Interviewing for a Magical Fairy Land

July 28, 2016

Read time 8 min

I did a lot of interviews before I started at Reaktor. All kinds of interviews. I did some whiteboarding. I put on a few live coding performances, and I did some pair programming (at least, that odd sort of pair programming where you’re not solving a real problem, you’re not on a team, and your nominal partner’s only real job is to judge you). I took a bunch of quizzes on programming basics over the phone. I talked a lot about my past. I did the occasional piece of homework. I even took a couple of timed online tests!

Then I interviewed at Reaktor, and I did none of these things.

An interesting (but sad) part of all my interviewing was that I gradually learned how to be Just Stupid Enough. A few times, I encountered the very curious part of the process in which the candidate is put in a room with the resident Genius Programmer, and the Genius Programmer sets about figuring out exactly how stupid the candidate is. After a few of these, I began to understand the art of the candidate’s part here. What you know doesn’t matter much; your opinions don’t count, either. There is a Right Answer, and you either present that in exactly the way that the Genius Programmer wants to hear, or you gracefully, but confidently and with much rationalization, admit defeat. (Probably one in four times, the Genius Programmer will present you with a problem that they have actually had to solve. This is nice in that it’s a rare acknowledgment that the job you are interviewing for is not one in which you spend all day working out silly, contrived puzzles. But it’s also awful in that your task is to fit all of their days of thinking about this problem into one 30-ish-minute interview segment. You probably can’t do that! Better luck next time.)

Then I interviewed at Reaktor, and I didn’t get to use my look-just-stupid-enough skills. Instead, I got to use my show-off-the-things-you-know-super-well skills. (This feeling was a lot like getting on a bike for the first time after years of exclusively walking and using public transit: it feels so right but also gives you a keen awareness that you have muscles that you’ve just plain forgotten about.)

But the hardest part of all this interviewing, for sure—and the one thing I never got good at—was trying to fit all of my experience into one sensible box. I had done a lot of time at startups, doing the thing you do at a startup when you get in early: filling a proverbial closet with many, many of the proverbial hats of responsibility. My concern had always been doing what needed to be done, and doing it as well as I could—be it frontend or backend or devops or Process or Product or Design or…you get it. And so I began my job search with a whole closetful of hats, and I liked all of them.

It turns out that when you’re looking to graduate from the startup world, almost every job is a box. The side of this box reads something like “FITS ONE HAT” or “FITS ONE HAT, MAYBE TWO TOPS BUT THAT’S IT FOR SURE”. So I showed up to every interview with a big stack of hats. I would drop, say, my devops hat into a box marked “devops”, then I would stare in dismay at all the hats that didn’t fit into the box. The person across the table would stare, just as dismayed, and ask why—of all the hats I had inexplicably brought to the interview—I would choose that particular hat in that particular box.

I realized that the alternative would have been applying for a “leadership” role. Unfortunately, “leadership” in this case isn’t really leadership, but management. Management hierarchies, I’ve found, are at best about as effective as long, drawn-out hat metaphors. At worst, they’re toxic and destructive. I’ll stoop to a hat metaphor on occasion (apparently), but it felt a little too disingenuous to me to try to inject myself into some rigid hierarchy.

Then I interviewed at Reaktor, a company with no hierarchy, for a position in which what was valuable was my software engineering wisdom, my drive to get good work done, and my generally being a reasonable person.

I felt like I had walked into a magical fairy land. (Where they have, coincidentally, great literal hats.)

I flew over to Helsinki in an unseasonably cold week in January to start my indoctrination. I visited a dozen of our projects there. (We work on-site with our clients. In giving you the full picture of my experience, I would be remiss if I did not here repeat the words “Helsinki”, “January”, and “unseasonably cold”. It’s summer in New York City as I write this, but I’m still shivering at the memory.)

I found a couple of unifying threads in our projects. The first was that every project was pretty unique. They were all kinds of projects working in all kinds of ways. There are certainly commonalities, but there is no one kind of project that we’re good at, there is no “Reaktor way of working” that we enforce on every project, and there is no standard Reaktor tech stack that we inflict on our clients. Each project was working with the coolest tech that made sense, in the best way that the team had found for its particular project and client and situation. And they were crushing it at everything from websites to apps to sports watches to gaming machines to a satellite.

The second unifying thread was the Reaktorians. (Yes—we have made our own demonym.) Every project had a small team of amazing people who had produced an amazing amount of amazing work. They were amazingly engaging as they talked about the amazing things they had done, and amazingly gracious as they put up with my n00b outsider questions. Despite the humility of every single Reaktorian I met, I have very, very rarely felt so dwarfed. These people were all crushing it at an order of magnitude that I hadn’t suspected was possible.

Luckily, that feeling went away. I haven’t stopped meeting amazing people, but I did meet enough who brought up their own feelings of initial endwarfment that I started to believe them when they assured me that I, too, belonged. In its place is a more-or-less constant feeling of amazement. I’ve been a part of a few Reaktor teams now, and that unifying thread of amazingness that I glimpsed as an initiate has run through them, too.

Sincerely: I don’t think a day has passed that I haven’t felt awed and grateful that I get to work with the brilliant people that I do.

I’ve been participating in interviews as a Reaktorian for a while now. When I started doing it, one of my team members asked me: “Are you sure? That’s a big responsibility—you’re going to be choosing all of our future coworkers!”

It is a big responsibility. Given that the most striking and magical and important part of Reaktor is our people, there’s a ton of gravity in making calls about who those people are going to be.

It’s also—despite the ridiculous ease of the process as an interviewee—really hard.

I remember feeling that my discussions with Reaktor were the best representation I’ve ever given of myself as an engineer in an interview. That, it turns out, is exactly what our process is meant to do. We don’t want you to look or feel stupid. We don’t have a rubric or a standard grading system or anything; we want to see who you are. We want to know what you know and how you think. We want to see the shape of you as a unique developer or designer or whatever, and it’s insanity to try to make a standard script that does that.

It’s super tricky, too. One of my biggest fears as an interviewer is that I don’t let you as an interviewee give the best representation of yourself that you can. I also risk, in true Reaktorian fashion, getting intrigued about what you know or what you care about and losing myself mid-interview in excitement and curiosity. Luckily, interviewing at Reaktor—as with everything at Reaktor—is a community of practice. And again, as with everything, I am always doing it with someone I’m awed and grateful to be working with.

And even if it is hard: the rewards. Oh, the rewards! I’ve heard Reaktor described as “a haven for those who think different”. I identify with this strongly—it does feel like a haven. And we do think different. We care about people; we don’t bother with hierarchy or politics; we do what we think is best, how we think is best; we get shit done. Sure, interviewing does give me responsibility in choosing my future coworkers. But it also gives me responsibility in bringing fantastic people into this haven, and there is very little that I would rather do.

When you start, probably a few Reaktorians will welcome you home. This might not make much sense at first, but it will—I think it took three weeks for me, tops. So if you think different—if you’re sick of artificial hierarchy and working to death to do boring work with people who aren’t all incredible—then come interview with us.

Come home.

See what else Adam is up to at Reaktor.


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