Nick’s Blog

Tag: Financial

Banks, regulate or not

by Nick on Jul.03, 2009, under Rants

I saw a news story a little while ago with some financial bloke arguing that we do not need to regulate the banks. To be honest this got me fuming because to me the presumption was that the state we are currently in should be considered a normal part of the cycle of things. Or perhaps his argument was that there are already controls in place but the regulators have failed in their duty. (continue reading…)

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Strange Interview

by Nick on May.29, 2009, under Job Hunting

I’ve just been to an interview for a new job. Having been contracting for years I’m an old hand at interviews and assumed that I could relax with this one. Now I say relax but I really don’t mean waltz in like I own the place and call everyone “Mate” and slapping the secretary on the arse. For a start that’s not me even when I am relaxed.

The job sounded fairly ideal, it was using technology I’ve used for years and the location was good and the agency presented the company as being friendly. They did drop into the conversation that perhaps some people were a little down hearted after a recent re-organisation and that M.B. tended to ask awkward questions. The agency told me that they were after someone who was customer focussed and who take a “helicopter” view of the product and then pick out the problem areas. I was also told that they ask strange questions. Well having attended so many interviews I was quetly confident that this would not be a problem.

So I arrived at the building and signed in. The receptionist called upstairs to Mr B and asked him if I should be sent up or would someone come down. Clearly he said he would come down and I was asked to wait. I took a chair amongst some plants and started using my phone to browse the Internet just to look busy. The last thing I wanted was to be caught sitting on the edge of my chair looking desperate.

Well after a good few minutes of browsing finally someone appeared. It was Mr B himself and that is how he introduced himself not as M or M.B but Mr B. Simulataneously, I offered my hand and introduced myself by my first name.

I was taken upstairs and whisked into what I presume was Mr B’s office. He asked if I wanted a coffee and went off to fetch it for me. While I was alone in the room I had time to take in the decor, white with occasional signs of scuff marks generally but one wall was filled with personally selected Dilbert cartoons and similar paper cuttings. Moments later a Mr T.B. arrived (“TB? That sounds a bit septic to me”) and told me he was a team leader. Seemed a nice enough chap.

They started off asking me why I liked being a software engineer. Why was I not a plumber or a carpenter? Well I told them the truth, I like creating something and seeing the end user happy with what I’ve done. That was not good enough for them, “Why are you not a plumber?”. “I don’t know! I have always enjoyed writing software and making a system that helps the user do their work better, more efficiently, or more quickly.”. Well I’ll be damned if I could get them to accept that actually writing the software is not my only passion, it is actually creating something useful. Well eventually they gave up asking that bloody stupid questions over and over.

They asked me “Why us?”. Well the truth was that the agency called me at around 17:00 the day before and told me I had an interview the next morning at 9:00 and up until then I’d never heard of their company. As a result trying to cobble together and answer that might make them sound like the most exciting company in the world was going to be a challenge. I mentioned that I’d worked for a bank and how I’d found the colleagues very friendly and that I’d like to stay in the same sector (a lie actually, working for that bank was a nightmare). I told them that they used technoligies that I was familiar with and would like a challenge. I told them that their location was a big plus point for me.

Then they said, here is a specification, you have 100 hours and 10 people have done the same job before you in the same time. Where are you going to start? Well the specification was actually just a blank piece of paper. So I burbled something about analysing the data requirements and possible identifying other key components and making a start on the data model before bunging some code in for the front end. Then they asked me OK how long will it take you? Well this foxed me, it seems that the right answer is probably slightly less than 100 hours because that is what 10 other people have done it in. The clue is in the question!! While all this was going on Mr B was playing with his executive toy. A ploy I decided to get me flustered.

“OK you have a customer phoning up saying that something you have built is not working and they need it by the end of the day. What will you do?” I asked if there was a possibility of a work around. “No!”. “Perhaps if we are prepared to work a few hours more we can fix it?” “No quite out of the question.” “OK then tell them it cannot be done.” “But you are costing them millions!” “Say sorry but it cannot be done!” “Millions, man , millions!” “Tell them to get their cheque book out.” I think it was at this point that I’d given up on this job. Clearly Mr B had also given up because now he was playing with his Blackberry. Still their rules, they are the potential client/employer.

