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When Bureaucracy Is the Goal

·4 mins

I had the recent pleasure of speaking with someone from a big tech company about their interview process. They wanted to put me through the funnel to run the gauntlet and see if I “had what it takes” to make it to the offer stage. I declined, but (against better judgement) I gave them 30 minutes to pitch their company to me anyway.

The conversation wasn’t particularly interesting or insightful, and I didn’t learn anything new. It did, however, inspire me to write a blog thingy.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Albert Camus’s book The Stranger, an absurd tale of a man convicted of murder. I won’t try to summarize the book here, but I hope anyone reading along who’s also read this book would nod in agreement. Also if you haven’t read the book, please do for your own sake.

Anyway, I tried to explain to the recruiter how I felt interviewing at this company wasn’t worth my time for 2 reasons:

  1. I’m terrible at interviewing, and having run the gauntlet at every big techie several times, I can tell you I probably won’t pass because I’m no better at interviews today than I was in the 2000s.
  2. They wanted me to interview at a level that I would consider O.K. for me about 10 years ago, so even if I aced their leetcoding and managed to get an offer, I am pretty sure it would have been disappointing to me. This I didn’t mention to the recruiter because they weren’t in a position to do anything about it.

With a lot of these big tech companies, they treat humans like cattle (which is what we also do with computers). The goal is to maximize the number of subjects through the funnels, weed out the ones that aren’t good at interviews, and in the end you’re left with interview rockstars so you can pick from the 90th percentile or whatever.

The absurditity here, of course, is that this is a perfect example of stupid selection. The skills required for passing job interviews have nothing to do with outcomes for employees doing jobs. Regardless of what job you do, almost nobody is doing the job of passing job interviews all day. In the case of software engineering, you’re either building software or managing people building software, or perhaps you groom the kanban boards or whatever.

In any case, interviews aren’t about doing the things you do in jobs. Interviews are mostly about how you make the interviewer feel, whether or not you can solve the puzzles the way the interview likes them solved in the amount of time provided, and whether or not you are willing to endure whatever institutional bureaucracy this particular company has decided is necessary to “hire the best” or whatever.

It’s a bit funny, and the worst part is that it seems to work for most of these companies. They probably miss out on the cream of the crop, but it doesn’t matter because they really only need to make sure that the bottom 60th percentile or so never makes it into the company, and they can stay on top. All the people who can’t pass a big tech interview can go work at a big bank instead.

Tech innovation
Tech innovation stock photography with watermarks

These companies do make exceptions to their “innovative” hire-by-blind-committee policies, but generally only in “exceptional” cases which just means for people with lots of internet followers. For people who are highly skilled but don’t care much about clout chasing, you are SOL unless you were Stanford roomies with the CEO.

These companies don’t want to hire very smart or talented people, either. Very smart and talented people have lower tolerance thresholds for dumb processes and arbitrary bureaucracy, so they don’t make good employees. The big companies want to hire highly institutionalized people who will follow the boss’s commands and make the widgets to specification. This is one reason why they love hiring young people from expensive schools: those people have already mastered the art of achieving high scores on pointless standardized tests and filling out paperwork according to the set of rules laid out by whoever is in charge.

I don’t think we’ve reached the peak of big tech yet, but I do think all of these companies will slowly become irrelevant and more consumer-hostile. Our best hope is that the EU enforces antitrust legislation against them, which spawns a set of new competitors. That won’t happen in the US, however, because the US government is corrupted by the lobbyists with the deepest pockets. A handful of companies control the main platforms of the internet, and none of them are going to let anyone else come in and take that away from them.