by Alvaro Videla
How I went from selling food in the street to working for top firms in tech — Part 2: getting the job
This is the second installment in this series of articles where I want to share with you how I got into the world of programming. I never went to university to study IT, but I found a way around it. If you like the series and want to see a book out of this, please leave a comment below. Here’s the first part in case you haven’t seen it yet.
Getting the Job
During December 2006 and January 2007, I worked hard to get my maps application up and running. While building it, I wanted to learn as many programming notions as possible, trying to cram all the knowledge that would get me ready for the job interview into my head.
Out of all the concepts I could learn, I identified the main ones that I thought would be relevant for getting the job. This narrowing of focus is a very important step toward achieving goals, since we don’t want to be all over the place, trying to grasp a bit of every subject but then failing to reach deepness on any of them.
For my situation, I understood that I had to learn about object-oriented programming, since that was one of the most important programming techniques in use. On the technological side, I had identified PHP as the key programming language that would land me a job, while learning Flash programming would be the skill that would differentiate me from other candidates.
How did I know that? It was a bit of hunch informed by what I was seeing mentioned on the web, along with what the computer magazines were writing about.
Even back then, before I had the job, I knew it was very important to learn to understand and analyze the market I wanted to break into, and finding the right websites and publications is a very important step toward this. This is because these resources often have information that points to the ideas, trends, and technologies that we should focus on.
Once my app was done and I felt I was ready for the interview, it was time to build my resume. However, I had no idea what should go on a tech resume and what should be left out. I listed things like MS Word and MS Excel as some of my skills, together with Adobe Illustrator and some InDesign. Why not, right?
Wrong. Just thinking about that first resume makes me blush. If nothing else, what was clear about it was the message it was signaling: this person is a complete noob.
The problem is that as someone trying to break into a new field and start a career, it was difficult to have something to write down on my resume that made me look competent. I had no idea what to include, so I listed everything.
Today, if someone presented themselves for a backend developer position listing MS Word as a skill, I’m quite sure that person would be rejected straight away. Even worse, I think I would be the one rejecting a resume like that. But of course, hindsight is 20/20.
Once my resume was complete and I got a cell phone number I could be reached at, I applied for the position of PHP programmer at Live Interactive. You’d better believe I read and reread every input box on that online form as I went over a mental checklist. “Did I spell my name correctly? Did I type the right phone number? Let’s double check the email. I don’t want to miss this opportunity because I wrote the wrong address.” I was all nerves, but at some point, I had to hit that send button. Click. Done. Exhalation. “I’ve done it. I’ve applied for my first job.”
Once my app was done and I felt I was ready for the interview, it was time to build my resume. However, I had no idea what should go on a tech resume and what should be left out.
After I submitted my application, I lingered at the internet cafe, browsing the web for random stuff. To my surprise, about half an hour later, my cellphone started to ring.
“I don’t know this number,” I thought. The area code told me it was from Montevideo, but it was so quick, it couldn’t be them. Or could it?
It took me a couple of seconds to understand that, yes, in fact, they were calling me! Can you imagine that? I honestly didn’t know what to do. “Should I take the call?” I wondered. “I’m probably not ready for this!” I quickly tried to get ahold of myself and walked outside to answer.
“Hi, we’re calling from Live Interactive about your job application. Is this Alvaro Videla?” said the voice on the other end.
Do you see what happened right there? I couldn’t believe it! I was being contacted by the company where I had just applied for a job.
“Yes, it’s me,” I replied.
The caller turned out to be the HR manager getting in touch, trying to set up an interview with me. She asked me when would it be a good time for me, so I told her that I needed a week, since “I have to arrange things here.” This wasn’t necessarily the case, as I could’ve just boarded the next bus and traveled there straightaway, but I wanted to prepare — to be 100 percent ready for it and not botch my only opportunity.
I hung up at the end of that phone call having secured a job interview. Now it was time to get myself together and prepare for that interview. I had no doubt this was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I couldn’t waste it. But first, I had to share my excitement with my mother and my wife: I needed to talk about what had happened with someone to help process my emotions.
On one hand, all my hard work was starting to pay off, which felt great. But on the other hand, life had allowed me to see a tiny glimpse of a better future. Making that future a reality now rested entirely on my shoulders, but it was too much of a responsibility for me to handle alone.
I spent the entire next week preparing for the interview, from reading and rereading the books I had, to trying to guess what kind of clothes I should wear for the interview. I had never worked as a programmer, and as such, I had no idea how the programmer culture worked and what kind of behavior would be expected from me. I didn’t have anyone to ask about this either, so at some point I decided to stop worrying too much about the appearance side and tried to focus on the technical aspect of the process, hoping my skills would speak for themselves.
I had no doubt this was my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I couldn’t waste it, but first, I had to share my excitement with my mother and my wife: I needed to talk about what had happened with someone to help process my emotions.
The time passed quickly, and before I knew it, I was sitting on a two-hour-long bus trip, heading to Montevideo. I had the PHP Bible in my backpack and enough money to buy a burger and pay for the ticket from the bus terminal to the company’s offices in downtown Montevideo. I didn’t want to arrive late, so I was around the area an hour in advance, trying my best to fight off a nervous breakdown.
I had to find something to kill time and occupy my worried mind, so I walked to a nearby square, found a bench, and sat down to keep studying. I couldn’t believe that all my struggles over the previous months would be decided in about an hour. “Did I prepare the best I could? That time I didn’t want to study that part of the book so I could go outside, was it worth it?” I wondered. Then I came to my senses. “Stop it,” I told myself. “It’s time to focus on the book in front of me right now, since there’s no reason for worrying about could haves.”
Soon, it was time to head up for the interview. If this was a Tarantino film, my character would probably be called Mr. Blue: dark blue jeans, blue shirt, and dark blue hoodie.
I got to the reception area and was welcomed by the HR manager, who I’d spoken to on the phone the week before. She asked me to sit and wait and offered me a glass of water. I took the offer and immediately started doubting myself. “Is this the right thing to do?” I wondered. “Am I being polite or impolite?” Anxiety was taking over.
Meanwhile, people were walking around, going from one office to another. “Are any of them my interviewer?” I asked myself, studying each person who walked by. One man walked up to the HR manager and started talking. “Ah, it must be him,” I thought. But it wasn’t.
After more of this wondering, the HR manager called my name and took me into a big conference room. She handed me a pile of paper and told me this was the first part of the interview: a psychological test with more than 100 behavioral and situational questions. What. Is. This? Nowhere in the PHP Bible did it mention that people needed to pass psychological tests to become a programmer! But I tried the best I could, second guessing the intention of every question. Of course, I had no idea if the answers I was choosing were correct, but I hoped they would bring me one step closer to getting the job I wanted.
Once I was done, I returned the papers with my answers and then was asked to take a seat again and wait for the next stage. Soon the HR manager introduced me to someone who was going to conduct the programming interview. “Now or never,” I thought. “Now or never.” At that moment, I felt that all the pressure was on me, that I couldn’t let down my wife, my mom, my family. “If I don’t get this job, let it be known that it wasn’t because I got blocked mid interview, and didn’t know what to do,” I thought. “If I don’t pass the next stage, it’d better be because they didn’t want me, and not because I lacked the knowledge or preparation.”
I hope you liked this second part. On the next article I’ll tell you how I got the job, and what happened on that first week at work.
Credits: The illustration on top was made by my friend Sebastián Navas. If you want to have his amazing illustrations for your articles or presentations, don’t hesitate to get in touch with him. Here’s his Deviantart profile: https://polacostyle.deviantart.com or his Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/sebastian.navas.16