Operation Bootstrap

Web Operations, Culture, Security & Startups.

Becoming a Pirate, Act I: The Swindle

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This is not career advice, this is a story – my story. Lots of folks talk about what you should do to get into a career in tech. This is a story not about what you should do, but what worked for me. Infact a lot of people I know have unsavory stories of how they entered tech. There’s no right or wrong way – and this is my evidence. I see a lot of people giving advice about how to get into tech in the form of specific tasks – go install Linux, go volunteer, go get a cert, but for me the real advice is “Go do whatever it takes”. What you have to do changes over time – so you should too. This will be a series of posts…

I get asked sometimes how I got where I am. In general, it comes down to a constant flow of new problems and being willing to work hard to solve them and learn in the process. This attitude has served me well – and it applies to every job I’ve had in tech. But it also has to do with relationships, helping others, and being a generally good team member. Without my relationships, I would not be where I am today. Investing in other people, as well as yourself, is the important balance that helps you move ahead.

Why Pirates? Pirates became Pirates because a career as an honest sailor meant poor conditions, poor pay, and hard work. Being a pirate meant higher risk, but better pay & better working conditions. So too was the rise of tech – and certainly my reasons for getting into it. It had nothing to do with wanting to be a Pirate, it had everything to do with wanting a better life.

Enter me, circa 1996.

When I was 21, my singular goal in life to that point had been to become a professional musician. I was convinced that this is what I was going to do – come hell or high water, and I would go broke trying. The major problem with this was that I was good at improv, playing to crowds of drunk or high teens, but reliably playing the same thing correctly wasn’t really my style. This made me a relatively un-marketable musician, but the power of denial is strong with me and so I persisted.

I was working at the time as a Pizza delivery driver making enough money to pay the rent & the day job meant I could play gigs at night or practice & hang out. One evening everyone was hanging out and our friend Seth came over to help Mark out with some computer issues. Seth had recently landed a job with a large ISP – Netcom – and so he was telling us all that we should apply there. Of course, some of us knew a bit about computers but not a lot, and certainly not a lot about the Internet. Seth said that didn’t matter – he could help us with what we needed to know and they had a good training program. Oh by the way, the money was really good.

There were about 8 of us who decided to apply – some of us (like me) didn’t even own a computer. I had them growing up, but at the time it was just something I didn’t need in my life. I knew nothing about them. We all worked together to create resumes which made us look like we had some computer experience while trying not to cross the line into complete forgery. Had I used windows? Sure I had. Have I used the Internet? Absolutely! And on and on.

Seth, who was motivated by friendship & referral bonuses, did his very best to get our resumes in front of the hiring folks – and we knew that the first step in this process would be a technical phone screen. The problem: We had no idea what they were going to ask, and we knew we didn’t have the answers regardless. So we sat and waited to see what happened, with no real plan but extreme anticipation

The phonecalls begin

It started one afternoon, I got a message on my phone that someone from Netcom had called to speak to me about my resume. This was it! I needed to prepare though before I called this person back, so I headed over to my friend Joe’s house to chat. When I got there, he tells me that he got a call as well – but he hadn’t called them back. These calls had all come in the last hour or so and we assumed others were getting calls too. We decided to wait and see what others experiences were. Soon Joe’s phone rang, it was Bill, another friend of ours who had applied, he was home when the call came and he answered it – that conversation went something like this:

Bill: Joe, they called me, I didn’t know any of the answers, I totally blew it.

Joe: Ugh, sorry to hear that man.

Bill: They were asking about stuff I have no idea about

Joe: Huh, like what?

Bill: Well, they asked me what himem.sys does

Joe: Ok, do you remember any other questions?

We got about 15 questions out of Bill, some he couldn’t remember well, others he remembered verbatim. We ended that phonecall and realized we were screwed if we just called these folks back cold – we had to prepare. We called others, had they done the phone screen? For those that had – what questions could they remember? Then we realized it was scripted – same questions, in a particular order, one by one our friends filled in some gaps.

This went on for 3-4 of our friends, most of them knew few of the answers, but we tried to get all the questions we could down on paper. If someone hadn’t done the call we asked them to try to remember the questions – we shared what we knew. We then stayed up all night using the Internet to look up the answers to every question we had. We learned a lot that night, and we created a script of answers to each question. The next day, Mark who was one of the more experienced of our group (he worked at CompUSA – remember them?) said he would give them a call and he filled in the remaining gaps in our script after answering their questions.

We now had it – a perfect list of questions and answers. Now the problem was, how to make this look like we hadn’t cheated. So we did what any good test taking cheater does – we flubbed a random selection of questions. Joe called them back first, and judging by the response to his questions it was clear that we were getting most of them right. I then called back and did the same – we were in.

After those phone screens, a few of us got called in for Interviews. Namely Mark, Joe and Jason. I waited and waited but I never got a call. All 3 of those guys went on to get offers and get hired, I never got an Interview – I was perplexed. I tried following up, but never got a response – and that was pretty much the end of it, I hadn’t made the cut for some reason.

Take Two

About 9 months went by, I landed a better job driving around for State Farm and I was playing with another band. My girlfriend (now my wife) had recieved a computer from her Dad and we had been using that – Jason had come over and set it up with Internet access (compliments of Netcom!) and I had been learning a bit here and there. One day Joe and Mark tell me that Netcom is having a job fair, and that I should put in my resume and they’d help me get in. I was coming to the realization that music wasn’t going to give me what I wanted and I needed a real job. This seemed like the least painful route.

I went to the job fair with a resume which was slightly less false, I now had computer and Internet experience, I had genuinely memorized the answers to the phone screen, and though I didn’t know what those things really meant – I knew the answers. I talked to a few folks at the job fair, gave them my resume, and then waited. The technical phone screen came soon enough – it was the same questions! I aced it.

This time I was called in for an interview. They knew I had a lot of friends there, and I had been heavily coached on what to expect in the Interview process. Yes, I faked my way through the whole process. I would later find out that my manager figured this was the case, but knew my friends were good at what they did and had chosen to take a chance on me – he acknowledged that he was glad he did.

Becoming a Pirate Act II