Gentle reader: I offered no context for you when I first I wrote this. Now in 2022, I’ve tried to do so. This isn’t a story about business practices, or about how to interview, and it’s definitely not about A/B testing. I suppose most it was a way of saying thanks for something I learned. Because as noted below, interviews are like exams. The best have a lesson to teach.
For context: Optimizely, an A/B testing startup, announced its acquisition in September 2020. It wasn’t a good exit. But as I skimmed the commentary on Hacker News, I was surprised to see someone mention, of all things, their interview experience there in 2013, right when I had interviewed, too:
“I interviewed for a marketing role at Optimizely back in 2013…I passed all the interviews with the team and then had a final, short interview with the CEO. He asked me a few basic questions and then asked ‘if you only had 3 years to live, would you work at Optimizely?’. I responded honestly and said no… . The hiring manager called the next day and said I would not receive an offer and when I asked him if it was because the answer to that question he said yes.”
I had remembered things almost the same, except that, the CEO, Dan Siroker, instead had asked me three questions
- How lucky do you feel you have been, on a scale of 1 to 10?
- If you only had ten more years to live, what would you do differently?
- If you only had ten more years to live, would you still take this job?
I learned something about myself in answering those three questions and wanted to write that down somewhere. It may as well be here.
It was spring 2013. I had moved our cats a year earlier from Philadelphia back to Oakland while my partner lived for the year in Uganda. I’d then worked in a great startup for a year, but in a job that felt crazy to keep doing. So there I was on the market, years sooner than I should have been.
They were all wonderful people, and patient: I reversed a linked list using a pitifully high-level language, did a design problem involving a spatial index, and met with Pete and their VP of Engineering, S. At the end I spoke with the CEO, Dan, who wore bright, orange sneakers.
We had a reasonable amount to talk about. Finally Dan asked me those three questions above.
Interviews are like exams in that the best of them have a lesson to teach. And for me, those lessons almost always arise from memorable mistakes. One founding CEO in 2009, for instance, kindly advised a much younger me in an interview that I’d gone into more detail about an earlier job than I should have. Or earlier in 2004, the pilot examiner for my oral exam observed, among other things, that I mustn’t expect a 30 year old aircraft to take off in the same distance as the test pilot had done when it was manufactured: for any number like that, you owe it to yourself to include a factor of safety.
But the lessons I learned in this interview were a bigger surprise.
When I read the commentary on HN now, I have to agree: you can take Dan’s questions as a wild expectation that your life belongs to a company. But when he asked me, I was a bit too surprised to take them for anything other than something more rare. How often in your life, let alone in a programmer’s interview loop, does someone ask you to weigh the good and bad of your own fortune? Or what you would do if you only had a decade left to live? Taken aback, I couldn’t have thought to do anything but think and answer totally.
How lucky do you feel you’ve been, on a scale of 1 to 10?
That spring wasn’t an easy time, especially for the work. The group I worked in had lost its director 6 months earlier, and we’d had 50% turnover since. In principle I was working as an interim manager, but in practice I had neither the support nor the experience to do it. And for many weeks, the pager had rotated between the three of us senior engineers who had remained. According to its own stochastic clockwork, it was waking one of us (and our partner) up 1-2 times for every week spent on call. The day to day work for our group was only a bit better, even though the people throughout the company were so, so good.
So I was shocked at how easy it was to answer. Most of all I thought about my partner, who for any number of circumstances might have chosen a different life than the one we’d shared for ten years. I thought about the great and terrible jobs I’d had, three found during the Great Recession in a city known foremost for pretzels, Comcast and insurance companies. And I thought of all the other exceptional, improbable opportunities I’d had since and before then. Straightaway I answered 10.
If you only had ten more years to live, what would you do differently?
Then as now, I gave a longer answer. I’ve deferred some dear, cherished things, because I’m willing for them to take a longer time to do. If this is the last ten years, I have so much more to do than I’ve done: more flying and more writing, and perhaps more studying, too. At least one dead or foreign language to rehabilitate. And so many scattered friends I need to see more often than I do.
If you only had ten more years to live, and would you still take this job?
All of those things above were going to take time, some of which I couldn’t spend working. But I answered again quite quickly – and this I remember – “yes, because those years don’t belong just to me.” I wasn’t expecting to see it put so plain, the story in half of why I work. But it’s true, and not just by community property: half of my work is not for me; it’s so my partner, too, can live a better life. I’d have to be working, at least part of the time.
The last surprise for us all came some days later. I didn’t take the job.
I said no for several reasons, all good at the time and not bad in hindsight – and none of them about Optimizely. But I’ve never felt so bad doing so. Neither before nor since have I done this, but I sent flowers to Optimizely’s office, the day I told them no.
Pete, Dan, and S. (and their recruiting team, no less) had given me an offer I’d have been very glad to take, and the role and team were such that I might have learned considerably more there than where I went. But the most important lessons to learn from them I’d already learned, some days before they offered me the job.
This post comes thanks to all the people who brought me here, many of whom I’ve disappointed by not learning the right lesson soon enough – and especially to the people I turned down that year. Three of them I’ve ended up working with in the years since, foremost by lucky happenstance.