29 October 2020
Working from home, that had become the new normal in the year 2020. Leo stared out of his small San Francisco apartment building window. He had moved there right after graduation the previous year in a flutter of excitement and promises of avocado toast and small batch coffee. He never imagined that the world would change so quickly in just 8 months. Despite living in an 800 square foot apartment with a shared bathroom and microkitchen (cough, cough, microwave and portable fridge) his monthly rent was almost 2.5K. It was fine at first, but there was one problem…
Leo had lost his job, along with the other 30 people at the startup. It was a sexy, promising app that would help to optimize travel plans and find cheap ticket and lodging prices. Not surprisingly, travel wasn’t really a thing anymore and the company went under. Unless you wanted to be trapped in a metal tube airplane cabin with other people’s sneezes and halitosis. He sure didn’t.
And now, the walk of shame for any recent graduate that obtained and lost a tech job - finding another one. He’d sent in at least a hundred resumes on LinkedIn, and was in correspondence with several recruiters. Sometimes he got through to an interview, and then it was an awkward series of virtual chats followed up by cold “Sorry we’re not interested” emails, or just being ghosted entirely. Even his cat, who was previously excited to have his owner mysteriously at home for much more time, was turning to give him the butthole of death. The ultimate insult from a feline friend that now sees you as impeding him from a keyboard nap.
Today was no different from any other day during the apocalypse. He woke up late, browsed around his phone, the little internet, looking for hope, only to get a notification that he was spending now 3 and a half hours on his phone. Is that the best you can offer me, littl internet? You fruit branded Traitor. But actually, he realized, maybe today was different. You see he had managed to get an interview with a VR company, Toolie, as a virtual reality engineer. It was a highly sought after specialty these days, even more so with the stay at home orders. You know, if you can’t go to a restaurant, or take a walk in the park, why not do it virtually? And take a step further and leave behind your flawed self and go as a unicorn instead. Or an ogre with purple hair. Turn it into an episode of your favorite action series where the dinner turns into a showdown and you roll under the table and start catpulting mashed potatoes across the room to use as a weapon against the zombie transformed wait staff. Anything goes in VR.
But I digress! Leo was excited for this opportunity. He fishes around for his development headset to test out a new VR technique he was trying - an effort to create an illusion of falling by combining nausea inducing visuals with a sense of acceleration. He placed the headset over his eyes. He was at the grand canyon. He’d never been there in person, but thankfully tiles from geographic services gave him the basic scene that he needed to reproduce it. He stepped to the edge of a rock - it was so real that he could almost feel the sun beating down on his pasty white skin. And then, he stepped forward.
The fall was instant. He was spinning, tumbling, accelerating, and so nauseous that he wondered if it would be too much for some future poor player of his game. His body flipped around and then was stuck looking at the sky. The amount of blue grew, grew, increased, until it was the entire screen. There was a sharp flash of bright blue and then everything went dark.
Leo opened his eyes, some time later. He was tired - had he fallen asleep during the simulation? Was it so neuronally charging that it had knocked him out? Oh no, look at the time! He was going to be late for his interview! Leo lunged forward and did a barrel roll to get onto his feet. Pants. He was going to be on video. There was a good chance he’d want to show off something in VR which would require him to stand up and possibly reveal his Ninja Turtle boxers. He hopped over to his dresser by the window, and paused. The window. He looked outside and the sky was… red. It was beautiful, but… why? Did the wildfires reach San Francisco already? Wait a minute, wouldn’t it be a bright orange instead? He didn’t bother to think too hard about it - he’d already stocked up his apartment with high quality air filters and had a respirator handy. Hashtag 2020. Yet another set of needs he never anticipated having in 2019. Just as he was turning away from the window, a dark creature flew by. Was that seriously a bat? Do we have those in Silicon Valley? It must be something related to the changing climate, or confusion about the time of day.
Okay, Leo thought, sitting down in front of his laptop. I’m as ready as I’ll ever be. Coffee, check, but it’s old. Pants, check. Extra paper if I need to write, check. The Zoom call opened up, he started the audio and his video. The other party wasn’t there yet. This first portion would be the technical interview. He was told to expect 2-3 problems with the same person. He was so tired of doing practice problems for algorithms. It’s like he was being tested to be a competitive progrmamer or something, so far from the actual detail oriented, slow thinking kind of work that was his actual day to day. He was just praying it wasn’t too strongly that. If he had to implement binary search one more time he was going to scream. Oh! Someone entered. That sounded like a doorbell.
