The Job Search, Part 3

7 min read

Contents

If you haven’t read parts 1 and 2, start there instead.

An Interview with Jake

Shortly after my second interview with Epic, I received a phone call from State Farm Insurance, at the time headquartered in Bloomington, Illinois. Having attended my university in that same city, I knew where their corporate campus was and the influence they had on the local community. They had a lot of employees — doing whatever insurance companies do (heck, I know generally, but I don’t know why they have so many employees).

The position was in Data Processing. They didn’t call it software development for Legacy Corporate Executive Decision Reasons. I hated the name, but again, it was a job. I didn’t really want to work there or live in Bloomington. I wasn’t getting job offers left and right, the choice was made.

It was a three and a half hour drive one way. Unlike Epic which encouraged even then a business casual dress code for interviewees, State Farm was a Suit and Tie Wearing Culture. Ugh. Suit culture added to the list of reasons I didn’t want this job. But, as my mother said, I wouldn’t need to work there forever. I could look for other jobs. Sure. That was Mom-speak: “Just try something honey.”

I remember only one interview. I imagine there must have been more, but one struck me and haunts me to this day.

Don’t Interview Like State Farm and Don’t Interview “Corporate-Style”

Someone from State Farm (his name could have been Jake, I don’t remember) explained to me across from their glorious giant wooden desk in a characterless office with a required arrangement of potted plants and photo of a potentially stock-photo family:

“Data Processing is a wonderfully planned career option at State Farm. Blah Blah. You start at Level One and in 5 years, you may be promoted to Level Two, Blah Blah.”

He might have said 3 years, but he may have as well said 20 years. The forced waiting period to be able to advance a career based on time served rather than skill and achievements sent a chill down my spine that I can still feel today. The lack of career growth wasn’t enough though:

“Tell me 5 things that you’re not good at.”

I had mentally prepared for these stupid questions.

The Career Center at my university had nearly covered it. I had only prepared 3! No one had asked for more than 3 before. Here’s the State Farm interviewer, needing 5 to prove that I would be worthy of being a State Farm Data Processor.

I expect that you’re thinking I would be super honest.

I was. I said I didn’t have more, but I didn’t add what I wanted to say: “you gotta freaking be kidding me. How is this providing any value to you?!” I recall stumbling my way through a fourth on the fly, but didn’t make it to his five.

If I hadn’t heard in my head my mother saying, “don’t give up,” I would have walked out of the interview right there and then. The rest of the interview process took place in that room. No helpful tours, nothing. There may have been some sort of test that I took, but I’ve blocked it all but this one key incident.

I imagined what it would be like: a sea of endless cubicles, stretched as far as the horizon, everyone wearing dark suits while quietly pecking away at corporate issued keyboards staring at glowing green-screen terminals. An occasional festive necktie, probably celebrating they’d decided to quit. It was like a movie scene from a secret government storage facility, with endless rows of crates stacked …, but in this case, with cubicles with bright fluorescent lighting that was thoroughly bright yet extraordinarily exhausting at the same time.

I didn’t meet a manager that day to find out what torture I would have endured experienced day to day. I think I may have met a few Data Processors but I don’t remember any specifics. They certainly didn’t provide a lasting impression. I knew I didn’t want a job, and they weren’t offering any meaningful interaction that could have served as “interview practice.” I’m sure they thought I was quiet; I’d already mentally put in my resignation papers. Sincerely, I didn’t care. I might have looked for hints that they were telling me to RUN RUN RUN.

I could not work there.

I also knew that day that I never ever ever wanted to interview someone else using that technique in the future. If a company I worked for asked me to do that, I wouldn’t.

If I had been asked about projects in college and how I’d handled adversity and overcome programming challenges, not only would the interviewer likely gotten less canned responses, but I would have left feeling far better about the interview and State Farm. (Except it still wasn’t a job that I would have wanted).

I drove home with a healthy mixture of anger, relief, and disappointment. It was an absolute waste of a day after driving 7 hours, but my mother and father were happy that I’d tried.

The Epic Call

That night, I’d guess around 8pm, I received a call from a woman at Epic that I hadn’t met during my interviews. She gave me her name, but not her role at Epic. She said her name was Judy and she wanted to offer me a job!

She told me the salary and me, oversharing honest Aaron, said I was very excited, and that I was also disappointed because I’d just driven 7 hours for a job interview that day. I’m sure she thought it was odd I mentioned that, but, that is me. I accepted the offer on the phone (which in hindsight wasn’t an effective negotiation tactic for a small salary increase). At the time, I assumed she was in HR. (In fact, she was in many ways, as Epic had no formal HR department for a few more years.)

So, good timing: one day earlier and I wouldn’t have had the experience of learning how to not interview a candidate.

Don’t Give Up, Keep Practicing

I wasn’t in a position to give up. I know when to stop working on something (plenty of stories about that to come and how to weigh those decisions). Getting my first job was a necessary step.

But, what I did do was keep learning and tinkering while looking for a job. While I didn’t have access to the Internet to explore new technology and such, I did have access to my trusty Borland C/C++ compiler (legally obtained thank-you very much education discount), so I kept coding. Nothing groundbreaking or patent worthy by any means, but I kept my skills active and practiced, in spite of not having a particular target. I knew software development was my future, so I had to keep doing it as often as possible.

I know that some readers are actively looking for a job. Maybe because you were let go, maybe because you’re itching to try something new, or maybe because you’re looking to get your first job (or many other reasons). To you I say, keep at it. You don’t need to spend 8 hours a day pounding at a keyboard to keep sharp. I strongly recommend not doing that unless you have a specific tangible goal in mind. Instead of aimlessly coding, try to broaden your knowledge. Read about technology, business, history, stories of success, failures, interviews with creators, and anything else. Keep your mind active. Get away from the glowing screen for a while, play a board game, go for a walk, talk with your kids, your friends, or even your pets, whatever!

There’s an opportunity out there for you. It just may take some time for them to realize you’re the one.

Questions

If you were job-hunting before the internet, how did you find your first employment?

If you got a job at Epic before they had an Internet presence, how did you hear about them?