The Zen of Rejection: Let Companies Go In That Other Direction

The Courtship

There’s nothing like the beginning of a job search. It’s often born out of a time of transition or frustration, and perhaps uncertainty and worry, but no matter how it starts, there’s a rush and glow as you start to peruse the jobs that are out there. Why do you feel a rush and get a glow, no matter how unhappy you’d been feeling up to that point? Well, it’s because the world comes alive with possibilities as you look at Dice or Stackoverflow Careers or whatever. These aren’t just jobs — they’re the next chapter in your life.

And oh, how appealing they are. And it’s not just because you’re unemployed or sick of your current situation or just wanting a change of pace — it’s because they’re wonderful. They do Agile to your Waterfall and let you flex your hours instead of a rigid 9 to 5. That 401k match sure looks nice too, and they’re using the latest version of the language and the IDE. But, oh, there’s so much more. Casual dress. Free food and soda. Why, they even have a chef to cook you gourmet lunches and stationary bike-desks that you can use to exercise while you work. You can bring your dog in. They have X-Boxes and Playstations and Wiis. It’s really more like going on a cruise than going to work, and they’re beckoning to you, welcoming you, and telling you to become part of their exclusive club — nay, their family. You too can be one of the group of smiling, diverse people pictured in the “Careers” section on their website, having the absolute time of your life.

DreamJob

You submit your application. Really, how could you not? This is your chance at happiness, but now, the nerves set in. What if they don’t call you? But then they do, and the nerves only increase. What if you’re stumped in the phone screen? What if you screw up and tell them that you’re leaving because you don’t like your boss instead of what you’re supposed to say: “I’m just excited at the prospect of joining your organization?” But whew, you manage to avoid too much honesty and to secure an invitation to talk in person. Now, at this point, you put on your absolute best outfit, get in your car to drive over and make sure you get there very early, all the while telling yourself, “whatever you do, don’t be yourself — be that confident, diplomatic, smooth-talking version of yourself that will make you want to collapse from exhaustion the moment you leave.”

The interview passes in a surreal whirlwind as you meet with 8 different people, improvise on strange questions, answer with relief when you know what to say, pivot subtly when you don’t know what to say, remember not to fidget, and smile the whole time. You walk out into the parking lot, sweating under your nice clothes as you heave a huge sigh of relief, make yourself comfortable in your car, and get ready to plop down on your couch at home with a beer. But even that relief is short-lived, because now you have to wait to hear back, which makes the days seem like weeks, and weeks seem like years.

Finally, it comes: the offer. Now, it’s time for giddiness, assuming the pay, benefits and title are in line. You’ve been invited to Shangri La, and you’ve gratefully accepted. You gear up for the first day there, not knowing quite what to expect. And really, how could you? You’ve gone to great lengths to show them a completely air-brushed version of yourself in response to the unrealistic utopia they’ve shown you. So now, starting on your first day, you can see what the other looks like when it’s no longer the evening of the grand ball. Oh, but you’re already married. Better hope no one’s coach turns into a pumpkin (but here’s the catch: to some degree or another, it will, on both sides).

And that’s if everything goes really well. But what if it doesn’t? What if they decide to “go in another direction?” Oh, the rejection, disappointment, angst, and heartbreak.

Culture Shock

I’ve sort of mulled over how to make this point without sounding like a conceited jerk, but that’ll be hard, so I think I’ll just power through it and hope that most of my readership can relate. We’re programmers, and programmers are generally pretty intelligent. I’d imagine that most of you reading are no strangers to overachieving.

When I was growing up and attending school, test time was my time to shine. Whether it was getting into the advanced track math classes, taking standardized tests, trying out for clubs, applying to colleges, or pretty much anything else you can think of, those were things where I showed up and won. I got straight A’s in high school and graduated valedictorian. I won academic scholarships. I was never even cut from a high school sports team. In the sieve of primary and secondary school stratification, I was always the one that received the metaphorical job offer, and I’m sure it was the same for many of you. We grew up in a culture where a bunch of kids in a room working on a test meant you were about to get some accolades and general validation. If the real world were like high school, we’d all have had to rent storage to house all of our offer letters. Wake-ups would come later.

The first one I got, personally, was in my orientation week at college. The Carnegie Mellon CS department is pretty selective, and to prove that we were no longer in the minor leagues, so to speak, they asked all of us in our entering class of 150 people or so to raise our hands if we’d been the valedictorian of our high school. Something like a third of the hands in the room went up, and my jaw dropped. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore, and I no longer won anything just by showing up.

But if college was tough in this circumstance and some that would follow, the “real world” was downright depressing and seemed to have no interest in a fresh computer science grad (graduating at the end of 2001 as the dotcom bubble was bursting sure didn’t help). I failed job interviews before they even talked to me. I sent out resumes and they crossed the event horizon of some HR black hole. I’d get the occasional phone interview and then a “no thanks,” email if they bothered responding at all. In my life growing up, I’d barely ever heard, “I’m sorry, but we’re going in a different direction,” and now I was lucky to hear it because at least I was hearing something. The effect on my self esteem was profound. At the time, I thought my degree to be useless and I felt that some sort of confusing betrayal had occurred, rendering past academic success entirely non-predictive of continued success in this cruel new world I had entered.

