15 January 2023
Well, wonder no more!
Our top scientists have been hard at work on this very question, and created the most dreadful job interview imaginable. While this knowledge is incredibly cursed, we here at JobCo believe that the study will accelerate future breakthroughs in the field of human rights violations.
Okay, so, context: your girl has been laid off. That’s fun. And there’s a whole story there for another time, but it’s the kind of story you can’t tell without the participation of a lawyer, so it’ll have to wait.
In any case, this means that I’ve been applying for a lot of jobs recently. And in the process, I had one interview so delightfully, scientifically terrible that it seemed to be lab-grown. The vibes were just rancid, friends.
But the questions I asked turned out to be, generally, quite valuable as a candidate for evaluating prospective employers. After I initially shared this story, a few folks reached out to thank me for the list, or to ask if I had any more. 1
I’m also going to name the specific company. They’ve collected quite a bit of investment capital, and appear to be predating on folks desperate for work during the recession. Women, immigrants, and queer folks are disproportionately make up those struggling in the current layoff spree, so I reason that calling this company out might save someone in my communities from taking an unsafe or unstable role.
While I recognize that the name-and-shame is professionally inadvisable, recently I’m coming to terms with the idea that, as a trans woman in this particular political reality, I may be unhireable anyway. 2
So I figured I’d leave something for my community on the way out by sharing my experience and maybe, hopefully save future queer folks from getting trapped in an employment roach-motel like the one I just sidestepped (or the one I just left).
Just one note before we get started. I know none of you would ever do this, but please don’t go looking for the specific individuals (who I will not name) in this story. These are company problems, not personal ones, and since my contact with these folks was limited, it’s kinder to assume that they’re all perfectly nice people toeing a corporate line. Thanks, fam.
Founded in 2017, YCombinator startup Gordian’s primary product is an API for travel websites and airlines to manage things like seat changes, adding bags to trips, and various other upsells. They’re technically operating out of Bellevue, WA (we’ll get to that), and their last investment round was a 25M Series A in July of last year, with an estimated market cap valuation of 200M dollary-doos.
Currently the biggest name on their client list is Priceline. I erroneously thought that Expedia was on here at one point, but it turns out they’re a primary competitor. Anyway.
From their website:
“The airline industry is tied in knots… We founded Gordian to cut through that complexity…”
The name comes from the Ancient Greek legend of the Gordian Knot, which I find extremely funny given where this interview is going. The knot, affixed to an ox-cart, was supposed to be impossible to untangle, and it was prophesized that whoever could do so would rule. Alexander the Great is famously said to have cut through it with his sword, presumably to a cry of fuck this I’m bored. To “cut the Gordian knot”, then, is to find a simple solution to a problem which initially seems very complicated.
I was first contacted via a third-party recruiter on LinkedIn, which I am convinced is a meritless hellsite that we’ve collectively gaslit each other into believing is useful, and has actually never assisted anyone in anything. The recruiter was nice, though, I think maybe they’re the only cool person in this story.
There were some early signs that this was going to be a dead end. The role was for a Technical Project Manager; great, that’s me! I do that, in exchange for money. However, the description of the day-to-day was devoid of any substantial details, beyond “you will manage projects”. I got the sense that maybe the person who wrote the listing didn’t know what a TPM did. It would actually turn out much worse than that.
I asked some questions about the company, most of which the recruiter couldn’t answer. What product is the role for? Who does it report to? They couldn’t say, and recommended I ask my interviewer at the next phase. One question they could answer, though, was this:
“To be honest,” the recruiter said, “It’s because you don’t have much experience. This client is looking for someone early in their career that they can sort of mold into the ideal candidate. They said they have their own working style and don’t want you to have to unlearn a bunch of other habits.”
This was really interesting to me, because I am most definitely NOT inexperienced. I’ve been in the field for over 7 years. I’ve shipped about 23 projects to date. I’d just left a director role. I’ve been around. It turns out, they were looking for someone with no more than two years of experience, so the recruiter had apparently not looked at my profile very carefully. As a result, I was drastically overqualified.