OK you have a customer that has phoned up and tells you that a report is going slowly. Where will you begin? I’d start with the SQL and see if the indexes are all appropriate. They are! Well then I’d move up into the code and use a profiler to locate any badly performing functions. Possibly turning on some logging to see if anything comes out there. It doesn’t. Then I’d just have to look through the code and see if anything obvious jumps out at me. “Well I was hoping to hear something about possible nested loops and not leaving them when the target was reached”. “Bloody hell”, I thought, “if you had wanted me to come up with possible coding errors then just stick a piece of paper with some code and ask what is wrong”. By now I knew that I’d not be making it to the second round. Mr B reentered the room having previously walked off to make a call.

Then they drew a little puzzle on a piece of paper and asked me to estimate how long it would take to write an application to solve it. I told them my first step would be to Google the answer. Nope the Internet is down. Then I’d start by breaking the puzzle into it’s components and assuming this does not have to be the worlds most beautiful application I’d make it a command line app and it would take me five hours. “Really, five hours?” “Yes!” “OK after four hours you realise you are not going to make it, what do you do?”. Well I told them, I’d give them a revised estimate and get on with coding. Again they were not looking for this answer.

Well time was up from there point of view and they wanted to know i I had questions. I asked them if they were thinking of moving offices. I told them that another potential employer was interested but based some distance away and I was planning to turn them down. “You could move!” M.B suggested. Well I explained my personal circumstances and how that really ruled out moving but any efforts to get them interested in any aspect of my personal life clearly left them cold. I told them that the agency told me that they had an active social life. This was clearly news to them and then they remembered that there was a free bar on a Friday downstairs.

I phoned the agency about an hour later and they told me the client had already called to say they did not want to proceed. That did not come as any kind of shock but the agent was quite determined that perhaps she could explain it was an off day. I told her that under normal market conditions I’d simply write this one down to experience. She told me that they asked me why I was a software engineer and that I could not answer. I told her that I gave them the honest answer and that they did not seem able to accept that answer.

Having nothing else to do with the rest of the day I decided to write some code to solve that childs puzzle. It took me a little over 4 hours and so I zipped it up and sent it to them with a comment about the time it took and that I had not used the internet until after completing the task to find that Google agreed with my solution that it was not possible. On the whole I’m not sure I should have wasted those 4 hours but it proved to me that I can estimate quite acurately but the truth be told, if they said they have changed their minds I’d not be too happy because really trying to work amongst such wierd people might not actually be much fun.

Update: A couple of days later and I was talking to an agent and he asked how the job hunting was going. I mentioned that I’d had an awful interview and started to tell him about the 100 hour question. He immediately said “Did you by any chance speak to a Mr M.B?”. It seems that this guy has been asking the same question to everyone he interviews for years. Apparently the right answer means providing a break down of the hours including what portion would be spent assessing risks and the various development stages and the amount of testing time. All very well but for a 100 hour project I’d probably not be thinking about a deep analysis because that is such a short project. In fact I seriously doubt that a 100 hour project would be more than a simple utility and certainly not deserving of massive in depth analysis. The agent in question was being as polite as he could but there was no hiding the dislike of the man although he did say that T.B was actually good to work for and that the company was a good one if a little cheap when it came to rates.

Further update: More than a year after the interview and I was called by an agent about a possible different permanent job. I explained that I was already in a job and quite happy with it but always open to suggestions. I politely listened as she told me about a job in risk management in Den Haag but stopped her and asked if we were talking about a company not actually in the financial industry but serving them and based outside Den Haag. Yes she said. Are we talking about F? Yes she said. I explained about the awful interview I’d had with M.B. and she told me that I was the second potential candidate she had called who had had this experience. I mentioned the other agent who had reassured me that it was them and not me. But it is heartening to know that others have had the same experience but I do wonder how or why the company keeps employing this man.


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