my burned forearm. “Good question. I haven’t thought about it” I said. He tightened his lips together, smiling in the manner of Bill Gates, and without saying a word, made me understand that I wasn’t ready for him. I nodded in acknowledgement. I didn’t feel ready.
“How did you burn your arm?” he asked. “Last night I felt too hungry, so I microwaved water at the hotel for tea. The superheated water exploded when I opened the microwave” I said. “You know we expense candidate meals during their stay” he said. “I didn’t feel like I earned it, and I didn’t have money to risk a bill” I said. “You will,” he said, “after you find the answer to my question.” When you dismiss what you cannot explain, it explodes in your face.
“Not a fit for our firm,” the HR phone call informed me later that week. For a few weeks, I couldn’t explain what just happened. “Why should a CEO care so much about my understanding of the chicken-and-egg problem? What bearing will that have on the job of an engineer?” I asked my dad. “Where DID the first chicken come from?” he asked me. “The chicken and the egg were the same in the beginning,” I said in frustration, “They evolved. Just like Operating Systems, which evolved from binary instructions. You write a higher-level language’s compiler in a low-level language such as binary code; then you can compile anything in the high-level language, including the compiler itself. You never again need to write binary code. Nobody needs to remember how it all began, when you reach a higher plane.”
“Kind of like he doesn’t remember how you feel at the beginning of your career?” he asked. I turned white. “That’s what he meant!” I said. “What?” he asked. “He meant I should quit the chicken-and-egg problem of proving experience for a first-ever job.” I said. “But how?” he asked. “I am my first employer,” I said, holding the right-handed mouse with my left hand, “and I will suffer the pain of learning.”