To be polite, I played along and did not point this out. I figured, having not gotten any interview offers in several months, I could at least use this one for practice. Besides, something about that molding bit set off my alarms.
I’ll be direct: I believe this is to weed out individuals who know better, and predate on the inexperienced. And you know I can’t resist a story.
I did a little bit of prep homework on the company, you know, as you do. The basics, I covered above, but there were two really unique things about Gordian that I wanted to ask about in the interview: their working style that they call “The Plan”, and the “7+1” hybrid work schedule.
The Plan is essentially a three-day sprint. Agile ceremonies are replaced with a single, 90 minute priority-setting meeting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the implementation sounds like a nightmare. It reads like a highly urgent, disruptive and stressful car crash of standup, sprint planning, and backlog refinement.
Okay, so it’s actually a 90 minute meeting, plus a 30 minute burst of scattered Slack thread conversations. From the outside, I can see why this structure might benefit a very small team, though it’s plainly unscalable. I had some questions about what benefits they received from this system that couldn’t be achieved via kanban, though.
Drawing on my unfortunately bountiful experience with corporate dysfunction, I can also see some drawbacks that might impact engineers. When does refinement (not necessarily the ceremony, but the act of creating clarity around the work) occur? Do the devs get fatigued from context switching between dev work, and product manager work? Are they actually empowered to direct the business, or are they merely accountable for it? This system runs the risk of being permanently reactive; a never-ending emergency. How do you counteract that?
Finally, The Plan was invented and implemented by the CEO, who you’ll notice is also the author of the articles on their blog espousing its value. Oh no, it’s one of those companies.
I went into the interview with an open mind, and I left with the following conclusion, which you’ve likely already come to: this place is a mess.
A few days later, I met with the business lead. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, and he told me how the interview was going to be structured.
“We actually prefer to let the candidate ask all of the questions here,” he said, “because I believe you can tell if someone is a good fit from the kinds of questions they ask and the things they care about.”
Well, I had plenty of those, so I proceeded to direct the interview.3 Without exception, every single question was met with the textbook wrong answer from a candidate’s perspective. Every one, a flag of the most vivid red.
In no particular order, they were:
“We don’t know yet. That depends entirely on what you’re bringing to the table.”
“It’s hard to say. They are all contractors, all over the world, so they will change from day to day. No, there are no plans to make them full time hires, we think this structure works fine for us now.”
In my opinion, this strongly signals that engineers are meat for the grinder. Paired with the chaotic, CEO-owned SDLC, the contractors probably have very few rights or benefits, because the company just isn’t required to provide them. This was confirmed in a moment by the question:
“That’s for you to figure out. This is a startup so you’ll need to do a little of everything. You’ll also be a client account manager. Some days you might need to flex to sales calls. You should also know some Python, you might need to write code if there’s a crisis and we’re short-staffed.”
This explains the vague job description. Engineers were their own TPMs. In fact, the more they talked about this role, the more I realized this was an Account Manager. They called it a TPM, but there was almost no overlap at all.
I’ve worked at orgs with highly motivated engineers, who are excited to do product work, roadmap planning, prioritization, requirements management. But they’re exceedingly rare. And typically, when you bring in a TPM, it’s to free up their cycles to focus on development, rather than having to constantly context-switch.
And I would guess their engineers probably do not fit that mold, because of the followup question:
“It doesn’t. The engineers figure it out as they implement.”
Then what is each piece of work tested against? How is it validated? Are there requirements? Test cases? Who decides if it needs another pass?
“We just look at it, and it’s obvious if it’s right. You can tell.”
So it’s vibes-based, and at the whims of execs. Got it. Next.
“We don’t: you’re GOING to burn out,” the interviewer told me. “Everyone does. We’re all adults here, we expect you to manage it. It’s up to you to do what you need outside of work to minimize it, and take your time off when it’s appropriate.”
