Monday, March 31, 2014

From the Archives - The TechCorp Files, Part I: Interview


Short stories are a slippery thing. If a story is true, it can be spun as a simple yarn, and no more is expected of it. Formal fiction, though, gets subjected to all kinds of critical evaluation. Is there a story arc? Is some kind of Truth revealed? Does the main character grow? After all, with all the freedom in the world to contrive characters and actions to make your point, you’d better say something.

I’ve found that if you try to dress up a true story as fiction, you’ll crash and burn. I tried this, in a writing class. Amazing things that actually happened to me were dismissed by the instructor as “totally unrealistic.”

One problem with my earlier writing is that I didn’t bother separating fact from fiction. I thought this was playful and fun, but I’ve come to realize it probably just confuses the reader. Besides, it deprives him or her of a sense of wonder when something unbelievable is actually true.

So it is with the following story, which is essentially nonfictional. Except where clearly noted (e.g., “Okay, I didn’t really say that”), almost everything happened exactly as I tell it. For example, I describe a pre-employment aptitude test, which was real. And, on my way to take the test, a homeless person really did pick a fight with me. I faithfully documented what he really said, and he really did seem to attempt to wring the neck of a parking meter. That said, there’s some hyperbole too; for example, the parking meter’s neck didn’t break. By exaggerating like this, I inadvertently pushed the whole episode into the realm of fantasy, where it didn’t belong.

I could go fix those problems in this archival tale, but a) that’s too much work, and b) the hyperbole is kind of fun. So instead I’ll preface what follows by itemizing what is truly fictional, so you can appreciate that everything else is true. Here are the other fictionalized bits:
  • The interviewer’s abrasiveness is exaggerated through dressed-up dialogue;
  • Names of corporations have been changed;
  • Other job candidates’ credentials have been exaggerated;
  • The Swan’s Oyster Depot episode is entirely fictitious.
A final prefatory note: given the length of this introduction and of the story itself, I have broken this post into two parts. No, I’m not indulging people’s shortening attention spans, à la Twitter. I’m just getting more mileage out of this story, like the magazines from Dickens’s time that used to publish novels serially. My second and final installment will go up in about a week, freeing me to work on my tax return.

The TechCorp Files, Part I – June 9, 1995

Last week I had an interview with TechCorp. A stern, cheerless woman scanned through my résumé.

ooooo“1350 Filbert Street?” she asked.
ooooo“That’s the apartment.” I said. “Where I live.”
ooooo“Nice place?”
ooooo“It’s all right.”
ooooo“Dana, imagine you’re in the desert—”
ooooo“Which desert?” I asked, uneasily.
oooooShe stared at me, exasperated. “Doesn’t matter,” she said. “The Sahara.” She paused. “You’re walking, and you see a tortoise...”
ooooo“What’s a tortoise?” I demanded, with some trepidation.
ooooo“You know what a turtle is?” she said, quietly, disgusted. “Same thing.” She paused again. “You flip the tortoise onto its back. Its stomach is baking in the hot sun. You could flip it back over, but you don’t. Why is that, Dana?”
oooooI glared at her.
ooooo“They’re just questions, Dana,” she said soothingly. “Designed to provoke an emotional response. Now I want you to tell me the first thing that comes to mind about … your mother.”

Well, actually, that’s not how it happened. That was from a movie. Just once I’d like to have an interviewer say those things. I know I’ve been tempted, when interviewing somebody myself, to mix it up a little.

Of course, it’s much easier to relax and have a good time when you’re holding all the cards. I was far less comfortable here. My chair, a modern grey mesh fabric one that you might find on the Starship Enterprise, was improperly adjusted, and it was all I could do to keep it from pitching back. Somebody had configured it for lounging, feet up on the desk. Is this a ruse, I wondered, to see if I will modify my environment to best suit me? I’m a guest here; do I dare attempt a complex adjustment?

