Interview with a Rainman

27 May 2012 // science

It's been two years now so I can talk about this: I had the most craptacular job interview whilst looking for work in San Francisco.

It started off swimmingly enough. Of all places, I was approached through this very blog by the founder of a biotech startup. He was smart, gregarious, ambitious. We met a few times, I did a massive "homework" assignment and duly got called in for an interview. It was exciting: I got to see the innards of a real startup jammed into an industrial space conveniently located halfway between San Francisco and San Jose.

The interview seemed reasonable enough. I was to be interviewed by four guys: a protein chemist, a bioinformatician, a computer scientist, and a math guy, and they would figure out what I could do (I realized afterwards that this was basically a fishing expedition, as they had no idea what I knew nor what they needed).

The interview with the protein chemist and bioinformatician went well enough. After all, that's the kind of shit I've been doing for a decade. The interview with the computer scientist went exactly like what Reddit said – whiteboard coding, talking through questions and answer. I admitted when I didn't know something. Although the computer scientist gave me the thumbs down, it felt like a fair process. I was treated like a fellow professional.

Then came Asian Rainman, or as he was introduced to me, a former "Math Olympiad Winner". I've met these types before – they had the intellectual goods but arrogant like they had been told they were a genius ever since they suckled from their mother's teat. I guess that a human brain can only carry so much, and packed with so much mathematics, something had to go. Like human sociability.

Perhaps I could have seen this earlier when we were introduced in the lunch-room, and he couldn't crack a smile, like a man carrying a permanent hernia.

Anyway, we entered the conference room where it was just of the two of us. Asian Rainman then gave me a piece of paper with two detailed computer algorithms questions printed out on it.

"Finish these, please," he said. And then he proceeds to just sit there.

It was a sit-down exam for one person.

The problem was, these were computer algorithm problems, and I had never studied computer science before: I could barely understand the notation. Well I tried to do what Reddit says and treat it as a "lateral thinking" type of question and tackle it anyway, whilst verbalizing my thinking.

Except this doesn't work when the interviewer doesn't give a shit about what you say. Asian Rainman mostly stared through to the back of my head, that is, when he could even be bothered looking in my direction. I had found myself in an interview, where the interviewer couldn't be bothered asking any questions.

As this went on, I could feel my mind regressing. I hadn't done a sit down exam for nigh on 15 years. I could feel the long-forgotten claustraphobia of exam stress decending on me. That dreadful ticker-tocker sense of precious time unwinding. What made it worse was that I had not been expecting to take an exam, and had the added feeling of being grossly unprepared.

Asian Rainman had given no instuctions on how his exam was to be run, there was no indication of what he wanted if I couldn't do the exam competently, or even when it would end. I bashed away at the questions for a good 40 minutes. I could feel frustration seep through my body, getting more agitated as my thinking became more and more futile. I needed a break. I had regressed so much that I had to ask permission take a toilet break, like I was in fucking kindergarten.

I came back and after another hour of this, I was finally exhausted to the point where I didn't care any more. Asian Rainman must have spent the whole time bored out of his nut, sitting across the table from me, listening to my clueless babblings. Such are the trials and tribulations of being a chosen one.

Then it dawned on me that as clearly I didn't know this shit, Asian Rainman just wanted to see me fail on my own accord. I dutifully obliged, and said as pathetically as I could that I couldn't finish this: it was too hard. He grunted. Then, after perfunctorily explaining the answer, Asian Rainman picked up the test and walked out of the room.