I don’t think that I need to assert that an expectation of burnout is inherently toxic. He would also go on to repeat “we’re all adults here” many times in the interview, mostly in reference to work-life balance, or to explain an expectation that team members mask parts of their humanity at work (more on that in a sec).
“We haven’t decided yet. That will depend on the skills you’re bringing in, we’ll observe that and then place you somewhere based on that.”
“No, everyone in the org reports directly to business development. We’ve had TPM’s in the past, and they’ve just been promoted or moved laterally to business development.”
This one is especially horrifying because bizdev tends to have completely different priorities (primarily, sales) from the engineers in an organization. Most inter-org tension comes from features being promised or sold without engineering input.
And you never, ever want to accept a role where the person evaluating your performance has never done your job. Your boss should give as they take: if you’re accountable to them, it should be because they have more experience and could, if needed, teach you something about your role. How is someone is bizdev going to give me useful feedback about how I’m performing as a project manager?
“It will be obvious if you’re a good fit. No rubric, we should be able to look at what you’ve contributed in a quarter and determine if you’re doing a good job.”
People will be less stressed, and perform substantially better, if they understand the ways in which they will be measured. Nobody wants to have to guess about their own performance. It sounded like this was determined informally by managers; if there were opportunities for feedback to be surfaced, we were not able to discuss them.
This means that performance evaluations are entirely vibes-based. Someone who is not in your discipline, who is primarily motivated by client sales, and is a member of a majority white-male exec team, gives you a 👍 or 👎 based on their subjective evaluation of your performance.
To say this is inviting personal bias is an understatement.
But it gets worse:
“No, business development manages that.”
I’m screaming. 😱
“No. There’s a Google doc floating around somewhere with some company expectations, but it’s pretty open-ended. You’re not going to find, like, formal language in it.”
“We don’t talk about that here. I mean, that stuff isn’t always visible, so maybe there are people like that here, but we keep that separate from work stuff. We’re all adults here.”
Then for future reference, the answer to the question was actually no, it is not a safe place for them to work, wasn’t it? I do not have the luxury of leaving my identity or humanity at the door.
A bonus fun fact: it was brought to my attention that one of the recruiters for this company is a member of The Benjamin Rush Institute, a right-wing think tank whose stated mission is to remove all regulations from healthcare and medicine in favor of free market nonsense. Their blog is careful not to say so directly, but this is also a common dogwhistle for allowing doctors “choice” in whether to provide transgender healthcare.
This is almost certainly one of those workplaces where my very existence would be considered “political”. Not to mention there’s no HR to mediate disputes, and almost certainly no language in whatever passes for their handbook to set an expectation of respect for one’s identity.
I believe each of these questions is one that a prospective employer should be able to answer without hesitation. They had trouble answering… any of them. Like, at all.
They did not ask a single question about my technical competencies, my achievements, or what I was looking for in my next opportunity. They did eventually ask me to describe one project I had worked on, but only as deep as what industry it was in and what my title was. In fact, they seemed utterly disinterested in me or my skills as a candidate, and instead more interested in what I would permit them to do to me. I was told that after this 45 minute vibe check there may (or may not) be a followup case study, and then the final stage was a 1:1 with the CEO, so at no point would I be vetted by the team I would inherit.
Unsurprisingly, we never had to go that far. I received a rejection via email first thing the next day, implying that I was not a good culture fit.
Let’s look them up to see just what sort of bullet I had dodged. Maybe I had an unusually bad experience?
Well, as of writing, their interview experience on Glassdoor is hovering around 73% negative. So there’s something impressive about Gordian!
A circle graph of interview sentiment. 20% Positive, 73% Negative, 7% neutral out of 15 total.
Here are excepts from some of my favorite interview reviews, which echo my own observations:
“Unclear process… It felt like they were just making it up as they went… There wasn’t an intro from the employee, a sell for the company, or any attempt to connect or provide context. Not a great vibe. The questions were odd and it was unclear what skills or competencies they were actually interviewing for.”
“CEO reached out for an introductory chat. This had to be one of the creepiest and self-centered interviews I have ever had.