He saw the background first. His interviewer had a house that he can only describe as dr Seuss like. The walls were covered with posters that looked like grids of numbers. Hugging them tightly were sets of red and orange trees with bright fruit. Was this a virtual background? He had never quite seen a plant like that, but when you are programming 12 hours a day in your cave it’s not exactly the case that you go outside very often. The interviewer then moved, and came into Leo’s awareness. “Sorry I’m late!” He chirped. Leo had taken a sip of coffee, and almost spit it out. This guy had a beak and bright, red and yellow feathers to match the trees. He knew it was almost Halloween but seriously, interviewing in a costume? This company was… different. He grinned. Ok. Just pretend it’s totally normal.
The first question asked him to design a building to satisfy having some number of elevators operating all all times, with some capacity of people. That seemed reasonable, because he suspected that the company created VR simulations for other companies, maybe even for disaster preparedness. That could be cool - it would be nice to show up to family holiday events and tell Grandma that he was doing something positive for the world, and not just building games for adrenaline junkies or a high paying job that really came down to advertising. He walked the interviewer through his logic, and he seemed satisfied with the answer. But the next question threw him off a bit.
He had to calculate the maximum force that any single elevator would have when impacting the bottom from a free fall. He knew the height and the mass, so the question seemed relatively straight forward. But what the heck? His mind quickly moved to rationalizations for such a question. It could be that this particular question wasn’t for disaster preparedness, but rather some VR experience. He had thought that his obsesssion with simulating near death experiences was a symptom exclusive to him, but this question begged to differ. There were clearly many other weirdos out there working in VR. “Anything goes!”, he thoguht.
For his last technical question he needed to find the shortest path to escape from a maze. This first part was straight forward, how do you say it Dijkstra’s algorithm? But again, part B threw him off. The interviewer looked up at him with is beady bird eyes, almost grinning. How would he change the maze to make it impossible to solve? He wanted to ask in what kind of infinte game would you desire such a condition, but he didn’t want to come across as judgmental to the interviewer. He started with answers that seemed obvious to him - have an infinite number of paths by connecting edges to other edges with some probability of turning up in a random place. Have the maze generate itself as you go, so it really does never end, or… just seal off the exits? The interviewer seemed bored - other candidates had obviously given these answers. You know, Leo piped up, hoping to offer a more creative solution, “There’s this book called the Odysessy…” The interviewers eyes picked up, and he lookup up. Oh? Yeah! Leo said. We could have something like the Sirens, a call so alluring that you give in to it for eterntiy. “Very nice” said the interviewer. You freshens always have new experiences to bring to the table. Leo wasn’t sure he liked being stereotyped based on his age, but if it helped wihth an interview, he’d allow it. The rest of the questions were expected. One was about tricks for sorting, another creating a graph. He never understood why they bothered with these questions.. none of them were ever related to something he’d need for an actual role. But whatever.
The behavioral interviews were next. His first interviewer was the development manager, a guy named Cuthulu. And oh my lord, this dude was in full costume too. It was like an octopus had eaten part of his face and he had several tentacles. And man, this costume was extra. The tentacles, he’s pretty sure were actually moving. But as soon as he started to get absorbed by the costume, Cuthulu started to erupt a noise. Oh, sorry, that was speaking. The gigantic tentacle asked him how he would handle a disgruntled colleague? What was the most challenging life experience he had gone through? And then everyone’s favorite- what’s his greatest weakness? Like, really, what kind of answer can I honestly give you that would lead you to judge me positively? He decided to provide something that was true about him that he couldn’t help, and hopefully wouldn’t lead to some future discrimination. I’m colorblind, Leo told them. I have trouble creating environments with color, at least, I have trouble creating them how others who aren’t colorblind would expect them to be. Another tentacle nodded excitedly. Too excitedly. What was this guys deal?
Leo hung up the call, of course after an awkwardly long wave where everybody was trying to hit the End Meeting button but couldn’t quite do it quickly enough. The pants were off in a flash. Thank god, it’s just too hot. His computer also released a sigh of relief for the memory hogging application to finally exit. He imagined his computer coming to life and… expressing its grievances. Yo, Leo, as if the 10,000 chrome tabs, multiple Docker images and video editing software running all at once weren’t already enough. Ya killing me here, talls!” Leo felt badly, until he remembered this was his fantasy, and the computer was not a sentient being. He still had a few hours before the last part of the interview, which was strangely an in-person session. This gave his mind waaay too much time to wander. Oh my god, he didn’t give the answer with the lowest complexity for the first question. This would surely be a dealbreaker. “They must think I’m an idiot,” Leo thought. So what does any good engineer do when in self doubt? Drown himself in snacks, of course. His old office had micro-kitchens that he would wander between throughout the day, always grazing for the newest and best snacks. Find a chocolate bar? Maybe a new vegan bag of popped chickpeas? This was Silicon Valley gold. The companies might tell you that the in-person stuff is motivated by face to face interactions and productivity. No, let’s be real folks, it’s all about dem snacks.