I tried to relax. I devoted my energies to leaning forward, sitting up straight, making eye contact, and trying to impress this rather severe woman. Not being a professional recruiter, she only pretended to know what to ask, and what to say.

ooooo“Now, the role of this division of TechCorp has nothing to do with the consumer-oriented service that you surely associate it with,” she told me. “It’s kind of difficult to explain. It takes a long time working here to realize exactly what it is we do.”

oooooIs it something found in the home?” I asked, helpfully.  No, I didn’t really say this—I only thought it. And once I’d thought of it, I couldn’t think of anything else. So I said nothing. My chair was now swallowing me up completely. I was shrinking, rapidly, approaching the size of a small child.

ooooo“Our products,” she said flatly, “involve high-speed packet network data transfer. We sell to huge companies. Our biggest account is MegaFi. You surely never knew this before, but MegaFi itself is not a corporation. It is a non-profit organization that makes money for banks. It makes gobs of money. And what we do for them, is. . . .” She paused again. “Look,” she said, “I am communicating to you across a vast gulf of ignorance and darkness.”

Okay, that’s not really what she said. That’s from a book. But what she did say, which I can’t precisely remember, had the same effect. At this point it was do or die. I needed to take control of this interview, dammit. So I began to just talk, with little regard to my interlocutor’s opening salvo. Through a series of carefully arranged statements, I gradually tried to insinuate myself into the job, so that eventually my employment at TechCorp would be automatic. Over the next hour, I hoped, I could move right into a discussion about promotion, and maybe even early retirement—ultimately, I could come out of the interview with a handsome severance package.

But she would have none of it. For her part, she continually buried the prospect of my employment deeply within the hypothetical realm. When I gave her my references, she said, “We will contact these people in the event that you happen to make it that far into the interview process.” She went into a cruel discussion of the myriad invisible opponents I was up against, most of them Oxford Rhodes scholars with “F-15 fighter jock” listed under “hobbies” on their résumés. She hammered home the point that I had come late into the game, which was in fact a source of irritation to her because I was dragging out the recruiting process. But eventually, and begrudgingly, she told me to make an appointment to take a written exam designed to evaluate … what? My intelligence? My worth as a human being?

ooooo“Funny you should mention a test,” I remarked. “I dreamed I had to take a test at a Dairy Queen on another planet.”  Actually, I didn’t say this. It’s from a song. But just once I’d like to use that, in context, and my little story here may the best chance I ever have.

I was actually eager to take the test. Not since 1992, when I took my last multiple-choice exam, had I enjoyed the opportunity to undergo such a straightforward and concrete challenge. Since graduating from college, in fact, life has taken on a rather nasty guerrilla-warfare bent, where performance is measured by subtle, person-to-person, tactical coups de grâce instead of by objective test results.

ooooo“You may be expecting something easy,” she warned, “but many people find our test very difficult. If you think this will be a routine ‘do-you-have-a-pulse’ kind of assessment, I think you’re in for a shock. I repeat, it is a very difficult test. Many people have complained. Some become outraged. Some never fully recover from the experience.” She paused. “But you appear to be young and healthy.” She gave me a packet of information about TechCorp, along with a two-page explanation of the exam itself. I took it home and read it. I have it in front of me. I will quote from it.

“Please come prepared....” it begins. “As the interviewing process proceeds you will be asked to take a test designed to measure your ability with numbers and your reasoning and logic skills.” I believed this was right down my alley. I believe I am rational and logical, and those who know me believe, at least, that I have a heart of stone. I looked over the sample questions, and this is one of them:

“Select the next letter in the sequence.

bakrmvmvkr_ 1 2 3 4 5

ooooooooooooa b k l m

The alternate letters in the first part of the series (b,k,m) repeat themselves in reverse in the last part of the series (m,k,_). Therefore, the next letter should be “b”, which is in column 2 of the possible answers.”

The part about “b” being in column 2 of the possible answers made perfect sense. I looked at the number 2, scanned straight down, and indeed “b” was right there. The part about “b” being the right answer, however, gave me more difficulty. True, I have had similar test questions throughout my life, and as a youth was often able to solve them. On “Sesame Street,” or perhaps it was “Electric Company,” a person (or perhaps a clown, or a mime—I don’t remember) would pace back and forth along a row of similar objects, while an unseen singer sang, “One of these things is not like the others/ One of these things does not belong. . . .” Usually the objects were three rabbits and a hare, or three turtles and a tortoise, but sometimes they were more obvious: three beach balls and a basketball. On these latter occasions I solved the riddle even before the mime did.

