I used to work at a small advertising agency full of birds. Actual birds: small, grey, blank expressions. They filled the small office with sound, and they lived in an antique circus monkey cage, because the boss’s wife was an artist. Just three programmers and a cage of birds, a block away from the main office, which was full of people.
This was in Berkeley, in the spring of 2011. One day I got to work a little before everyone else and noticed that one of the birds was dead. When the boss’s wife arrived, she seemed unfazed. So did the boss, and so did their children.
Around this time I started to think about getting a new job. Not just on account of the birds; as software developer salaries went in 2011, mine was fairly low. Now and then I sent emails to large companies — Facebook, Google, Apple — but the boomerangs never returned. They just went. A History and Theory of Architecture major seems to cast a long shadow over a minor in Computer Science.
At midnight one night I drafted a gushy cover letter for my application to Twitter: …every night I use Twitter before going to sleep, and every morning it’s the first thing I check…
The truth is I’ve always checked my email first in the morning, so early that next morning before heading to Berkeley, I found an email: “Hi Robert, ”
Success! Sort of. A back and forth began. What’s your Github profile? It’s not very impressive but here it is. Could you complete this programming exercise? Definitely! I’ll spend the whole weekend doing a great job. The code looks great, we’d like to do a phone interview. Awesome! I can call in sick any day to take a phone call for an hour. Great, the engineer really enjoyed talking with you on the phone. Good to hear! I’m excited for the next step.
Two days went by. Three, four, five. Anxiety setting in, I sent an email to the recruiter — another boomerang flying out of sight.
Okay, new idea. I had read about one Twitter engineer’s open source project, so I spent the next few nights — and days, thanks to severe work-lack at the bird agency — crafting a little tool to help that open source project. On day three I pushed the code to my Github account, sent a tweet to the project’s creator, and heard back almost immediately. Great stuff man!
Suddenly the recruiter wanted to schedule a second phone interview. Had my gambit really paid off? My sincere apologies for the delay, we’d like to schedule a second phone interview. No worries, I could do tomorrow? Great.
The same engineer — the open source author — did the second phone interview. I don’t believe in phone interviews, so let’s just talk about the code you wrote for <Project>. Okay, cool. I actually recommended you for hire, but they won’t give me the referral bonus because you were already in the system. Sorry man.
Back to the thread. We’d like to schedule in-person interviews at the Twitter office. Cool! We’d love to have you Join the Flock. Awesome! Here’s the offer. I’ll take it.
A few months later, a single epithet — “Twitter, Software Engineer” — brought a new clarity to my resume; all of a sudden, the unresponded-to emails were the ones in my inbox, even though my skills as an engineer had changed little to not-at-all. Hi Robert, I’m a recruiter from Google. Did they not know I had applied to three different jobs there? Mark as read.
And why would I want a new job? Twitter was great. Free breakfast, free lunch; on Tuesdays and Thursdays a starry-armed barista from Ritual Roasters made drinks to-order. One pour-over, please. This was the high water mark of excess at Twitter in 2011, though it didn’t last. (Failed to hit Q5 goals.)
One night, after my team members were dining on free dinner, I searched my own name in the private Google site where most Twitter-related email threads were kept. What could go wrong? <Enter>
“Robert Stenson Hiring Feedback”.
I squinted my eyes and, heart rate increasing, cast a lingering glance — a slow 360 degrees — around the open office. No one in sight, only the distant cafeteria’s clatter of forks and knives.
A long gulp, then a long mouse-down, a long mouse-up, and, voila, a PDF animated forth.
Breathing heavily, I read it all: detailed feedback about why Twitter should or should not hire me, from people who had in the interim become friends and acquaintances.
Hire — Rob seems like he’d be a great fit. We did a pair programming exercise and he had a great feel for how to solve real problems.
No hire — Rob was very quiet and unsure of his abilities.
Was I just recommended for hire because I ordered a New Orleans iced coffee before the interview? Would I write that kind of thing once I started doing interviews at Twitter?
Nearby footsteps interrupted the internal dialogue. I quickly closed the PDF. Once the footsteps had passed, I dragged it to the trash before closing the laptop and heading home, sheepish and queasy with knowledge.
A year later I attempted again to find that hiring feedback via an internal search. The first time I had searched, Twitter had just over 500 employees. This time, there were over 1500. No feedback PDFs to be found anywhere.
Twitter had changed significantly in that time frame, slouching toward the light bureaucracy of late 2012. Jack Dorsey had come and gone at least once (twice?), though my interaction with him was always manager-mediated.
Having already divined a logo, Dorsey demanded we build, in two months, a page dedicated to a thoughtfully curated experience of NASCAR races, and somehow I was one of two engineers responsible. Later we built one for the Olympics, but it wasn’t ready in time, and a bald guy from the comms team yelled at us. Events pages are the future of Twitter, we have to get this right!
Events pages turned out not to be the future of Twitter, as was revealed in a later post-mortem. We fucked up. That line was a show-stopper, an air-sucker, and yet — as spoken — somehow felt self-congratulatory. What were the consequences? And who was the we? (As an engineer, I had no clue.)
A whole flock, flying by the seat of their pants.
All along I had been conducting interviews, and always wondered how a given interviewee had made it to this final hurdle. What code had they written last weekend? Or did their resume have clarity? Can I ask you a question? Sure! What do you love most about working at Twitter? The people. Definitely the people.
Which was true. Smart, competent, friendly, excellent. New ones were always arriving, and they were great too — a thousand more cooks ushered in to help prepare a single soufflé. We had a team meeting, 12 engineers, and I realized I had been there longer than anyone in the room: 18 months.
In my exit interview, the interviewer asked me the same question, though in a different tense, and it was her last question. What did you enjoy most about working here? The food, I said, without any hesitation. She laughed and smiled. I’ll tell the chef you said that, he’ll be very pleased.
An elevator trip downstairs, and that was that. A dead bird, though the boss’s wife was always buying more.