By Jake Vinson
Simon had a great job. Every day he was playing with cool hardware and software, he liked his colleagues, and the pay... well... OK, he was underpaid. Vastly underpaid. While his company made good on their promise to give him a raise once he got a C certification, it was an insulting two figures. Simon would've felt less insulted if they'd literally slapped him in the face (instead of figuratively). It didn't take him long to line up some interviews and get a job offer for a position that sounded just as interesting, with the added benefit of a reasonable level of compensation.
Once Simon made his intentions to leave clear, his boss started worrying — they needed someone to take over for Simon, and not having any spare staff, they had to hire someone quick. Simon's boss pulled him aside and asked him to draft a test with some basic questions to weed out the hacks.
Simon got started on a test that had questions ranging from braindead easy to moderately challenging. He tried to come up with questions that would make someone think, but not frustrate them. Ten questions seemed a reasonable amount, so that was his goal.
The first question was one of the harder ones — "Explain how a modulus 11 checksum works and write an example of how it would work in pseudocode." The next several questions were about simple VB and C syntax (remove an element from a linked list, write a sorting algorithm, etc.). The last question, however, was tough.
You're writing code in a programming language that you've never used before. You have no documentation about the language except the other code. Complete the following function: ...
Simon included some actual production code from one such system. The company had several machines that ran on long lost programming languages, and long lost manuals and reference sheets except for a few copies written in German, French, or Chinese (with large sections of pages missing), or they were transcribed on stone tablets in glyphs that no one on the team could decipher. So the developers at the company had to think on their feet and really pay attention to existing syntax. Simon didn't intend for the question to be answered correctly, but rather to see the candidate's approach to it.
He finished preparing the test the same day he gave his two weeks notice, and the candidates started coming in over the next few days. The goal was to have Simon train his replacement.
Business continued like it usually did over the next few days, though Simon had yet to meet any candidates that had passed the initial screening process. One day when Simon was in his boss's office working on his computer, when he spotted something strange. It was a completely filled out test, with answers that were not totally correct.
This is a BS question!
A child could do this one.
First year programming question. (which was the point)
Who wrote this crap? You should fire him!
I would be embarrassed to answer such a stupid question.
This question makes no sense at all!
For most questions, it was full of complaints about the exam. For the tougher questions, it was complaints that the questions didn't make sense. Simon wondered whether it was his boss that had written these responses to the test (and that he'd soon be told to write another test), but the handwriting didn't look like his boss's...
He put it out of his mind and focused on other tasks. If his boss wanted a rewrite, Simon would wait to hear from him. He was curious how the hunt was going, though, so he asked. "Any luck finding a replacement?"
"Actually, yes," his boss replied with a smile. He looked as though he'd just been relieved of a huge burden. "Turns out my nephew is really good with computers, so we're going to give him the job!"
"So... he did OK on the exam then?"
"Oh, yeah, he did great! In fact, he said it was too easy and that he could've done much harder questions!"
Weird. Simon hadn't provided an answer key, since he'd have to grade the more open-ended questions on his own after each applicant finished. His boss didn't have the technical knowledge to review the tests. "I'd like to see his test if you don't mind."
"Uhh... err... we already offered him the job."
Simon had no response; all he could do was stare.
"So there's really no point, He'll be in tomorrow."
Simon blinked twice and continued staring. He was irritated that he'd spent all that time drafting the test, only to have it swept under a rug by someone complaining that it was too easy. I guess I'll withhold judgment until I see the kid's chops, Simon thought.
The following day, Ryan came in and began his training. After a few minutes with Ryan, Simon could tell that Ryan couldn't program, and in fact Simon even doubted that Ryan had ever used a computer before. He'd put together an intense training schedule that would barely fit in the remaining days he'd be on the job, but they didn't even get through a half day's worth of material in the first day.
The first few days involved basic math training, and going over what a bit, byte, binary, hex, etc. were. After explaining hex to Ryan, a revealing question was asked.
"So, like, hex can be a number or a letter between 'A' and 'F', right? Are there any conditions where this isn't the case?"
Simon closed his eyes for a second, then turned and focused on Ryan. "What do you mean?"
"Like, could it ever be a 'G', for example?"
Simon's inner voice was screaming loud enough that he was concerned Ryan might actually hear it. He answered Ryan's question and continued the training.
Hours passed, and Simon learned that Ryan wasn't coy about anything. At one point, he blurted out what his salary was — twice what Simon had been making.
As Simon's last day loomed closer and closer, he tried to put Ryan on some of the equipment to let him learn for himself a bit. A manager that worked in the area saw Ryan doing basically nothing all day aside from asking basic questions, taking bathroom trips, and frequent water cooler visits, and he was concerned that Simon had wasted the training time. "Ryan, did you get any traini- I mean, who did you go through your training with?"
"Simon," he responded. "But he didn't do a very good job of it, I hardly learned anything from him."
Suspecting sabotage, the manager rounded up the other managers and called Simon into the conference room.
"Do you know why you're here?" they began. Before Simon could open his mouth, they continued "We don't think you trained Ryan very well. We think you don't care because your time is almost up here."
His blood boiling, Simon couldn't help but say exactly what was on his mind. Fists clenched at his side, he yelled "This guy is a complete idiot! He doesn't know anything about computers, he doesn't know anything about the business, and the only reason he was hired is because he's related to Larry! And that's also why he's making twice what I made!" After a brief flash of embarrassment that he'd gotten so worked up about it, he realized he had proof of Ryan's incompetence. "Look, I think we can clear this all up if we just look at his exam."
The managers were stunned. After a long pause, Simon's boss (Ryan's uncle) chimed in. "Uh... w- I lost it."
"OK," Simon replied, "how about re-interviewing him?"
Ryan's uncle started to respond, "uh, I don't think that's neces-"
"Fine, bring him in," one of the other managers said. Simon was asked to leave the room.
Hours later, Simon was summoned back to the conference room. All of the managers other than Ryan's uncle were there.
"Look, we're sorry. Turns out you were right — Ryan doesn't know anything. Is there any chance you can stay on?"
"Sorry," Simon said. "I've already accepted another offer."
"We'll pay you what we were paying Ryan!"
Simon buried his face in his hands, slowly looking up. "Look, my new employer made me a better offer, and how could I possibly want to work here after what happened?" He'd taken all he could, so he just got up and left the room, finishing the day working quietly at his desk.
To blow off steam, he got together with a friend later that night and complained about the whole messed up situation.
"So, like, they're hiring now?" his friend asked.
"Well, yeah, but did you listen to everything I said?"
"Yeah, but that's more than I'm making now. Who can I send my résumé to?"
A few days later, Simon's friend was offered a job right after his interview. Meanwhile, Ryan is still working at the company. He was moved to a manual labor position, however.
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