Recent grads look at life outside Princeton's gates...
Interview from Hell
I can still see the headline of the ad in the Sunday Times: "Are You Brilliant?" It caught my eye one lazy June afternoon as I scanned the help wanted ads, munched on some Total (I might not have had a job, but at least I was getting 100% of the U.S. RDA of riboflavin every day), and pondered my future.
For you see, when the hordes of I-banking and consulting firms descended upon campus in the fall of my senior year for their information sessions, I stayed away, proclaiming to anyone who would listen, "There's gotta be more career choices than that." Besides, I said to myself, I had more important, or should I say pressing, concerns at the time: buying beer for Charter (why were there no listings for "liquor chair" in the Times, I sighed), running my fraternity, covering the soccer team for the Prince, and of course, finding an obscure yet interesting thesis topic on the Civil War. And oh yes -- I still had not bought my "interview suit," which in my estimation was the first step in the dreaded process of joining the real world. My mind, warped from too many cups of Red Dog, believed that as soon as I bought my first suit, my career path would be laid out for me, like a corporate yellow brick road. But since I was perfectly happy in the fantasy world that is Princeton, I postponed buying the suit indefinitely, in favor of the aforementioned pastimes. Although it made perfect sense to me in the fall of 1996, my suit theory proved a fallacy later on as I found my first job sans suit, and while I have a suit now, I have no idea what I want to do with my life. Go figure.
But back to the Times. The ad sought a computer consultant for a software start-up -- "an opportunity to get into the next Microsoft on the ground floor." The requirements, besides the aforementioned brilliance, were the following: a 3.5+ GPA from a top school (check, and let us all take a moment to thank the psychology department for their generous assortment of guts); 1350 SAT (got it -- barely); excellent leadership, problem-solving, and communications skills, yadda, yadda, yadda; and the clincher, no computer experience required! Sign me up! If there was anything I didn't have, it was computer skills. You're talking about a guy who would walk from Charter to Mathey in the snow just so I wouldn't have to use a PC to check my e-mail, which (besides writing papers) was the sole function of a computer, in my opinion. So, I was ready to enter the high-paying field of computer consulting. All I had to do was ace the interview.
After faxing my resume to Tigris (Tigris -- Tigers? It was fate!) Microsystems, I scheduled an interview for what turned out to be the hottest day of the summer in New York. After leaving the subway, it took all of 15 seconds for my body to become drenched in sweat. The "next Microsoft" was headquartered in a seventh-floor apartment on St. Mark's Place, a bohemian enclave in downtown Manhattan where Bill Gates wouldn't be caught dead. Well, nobody ever said rising up the corporate ladder would be easy, I muttered, as I trudged up the countless steps. By now, I looked as if I had just run a 10K.
I entered the apartment-cum-technology hub and pumped myself up for my interview with Aaron (the founder, CEO, and Head Mucky-muck of the company), whose only distinguishing feature was an extremely annoying British accent, which made everything he said sound haughty and demeaning. (Picture John Cleese, but shorter and without the sense of humor.) I remembered reading somewhere in one of those interview tip books that a good way to break the ice before an interview is to ask the interviewer how he or she got involved with the company. I might have well have asked him if he wore ladies' underwear. "Why do you want to know that?" he demanded, raising his eyebrows and glaring at me. "Uhh, just wondering," I stammered. I should have left right then.
The interview itself began well enough, with Aaron asking the basic getting-to-know-you type of questions that I handled with aplomb. But after about 15 minutes of this, we hit the second half, which Aaron prefaced by saying, "I'd like to test your analytical ability with a short exercise." No sweat, I thought. However, I soon learned why my classmates did all those practice interviews, while I was playing beer fris.
I don't remember the exact details of the "exercise," since I have successfully repressed the memory from my consciousness. Let's just say that Aaron presented me with a series of fictitious companies and data, and made me manipulate the information in several scenarios. A case interview, in other words -- something I had never experienced before. I quickly realized why I became a history major -- I had 10-12 pages to explain myself, it was hard to be dead wrong about anything, and everyone I had to answer to was long dead anyway. Aaron, however, wanted (correct) answers right away. For some strange reason, I thought his first question (a softball, if I recall) was a trick question, and I thought long and hard before giving my reply. It was as if he had asked me who won the Franco-Prussian War, and I had said, "The Pittsburgh Steelers." An inauspicious start, and it only got worse. After bombing on the first query, I got increasingly nervous, and any information I had retained flowed out of my head along with the beads of sweat that were now forming streams down my neck. I responded to subsequent questions with blank stares and frantic guesses, and the wrong answers just kept on coming. After a while, Aaron almost looked sorry for me, and seemed to be rooting for me to get one right. But it was too late -- my dream of becoming a high-priced computer consultant was quickly evaporating in the July sun.
Eventually, the horror ended. Perhaps to be nice, or more likely just perfunctorily, Aaron said he would call me if I made the next round. I had as much chance of making the next round of interviews as I did of making the New York Giants' training camp roster. I spent the train ride back questioning my "brilliance"; in fact, I wondered aloud whether I had any intelligence at all, to the amusement of my fellow passengers. If that's what it took to get a job, I was doomed. But upon reaching home, I cracked open my thesis, and after reading a chapter came to this conclusion: maybe I wasn't cut out for Tigris Microsystems, but by no means was I mentally inadequate. My brain worked just fine when I was able to sit back, think, and justwrite. Hmm, writing. Maybe there was a career there...
Matthew Boyle is an associate editor at Simba Information in Stamford, Conn., and is now considered an expert analyst on the computer publishing industry.
Interested in writing for Off the Campus? We're looking for recent Princeton grads ('95-'98) to contribute to this department. Please send samples of your work and a cover letter outlining topics you propose to cover to:
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