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A Curious interview

In late-July 2009, when I was doing freelance work to pay the bills, a recruiter approached me about a job opening at the Glasgow based agency-of-all-things, Curious Group. I’d long admired the work of Curious’ from afar, having browsed their website showcase even before I moved back up from Liverpool in 2008, so I was excited about the opportunity.

However, when I saw the job spec I swallowed hard. Six years in the sheltered safety of Sony, followed by a gruelling year churning out Python for the purpose of content migration had left me a little rusty as a web developer. More rust, in fact, than I could shake off in the month of PHP and simple front-end work that the freelance project had me doing. But still, I decided I would just be honest in the interview and show a willingness to learn whatever was required should the job come my way.

The first step was a phone interview with a senior developer, Iain Simpson, as the technical director, Robert Tweed, was off work with suspected swine flu (it wasn’t). Iain asked me about the kind of work I’d done in the past and I asked him the usual vague interviewee questions in return.

The call didn’t last any more than 20 minutes, but I was really encouraged by the chat with Iain and tweeted enthusiastically to that effect afterwards – an act I would later cringe at when reminded of it down the line.

An hour or so later the recruiter informed me that I’d done well in the phone interview and that the next step would come in the form of a trial day the following week. To say I put in the appropriate preparation is grossly overstating it. As I was struggling financially, Cousin Iain had paid for my flights to London for the Great British Beer Festival, so I flew down for that as planned, getting back late on Sunday evening.

That left me with just a day to brush up on those contrived “interview questions” before the trial day began at half past nine on Tuesday morning. The Curious Group occupied several floors of a sandstone building on Wellington Street, and I was suitably impressed by the surroundings. It was just as grand as it looked in the pictures on the websit. Inside, the strength of the firm’s interior design arm was clear. This would be a cool place to work if I could make the grade.

After our introductions, a cheerful Robert Tweed took me to a side room where I was given a written test to sit for the next hour or so. Left to it, I scanned the paper and didn’t get very far before I felt a little out of my depth. Most of the questions looked straight out of academia and I hadn’t been faced with anything like that since I’d been at university.

Write a sorting algorithm in pseudo code, I was prompted. I stared at the question until the text blurred. Did I really know any sorting algorithms? I remembered Bubble Sort being in some sample of code I had written on my Spectrum back in the 80’s and although I knew it was inefficient compared to other techniques, it was all that came to mind. I tentatively put pen to paper, trying to work out the logic of it as I wrote. It struck me that if I was actually coding this up I’d be able to work it out with a bit of trial and error, but writing it in pseudo code – the programmatic equivalent of layman’s terms – wasn’t coming easily.

I took far too long on that one before glancing at my watch and realising I had to pick up the pace to get everything done in the allotted time. As it turned out, Robert Tweed had kind of forgotten about me so I needn’t have worried. More of a concern was that having the time to go back over my answers highlighted the fact my handwriting was barely legible and that most of my answers were vague at best.

When he came back, Robert went through the paper with me and, unexpectedly, seemed amused by answers where I’d got the wrong end of the stick. Some of them he took the time to ponder himself, saying “Hmmm. How would you answer that?” I couldn’t help but find him likeable, yet at the same time, I was perplexed as to why the technical director didn’t seem particularly familiar with the questions he’d set me. I would later discover it had mostly been the other senior developers who had come up with the test paper.

Sitting in the side room felt a bit like being on a hidden camera show as we sat joking about how contrived some of the questions were and, also, how it turned out he hadn’t been diagnosed with swine flu after all. It was a slightly surreal experience compared to how I thought it would go.

How I’d actually fared in the test seemed unimportant and Robert soon led me through to the open office that housed the digital arm of the agency. The desks were arranged in a big, open horseshoe, with the development team sat in a row of desks on the right, client services and management bridging the gap at near end, and the creative team sat in a row by the far wall. Nobody on the other desks paid any mind as I was introduced to the development team, but I figured they must have a lot of folks interviewing in there so I was just another random they’d most likely never see again.

