In which I have an exam and fail

My mentor has decided that I am ready to graduate my first “semester” of coding.  Therefore, I have been subjected to a two day exam.

This was not your typical exam: instead of a two-hour-stress-filled-write-’til-you-die paper exam, my mentor pretended to be an interviewer for a software development job.  She actually used to do these interviews at her old company, so it felt pretty legit.  However, by the conclusion, it was very clear that I did not answer the questions in the way that she wanted me to.

First, she made me write code in front of her.  I had to make a “guessing game.”  Seems pretty easy, right?  All I had to do was make sure that the computer guessed the secret number by telling it whether a guess was higher or lower than the actual secret number.  The only problem is, there was no limit on how big or small that number could be.  Well, to be more specific, “as long as your computer’s memory can handle it, it’s valid” (what she said when I asked if I could have a limit).  Even with hints from her, it took me about an hour and a half.  Afterwards, she reassured me: “I could tell that if I gave you the hints that I usually give, you would have taken about the average amount of time to complete it.”  Gee, what a compliment.

Although we were supposed to complete the exam in one session, she declared that she was “tired” and we’d resume the next day.  Yeah, I’m not just incompetent at this code stuff, I tire people out if they have to watch me! (Ok, it also happened to be 10 PM at the time, so that could be another explanation.)

Yesterday, we finished the exam.  She challenged me to design a project in which I would create a site to suggest recipes to users.  Luckily, I didn’t actually have to build it, just propose how I would build it.  I actually seemed to be doing really well at first. I thought up a plausible way to store and access the data, I proposed a way to improve the algorithms to predict user preferences, and all of a sudden, we were at her last question: how would you tell how well you were doing with your site?

I immediately came up with a few answers to this, all of which she immediately poked holes in.  I became frustrated.  Why couldn’t she acknowledge that I was coming up with legitimate solutions?  And so I kept trying to address her critiques, to come up with an airtight solution. Until finally she gave up.  By this time, I was upset.  With her, with myself, and with my other roommate who was just bursting to give answers to the questions that I couldn’t tackle.

After we were done, I asked her what she was looking for.  And she patiently explained that she wasn’t looking for a specific answer, she was looking for a process. No, technically none of my answers had been wrong, but I hadn’t explained how I would improve my answers.  How would I look at the data and perform further tests so that I could make my answer even better? How would I set up a process that I could use to continually analyze my site?  As she said “anybody can propose a solution.  That’s not what employers are looking for.  They want to make sure you can think dynamically and collaboratively.”

At the time, I was still very frustrated by this answer (okay it’s been less than a day since then, but what can I say? I change my mind quickly).  I told her that it was only natural for me to answer the way that I did–she was challenging my answers! Didn’t that mean that I should try to give better ones??  She responded that not everyone has that instinct.  In fact, that’s how they weed out the bad candidates–the ones that act as I did.  The ones, as she said have the “school-boy instinct to provide the correct answer.”

And I realized–that’s me.  I was a phenomenal “school-boy,” and I still am.  I relish providing the correct answer and the nod of approval that comes along with it.  I love being the one who knows exactly how to approach every question.  And that’s why I was so upset with my mentor.  She was telling me that my entire frame of mind is not the approach that I’m going to need from now on.

I’ve since come to recognize that she’s right.  As much as my immature side feels like she tricked me, or misled me ,or shamed me, my gut says that I have to change.  Nobody in the real world cares how many facts you’ve memorized, or whether you know how to propose a solution that  you’ll never follow up on.  I need to not only think in processes, but be confident in the processes I propose without external feedback from others.  The more I think about it, the more obvious it seems–anyone who has been successful in innovating, developing, and creating already knows this. Now it’s time to embark on a journey where I have to reverse the damage done by 16+ years of schooling.  Wish me luck.





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