Returned Mojo, Anger, and Preemptive Rejection

Eventually, I did get a job. I somehow managed to convince someone to hire me, and I was incredibly grateful and terrified. I was grateful because I could stop moonlighting and taking retail jobs to make ends meet, but terrified because if I’d learned anything from the job search it was that I was great at school but bad at life. But I made it in the real world. In fact, I more than made it. After a stumbling out of the gate, once I was employed, I consistently earned excellent performance reviews and was rapidly advanced and given greater and greater responsibility.

I started to regain some dignity and then some swagger. I was no longer “kid with no industry experience” — I was a software engineer that took business trips, met with clients and, most importantly, got things done. During this time, I also started earning my MS degree in Computer Science via night school, and by the time I hit the job market again in coming years, I was ready.

In fact, I was more than ready. I had learned my lessons from the previous job search and hit the ground running when I wanted a change, doing all of the right things. Interviews were easy to get for someone with my (now miraculously no longer useless) degree pedigree and years of experience in several programming languages, and I did well enough to receive offers. And this time, I’d figured out an important fact: any company that didn’t make me an offer clearly had a flawed interview process. Any form of rejection I haughtily interpreted as ipso facto process failure on their part. This arrogant self-righteousness, I believe, was misdirected resentment at my culture shock from the first go-round. I had done well in school, and then done well in the business world, and was getting offers from most companies with which I interviewed, so how dare those other companies and the ones from years ago make me doubt myself the way I had, very deeply, as a new grad?

As the “chip on the shoulder” mentality started to fade a bit (with me maturing and realizing this was petulant and comically egotistical), left in its place was a more antiseptic tendency to preemptively reject certain companies. I didn’t like rejection any better than at any time in my life — who does — but I didn’t view it as an insult or a mistake, either. I came closer to seeing it this way: “if I don’t apply, I’ll never be rejected, but if I apply and am rejected, I’d always have to say, if asked under oath, that I wasn’t good enough for that company.” By this time, I had become a good sport about “thanks but no thanks,” but I sought to avoid it. If, based on the job requirements or phone screen, it seemed like an interview might not go well, I told the company, “no thanks,” before they could tell me the same. Aha! The rejector has become the rejected! Take that! I would only play in games where I felt the deck had been stacked in my favor, which is good for a small king in a small kingdom, but bad if you ever want to reach and push yourself.

The Reality and Rejection Zen

I spent a lot of years going through this progression of my view on interviews. The feelings of inferiority, regaining my confidence but compensating with righteous indignation, and picking and choosing my spots to minimize rejection all played into an internal mantra of “there’s so much wrong with the interview process and it’s so reductionist, and I won’t do that to people.” If I were a character in Animal Farm, I would be Napolean, however. Like him, I wound up becoming that against which I railed. As my career wound on and I was in a position to make hiring decisions, I surprised myself by being reductionist. “Oh, that was the woman who didn’t really understand what unit tests were,” or “that was the guy who stumbled weirdly when trying to explain why he liked ASP MVC instead of ASP Webforms.” Human lives — and probably imminently capable humans — reduced to a single mistake they had made or passed over in consideration for someone who had happened to impress that day.

It was from this perspective that I realized the sad reality of the interview process. I had been viewing it wrong all along; you’re not really “rejected” from jobs and the interview process isn’t an evaluation of your intrinsic worth in the same way that something like the SAT purports to be (even at companies that make it a point to try to make their interview process exactly that). At best (and probably more in the realm of ideal), it’s an evaluation of mutual fit — something like, “we have a team with characteristics X and Y, and we’re looking for compatibility with X and Y, but also someone who brings Z.” You can be a wonderful human, full of X and Y, but not familiar with or interested in Z, and the position won’t be a good mutual fit. For instance, if I’m hiring someone to be a DBA and your interest is in client side web programming, neither of us pursuing things past the phone interview phase is not a rejection.

What I finally understood, particularly after seeing how the sausage is made and then making it when it comes to candidate selection, is that an interview is really more like you calling up a buddy and saying, “hey, wanna go see that new X-Men movie tonight?” Most likely, the answer will be no because there are a million reasons it could be no. Your buddy might be sick, he might be working late, he might have a date, he might be watching a game on TV, he might be annoyed with you, he might not like movies… the list goes on forever. Some of his reasons could be related to you and some completely based on other factors.

So it is with the interview process. A company may think you’re great and perfectly able to do the work, but have someone else in mind that’s just an absolute perfect match. Or the CEO might be forcing them to hire his nephew. Or they might have decided not to hire after all. In fact, it could be that they never intended to hire, and the whole process was a sham to humor some muckety muck (and before you doubt me, I’ve seen this happen). Again, as many reasons as stars in the night sky.