Robert sat me at an empty island of desks off to the side and introduced me to the in-house email building platform called Construct. He said that “the deployer” needed attention, told me roughly what it was supposed to do and suggested I have a go at rewriting it for the rest of the day. I nodded along, wearing my best poker face whilst wondering if he’d got me confused with some other candidate who was actually well versed in object-oriented PHP.

Left in front of a utilitarian looking laptop I spent a while sifting through the files in the hope I’d have some kind of epiphany. It never came so, hoping some fresh air would do me good, I nipped out to buy lunch and upon my return I carried on as before, eventually cracking my knuckles and writing the skeleton of what I thought “the deployer” should do.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a clue and wrote code comments that were more questions than comments. As the afternoon wore on it was hard to suppress the feeling of just how ridiculously out of my depth I was and, in the back of my mind, the greater question loomed; “What the heck am I doing here?”

By 5 pm I had a migraine coming on and my spirit was somewhat crushed. It was clear I had a long way to go before I could contribute to a sprawling web application like Construct and, given my struggle with the academic test that morning, I had already made my peace with the fact I’d never again see the inside of the immaculately furnished building.

As folk began to slip away for the evening, Robert Tweed came back over and asked how I got on. I sheepishly showed him the skeleton code that I’d written and said I hadn’t got very far, offering an embarrassingly defensive line about realising the deployer was a small part of a much larger application and I had tried to take the time to understand how it all came together. Which I both had and hadn’t.

Robert chuckled at this, telling me that the deployer was a ridiculously complicated part of Construct and he would have been amazed if I’d been able to conjure up something in the space of an afternoon. I nodded along, eyes bleary from the day, feeling once again that I was on a reality TV show or that I’d taken part in one of those “no-win situation” tests you’d see in Star Trek.

When we finished up I thanked Robert for his time and for the experience, as even with tunnel vision from the migraine it had been pretty clear as day that I needed to press on with learning from the PHP book I’d bought; Objects, Patterns and Practice. Robert seemed enthused by this and said it was a really good book.

I shook his hand and he said he’d be in touch, either way, then I left and practically had to Spider-Man my way along the street walls to meet my pal Adrian at our regular haunt at the time, The Lab. As I unsteadily took a seat beside Ade at the bar he asked me how it went and, squinting through the dark patches in my vision, I told him “I’ll never see the inside of that building again!”

Adrian gave a signature shrug and said “Ah, well!” with a laugh. We got very drunk that Tuesday night, toasting my continued search for a job in recession-hit Glasgow.

It didn’t come as a big surprise when I heard nothing back from the recruiter in the days that followed. Still, the experience had me rethinking the way I was going about things and I refactored some of the code for the freelance project with a fresh motivation for improving my output.

As the week drew to a close I was finishing up my freelance work for the day, with the intention of driving down to join the family on the island of Cumbrae when I was done. It was then that I received a call from the recruiter, Karl. He asked how I thought it had gone and I responded positively, admitting that it was clear there was a skills gap between my abilities and the role they were trying to fill.

Karl said he’d heard back from Robert Tweed that I was “the most honest person they’d ever interviewed.” I was pleasantly surprised at the compliment. Karl explained that due to the shortfall in my technical ability they didn’t think I would be able to contribute right away, but if I’d accept a lesser salary and learn on the job, the role was mine if I could start on Monday.

I was completely shocked and delighted by the offer and, after exchanging a couple of acceptance emails between everyone involved it was agreed that I would indeed begin my employment at Curious Group first thing on Monday.

Final confirmation came from Robert Tweed; “Excellent! See you Monday Robert. Start thinking about what we should call you, as ‘Robert’ is already taken :-)”

It appeared that Robert was perpetually as cheerful as I’d first found him. I couldn’t wait to start working with him and for Curious’. It would come as a shock when the latter would last just three weeks.

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