Brain Rape : I did not believe until I experienced it

Disclaimer: This post contains a lot of jargons used by Software Developers.

There are times when you decide to make a change. For me it happened at job, when my employer got acquired and the innovation died. The business unit stalled our engineering, awaiting new management to take control before they lead our way.

Welcome to Silicon Valley, where mergers and acquisitions are as common as marriage in India and divorce in US.

For a developer there is nothing as deadly as stalling. Everyone is running on a treadmill: you stop, you fall. If you don’t see yourself growing much within next few months, it’s time to move. And that’s why I started my job hunt.

I would skip all the details of my job hunt and jump right to the description of the “Brain Rape” incident. The recruiter from a company reached out to me and offered to set up a phone call for understanding my aspirations and strengths, to see if there is an opportunity in the company that I can be a good fit for and vice versa. To give you a background, which will be more relevant later, I am a FrontEnd Developer at one of the giants that has defamed itself over the years with its degrading business. But with no doubt, people here are still smart and valued a lot in the job market and technical excellence hasn’t ceased here. As a FrontEnd guy I’ve worked on modern technical stack that’s picking up pace in the industry and almost all start ups and medium sized companies developing new websites and customer dashboards are starting with these very technologies. Given my company operates on a HUGE scale, the knowledge I gained during my tenure is very useful and valuable to many budding companies.

The recruiter was certain there will be a match of opportunity in her company and surely soon after replied with a phone interview request with a Director in her firm. The conversation with the Director went great! He was impressed with my work in current project, building a large scale web application in these modern technologies, and mentioned they are also building a dashboard for their customers using these technologies and he is personally learning the same. I hung up the phone feeling happy that this may lead to something good. Next day, I received an email from the recruiter inviting me onsite to meet the director and team for a technical interview. I was happy but a little confused. You should understand that the usual process of hiring a developer is a phone call with recruiter, an optional call with the hiring manager (ie. manager of the team that is looking to hire) followed by a coding exercise over phone when you are given a problem to solve on a shared platform like collabedit, while talking on phone with interviewer. If you clear these initial screenings, you are invited onsite for 3–4 rounds of technical interviews. In each of these rounds, you are given technical problems to solve on a white board. This process helps interviewers understand your problem solving skills and technical expertise for which they are hiring. I however, received an onsite interview invitation right after my conversation with the Director. Well, I can’t complaint about an advantage I got now, can I?

So a week past, there I was, waiting at the lobby of their office on the 3rd floor of a chic building in San Francisco SOMA with my laptop in one hand and visitor’s sticky badge on the T-shirt. The recruiter shows me to a small conference room that would be my home for next 3 hours or so, with 3 interviewers coming in to get 1 hour of my time. The Director who was my previous contact came in with another developer and offered me to sit. He started with a general question of “Why don’t you tell us something about yourself?”. I explained my educational background, technical proficiencies and went over briefly about my last couple of projects. He invited me to the whiteboard and explain in details about this current project. I was happy to do so because surely showing him how well I knew my project and the tech stack I will be able to establish my expertise in the technology.

I drew blocks to represent various pieces of our distributed systems and labelled them explaining each of their roles. The question that I got most during this time was “And what technologies does this block use?” or “And how big is the scale of this system?” or “And what problems do you face with using this technology here?”.

Although all these questions are technical, they all lack one thing — the motive of assessing me, who is interviewing for the job.

On getting a high level idea of the pieces, the Director asked me to “double click” on the FrontEnd piece of the architecture and explain in more details how we used these technologies in this particular piece. After a few more minutes, we were past 1 hour in the interview and my interviewer suggested a 5 minutes break for water or coffee and was kind enough to show me to their kitchen.

We resumed the “interview” shortly after with the same two people. More questions about my project at the current company were asked and still no sight of coding or problem solving questions. I had my big “Uh-Oh” moment when the Director asked me how did we structure our code in directories. I was blown away by the thought that the sole purpose of inviting me here was to explain our project to this guy and his developer so that they get a nice tutorial on how to build their own website. Scene from the HBO show Silicon Valley started flashing in front of me when Richard is invited to explain his technology by competitor End Frame on white board who pose to be interested in investing in Pied Piper. The show also hinted that something similar happened to Yelp when Google offered to buy them, invited their engineers on a camping trip, understood the technology and cancelled the buy out.

At this point, I became uncomfortable explaining my project to these people. While I did not want to give this guy any further details of my project, I did not want to be rude especially since it was an interview and not any official meeting. I understood that this person took advantage of the fact that I was looking for a job change and can definitely not tell my employer this is what happened, also at the same time I cannot tell anyone outside what happened as they made me sign NDA (Non Disclosure Agreement) while entering for interview. I swiftly switched topics in our conversation to ask them what they are trying to build and give suggestions on how they can migrate from current application to new application in an efficient way.

Silicon Valley explains “Brain Rape” in Tech Industry as a competitor woos you to explain your technology and then steals it by building on the same idea

After this 2 hour session, where they tried to extract all possible details of my project and not even a single question was asked to “test” me, the conversation flowed towards my career aspirations. I was relieved as I recited my career aspirations that this is coming to an end. The Director assured that he will get back to me with result of the interview (Ya right!) in a few days. Just before we stood up to walk back to the lobby, he puts a nail to the coffin by asking me this last question, “By the way how many years of job experience do you have?”.

In retrospect, I don’t think there is something I could have done differently to prevent what happened (do let me know in comments if you disagree). In an industry like Tech where your knowledge is not the trade secret and people are more than happy to share their way of doing things by posting videos and blog posts on how they use technologies, there is a fine line between inspiration and stealing. As I still wait to hear from these guys on my so-called-interview, I have no intention of joining a team under a manager who hires people without asking them to write a single line of code and digs on the details of their work in other companies. Moreover, it ruined the image of the company for me for which I held great respect as it was the hottest IPO of this year and is disrupting a very conservative industry.