But this sample test question seemed much, much harder. Perhaps you got the answer, right off. Perhaps you’re smirking a bit, trying to imagine my mental struggle. Perhaps the only confusing thing about the problem for you is deciding how it could have presented me with any difficulty. But I’m just an English major, okay?  Yeah, I know it’s a pattern of letters, from the English alphabet, and yeah, I’m familiar with these letters and can handily recite the alphabet . I could even recite the alphabet backwards if I had to pass a drunk-driving test. But I don’t drink, and I don’t drive, and knowing the alphabet has nothing whatever to do with the solution to the problem. Letters and even words don’t give me a leg up unless they’re written by a long-ago dead British writer like William Blake, okay? My sweet spot is appreciating wonderful, colorful, deeply expressive phrases like “cold hot dog.”  Sequences like “bakrmvmvkr” don’t do a lot for me.

The test description (warning, really) went on to advise that “some people have found that practicing with a standardized test prep book has helped quite a bit.” But the handout they gave me had only half a dozen questions, and with the test looming—it would be first thing the next morning—I had no time to visit bookstores asking for prep books. The test warning might as well say, “Study all you want, but we cannot imagine anything could save you, you miserable pudknocker.”

With the “letter series” problems exemplified above, the test would allow 10 minutes for completing 26 questions. That allows 23 seconds per problem, not counting the time I would spend doubled over in pain. Allowing for about 15 doubled-over seconds per problem, I came to realize that I simply lacked the brain power required to obtain a respectable score. I decided to seek outside assistance.

I strolled down to Swan’s Oyster Depot, and Ralph, the guy behind the counter said, “We got fresh sea scallops on special today. Just $45 for a half-pound. They’re so fresh, we haven’t even caught ‘em yet! Have a seat, it’ll take us ten minutes to haul in the nets. By then we’ll have processed your loan application.”
oooooI shook my head. “Not today, Ralph,” I said.
ooooo“You sure? They’re mighty fresh. God made them just this morning.”
ooooo“No, I need brains today. You got anything smart? An engineer, maybe?”
ooooo“Hey, we got a doctor. Hauled him in this morning. I know, that’s not so fresh, but the price is good. No engineers though. Almost had one, but he figured out how to dismantle our nets. Made off with a lot of bait, too. Have to harpoon him one day. So how about the doctor brains?”

I came home with a small, paper-wrapped bundle of brains. Ralph said he gave me the best part, all left-brain stuff. I booted up my computer, set the brains on my mouse pad, selected “Run” from the “File” menu, then typed “a:\install.” My hard drive chattered for a while, and moments later my intelligence had increased dramatically. I instantly had a new understanding of the world, and I became deeply depressed.

The morning of the test, I showed up early. Nobody was there. What to do? I took a walk around the block, and gave a homeless man a dollar in change. He tried to give me a Street Sheet but I was trying to achieve a total mind vacuum and didn’t need any more information, especially about life on the streets, to gum up my brain. He said, “It’s okay, man, I’m just another of God’s chilluns.” Then another homeless man intentionally stepped in my way and I bumped into him.


I assured him, politely but firmly, that I did not want to see a fight. He made the offer several more times, and, perhaps for effect, began wringing the neck of a nearby parking meter. It bent like a reed in the wind. When he finished, its neck was broken, its dial said “VIOLATION,” and the man was still yelling, “DO YOU WANNA SEE A FIGHT!?” At this point I noticed he was wearing a rather nice suit, and I wondered if he’d torn it off a guy like me. I extricated myself from the situation somehow, but showed up at the test a frayed bundle of nerves.

I was handed the test booklet. You may raise an eyebrow here at my use of the passive voice: “I was handed the test booklet.” We are taught to use the active voice— “I betook the test booklet”—because the active voice is more powerful. I, however, have deliberately chosen the passive voice here to describe the powerlessness of my position. I was not the master of my destiny, in this room, with my plastic Choice #2 pencil and my two somehow sad pieces of scratch paper. I was to be merely the passive recipient of one and one half hours of intellectual assault. A mental punching bag, if you will.

Tune in next week for the thrilling finale of “The TechCorp Files.”

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