Saturday, February 11, 2006

Esther Greenwood, I hear ye:

"...how all the little successes I'd totted up at college fizzled to nothing outside the slick marble and plate-glass fronts of Madison Avenue..."

Ouch. That phrase of Sylvia Plath's from The Bell Jar hit hard when I read it today (she died on this day in 1963). It wasn't simply a phrase, it was a sentence. She might as well have written 'graduate school' rather than 'college,' and written 'Pennsylvania Avenue' rather than 'Madison Avenue.'

Over ten years ago, when I was interviewing the first time in this area, the phrase that stuck with me was drawn from its quiver by an elderly gentleman at IDA. He leaned over his desk, pointed at my eager young face and said: "PhD's like you are a dime-a-dozen in this town, and I've got a thousand dollars in my pocket. You don't add anything here." I think I only got my breath back when I was back sitting in my all-paid convenience suite hotel.

The worst interview I ever had, however, was with Oracle. Because of it, I will never knowingly spend my own money or participate in a decision that involves their products. MIT used to set up series of interviews for its students on campus, and a steady stream of spiky haired students with stiff shoes, store-creased shirts, and navy blue polyester sports jackets (some with the label still on the sleeve) would parade in and out of a the concrete interview room while the HR types from 3M, Ford Motors, Dupont & Nemours, and Biogen, would sort through the cookie-cutter engineers.

I had signed up for a series of interviews with all kinds of different companies, and I had done a lot of work with fairly powerful computers on my thesis, so I figured I had a pretty good head for how to tackle a computing problem and design code to approach it. No, I did not have a degree in Computer Science, but I did not expect abuse at the hands of an interviewer. After all, I had just "totted up" a Doctorate in Geophysics.

Perhaps it was late in the day. Perhaps the previous computer science clone interviewee had abused the Oracle interviewer. But after I greeted the interviewer and sat down after there was no reply, the man snapped: "Resumé!" I realized I was in trouble because he immediately started snorting as he read it. Then he looked over my shoulder and said to the secretary: "Why are you wasting my time with this kind of crap?" He looked at me and spat: "Interview over."

I didn't even bother to spar with him, as I had done when I went to interview with McKinsey & Co. in New York, where I felt I had held my own against their "ultra-slick marble and plate-glass fronts." That Oracle interviewer had told me everything I needed to know his company. To this day, I carry and trust that feeling, even though good friends have gone to Oracle, enjoyed it, and done well.

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