With a few bags of doritos and peanut M&Ms, Leo powered through the next few hours with his low self estimeem masked by cheese and chocolate. He then took a quick shower before heading out to the Caltrain to travel to a building in one of those South of San Francisco towns that families flock to because they can’t actually afford, or maybe don’t want to, live in the city. It’s not that he wanted to take a short shower, but with consistently bad water pressure and cold water, it was kind of like standing outside under a storm pipe in a rainstorm. You might be washing off the big chunks of dirt, but you’re really getting a communicable disease from someone else’s backwash.
He exited the mostly empty Caltrain and walked down an empty street. It was spotted with houses, or more like scrunched up bundles of land that people seemed to live on or leave trash on, that were right by a train track and huge wall to protect them from highway noise. How miserable. He longed for the empty, and large open spaces from where he grew up in the US. He’d even go back to some of the farmy South and spend a few hours listing to cows moo. Were they having interesting conversations? Whispering secrets behind his back? As he approached a looming building with one huge entrance, his fantasy of places without pollution and people faded in his mind. The door was at least 13 feet tall with a broad, brass handle. It opened seamlessly with barely a touch to reveal a set of elevators. He pushed the button, waited, and entered the leftmost elevator. He remembered the instructions were to go to the 13th floor. The elevator started slowly, and then began to accelerate. It jolted to a stop at just before the 13th floor. He was stuck. And, well, since he was between floors, probably trapped too. It was then that he noticed a ceiling tile that was slightly different from the rest. Without any sort of notice, the quiet turned to noise. The elevator started to shake and become unsteady. Instinctdully he used the side handrail to lift himself up to the ceiling tile and kick it in. Surprisingly it gave without much effort, and he kicked up again to lift himself through the hole and onto the top Of the elevator. Appropriately, there was the Entrance to the 13th floor, open and expecting him. He was sweating. This kind of thing doesn’t happen to real people. He thrusted his legs up and swung into the space, and pulled the rest of his body up with his arms. Thank goodness he did gymnastics as a kid, and still did some parkour in his free time. He couldn’t let himself fall into the skinny white dude stereotype, so he aspired for muscular white dude instead. Just as he was completely in the door, the elevator dropped and free falled, crashing at the bottom.
Leo was scared out of his mind. He shirked and fell deeper into the entrance to the floor, and lay there for a minute to catch his breath. Was this the right building? Was this some kind of joke? What kind of elevator doesn’t work and then free falls? He wanted to call the police but his phone was missing from his pocket. Heck, he might have even called his Mom at this point. But alas, no phone, it must have fallen during his elevator acrobatics. He was on his own. Maybe this was a test of his maturity. He decided to find the company suite.
He entered a waiting room, and was relieved to find it look like a standard waiting room. A small table was littered with women’s magazines, a Popular science, and what looked to be a technology review. What ever happened to the good material he remembered at dentist offices when he was a kid? The highlights magazines, or play areas with blocks and trains. And let’s not forget the tooth posters and alarmingly high number of white smiles. Any kind of entertainment material is tempting, buT With A virus going around, he didn’t dare to touch anything. He looked up to the desk. A “will Return in 15 minutes sign” was carefully placed in the center. “They must not be staffing the office normally since most people are working from home,” he thought. And yet here I have to be. Jerks. What the heck kind of interview is in a falling apart building with an empty office without coffee or a sanitized waiting room? But then be felt it. Just the tiniest of shakes, possibly a small earthquake, not unheard of for Silicon Valley but the timing was extremely terrible because he already was at his wits end and probably would scream if he saw a spider. Leo decided to take a chance and sit down. He was wearing pants and decided he just wouldn’t touch his legs for the rest of the day. It’s funny how we always make promises like that to ourselves, and then either forget or adjust them later. He rested his head in his hands and just tried to breathe. He needed to be ready for this in person component because he really needed this job.
But the shaking increased. And then Leo… was falling. He didn’t even have time To react. As soon as he was contemplating his early death and extremely unwise life choices to interview at such a wacko company, it was again quiet. He blacked out. Who knows how long. When he came back to consciousness, he was confused. His legs really hurt, he knew they must be bruised, but hopefully not open. Did he have a head injury? Was he, dead? Why was the ground so soft? He looked up to a beautifully starry sky. It was unexpected but calming. My god, it was as if he were looking at the Milky Way. How long had he been out? What happened to the building? He stood up and started to stumble around. He found that the path was usually limited to just a few directions. After about 14 minutes, he started to get the sense of having been somewhere before. He then heard singing. It was beautiful… intoxicating. He started to wander toward it, but stopped in his tracks. Oh my god. The elevator, and the sirens, and this must be a maze? He was inside of a world of his own creation.
