It was difficult to breathe.
No matter how desperately I wanted this programming job, I knew the interviewer could tell that I was (embarrassingly) failing at hiding a huge secret…
I was a complete fraud.
In 1997 I was turning 23 years old. Many of my friends were graduating college or entering their 5th and final year and looking forward to entering the workforce with a bachelor’s degree and a solid education from fantastic schools.
While my friends were anticipating their first “real” jobs, I was celebrating a 25-cent per hour increase in my hourly wage working as a circulation clerk at the public library system.
Over 8 bucks an hour!
My first job title was “page” which was a minimum wage, part-time position that included shelving returned books and wheeling heavy carts around. That was 5 years back when I was in high school. I was just a kid when I had started and now I was…
It seemed weird, awesome and scary all at the same time. An adult.
My meager library income meant that I could pay 1/2 of the meager apartment rent that my roommate and I shared as well as provide a meager standard of living for myself that mostly consisted of fast food and rented movies.
Welcome to adulthood.
I was extremely jealous of some of my friends. They were using the education and experience they had gotten in college to secure high-paying software development jobs. When we all got together I always felt like the 3rd or 5th wheel. I knew enough about code as a hobbyist to follow the conversation but knew nothing about working on a real project in a real team under a real deadline for a real boss.
Not for lack of trying.
The library used really archaic dumb terminals to check in and out the books. Green screens. Memorizing function keys. Swiping the pen scanner across the barcodes.
Regardless of the technology, I wanted to work in the IT department. I had ideas to implement PCs instead of dumb terminals and modernize the library’s search screens to make it easier for the general public to use.
When a software engineering position opened up in IT ($40,000!!! Are you kidding me!!!???), I jumped at the chance.
And was summarily rejected.
Word through the grapevine was that the library IT department took their Dewy Decimals seriously and didn’t have time to train up some kid with aspirations of implementing PCs and replacing their precious mainframe.
I asked around and through a friend of a friend I was told that if I really wanted to work in the library IT department as a software engineer then I needed to get a master’s degree in computer science and 15 years of experience writing code in Ada.
Nope. Nope. Aaaannnnnnnnd…. Nope.
When my friend called a few months later with a potential job opportunity at the company where he worked, I didn’t get my hopes up.
After the brush off by the library IT department I realized I didn’t very much like rejection. Better to not want something than to have your dreams dashed against the side of a P1 phosphor CRT monitor.
Then the boss called.
His name was Paul and he seemed friendly and to the point over the phone that Friday afternoon. Business was booming. They needed help. I was recommended by my friend and could I come in Tuesday for an interview?
“Great. See you then. Oh, and bring in some of your portfolio to show us,” Paul (the boss) said.
Portfolio? Say huh?
“Just something you’ve built in Director. Anything is fine.”
Here’s the deal. I had never wrote a single line of code in Macromedia Director. I didn’t even have the app installed.
What did my friend tell them about me??
Friday night was pizza night. I would be buying. My friends would be tutoring. I would be cramming.
I had 3 days and 4 nights to learn it.
And build a…
If anyone would have told me what I had gotten myself into, I would have vomited and canceled the interview.
Ignorance is bliss.
After a late, late night of tutoring, my roommate said, “The best way to learn is to have a real project and just build it. You’ll learn as you go.”
He was right.
After 24 hours of Director 101 and Lingo 202 tutoring, I decided on my portfolio project:
I would build the video game Pong.
By Tuesday morning I had consumed several gallons of Mt Dew, slept only a handful of hours and had a rudimentary version of the classic arcade game running on my Mac.
There was no AI, so you had to play two-player on a single keyboard. One person used the q-a keys to move their paddle up and down. The opponent used the up-down arrow keys. The physics worked: the ball bounced off of the top and bottom of the screen and off the paddles. When you missed a return, the score would update and a new ball would drop in at the middle of the screen and start moving in a random direction.
I was thrilled!
Until I got to the interview.