Why self-centered? The majority of the conversation was about “me and my company” and “what can you do for me?”. Leaped straight into a barrage of questions like a drill sergeant with little regard for balance or emotional intelligence.
Why creepy? I observed what I felt like was predatory behavior. The CEO was looking for weaknesses, seeing how far he could get with his view of “normal” and seeing if he would get pushback. In a way testing for low self-confidence and optimizing for identifying characteristics that are exploitable. In other words, “Will this person do what I want them to do and not complain about it?”.
Absolutely toxic characteristics for people who know how to recognize those sort of behaviors. As soon as I pushed back, the CEO immediately picked up on it and suggested “We don’t have to use the full 30 minutes if you don’t want to”. Super efficient in identifying dead ends and moving on to the next victim so to say.
If this is what the leadership is like, I’d hate to think about how the rest of the ship operates. To current employees, listen to what that inner voice is telling you!”
“This was hands down the strangest interview I’ve ever had…The interview began not about asking about my experience but asking what I’m looking for in company culture. When I asked them what their company culture is like, they responded with “Work First. Many people work long hours and weekends because they’re given high impact work”. The person I talked to did nothing to try to sell me on the company or the opportunity. I’m sure for some people the notion of working on “high impact work” sounds exciting but to me it sound like they expect you to work 24/7 and I’m sure burn out is very real there.”
There aren’t many reviews from current or former employees. At least one of them, the most glowing, was written by a partner in the business. To be fair, it’s marked as such.
Another, which still gives a solid 3/5 rating, lists cons that make me feel fairly vindicated in my assessment of The Plan:
“Make no mistake, despite what your interviewers tell you you’ll be doing 60+ hour weeks. Team regularly works weekends and even holidays. High pressure, and working constantly is normalized. Noticeable turnover from people quitting or being fired. Folks leaving before staying even a year. Engineering team is constantly pulled in at all hours to deal with emergencies. Work will pile on constantly, faster than anyone can finish. Very long regular meetings that make it even harder to finish work.”
I was warned that this interview would be a vibe check, and that they’d prefer if I asked all the questions to see what was important to me, so I did.
I did my homework, took it seriously, and while skeptical, approached it in good faith. The sum total of my observations have led me to form the following opinion:
Gordian Software seems like an unprofessionally run, venture-funded engineer mill. Their candidate experience is abysmal, the organization is structured in a way that consolidates power in the hands of a few salesfolks, and they’re probably well aware that their policies are inequitable to engineers. Their SDLC is authored by their CEO, but is actually enacted by a revolving door of contractors without job security or any representation in the company’s leadership. The organization is specifically seeking malleable, inexperienced candidates, that don’t know to expect any better.
For these reasons I advise the already vulnerable members of historically marginalized groups to seek work elsewhere.
No company will ever be more organized, or more kind to you, than they are in the interview; before the transaction of labor begins. If you have the luxury of being choosy about the work you take on, then don’t be afraid to ask them these questions. They’re direct, but not particularly difficult. Any employer worth working for will appreciate that candor. The sketch ones will take it as a threat, and flee for an easier mark.
What’s the worst they can do, anyway? Reject you? Call the interview police? 🤷♀️
There are no consequences of substance.
You should follow me on Mastodon, just saying. ↩
I back-dated this post to bury it a bit during my job hunt; it’s actually February. At time of writing, I’ve been applying for work for four months. In that time, I have been interviewed only three times, with this shitshow being one of them. My applications are typically discarded without contact. I have approximately 90 days of runway remaining before I lose my home. I’m starting to think I’m not going to make it. So, let me have this, okay? ↩
Believe it or not, this is the second time I’ve done this so I was ready for it. I once interviewed with a cloud computing org in Cary, NC where the engineers admitted they hated interviews, didn’t want to be there, and had nothing to ask me. So, I offered to run my own interview instead, both asking the things I thought an engineer might want to know when adding someone to their team, and then answering them. The team adored me. I didn’t get an offer. ↩