This must be how interviews roll in 2020 - you design your own death and then have to figure out how to get out of it. He had barely survived the elevator free fall only because there was a flaw in his design - a scape hatch he didn’t account for, an edge case. What kind of screwed up, psychologically scarring candidate screen was this? He didn’t know if he could die or forever be trapped, but he did t want to find out. He needed to think. It was a game. Or was it a test? Was he in VR? He had survived the elevator, so maybe he needed to continue thinking on his feet. He needed to continue finding loopholes. What hadn’t he thought of when he gave his answer to the infinite maze? He had accounted for moving around the board in all directions. But what about up? Well that’s where he came from. He also was fairly certain he couldn’t fly. But what about down? He hadn’t acconuted for that case in his answer. He started to dig. The soil gave away relatively easily. It feel wet, kind of like that childhood toy goo called Gak that served no purpose but to feel gross, and eventually get dirt and hairs stuck in it so you’d never want to touch it again. He kept digging. A small tickle of light light was starting to show. Then it was a legit pool. It was a brownish purple, but seemed to be changing. “Oh god, he realized, it must be changing between blue and red. I can’t tell the difference.”
The voice came to him, speaking directly in his mind. “What will it be, Leo? The red screen or the blue screen?” He didn’t really have time to think. The voices of the sirens were getting louder and his resistance was waning. He couldn’t have made a choice, because he really couldn’t see the two colors. He also didn’t know the implications for either. MAKE A CHOICE LEO! the voice boomed in his head. So he just decided to fall. Right into the glowing pool. It was a 50/50 chance on a positive outcome, of course assuming that one color screen was bad, and the other good. But the world doesn’t always work like that.
Leo awoke, he was holding his VR headset, but had torn it off at some point. His head was throbbing. Crap, was this whole thing just part of his game? He looked into the boreholes of the headset and then he saw it - it was a blue screen, with some error messages in the middle. Does that mean that he chose the blue screen? Does blue mean life, and then red would mean death? He ran to the window - the sky was no longer red, but a dull, greyish haze. Yep, this is San Francisco. Leo looked down, and realized that he was wearing his boxers from early in the day. Wait a minute, but that would mean… no it’s not possible. If he never showed or changed clothes, there is a pretty good chance he never went to that interview. The entire experience had been right here, in his apartment. But it didn’t add up, because his legs were still bruised from the fall. He put his head in his hands. He had done that multiple times today. The VR had seemingly merged into a part of his life. This thing he was building, was more powerful than anything he might create. It had crashed earlier, and he hadn’t noticed that the simulation continued, but seemed to have learned to model his actual life. It was terrifying, like the modern story of Franekstein and his monster, except this monster was disguised as a computer game. Leo decided that he had to destroy it. He quickly dressed, reached for his coat and hat, turned off the VR headset, and headed for the door. At that moment, his phone rang.
“Hello?” Leo answered. “Ah yes, is this Leo? This is Leena calling from Toolie.” We just wanted to let you know, that you got the job. You can start on Monday. Cheers!”
Leo was speechless. He wanted to drop the phone. “Umm, I think I’m going to need to think about it,” he responded. And that was the end of that.
Thanks for listening to the Interview, the second of what might be a yearly tradition to write a Halloween Story for the RSE Stories podcast! In case you missed this, my dear listener, there are several hidden lessons in this story. Maybe surprisingly, I’m not one of those people that think technology is going to mean robots that take over the world. But on the other hand, the more reasonable take on that stance is that we must be thoughtful and responsible when thinking about the impact that technology has on human behavior and well being. Leo’s experience with AI that almost led him to his death probably isn’t just around the corner, but at least we hope that when he thinks about taking this job at what turns out to be a company of destructive monsters that he considers that perhaps the monsters don’t have the best interests of the human race in mind. Again, very unlikely to be a real scenario. The story also offers a playful take on the blue screen of death, which many of you are likely familiar with. But instead of implying death, this blue screen was actually the path that Leo needed to take to continue living. Another lesson is about how we learn. Sometimes we can learn a lot by actually running directly into problems, breaking things, and figuring how to get out of them. And finally, the last lesson is about the challenges that we create for ourselves. There are two ways to look at it. On the one hand, if you think through something in detail, and consider edge cases and error handling, you could be doing a favor for some future self to prevent issues coming up. But on the other hand, what about Leo’s case, where he was battling his own design, and the loopholes were in fact the only way to escape? Again, not a super likely future scenario, but this is a fun halloween story, so we can do what we like. Perhaps the real takeaway here is that whatever you are working on, be mindful about what you will need in the future, and design toward that.
Leo created an RSE Phenotype, a simple plot to show the dimensions that help to define their work, and the communities they are defined for using the RSE Phenotype Generator