I went to my first job interview when I was 15. A dot-com company had a job opening as webmaster. I remember going into a fancy office to have the interview, sitting down and waiting for someone to appear. I felt really confident about what I was capable of. A suited guy came into the office and sat down. He identified himself as the CTO of the company.
He stared at me for a couple of seconds and he asked me if my parents knew that I was missing school for going to this interview. “Of course not, otherwise I probably wouldn’t be here” I answered. “I’ve read your CV…”, he said with a long pause, “… and on top of that you will need your parent’s permission to work here, I think you don’t have the skills required for this position. Plus you are too young” he stated.
“What are you talking about?” I answered. It just came out of my mouth that way. “You cannot judge my skills based on my age and just a piece of paper”, I continued. Then there was a really uncomfortable silence. I perceived that I might have crossed a red line there so I tried to fix it: “Look, I just want to experience what working feels like. Just give me an assignment and I will work on it. Then you can decide wether or not I deserve to work here”.
This guy just stared at me. It felt like he did this for ages. He managed to make me feel nervous. At the end he said that it was a fair offer so he asked me to build a internal site to publish some news.
That didn’t go so bad! At the moment I had already built websites with Dreamweaver. I had never did anything like what he asked for, I only did some static sites and added gifs and marquees and that kind of cool stuff. I thought that it couldn’t be so difficult so on my way home I stopped by a book store and I bought a book called: “Professional websites using PHP and MySQL” (or something like that). I spent my lunch money for a couple of weeks on it.
I then spent the next three days reading it and testing out the examples I found on the book. it was the first time I didn’t sleep because of a commitment. However I really did enjoy the pressure to learn fast while delivering something. After a couple more days I already had a CRUD system for a really basic model of news, according to my own understanding of the requirements.
I was pretty proud and I decided to show it off to my friends. I got a wow effect from them… I was the only one with a computer of my own, I was a rebel that went to look for a job… but I got one of the most important question nobody asked me before: “How do you know this will be useful to them?”. I answered without even thinking: “They asked for this”. Then I started to think in silence. My friend was right, I don’t know anything about who is going to use this thing.
How do you know this will be useful to them? I don’t have a clue…
The next day I called this company’s CTO and asked him if I could go to his office to ‘gather requirements’ (I read about this in my PHP book). “Yeah, why not”. He sounded surprised. “Please make sure that people that are going to use this will be there as well”, I finished up with. I got my appointment for a Monday. I ‘got sick’ and skipped school that day. I was really, really, really nervous. What should I ask? How could I explain myself? Will anybody talk to me?
When I arrived to the office they had set up a meeting room for about 6 people, including me. There was coffe and a hot cocoa for me. I got introduced to all of the attendees and I was asked to present what was the meeting about. I tried to talk but no words came out of my mouth. I just couldn’t speak… Suddenly, a woman that was sitting besides me looked to me into my eyes and said: “don’t worry, we are here to help”. These words have been the most recomforting words in a professional environment I heard up to date. She managed to calm and challenge me… I needed information and they were there to answer my questions. The fact that I was so young helped me a lot because they somehow found cute that I was doing all this. I showed them printed screenshots of what I built and then I asked them only one question: what do you expect this piece of software to solve? (I got this from a maganize ;)).
We were in that meeting room for over four hours. I wrote a lot of notes at the back of my science notepad. I even had lunch with them. It turned out that they needed a system to manage an invoicing flow. This system included a part where changes regarding invoicing laws could be notified to everybody in the company. When the meeting was over, the CTO invited me to his office to talk. I started off with the conversation. “This project is too much for me… I don’t have the time it’s needed to achieve the goals. I will transcript my notes and hand them over to you”. He smiled at me. “You really did a good work during the meeting and coding the software you showed to us” he said. It was the first time I felt really proud of myself. He also said that they would be using all the information I gathered and my code.
“We cannot pay you cash, is there anything the company can buy for you?” He asked. I got a bunch of tech books, a graphics board and a really cool joystick. He also told me to come back when I could actually work legally (I did, but the company didn’t exist anymore).
Although I was pretty young, I learned a lot of things in my two week professional adventure:
- Challenge yourself: don’t be afraid of stepping out of your confort zone.
- Be curious: ask questions, understand the underlying reasons of people you interact with.
- Solve problems: be smart about what is the actual goal of the people you are talking to.
- Thank people: I will never forget how I felt when this CTO thanked me for a job well done. He was probably being too polite, but this doesn’t change the way I felt.
- Celebrate your accomplishments: be humble but don’t forget of being proud of your achievements.
I’m still amazed how these learnings apply today, more than 20 years later. I spent my whole career paying attention on how to keep focus on these four things, which I live up to. Every time I start a new job or project I spend a lot of time getting to know my peers and I trying to challenge them to embrace these principles. It takes only a couple of conversations to find out that most of the people actually find themselves identified with what I’m talking about. However this behaviour is hidden under a layer of prejudices and pre-cooked assessments we get told over and over again.
Whereas you are a software developer, product owner, manager, CTO or CEO, take your time to grab a coffee with you peers from time to time and talk them about these principles. Ask them what they think about them. Then challenge them to do something about it right away. I found out that most of the people will instantly react in a very positive way.