Job interviews go both ways (My story with Netscape in ’98)

Note: this is a post from 2011. It used to be on the IndexTank blog which no longer exists, so I’m putting it up here. 

When I interview a candidate here at IndexTank, I take it very seriously and try to be at the top of my game. I have to prove to this person that it’s worth choosing our company over others. Desirable candidates have many choices, so I’m competing with every hot tech company in the Bay Area.

Candidates often forget this fact. I expect them to bombard me with questions about where we are going, what I’m thinking, what it’s like to work hereMaybe even ask me a hard technical question, it’s only fair. I plan for ample interview time for this reason.

It turns out, the majority of the people don’t do this. They simply put on their best face, answer every question and try to sell themselves. Some ask questions everyone should ask, such as the financial situation of the company. Very rarely someone probes me to see if they would like to have me as their boss.

In a previous post I mentioned an interview I had at Netscape in 1998. I can freely talk about that one; Netscape has been effectively dead so long that younger generations may think it was a brand of milk chocolate.

It all started when a got a call from Netscape through a friend who had joined a few months before and recommended me. That was enough for them to fly me over to the Bay Area for an interview a week later. Arrived from Pittsburgh late at night, drove from SFO to a generic hotel in Mountain View where I spent the evening reading about how Netscape was doing. They had just announced that they would be releasing their source code to the public, which was very intriguing to me.

I remember arriving at Netscape, a gigantic campus that used to belong to HP. Maybe they had four thousand employees at the time. I was told that I was interviewing to replace employee #7 (everyone talked about their own employee number) who was leaving because he was fully vested that month (red flag).

At first glance I was impressed with the place. People with purple hair roller-skating around the office with their dogs. It was my first encounter with the “creative minds of Silicon Valley” in their natural environment.

During lunch came another red flag. One manager talked about how they were a bit bummed because Yahoo had just surpassed their market valuation. Both companies were public at the time, and it was right when the Nasdaq was starting to take off like a rocket (which turned out to be the Challenger if you pardon the bad taste of my pun).

What really sealed it for me where the technical interviews. The first guy who interviewed me was a C guru. He spent most of the interview talking about himself and asked me one trivia question: why is EOF in C defined as -1 (btw, this is platform dependent). Look it up if you’re interested. This was a prelude to explain a hideous bug he’d been fighting based on that behavior and how proud he was about it.

Another guy asked me a few “aha” questions which I got (I was really into puzzles and brainteasers at the time). They were unrelated to programming for the most part. The only hard programming question was how to traverse a binary tree with two pointers and without using a stack. Good luck figuring that one out during an interview.

If I ask you that question during an interview and you answer it correctly, there are three possibilities:

  • you’re super smart
  • you knew the answer beforehand and are a good actor
  • you lucked out into the solution and are reasonably smart

Not a lot of information. But most importantly, it says little about whether you’re capable of fixing horrendous bugs in the Mac version of Netscape Navigator (release 4, now with extra bloat!).

I had been a big fan of Netscape until then. I left the building that evening with mixed feelings. Nobody seemed excited about open-sourcing the code, the original people were leaving, the coder gurus projected strange attitudes to a lowly candidate. I didn’t want to work there. It turned out I never had to make a decision because they didn’t call me back. A few months later they were acquired by AOL, who proceeded to gut the company and turn netscape.com into yet-another-portal.

I still thank them for flying me over from Pittsburgh, rental car, hotel and meals paid. That’s how I came to the Bay Area for the first time and thirteen years later I’m still here.

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2 thoughts on “Job interviews go both ways (My story with Netscape in ’98)

  1. “Some ask questions everyone should ask, such as the financial situation of the company.”

    Every company I’ve ever interviewed at has made their financial situation exceedingly clear by their office space. Those that were deluding themselves in extravagance certainly wouldn’t have admitted the truth to an interviewee.

    “Very rarely someone probes me to see if they would like to have me as their boss.”

    In my career (going on 2 decades) I’ve had at least 10 or 12 bosses. I can think of *maybe* 2 that I actually liked as bosses. Both left in short order to go do other things with their lives (i.e., not software). I take it as a given that any boss I get at a software company is going to be someone I have to put up with, not someone who is a good boss. I might as well ask if my son’s high school football coach has any Superbowl rings. The answer is going to be No, and I fail to see what I’d gain by asking.

    Am I too cynical? I haven’t seen a truly great software company in years. Everything’s too dang political these days that nothing great can get accomplished — even (or perhaps especially) in the startup space.

  2. Anytime you go into an interview you should be interviewing the company. Who greets you. If the receptionist is engaged. How she interacts with people, how people interact with her.
    How people in the office interact with each other. Whether the interviewers are interested.
    I had interviews where I knew they didn’t want me by just the questions they were asking and how they were responding back to me.
    I had interviews where I had bombed them completely.
    I have also been on the other side of the table where I had someone who was super smart just tune me out because I guess I was not on his level.
    Beware of that attitude because if you think you are smarter than the person standing next to you, nobody else will want to work with you.
    The grass is sometimes greener, you just have to take that leap over the fence just to taste it. Just because someone else says it’s not greener doesn’t mean they have tasted it.

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