Paul was tall, 40-something, business casual, receding hairline and half-moon eyeglasses hung low over his nose so that he could peer over them at my awkwardness.
He smiled with his mouth, but his eyes were piercing. He was an accountant by trade and had a lot of practicing scrutinizing details.
After a brief tour of the 3-room studio, a few introductions and an overview of the company it was time for the dog-and-pony show.
Luckily, the demo gods were with me.
My file ran off my floppy disk on Paul’s PC just fine. YES!
I was about 7 minutes into my explanation on how to compute the angle of incidence and determine the angle of reflection when Paul threw a curveball.
“Why did you choose that shade of orange for the score?”
My heart skipped a beat.
Orange? What orange? Shade? What does that mean? There is only one orange. Orange.
“Umm. I don’t know. I just… you know… clicked on the palette and picked something. You know… So… it’s not just… black and white?”
Even though I just wrote that sentence in quotation marks, I can’t accurately quote myself. I don’t know what words came out of my mouth, but there was a bit of stammering and ended in a question mark.
It wasn’t that I was questioning the question.
It was that I was questioning myself.
“So yah, anyway, we know the ball’s position every frame and we know the speed, so onEnterFrame we run this procedure which updates the ball’s position. But we DON’T update it because we have to validate that the new position isn’t on top of anything. Like a wall or a paddle or something. Okay?”
“Okay. Question: What font did you use for the score?”
My mind raced.
I was running on stale pizza, Mt Dew and no sleep.
Did I even pick a font? Or was there a default font?
There was another major stammer. I hitched halfway through the word “Arial” because I couldn’t remember if that was the name of the font or the Little Mermaid. It came out as a question.
“No. Arial is sans-serif, that is a serif font.”
Paul’s eyebrows arched over his half-moon glasses with a “caught ya” look.
“Oh. Maybe. Not. Sure…”
My breathing was irregular.
I felt like a huge weight was pressing down on my lungs. It was as if I were laying on the floor and Paul was stepping on my chest and putting more and more weight into it with every question.
Mental note to ask my friends about the difference between a serif and sans-serif font. For the NEXT job opportunity.
After several seconds of uncomfortable silence, Paul looked back to the screen.
“What happens if I miss?”
Oh goodie, back to physics!
God bless you, Isaac Newton.
I demonstrated the ball exiting the screen and the scoring logic activation.
“Why did you use that transition?” His tone was the same as a police officer after you rolled through a stop sign.
Literally, the last thing my roommate had showed me the night before was screen transitions. You didn’t have to code them, just select one from the list, like in PowerPoint.
Apparently I chose… poorly.
“The. Dis— Dissolve transition. It was.” I had no words. I had no excuse, officer.
My voice had become very small as if all the air in the room was gone and my diaphragm had imploded.
“I just. I just. Thought it was the coolest.”
Between you and me, I had ZERO design experience.
I had been tinkering with code since the age of ten, but I was less than worthless when it came to aesthetics.
Colors. Patterns. Fonts. Shapes. What looks appealing. These things meant nothing to me.
I mean just look at how I dressed myself.
I wore Wrangler jeans and cowboy boots, a belt buckle the size of a trash can lid, a t-shirt with a soccer ball on it and glasses as thick as the bullet-proof glass on President Bush’s limo.
There was no kidding Paul. There was no kidding myself.
He clearly wanted someone who could make an app look sharp.
He wanted a user interface designer.
All I could do was sling code. Paul never asked me a single question about the code.
More than anything though, design was a skill I cared nothing about. I didn’t care about the difference between serif and sans-serif. I would only ever be able to discern one color of orange. I was passionate about functionality. Design was outside of my wheelhouse and outside of my interest.
Even if I scrambled and came up with the perfect font choice (out of thin air), I would eventually just let him down, make a fool of myself and get fired.
The decision was made.
I stood up and let out a deep breath.
I turned to tell Paul he had the wrong guy.
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