The Job Search, Part 1

5 min read


Finding Employment

The summer after I graduated from my university I was struggling to find jobs that would fit my set of skills:

  • University degree: Bachelor of Arts in Natural Science (there’s a non-Epic story there!)
  • Limited summer employment experience: A database admin/internal tool development at a local truss and home building manufacturer which is no longer in business (shout out to dBase for being a wonderfully OK thing at the time)
  • National Science Foundation paid summer program with room, board, and and access to an extremely expensive true parallel processor (admittedly, my 3 year old iPhone is far more amazing tech — but the parallel processor was quite revolutionary at the time)
  • A lot of side hacking in my ample free time

Admittedly, that wasn’t much. While I would have liked to add: “unlimited potential,” that didn’t seem to be appropriate to include.

Discovering job opportunities before the Internet had taken off was an extraordinary experience. The great explorers Indiana Jones and Lara Croft had it easy in comparison finding previously lost and hidden treasures.

The Official Search™ process consisted of buying local newspapers and checking want-ads. My parents received a daily local newspaper and we’d buy one or two Sunday giant editions to get broader coverage every week. Occasionally, I’d get my hands on the giant newspaper that was Chicago Tribune back in the 1990s. Forests shook at the amount of paper used in each edition.

There wasn’t much to find. Back in the early 1990s there weren’t many software development or software engineering roles. There wasn’t a spicy-hot SaaS startup on every street corner like today. Recruiters weren’t banging on my door begging me to interview. It was surprising if the day’s want-ads had a single relevant job that matched my extensive credentials and the types of jobs I was vaguely interested in.

Weeks passed since graduation. I sincerely wanted to get a job. I bought my first 10-speed bicycle and helmet, but that wasn’t a marketable talent. My parents were starting to hint that maybe a temporary job at a local business would be great in the interim. It was never very serious though as there weren’t any local — the drive back and forth and gas costs and insurance cost increases would have nearly meant that I’d volunteered my time essentially. So, I kept looking. (My parents had done the math too, they knew it wasn’t really an option, but it was a game we were playing to get me out of the house.)

I did send in my resume to any reasonable match (I likely included a chillingly generic cover letter as well but have long since blocked that out of my memories). The experience of a job hunt hasn’t changed much. Often nothing. No calls, not a rejection letter.

However I did hear back from a software company called Parsons Software in Cedar Rapids, Iowa that isn’t in business anymore AFAIK (OK, an update, turns out the then owner of the company later went on to found GoDaddy). After a few phone screens, I was invited to an in-person interview. I’d never driven to the city or that part of Iowa. For those including myself who are dependent on GPS today: all I had was an old-school Rand McNally map and some handwritten instructions for the last part of the drive.

I hadn’t by any means oversold my expertise in the phone conversations. I said what I’d done in school and what I’d done outside of school.

To my shock however, during the interview, they made it clear that there was another person interviewing for the position that had better experience and credentials. Spectacular. Why tell me that? It was like a warning shot. A pointless clarification. I expected that other candidates had applied for the job and that they were interviewing others. But telling me I wasn’t at the top of the list was demoralizing and pointless. Thanks for wasting my time and yours.

Taunting is Terrible

I expect that the culture of this company (that no longer exists I’m sure in no part to their brilliant hiring techniques) wasn’t actually a friendly place. Taunting a candidate with: “you’re not as good as the other candidate” is awful and disrespectful. It helped me understand the culture of the company far better than nearly anything else that happened that day.

The remainder of the interviews weren’t, as far as I recall, particularly interesting. We went out for lunch (which was awkward for uncomfortable reasons I won’t share here) and I remember distinctly trying to find the least messy and least likely foods on the menu that might get stuck in a front tooth. As a future interviewer that did lunches with candidates routinely, I know how these meals aren’t the best for many candidate personalities.

I’m surprised they didn’t make me pick my second choice for food at lunch.

I remember taking my senior project with me on a floppy disk and the code to show them as a demonstration of skills. It was a DOS-based app with “windows” that could pop up, be moved, and a basic data entry app. It was an impressive app and went way beyond what other students had done for the same assignment. I know the professor at the time didn’t even fully grasp how I’d built the app. Shrug. That was and still is how I operate.

Good news! I apparently matched their lowered expectations adequately. I received no job offer. I didn’t want to work there, but I had no other options, so I was a bit disappointed that I couldn’t turn the offer down. While I was anything but “business-savvy” at the time, I was keenly aware that the software they were building was very niche and unlikely to have many customers knocking down their doors for new versions.

It was about a week later that I spotted a job in a Madison, Wisconsin newspaper from a company: EPIC SYSTEMS CORPORATION.


What was your worst interviewer experience?