Once I wrapped my head around this, I stopped fearing or much caring about interview “rejection” beyond simple disappointment that I didn’t get a job about which I was excited or perhaps regret at the fruitless time investment. It was as if I’d called my friend about the movie and he’d said offhandedly, “meh, not tonight.” The response then becomes, “okie dokie, maybe some other time.” A little disappointment is in order if you were hoping to go together but, hey, you have other friends and you could always go on your own.

This is how I got over the feeling that interviews are some measure of your competence or worth — a feeling that I have no doubt is quite pervasive among those reading as well, even if you tell yourself or others that you’re fine with it. So next time you don’t get a job offer, imagine saying in your head, “well, maybe we’ll catch the movie work together some other time or maybe I’ll just invite someone else apply somewhere else.” It seems silly, but I invite you to try it. I imagine that you’ll find it takes the sting out of that call/email/letter/non-response to some degree, if not totally. At the very least, I hope my story might help your confidence not be shaken.

This is the end of the first part of this series, but I anticipate several more. Stay tuned for next time when I tell you why this zen state that I’ve reached depresses me in a kind of detached way and as I delve into how seriously, seriously dysfunctional I think the employee-employer pairing process is in our society (including the likely controversial assertion that the interview process might conceivably not be worth doing). By the end of the series along these lines, I’m hoping to collect my thoughts enough to end on an up note, offering ideas as to how things could be improved.

  • Geoff Mazeroff

    Your experiences about high school vs. college resonated with me for two reasons. First, that concept (I’m sure it has some social psychology name) was mentioned in the book “Talent Is Overrated” about hot-shot musicians/athletes that were the best in their small town, then started school where the pool of participants consisted mostly of fellow hot-shots. Second, that process happened to me, both with music and programming.

    I’m eager to read other posts in this “zen” series. Although technical posts are helpful, as I’ve grown in my career, I’ve found my interest leaning toward the human side of things (how to interact with others in your company/community, and how others respond to the systems we build). Although my experience isn’t as broad as others, many of the problems I’ve encountered (or heard others describe) have been people-issues, not technological barriers.

    Thank you for being willing to share your experiences and feelings about things. It’s reassuring to know there are others going through the same things you are and realizing it’s okay to feel the entire range of emotions during the process.

  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    Thanks for the feedback, and glad you’re looking forward to the next posts. I do enjoy writing about the “human” side of things, which I think is often underrepresented in a sea of blog posts about what’s new in Entity Framework version whatever (not that there isn’t value in such posts by any means). I try to vary it up a bit, and it’s nice to hear that it’s appreciated.

  • http://www.schmonz.com/ Amitai Schlair

    I followed a different path to this mental state, starting with turning down CMU CS and going to CWRU instead for financial reasons that rapidly proved irrelevant when I dropped out after a year of hardly ever going to class. (CWRU at the time was an immensely disappointing intellectual experience for me, compared to what HPHS had been, and also I just plain wasn’t ready to be in college anywhere.) I desperately wanted to think I was a good and valuable person, even though the usual yardsticks (academic and athletic performance) were now saying otherwise. So I was forced to recalibrate. Is there any way in which I’m useful to other people? How can I tell? How can I make myself more useful? Slowly but surely I improved my answers to these questions, which improved both my self-regard and my employability.

    When any particular person or employer decides not to have me work with them, I think “oh well, too bad” or sometimes “I agree with them.” Over time I’m getting better at identifying why they might decide that and forcing the issue earlier. Independent of any particular person or employer, when I’m not working to solve people’s problems, I default back to wondering whether I’m still useful and valuable to the world. Just a wee bit, and not deeply or existentially, but more than zero. Combined with my feeling about rejection, it feels like a healthy default.

    I have a simple and strong opinion about how best to figure out whether some people are going to work well together, and I bet it’s shaped a lot like yours, so I’ll bite my tongue and look forward to the rest of the series. ;-)

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  • http://www.daedtech.com/blog Erik Dietrich

    I didn’t realize CMU was on your radar — that gave me a flash of an alternate universe of us sitting together in lectures for Algorithms class or something. :) Bummer to hear about Case Western, though. I don’t know a lot about the school, but based on what I do know, that’s not what I would have expected.

    The questions about being useful I remember asking myself during sort of the darkest days of post-college, pre-“real job” failing to secure offers. Unlike you, I was fatalistic and never really improved my answers to those questions because I didn’t know how. I just eventually caught a break with an offer.

    I think that the concept you describe of making oneself useful, to an entity, if not the world, lies at the core of a path toward improving the employer-employee pairing. It seems way too frequently the focus by both parties is on whether the person *is* something instead whether a person *does* or *will do* something. (Is this person smart, is this person a “team player,” etc)

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