I’m Old, Part XXII: Interviewing

When I interviewed at Adobe, I had a whirlwind set of interviews in that trip. I interviewed at Adobe, Electronics for Imaging and Apple. Apple turned me down cold. EFI offered me a job, as did Adobe. Of course, I accepted the Adobe offer.


The interviews were very different. What I remember from EFI was that the interviewer wanted me to write code to solve Towers of Hanoi problem. This is a classic problem that is easily solved with recursion, but I had done something very similar not that long ago, so instead of going to work, I asked the question, “recursive or non-recursive?” If you understand how recursion works, writing a non-recursive equivalent is not hard. I think the interviewer was completely surprised by my question and I’m willing to bet that that stood out.

I will briefly interject that I can’t stand this kind of interview question. When you present a puzzle of this kind and all you’re looking for is a solution to the puzzle, you doing yourself and your interviewees a disservice.

Let’s break the kinds of candidates into a few categories:

  1. Maybe not that sharp, but studied puzzles and their solutions
  2. Very sharp, didn’t study these puzzles
  3. Very sharp, gets stage fright
  4. Not very sharp

Who would you want to hire? Probably 2 or 3, but 1 may very well be indistinguishable from 2 and 3 may very well be indistinguishable from 4. Clearly, this kind of interview question can’t be the only deciding factor. You need more data. I’m sure at some point later I will go into more detail on how to interview for a programming position, but not today.

At Apple, I did not have a great day and I had some very brutal interviewers.

At Adobe, I have several stark memories. I interviewed with, I think, 6 people in that day: 5 tech and 1 human resources. Of the tech, I interviewed with, here’s what I remember:

  1. Bill McCoy – Bill is a very sharp man and a strong architect. I remember he asked me why I wanted this job, and I answered in the most honest way. I said, “I really like programming.” It was true then. It’s still true today, 36 years later.
  2. Matt Foley – I don’t remember the questions Matt asked me, but I do remember asking him if he was half of Foley and Van Dam. No. Awkward.
  3. John Gaffney – John ended up being my boss. John gave me what I later learned was “the Gaffney test”. He would give the candidate a quick intro to PostScript and the imaging model. Then he would give you the PostScript:
    20 setlinewidth
    100 100 moveto 100 200 lineto 200 200 lineto 200 100 lineto 100 100 lineto stroke showpage

    And he asked you to draw what it would print on the whiteboard. If you were paying attention, you would draw a rectangle with a 20×20 square missing from the lower left hand corner, which has to do with how PostScript defines a path. I got that right.

  4. Norin Saxe – Norin also went to Oberlin, but before me. We both knew the same CS professors, but not each other. He had the lunchtime slot so we went to the cafeteria and I got a free lunch while we talked about things. Norin plays viola and was interested in my first listed job as a violin maker at Bell Labs. I have a party trick, which is I’m pretty good at knocking out a hidden line removed isometric projection of an object I’m familiar with. So in this case, I drew out one of Max Mathew’s violins and explained how I made the parts and assembled them.
  5. Dyanne Compton – Dyanne for the most part explained the benefits that came with a job at Adobe. At that point, I think I was just a deer in the headlights and at that point in my life, just out of college, a solid paying job with any kind of health insurance was way better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick. Although I didn’t really run into Dyanne all that much in my day to day job, she always remembered me and most of the employees she helped hire. To me, that is a much better party trick.

I can’t say how many people I’ve interviewed across my career. I can say that the first several times, I was terrible. I had no idea what I was doing. I got better, but I also got brutal in a lot of interviews. I asked hard or open-ended questions that would allow candidates to just as easily shine or hang themselves. I can also say that of the people that I green-lit that we ended up hiring, I don’t regret a single one. Each brought a mix of strengths and of the weaknesses that mattered, I knew also that we could educate and the investment would be totally worth it.

At times, I felt bad. For example, when I interviewed Rick Minerich, who looked really good on paper, I dug very deeply into his knowledge and didn’t let him half-ass any answer. Rick was clearly nervous and I remember that his hands were shaking so much that he was holding onto his phone to try and hide the tremors. He ended up dropping it a couple times. I don’t take off points for being nervous, and Rick was one of the best hires we’ve made. Rick also gave me a nice atta-boy here.

Ultimately, I feel like interviewing should always be a two way street. When you’re looking for a job, you need to try to figure out, “do I really want to work here?” And as an interviewer, you need to put up a good front when you’re interviewing because you’re not just hiring, you’re selling. If you’re going to be horrible when you’re interviewing, you shouldn’t expect great hires. In the words of Wil Wheaton, “Don’t be a dick.”

2 thoughts on “I’m Old, Part XXII: Interviewing”

  1. “a 20×20 square missing from the lower left hand corner”

    With a “20 setlinewidth”, since you stroke from the middle, wouldn’t the missing square be 10×10?

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